Infrastructure against borders

What follows is the second of a two part essay from the collective Out of the Woods, posted on Libcom.org, reflecting on refugees-migrants, climate change, the violence of border politics, anti-migrant populisms and no borders politics.

Infrastructure against borders

No borders work within ‘temperate latitudes’ needs to keep in mind the longer-term likelihood of large scale environmental migration from regions rendered uninhabitable by climate change. It seems likely that existing anti-migrant populisms will draw on the ideas of reactionary ecology to demand that ‘lifeboat states’ deploy border violence against outsiders. Countering this danger involves contesting borders in schools, resistance to attempts to turn care workers into border guards, anti-raids activity, housing struggles, organising against immigration detention and migrant solidarity.

Currently, much anti-fascist activity is – necessarily – immediate and reactive, such as countering far-right mobilisations. The future of large-scale climate displacement means there must also be a longer-term project of building an anti-fascist, pro-migrant culture, and at the same time inoculating against the equation of strangers and enemies. This article will explore the bases of popular anti-migrant, white nationalist mobilisation, and make some suggestions of what a longer-term pro-migrant politics could involve.

The race-family-nation nexus

…no, the masses were not deceived, they desired fascism, and that is what has to be explained. (…) How does one explain that desire devotes itself to operations that are not failures of recognition, but rather perfectly reactionary unconscious investments?1

The spectre of racialised refugees, described as “swarms” and “cockroaches” by Prime Ministers and mass circulation tabloids, has been both manufactured and exploited by a resurgent far right: from Trump’s keynote promise to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it; to the increasingly fascistic atmosphere of Brexit Britain; and surging far right parties in France, Hungary and elsewhere. This spectre gains affective resonance with wider racialised and sexualised anxieties that ‘stick’ to the figure of the migrant, typified by a Polish magazine cover depicting “the Islamic rape of Europe.”2

Angela Mitropoulos identifies this nexus of race, nation, and sexuality as ‘oikonomia’ – the law of the household. The household is important as both the site of reproduction of property relations through heritability and marriage contracts; and the site of the reproduction of the (racialised) nation through sexual reproduction. Hence, the normative (monoracial, heterosexual, nuclear) household – increasingly rare in practice – is the foundation of capitalist futurity; and a key institution in (re)producing citizens loyal to property, nation, and race.3

What Mitropoulos calls “the emotional conflation between family, race and nation” is illustrated by ‘cuck’, the vogue white nationalist insult for supposed race traitors.4 The term at once alludes to a racialised, psycho-sexual anxiety over miscegenation; and a penetration of the nation by ‘rapefugees’, imagined as hordes of swarthy sexual predators.5 Neither Trump’s well-documented sexual predation (seen by many of his supporters not only as acceptable, but as laudable white heterosexual virility); nor indifference to abuse scandals with predominantly white perpetrators (compare the British far right’s differing interest in the Rochdale and Savile abuse cases) represents a contradiction in this affective configuration. This is due precisely to the emotional nexus of the racialised nation and sexual entitlement: ‘protecting our women’ [sic] from racialised foreigners in order to better reproduce the white nation.

Border regimes, refuges and social reproduction

Understanding the unconscious investments of populist anti-migrant sentiments in ‘oikonomia’ broadens our understanding of what the longer-term work of building a pro-migrant, anti-fascist, anti-border violence culture involves in unexpected ways. Struggles over matters such as reproductive freedom, sexual violence, and the ability for LGBT+ people to exist in public are also struggles over the emotional core of racialised border violence. They are not peripheral, or distracting, “culture wars” or “identity politics”.

Efforts to define women as wombs and to deny women bodily autonomy share a logic with efforts to control the movements of racial others across borders: a logic of reproductive futurism that reproduces the race and nation through the ‘proper’ family. More directly, a new UK policy of passport checks by landlords, enforced via a £3,000 fine, further marginalises those fleeing domestic violence, who may not have time or even access to collect their own documents from abusive partners. The government has also repeatedly challenged the sexuality of asylum seekers, such as in the case of Aderonke Apata’s deportation to Nigeria.

I would say it is impossible to separate gendered and racial violence (…) men being entitled to regard women (they read as white like them) as their property has been an important compensatory element in the history and politics of class and race. I think it is difficult to separate concepts of feminine availability (and anxiety about paternity or ownership, women’s promiscuity) from anxieties about proper, racial reproduction.6

Hence, it’s no surprise that the most viciously pro-border violence politicians and media are increasingly anxious about the erosion of heterosexual and binary gender norms. Despite the resurgence of quasi-fascist politics, they really feel like they’re losing. And in some important ways they are, although such gains are under severe threat from heteronormative, oikonomic revanchism. Even on the left, for example, we are seeing increasing calls to reconfigure organisation around a narrowly imagined (and thoroughly heterosexual) white working class. Jasbir Puar also cautions against seeing any apparent departure from oikonomic norms as inherently threatening to capital, particularly with gay marriage in mind:

The capitalist reproductive economy (in conjunction with technology: in vitro, sperm banks, cloning, sex selection, genetic testing) no longer exclusively demands heteronormativity as an absolute; its simulation may do.7

But while capital may make do with a simulation of the heterosexual family, struggles around these kind of questions contest the reproduction of border-desiring subjects, the bearers of authoritarian values who bash queers as soon as migrants in order to “take back control”.8 And crucially, they also broaden our understanding of no borders politics to include questions of social reproduction. This resonates with Silvia Federici’s discussion of “a collective struggle over reproduction, reclaiming control over the material conditions of our reproduction and creating new forms of cooperation around this work outside of the logic of capital and the market.”9

The example of Glasgow Council’s buddy schemes for migrants and the Glasgow Unity Centre’s solidarity work is instructive here, and seems something which could potentially be replicated:

