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Although most of humanity is localized, a better view into the general state of humanity is provided through a closer look at the conditions of the ‘global nomads’: migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, international seasonal/migrant workers, gypsies, sex slaves, imperial and mercenary soldiers, to give an incomplete list.
Luca Dall’Oglio, Permanent Observer to the United Nations, in his statement to the United Nations General Assembly, 3rd Committee: Questions Relating to Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons and the Humanitarian Question (New York, November 3, 2003), stated, “In today’s world, international migration has achieved a degree of prominence on the international agenda never felt before. It is not only because there are 175 million international migrants, but because all indicators point to migration as a continuing and growing structural component of contemporary socio-economic development, whose benefit can reach out to origin and destination countries,” (emphasis added).
This figure of 175 million humans represents roughly 3% of humanity. The figure includes highly skilled workers, estimated at around 1 million, as well as the bottom of the rungs filled with 27 million manual workers of all skills. The figure of 175 million also includes those trafficked across international borders, an estimated 2 million annually.
What this figure does not include is the number of illegal immigrants, estimated at between 2 to 4 million people annually.
One noteworthy point is that, of these migrants, in terms of absolute numbers (not percentages of total local populations) the biggest concentration (56.1 million) is located in Europe, the second largest (49.7 million) in Asia, and only the third largest (40.8 million) in North America.
To the above figure, we must add another very substantial one. Although the official figures given for the number of worldwide refugees usually reside closer to about 20 million, in its annual report for the year 1997, titled, The State of the World’s Refugees, 1997: A Humanitarian Agenda, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that, “In total, some 50 million people around the world might legitimately be described as victims of forced displacement.” This number can safely be taken as a standard, even if, after the passage of eight years and three major military aggressions, the numbers could easily be higher. These include the international refugees, as well as people ‘displaced internally’, meaning they are refugees in their own country, much like the three hundred thousand Iraqi residents of Fallujah living as refugees on the outskirts of their formerly existent city.
To this mass of humanity being thrust about the globe annually in search for jobs, safety, food, shelter, or whatever bit of warmth and comfort humanity can still afford or cares to offer, we must add the massive historical human displacements due to modernity’s centuries-old quests in civil wars, wars between nations, and colonization. And this last one is by no means a bad nightmare from modernity’s shameful past, one from which we have successfully been withdrawn. To borrow from another, very related context, ‘Never Again, Never Again!’ loses credit, when repeated by repeat offenders. Far from it; this colonial ‘tendency’ is still alive and kicking people’s doors down just as shamelessly as was done in the good old times of the Romans and the Pharaohs. Witness the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and, observe likewise the longest running late-modern colonial project, the continued colonization of Palestinian land, now into its 38th year at least (if you want to deny the mass exodus of 1948), and the brutal suffocation of the Palestinians at the hands of a colonizing and openly racist state.
To all of this, a final footnote has to be added: the covert interventions in the life of other nations, something which the sedentary citizens of the First World nations are on average far more comfortable with than are the citizens of the Third World. These interventions produce nomads of various stripes, from complete innocents all the way to the spooks.
So, it takes little theoretical insight to say that the modern nomad is moved around the globe by forces far more complex than those moving the traditional nomads. These forces are man-made, even in some instances where natural phenomena such as floods or mudslides have caused the displacement of large communities in places where, say, over-logging has been consistently practiced. The modern nomad is moved about, more concretely, by the forces unleashed by the world capitalist system, and not by some invisible hands.
Take the ‘rate of profit’: its defense and protection by any means necessary requires that capital must take flight at the first sign of diminishing returns. Hence, capital tends to create, to the extent that is possible, conditions under which it can take flight increasingly more easily, and will most likely confront with all its might any effort to limit its sphere of maneuverability.
Which leads to the next, less ‘innocent’ forces, such as the political machinations of the markets, which are operative just as much in garbage collection contracts signed in New York City, as in the bribed contracts made in Tehran, or the pre-signed contracts for Halliburton to re-build Iraq, as if Iraqis have not done that for themselves for thousands of years no thanks to any foreigners.
