The Poor, the Rich and the Immigrant

Photo Source Noborder Network | CC BY 2.0

In 2016 the gloomy TV series Black Mirror dedicated a disturbing and revealing episode to xenophobia and migrants. In the science fiction metaphor, the government has been able to manipulate the brains of people so much that they cannot see migrants as human beings but as some kind of monsters to be eliminated. When a soldier is infected by the monsters he is haunting, one would expect that he becomes like one of them, but, with an original narrative twist, the opposite happens: instead of a virus, the monster has actually injected him with an antidote freeing the soldier from government control and enabling him to see the others’human nature. Well, Black Mirror does not, in general, have happy endings, and in this case the soldier ends up reprogrammed, ready to continue his hunt for other humans he does not recognize as such. Indeed, science fiction can be a powerful way to speak of the present, imagining the future.

The times when walls were falling and barbed wire being removed seem far away. Everywhere rich nations are trying to isolate themselves from the waves of desperate people flying from wars, poverty, persecution, and disruptive environmental changes. Xenophobia, racism, and nationalism are gaining ground, breeding on a toxic narrative which redirects class conflicts towards the “outside”: global elites have grown remarkably adept at convincing large portions of the working class that the worsening of their conditions is caused by immigrants and not by the unequal distribution of wealth, the attack against workers’rights, and the neo-liberal erosion of the welfare state. The rise of terrorism has added even more inflammatory rhetoric to this xenophobic narrative; an exotic name does all the work here, obliterating the fact that often the terrorists were born and raised in the West. As a telling banner in an antiracist march states: “your enemy does not come in a boat but by limousine.”

The parlous state of the European Union is a case in point. Here neither the German center nor the much put-upon periphery can hold in the face of a rising tide of Right-wing anti-immigrant racism. In Germany, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer demanded a few weeks ago that Chancellor Angela Merkel close the country’s border to migrants arriving from other EU nations like Austria and Italy. Merkel’s effort to save her ruling coalition – and the liberal political and economic order that has characterized the European Union for several decades – involves a chilling concession to xenophobia. Under the compromise deal Merkel proposed, Germany would set up mass-internment camps to house migrants while their status was reviewed. Any migrant found to have registered for temporary status in another European country would be deported back to that country. Germany’s borders would theoretically be kept open, but authorities would have to check people crossing the border in some fashion. Presumably the criteria at the country’s borders would involve explicit racial profiling: those who do not “look”German would be subjected to document checks, while those with the appropriate breeze past guard posts without even needing to flourish their magical magenta-colored EU passports.

Merkel’s concessions to the demands of xenophobes effectively undermine the liberal order they seek to salvage. By caving in to the demands of Bavarian right-wingers in her coalition, she has essentially allowed the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) to dictate the terms of politics in Europe’s most powerful country. To give a sense of how far to the right Merkel has slid, it is worth noting that she borrowed the terminology for the camps she has promised to set up – “transit centers”- from Viktor Orban of Hungary, who until now was seen as anathema to liberal European values for his authoritarianism and reactionary nativism.

Things are looking equally grim in peripheral European countries like Italy. The country’s election this spring brought a coalition government formed by the hard-nationalist Lega and the protean and unstable Five Star Movement into party. Although the latter has a history of trying to evade political classification and rejecting efforts to join coalition governments, it is now totally in thrall to the anti-immigrant politics of the Lega. The new government’s “Contract,”for example, pledges to deport 500,000 migrants from Italy. The Lega’s leader, Matteo Salvini, has transformed his party from a regional autonomist movement (which used to demonize Southern Italians as “Albanians”or “Africans”) into the dominant political force in the country, largely by attacking migrants to the country. Salvini is playing here on the contradictions of the European Union’s Dublin Agreement, which mandates that countries where migrants first land have a responsibility to keep those migrants on their terrain rather than letting them continue on to other European nations. Most migrants to Italy of course would prefer to keep moving to nations further north, whose economies are far stronger and where there are established migrant communities. However, as the crisis in Germany underlines, the dominant countries in the EU are against this, and so have mandated the union’s southern nations (Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Greece) to play host to arriving migrants. Salvini has mobilized Italian xenophobia by transfering his party’s rhetorical attacks away from southern Italians and towards migrants arriving from other countries. When countries such as Germany criticize this explicit racism, Salvini can play out set piece political conflicts between the hypocritical dictates of EU bureaucrats in Brussels and the democratically expressed desires of put-upon Italians. The Italian government has repeatedly closed ports to immigrants, and not just those carried on board of NGOs’vessels but even those who have been rescued by the Italian Navy. According to some prosecutors, forbidding the disembarkation of the migrants from the ships might be considered a kidnapping, thereby being prosecuted as a crime.

Of course such positions are based on total hypocrisy. Italy has in fact accepted fewer migrants than Germany. And it is paid by the EU to house the migrants who arrive on its shores. In addition, despite his rhetorical posturing against the EU, Salvini has no intention from withdrawing from the European Union since this would damage the bank accounts of the wealthy northern Italians who have been core supporters of the Lega.

Moreover, all of this racism does nothing to resolve the contradictions of the European Union project. As is true for Greece, membership in the EU has had a strongly depressing impact on the Italian economy, which has lost nearly 30% of its manufacturing base over the last few decades and has seen economic growth rates half that of a country such as France. Bound up by European Union economic strictures, Italy has no way to cancel its debt, to borrow for investment in infrastructure, or to cheapen its currency in order to make its exports more attractive internationally. Employment among young Italians is at record levels, and has been essentially since the country joined the EU.

One might actually wonder whether all this campaign against migrants is nothing more than a gigantic diversion of public opinion in order to cover up the fact that the new government is not realizing any of its electoral promises.

