Beyond Moral Persuasion in the Struggle for Migrant and Refugee Justice

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The United States is currently ground zero in the war against migrants and refugees waged by the global police state. Yet, it is also central to the resistance to that war. The mid-July announcement by the Trump administration that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would carry out raids throughout the country was met by mass protest and immigrant solidarity demonstrations in hundreds of cities and towns across the country. 

This groundswell of opposition pushing back against the brutal migrant and refugee policies of the U.S. and other capitalist states around the world is driven largely by moral appeal to social justice.  Such moral outrage is crucial, as it mobilizes people to action, reaffirms our humanity, and puts the criminal agents of the police state on the defensive.  The uncompromising defense of migrant and refugee rights must be at the very core of any progressive agenda or emancipatory project at this time of global capitalist crisis.  Yet, in the larger strategic perspective the movement to defend these rights must move beyond moral persuasion alone by putting forward an analysis of the political and structural forces that drive the war against migrants and refugees.  Here are five interwoven considerations, in brief, for such an analysis:

First, as global capitalism sinks into an ever-deeper crisis of legitimacy there has been a sharp political polarization worldwide between a renascent left and a resurgent far-right that is at this time pushing a fascist mobilization.  This fascist mobilization rests on organizing a social base among those more privileged sectors of the global working classes who are experiencing precariousness, destabilization and downward mobility as a result of capitalist globalization.  The ruling groups must channel mass anxiety among these sectors toward communities that are most vulnerable and can therefore serve as scapegoats for the crisis.  Relentless repression of migrants and refugees, Trump’s fanatical “build the wall” rhetoric, the racist discourse of criminalization serve these ends.  Defense of migrants and refugees is crucial to the fight against 21st century fascism.

Second, the ever more rigid division of the global working class between citizens and immigrants fragments and disorganizes the working and popular classes everywhere.  This division is a new axis of inequality worldwide that allows for the super-exploitation of migrant workers by transnational capital who are subject to the super-control mechanisms imposed by the capitalist state.  For these purposes, borders must become militarized war zones, migrants and refugees must be racialized, and states must step up repressive control over these groups.  The refrain “immigrant rights are worker rights” is not mere rhetoric.  The defense of migrants and refugees, the vast majority of whom are poor workers, is pivotal to the struggle of the entire global working class.

Third, the war on migrants and refugees and its attendant discursive and ideological dimensions draw attention away from the failures of global capitalism around the world.  The backdrop to the current refugee crisis in the United States, for instance, is the second implosion of Central America, reflecting the spiraling crisis of global capitalism itself.  This implosion is the result of the collapse of a new round of capitalist development unleashed on that region in the wake of the 1980s upheavals to the drumbeat of the globalization.  In 2015 there were 232 million international migrants and 740 million internal migrants, according to the International Organization on Migration (ILO).  Around the world, capitalist globalization has displaced millions and turned them into refugees from economic collapse, social strife, military conflict, and climate change, suggesting that the tide of migrants and refugees is likely to become a tidal wave in the coming years.  The migrants and refugees of the 21st century are potent symbols of the catastrophe that is global capitalism.  Exposing this catastrophe helps push back against the subterfuge of anti-migrant rhetoric and to identify the actual causes of the migrant and refugee crisis.

Fourth, global inequalities have never been more acute.  The top one percent of humanity now controls over half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent must make do with just 4.5 percent of that wealth.  Capitalist globalization has expanded the ranks of surplus humanity.  According to the ILO report mentioned above, in the late twentieth century some one-third of the global labor forces had been made superfluous and locked out of the global economy.  Even the CIA felt compelled to warn in 2002 that by the late 1990s a staggering one billion workers representing one-third of the world’s labor force, most of them in the South, where either unemployed or underemployed.  Dominant groups face the challenge of how to contain both the real and potential rebellion of surplus humanity and to deflect the tensions that acute global inequality generates.  For this purpose, the corporate and political agents of global capitalism have been developing and deploying vast new systems of transnational social control and repression.  The battery of surveillance and repression against migrants and refugees is but the most exposed tip of a larger arsenal of war wielded against the dispossessed and marginalized everywhere and ultimately against all those who do not conform to, or who face the challenge of surviving in, the global capitalist order.  To defend migrants and refugees is to defend the interests of the vast majority of humanity.

Fifth, these new systems of social control and repression are enormously profitable at a time when the global economy is facing a deep structural crisis of what political economists call over-accumulation, that is, a massive pileup of surplus accumulated capital that cannot find outlets for profitable reinvestment.  Militarized accumulation and accumulation by repression involve systems of mass incarceration, immigrant detention and deportation, refugee control, the construction of border and containment walls, mass surveillance, urban policing, the deployment of paramilitary and private mercenary armies and security forces, and so on.  These have all become important sources of profit making that have helped offset the pressures of over-accumulation.  We are now living in a global war economy that is dependent on perpetual state organized war making, social control, and repression.  Every phase in the war on migrants and refugees has become a wellspring of profit making, from private, for-profit detention centers and the provision of services inside public detention centers such as healthcare, food, phone systems, to other ancillary activities of the deportation regime, such as government contracting of private charter flights to ferry deportees back home, and the equipping of armies of border agents.  Defense of migrants and refugees is at the frontline of the pushback against a global political economy that that has thrust us into permanent warfare and state repression while depriving us of an economy that could meet the needs of humanity.

William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies, and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The ideas in this commentary are synthesized from his recently published book, Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism (Haymarket, 2018), and his forthcoming book, The Political Economy of Global Police State.