And finally, in the service of establishing monopoly over markets, the ever-needed wars: of colonization to plunder resources; of national-state expansions, nationalistic/racial purges, annexations; and the second of the double-charge imposed on colonies in the form of the suffering as a result of inter-imperialist wars over colonial acquisitions; and not to forget all the suffering caused by the civil wars that accompany the liberation from colonization.
* * *
The Qashgai tribes of Iran are a traditional nomadic people. As herders, they move from one territory to another, depending on the seasons as well as the availability of grazing land, mostly in the southern regions in and around the province of Fars. In the developmental models that take western industrialized states as their reference, the Qashqai people are a traditionalist people, meaning pre-modern; modernity, meaning capitalism, and its onset in clear view, say, by 1500s.
Were we to compare what I would term the ‘modern nomads’ to these traditional nomads, the latter could easily be considered the happier of the two. Happier, obviously since, in spite of the constant physical movement, they have peace and security of mind: peace of mind from the assurance that tomorrow will be just as filled with fruitful effort and labor as is today. And happy also in the sense that they have ‘tempered their desires’: the restless desires to go beyond their life-experience thus placed on a leash, it becomes crystal clear to anybody who ever conversed with them in person that the smiles on their rose-cheeked faces are not forced nor faked, but anchored in a real depth; their glowing faces not an exchange for a material thing, the way a McDonald’s counter person is trained to fake it.
This is not to say that nomadic tribes are fundamentally free from contradictions or incapable of violence; we need only remember the Mongolian invasions, or tribal wars throughout the ages. But, it is to say that violence is far less structurally necessary among the traditional nomads, especially as they are situated in, and surrounded by, modernity today.
A Western middle class reader may think, “Surely the traditional nomads must be miserable and must yearn for something more. They must have yearnings!” And most assuredly, much like the rest of humanity, they do in fact have certain yearnings. And some may yearn to seek a non-tribal life.
But, who says the traditional nomad’s yearnings are limited to wanting to ‘break out’ from the ‘shackles’ and ‘drudgery’ of being a herdsman or woman? Their striving may just as well be for better ways of herding, for more abundant grazing land, or for better tools to improve the conditions of their chosen way of life. Or for less arbitrary districting of the lands they traverse and for less harassment by the national armies and paid thugs grabbing their grazing lands on behalf of some corporation or government agency. Such nomadic peoples have had some of the longest running records of successful, sustained, and sustainable existence for thousands of years. Clearly they have something going for them.
In this light, we can safely say that, on average, the traditional nomad is the happier lot not only compared to their obviously-more-maligned modern cousins. But, we can just as safely side with a Qashqai nomad in the outskirts of Shiraz, who, when faced with his sedentary cousin — the super-stressed tradesman from Bazaar-e Vakil (Shiraz’s biggest and oldest market, adjacent to its biggest mosque, Shah-cheraqh) can boastfully declare his nomadic ways far superior, far healthier, far freer, and inducing far fewer ulcers. The sedentary cousin cannot but nod in agreement and reflect sadly on the state of the social relations of domination that arbitrarily contain and suffocate him daily, feeding all his purely economic as well as down to private acts through the administrative machinery of the modern state as it has (or not) developed in Iran.
So, between these two, i.e. between the traditional nomads and the modern country or town/city dwellers, whose identity is more secure, more self-assured, and less riddled with contradictions? Or, is this a false question?
The truly liberating questions cannot pose a false choice between capitalism in its different forms, and adapting some pre-capitalist method in organizing modern life with all its complexities. Such was the dilemma for Pol Pot. The answer to our modern riddle cannot be that simplistic.
The modern nomad, by contrast, has a better objective position to discern the arbitrary nature of the given rules, of seeing through to the heart of the instability of the system, the very instability that his modern sedentary cousins may take for ‘the creative powers of capital’ and therefore mistake for the zenith of stability incarnate.