Trump campaign mastermind Steve Bannon has recently declared that Italy is one of the most interesting experiments in the rising of the global extreme right, for its combination of nationalism and radical populism. However, Italy is in no way an exceptional case. Even the Swedish social-democratic model has been deeply shaken by the rise of the extreme right in the 2018 election, with a campaign mostly played on the skin of migrants.

Perhaps, the scariest of all these right-wing triumphs is that of the Brazilian candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who was able to attract more than the 46% of the voters in the first round of the election, proposing an openly sexist, racist, homophobic political platform, one laced with clear fascist nostalgia. Obviously, the legacy of the military dictatorship brings heavy baggage into the present Brazilian election, with Bolsonaro often alluding to his sympathies for the military regime.

Under such conditions, the current upsurge of racism in both core and peripheral European nations such be seen, to paraphrase Étienne Balibar, as a form of imaginary reconstitution of a sovereignty that is in fact mythical given the overweening power of capitalist globalization.

However, the odd connection between an extreme neoliberal, globalized world and the quest for solid borders is actually much more coherent than the mainstream narrative is willing to admit. Globalization as we know it, and not just that of the last few decades, is built upon the implementation of solid borders. It has always been the “othering” of someone, or place, that has made possible the so-called Western success. It is worth remarking, once again, that the free circulation of capitals and goods, distinctive of the most recent phase of neoliberalism, has never implied a symmetrical free circulation of people, even less a globalization of rights and regulations. On the contrary, precisely the existence of global peripheries providing cheap labor, resources, and sinks is the basis for the global circulation of capitals and goods. As Rebecca Solnit has brilliantly reminded us, it is the fortified border what makes the garden. Any break into the wall is seen as a leak which will gradually contaminate the garden.

“A wall will save us”–this is the disturbing but simple message repeated as a mantra by the gardeners of hate, always looking for means of mass distraction. They scapegoat immigrants in order to produce the illusion of belonging to a global privileged gated community, covering the fact that borders and walls are traversing our cities, schools, career paths, and, perhaps, even bodies. Social and environmental inequalities are, of course, dramatic between the two sides of the wall, the Global North and the Global South, but they are not absent within each of those the parts of the planet. Policing the national frontiers and reproducing racist discourses will not bring more equity. Those living inside the real gated communities will just be glad that the poor are occupied with other matters, like blaming immigrants for their problems instead of claiming services and redistribution of wealth for everybody.

Someone has said that it is easier to be pro-immigrant for the upper classes, for those living in the best neighborhoods, who will never wait for a social house, be in a queue to see a doctor in a hospital, or have their children in the “regular”school on the corner. How familiar this discourse is. Something very similar has been said so many times in regard to the environment: only when the belly is full one can afford the luxury of thinking about nature. Struggles and research on environmental justice and just sustainability have proved, and we believe quite convincingly, that this is not true. It is time to start working on the alliances between the working class, or more broadly the subaltern communities in the Global North, and immigrants. Just to be clear: the point is not to justify xenophobia out of a sense of guilt because social housing does not work, the public health system is shrinking, and no one wants to send her children to the school on the corner. We need better schools, hospitals, and social housing, not xenophobia. Improving the quality of life for the most disadvantaged people is the best answer to xenophobia. As intellectuals, we have the opportunity to uncover the mystifications of Fortress Europe –or for what matters of Trump’s Wall; they promise belonging without rights, they ensure a cheap identity, which does not need any elaboration or effort. Excluding someone from social rights does not make those rights any stronger or broader. As a quite popular political cartoon vividly explains, we are in a situation in which the rich are eating 19 of the 20 cookies on the table while telling the poor to be careful because the immigrant is stealing the one cookie left.

Finally, facing the modest flux of immigration Europe and the US are facing-indeed modest if we consider that other countries are dealing with much larger numbers in proportion to their capacity –we should appeal to solidarity and share what we have, staying human in the face of all pressures to become something else. But in this essay we have also argued that immigration may also be an opportunity to unveil the inequalities embedded everywhere in our societies, making visible the wall which divides those who have from those who have not. From this point of view, welcoming immigrants is not only an act of human kindness but also a political strategy, an attempt to build alliances and force the gated community which keeps out not only immigrants but the 99% of people. After all, gardening our humanity through small acts of gratuitous kindness is per se revolutionary in a highly commodified social system, always balancing expenses and income, losses and gains. Indeed, our democracies are in danger – not because of immigrants but because of the resurgence of fascism and racism. Let’s defend democracy. This will do good to our humanity and to immigrants too.

Marco Armiero is the Director of the Environmental Humanities Laboratory at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. His research has focused on toxic waste, migrations and environment, climate change and the city, science and power in ecological conflicts. Marco has published two monographs, one handbook, five edited volumes, and about 100 among articles and book chapters. Marco is a senior editor of Capitalism Nature Socialism and associate editor of Environmental Humanities.

Ashley Dawson is Professor of English at the Graduate Center/CUNY and the College of Staten Island. He is the author of two recent books on topics relating to the environmental humanities, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016), as well as six previous books on global social justice movements and anti-imperialism. He is a long-time member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab. 

Ethemcan Turhan is a postdoctoral researcher in the Environmental Humanities Lab at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. He is currently co-editing a volume titled Transforming Socio-Natures in Turkey: Landscapes, State and Environmental Movements for Routledge Environmental Humanities series. His research and activism focuses on climate justice, energy democracy and migration in the context of climate change.


The authors of this piece are all members of the research project Occupy Climate Change! funded by the Swedish agency FORMAS under the Swedish National Research Programme for Climate (2017-01962). Parts of this piece have been already published in Swedish in the volume Handbok för demokrater (2018).