The asylum seekers were placed in empty flats in long neglected high-rise estates. Neighbours appointed by the council to welcome the new families took the job seriously, bringing the new arrivals from Kosovo, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, into their communities, holding parties, bringing families from across the world together. When families were told they would not be given asylum their Scottish neighbours refused to let the Home Office remove them from the UK. Immigration officials who arrived in the early hours for “dawn raids” on families were met by enraged Glaswegians who refused to let the Home Office take their new friends away. The demonstrations became widespread and saw the end of the dawn raids. Many thousands of people who had been threatened with removal, including many families, were allowed to stay in Scotland.10

This kind of longer-term work creates networks of and infrastructure for mutual material support, a sort of kinship where reproductive labour traditionally assigned to the household is partially socialised. Kinship not as biological kin, but those brought close through a shared relation to the world, living in proximity, and supporting one another. We also have here an echo of the “kinship of the infertile” that Naomi Klein alludes to.11 This kinship encompasses those unable to have children (with whom Klein feels affinity), but also refuses to centre politics on fertility and its reproductive futurist nexus of race-family-nation. As Silvia Federici puts it:

…it is through the day-to-day activities by means of which we produce our existence, that we can develop our capacity to cooperate and not only resist our dehumanization but learn to reconstruct the world as a space of nurturing, creativity and care.12

We cannot imagine the working class Glasgow communities who defended their migrant friends blaming them all for the crimes of any of their number, preemptively undermining the attempts to impose collective racial guilt that have been central to anti-migrant agitation in Europe. Hence this creation of collectivity is an ‘invention of the people’, the people needed to heed Primo Levi’s alarm signal, but hitherto missing.13

Shifting our capacity to regenerate ourselves from the household to localised but transnational and multiracial networks of mutual aid makes it is hard to imagine how the racialised, sexualised anxieties that fuel support for border violence can take root. Importantly, this is a tendency that already exists, as working class people improvise their social reproduction under conditions where the ‘proper’ nuclear family, even when desirable, is often not economically viable given stagnant and insecure wages and spiralling housing costs.

Several further tendencies are also on our side. In addition to the erosion of the patriarchal, binary gender norms central to the oikonomic nexus, recent struggles – from the movement of the squares and Occupy to Black Lives Matter – have fluently spread beyond national borders. You do not have to subscribe to the more breathless accounts of hyper-networked obsolescence of the nation-state to realise nationalist solidarities are far from the only, or even the most obvious ones, on offer. Whatever the limits of these struggles, that transnational solidarities emerge somewhat spontaneously from the affordances of the communications infrastructure – not to discount the labour of those who actively work to spread struggles – is certainly encouraging for a no borders politics adequate to the climate crises to come.

Anti-fascist infrastructures

That struggles can find transnational resonance highlights a further important point. The viciousness and intensity of media racism illustrates how racialised anxieties are not simply a given, but must be permanently stoked to prevent outbreaks of solidarity. Nina Power has called this a “directed and stage-managed misplacement of resentment”.14

For example, following the widespread circulation of images of the death of Aylan Kurdi, even the far right British tabloids published sympathetic coverage (albeit a heavily racialised and violent form of sympathy, which smoothly reverted to absolute vitriol at the soonest opportunity). The literature on media as meta-representation offers an account of how the media works in cases like these:

It could be that no-one has actually changed their minds, but suddenly those who abhorred the demonisation of migrant[s] have realised that they were not alone. This would fit with a fascinating literature which suggests that the media doesn’t so much influence what people think, but what those people think others think (meta-representations rather than representations). But this still matters because it affects what we are prepared to do. Once we feel that we are not alone, that ours is part of a collective voice, we are much more willing to act in public.15

This suggests alternative media infrastructures and/or effective use of sympathetic extant media channels is a crucial part of enabling collective action. Millions of people read The Sun advocating racial segregation, but we only know 300 people turned up for a pro-migrant meeting because we read it on Twitter.16 If it often feels like we’re living on a rainy fascist island, this at least in part reflects a media monopoly on meta-representations which ensures pro-migrant people feel alone even when they’re not.

Questions of infrastructure provide a partial answer to how to go about building a wider anti-fascist culture in society to inoculate against Levi’s ‘latent infection’. That infrastructure can be things like buddy networks and physical spaces to support migrants – and undercut those who try to demonise them – as well as media infrastructures able to contest the sense of isolation felt by the millions of people who despair at the climate of populist racism.17

These hybrid networks of people, technology, and infrastructures are what we have previously called “a politics of regenerative cyborgs.”18 Perhaps more straightforwardly, it’s a matter of kinship not limited to the biological. This builds on the already widespread forms of mutual support people construct for themselves alongside or in place of nuclear families: bonds of affinity rather than blood.

If even a fraction of the projected climate migration takes place, reactionary forces can be expected to ramp up border panic and demand more border violence, likely organised around an appeal to lifeboat ethics, with lifeboat states imposing death-worlds on racialised outsiders. Understanding the emotional resonance of these calls in the race-family-nation nexus centred on the household allows us to understand how apparently unrelated “cultural” struggles and struggles around social reproduction form part of contesting the reproduction of these unconscious investments.

As the climate shifts to expand the world’s uninhabitable zones, the nation-state as a mode of social organisation in the habitable zones will come under considerable pressure. Its defenders will not likely accept its obsolescence lightly, and indeed, the military are making climate change central to their planning.19 But authoritarian lifeboat states and the associated genocidal border violence are not inevitable. While anti-migrant populists are busy denying the existence of climate change, no borders politics can get several decades’ head start, quietly building on existing tendencies in contemporary society and struggles, constructing infrastructure to undermine the predictable reactionary responses when the climate crisis becomes undeniable.

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