Contrary to popular mythology ‘globalisation’ has not had the flattening effect some wished for. At least not for everyone. Instead the world has continued to be carved into heavily bordered and securitised territories, where the privileged few and finance capital enjoy the benefits hyper-mobility affords. This transnational class can transverse freely across space, while the vast majority are subjugated to new forms of spatio-political domination where their movement is heavily regulated and controlled. Today refugees fleeing conflict zones are often arbitrarily described as threats to our national security, while CEOs of some of the world’s most corrupt and environmentally damaging companies are able to vacation in Paris and horde their cash in off-shore bank accounts on Cyprus.
Contrary to popular misconceptions propagated by utopian economic theoreticians that the free market is somehow a liberating force. When we combine the restricted movement of some people instead of others with the free movement of finance capital and investment, we are inevitably inviting inequality and oppressive practices. Put simply, who has freedom of mobility, and who doesn’t, says as much about our chances in life as our own abilities. Indeed, the freedom to move from place to place often says nothing at all about our personal attributes, it simply comes down to the passport we hold in our hands. A document arbitrarily decided upon based on the place of our birth.
How we choose who gets to ‘come in’ and who must ‘stay out’ says a lot about who we are. The dilemma, if we can call it that, poses all sorts of uncomfortable questions about who is deserving of what and why – but these questions are often glossed over by thinly veiled antagonisms, derived from nationalistic or racialized rhetoric that ought to have no place in our discourse. Instead of confronting the challenge to bring everyone within the orbit of our privileged existence in Europe, America and elsewhere, we callously exclude those in their time of need. This is made all the more morally repugnant given our own complicity in fomenting the crisis at hand. And crisis may not even be the correct terminology here, because this is the new normal.
In the opening sentence of his new book, The Figure of the Migrant, Thomas Nail, adroitly states what many of us have yet to come to terms with, “The twenty-first century will be the century of the migrant.” According to Nail, already at “the turn of the century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history.” Over 1 billion and rising. While many have begun clinging to nativist manifestos that have, for centuries, derided ‘outsiders’, Nail points out that in some ways, “we are all becoming migrants.”
His point is that many of us in privileged places have already begun traveling further and further in search of better jobs and life opportunities, making the difference between the privileged migrant and the marginal one not as great as it may seem. (Were it not for the obvious asymmetries in resources and access that make migration “dangerous and constrained” for some and relatively painless and open for others – of course). Whether we travel for work, leisure, or are forced to flee from natural disaster or human induced calamity a central dynamic common to everyone emerges – mobility and it’s centrality to the human condition. Indeed, Nail would argue that the migrant is not only the figure of our time but a unbiquitous feature throughout human history. “At different points in history, migratory movement was the result of different types and degrees of social expulsion: territorial, political, juridical, and economic.” Today all four social expulsion mechanisms are at work.
It’s not just war and conflict that has people searching for safer homes or better opportunities. It’s the entire world economic system that we have constructed to the benefit of ourselves at the exclusion of those living at the margins of our collective privilege. This in-turn has allowed our collective imagination to craft deeply appealing yet romanticised understandings of space and place. Travel magazines, for example, send us to far-away destinations as tourists goggling over the differences of here or there – but often these differences are borne of our own creation rather than out of some unique cultural heritage – while we persist in excluding the same benefit to the ‘other.’ A common refrain is that tourism or foreign aid somehow makes up for it, but no amount of foreign aid, tourism, or NGOs will be able to alter the underlaying structural inequalities that exist between places.
Perhaps none of this would seem so reprehensible to me if I were not so privileged myself, by coincidence, and able to see so much of the world as a migrant. Though it goes without saying that the world I’ve seen is vastly different from that of the maligned ship-goer trying to reach the safe shores of Greece or Italy. No, I am an American living in Europe, and am taking advantage of its internally open borders and its unique mixture of languages, alcoholic beverages and people. But I’ve not only been a migrant here. I’ve had the privilege of being invited into the homes of others with less financial resources than I -and given a bed to sleep on and a meal to eat. And I am often, inexplicably and with much frustration, unable to extend that same privilege to my friends, simply because of where they come from.
In placing restrictions on other people’s access to different spaces & places, we are inherently limiting their ability to find better jobs, join their relatives, or even receive political asylum. But we are also placing restrictions on ourselves.