An Iraqi man in his early forties, who, having sat in some Iranian prison as a prisoner of war, some fifteen years after the end of Iran-Iraq war, and who finally gets to go back home for a short peaceful hiatus, only to see his country invaded by the Americans and the British (who had previously supported Saddam, who packed him off to kill Iranians), can tell you a thing or two about arbitrariness of modern life. At the age of eighteen, or perhaps earlier, at the peak of his health and creativity, brimming with potentials, filled with dreams, he was drafted into army by some decree by a dictator, and was summarily sent to a war, over the ensuing of which he had zero input, and from which he had less to gain. While in this war, he did his best to survive, only to be taken a prisoner and have fifteen to sixteen years of his life evaporated into some absurdity. In most likelihood, he left that Iranian prison so that be could be grabbed by some American soldiers and send to Abu Ghuraib, or any of the thousands of ‘detention centers’ sprouting around Iraq, tortured and humiliated for years or, worse, kept indefinitely.
To this man and millions like him of both genders, of all age groups, and of all races, with their lives’ prospects dwindled to a singular continuous road through one random destitution after another, never given a chance, and every time a single ray of hope fell on them it disappeared just as fast, can anybody say with a straight face that modern life is anything but a random, senseless, irrational series of events?
Most modern nomads lack any of the illusory senses of sustained happiness, as they continue on their journeys through different postings, stations, different contracts, positions, or conversely through the myriad refugee camps, prisons, relay posts, or as they are being smuggled across international borders, or as they travel through dangerous terrain on foot with no support. The modern nomads form a global fluid class that allows the global wage structure a lower floor; except, of course, for that highly paid professional section in its higher echelons, proving ironically that all social formations carry their own class contradictions.
As this modern nomad is forced about the globe, he or she sees clearly that borders are highly selective (hence, random, arbitrary), and almost non-existent for capital and the moneyed. The modern nomads see just as clearly that the First World moneyed peoples who come to visit with armies, rudely help themselves to others’ lands and resources with no shame at all, while preaching the sanctity of sovereignty for their own lands. The modern nomad is the first to point out the similarities between methods used by his own local dictator in rising to power and those used by George W. Bush in his rise to power in 2000. * * *
It is a fact that most of humanity is still sedentary, and attached to (or, locked into) localities. This part of humanity too is not free of the problems and contradictions of modern society. Each sedentary community faces its local problems: finding jobs and avoiding the homeless status, finding decent housing, finding fulfilling jobs if possible, educating their kids, finding proper health care, securing a half-decent pension or trying to find out who stole it, facing crumbling infrastructure, facing violence in their communities or domiciles, dealing with congestion and the nowadays guaranteed air/water/soil/food pollution, facing unreliable, irresponsible and unresponsive officials, grappling with potential or actual poverty even while employed, dealing with hunger, unemployment, or conversely with the effects of over-consumption, addiction and waste, and a whole series of malignancies that we are told are necessary, even therapeutic: necessary, because part and parcel of the road that paves the path to, and sustains, our beloved Modernity as set in stone in the form of world capitalism.
Whereas the majority of humanity has to struggle with local, particular, or specific conflicts and contradictions (even if these are due to universal, structural causes), the modern nomadic minority struggles with and is trying to come to grips with the more universal symptoms of modernity and its contradictions. The modern nomad is the clear indication of the price that this world system is not only willing to pay, but is happily busy organizing for its own furtherance, in ensuring its everlasting survival. So, at the current stage in the development of our species, is not our modern nomadic minority a truer window to our identity and to our collective state than is our sedentary majority?
We are quite easily the saddest and the most disease-riddled species on this planet. Sure, we do have happiness. And, yes, any real effort in striving to go beyond our present state will come with pain. But both our pleasures and our miseries are crammed with class conflict: the ruling classes monopolize most of the happiness, while the majority of the species waddles through the infinite supply of misery. So, the striving to go beyond would naturally find its proponents mostly among the dispossessed majority.
We do have a choice. And the choice is still the same as it was when Marx put it bluntly as the one between socialism and barbarism. It is very clear which is the choice of the ruling classes. But the choice of the working classes is not very clear yet.
[A different version of this was published in April 2004, by the Brazilian webzine, Revista Espaço Acadêmico.]
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