Friday, April 30, 2010

Thwarted Immigration Delegitimizes the Democratic Project

While the George W. Bush era of democracy promotion may be behind us—"sit tight, we'll bring the democracy to you"—global immigration pressure will mount this century as population grows and global inequality increases. People migrate and apply for asylum as much because they are unfree as because they are less free, because they are poor and poorer. Slavoj Zizek captures this friction between immigration, inequality, and globalization in his 2008 book Violence:
A couple of years ago, an ominous decision of the European Union passed almost unnoticed: the plan to establish an all-European border police force to secure the isolation of Union territory and thus to prevent the influx of immigrants. This is the truth of globalisation: the construction of new walls safeguarding prosperous Europe from the immigrant flood. One is tempted to resuscitate here the old Marxist "humanist" opposition of "relations between things" and "relations between persons": in the much-celebrated free circulation opened up by global capitalism, it is "things" (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of "persons" is more and more controlled. We are not dealing now with "globalisation" as an unfinished project but with a true "dialectics of globalisation": the segregation of the people is the reality of economic globalisation. This new racism of the developed is in a way much more brutal than the previous ones: its implicit legitimisation is neither naturalist (the "natural" superiority of the developed West) nor any longer culturalist (we in the West also want to preserve our cultural identity), but unabashed economic egotism. The fundamental divide is one between those included in the sphere of (relative) economic prosperity and those excluded from it.
When, at the beginning of October 2005, the Spanish police dealt with the problem of how to stop the influx of desperate African immigrants who tried to penetrate the small Spanish territory of Melilla, on the Rif coast of Africa, they displayed plans to build a wall between the Spanish enclave and Morocco. The images presented—a complex structure replete with electronic equipment—bore an uncanny resemblance to the Berlin Wall, only with the opposite function. This wall was destined to prevent people from coming, not getting out. The cruel irony of the situation is that it is the government of Jose Zapatero, at this moment leader of arguably the most anti-racist and tolerant administration in Europe, that is forced to adopt these measure of segregation. This is a clear sign of the limit of the multiculturalist "tolerant" approach, which preaches open borders and acceptance of others. If one were to open the borders, the first to rebel would be the local working classes. It is thus becoming clear that the solution is not to "tear down the walls and let them all in," the easy empty demand of soft-hearted liberal "radicals." The only true solution is to tear down the true wall, not the Immigration Department one, but the socio-economic one: to change society so that people will no longer desperately try to escape their own world.
As a corollary to Zizek's point, my fear is that practical patches to immigration law, such as merit-based points systems—"give us your doctors, your entreprenuers"—will in their own unique way erode the motive force of the democratic project: liberty, liberation, emancipation. The risk is that human rights will end up looking more like human resources, with the state as just another service provider among the array of corporate entities that supply our needs—"access to work" in this case. So, the irony is that if developed countries cannot figure out how to be less dictatorial internationally, they will soon find themselves accelerating down the slippery slope of fascism domestically.

The Arizona immigration law is a harbinger of this trend, though it may also galvanize the immigrant rights community, as Mark Engler argues in Dissent. Certainly the cultural politics of immigration become more caustic in periods of economic stress. The musician M.I.A. released a (very graphic and violent) video this week for her song "Born Free." In it an unambiguously American SWAT force descends like la migra to apprehend people in an apartment complex. The captives are then made to run across the desert in a scene reminiscent of Burmese "atrocity demining"—all because they were born... wrong.

PHOTO CREDIT: Bloodied clothes on the barbed wire border fence between Melilla (Spain) and Morocco. By fronterasur (CC).

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