Anarchism and migration: Lessons in getting a social struggle wrong

Anarchism and migration: Lessons in getting a social struggle wrong

A review of No Borders: The Politics if Immigration Control and Resistance by Natasha King, Zed Books, 2016

This book is quite some way off the account of the dynamics of migrant resistance to border control that I thought it would be. It is built around reflections on struggles taking place in Athens and Calais in which the author participated, but migrants only figure in this as rather vague sketches intended to illustrate some point about anarchist theory. We get no sense of the reasons why the people in these situations are on the move and why they seem to be willing to risk everything to get to some final destination. Instead we are offered a high-blown theory about ‘the autonomy of migration’, as though those on the move are motivated by an existential desire for freedom for its own sake.

In my view if you get the reason why people migrate wrong then everything else you say about the issue is likely to be a bunch of hooey. Making the search for ‘autonomy’ the critical issue generates the delusion that the activist and the migrant are some sort of soulmates on the same road to absolute freedom, King goes on to spin a theory of solidarity which binds people together with the tenuous threads of mutual regard for each other’s projects. Some anthropological notions about equality are prayed in aid for this argument and the strategic problems which the book seems to think are central are how it is possible to live out the experience of non-hierarchical, mutually-reinforcing action without doing deals with the state.

This ranks high amongst all the examples of privileged activists imposing their agendas on the struggles of people who exist many rungs lower down the social ladder than themselves. The dilemmas of being an anarchist and the opportunities that might exist for creating non-hierarchical spaces displaces the actual essential task of reducing the power of the capitalist state in determining the lives of people whose very existence requires forcing a break with its processes and controls. The world of the anarchist activist is one of a constant flurry of social experiments in communality and efforts at the pre-figuration of a social order in which external coercion has ceased to exist. But in the case of the type of egoistical anarchism which King seems to favour, even this takes place in a Foucauldian universe where repression is a permanent condition for the human soul and where the state itself is raised a bleak authority in which its capitalist features are only a peripheral issue.

This is a current which lost any connection with the profound critique of capitalism that brought other versions of the anarchist creed to a point of influence amongst a swathe of the European and American subaltern classes a few generations back. There is a world of difference between a starting point which says that the state takes the form that it does because of the capitalism interests that lie at its heart, and one that assumes that it is merely another manifestation of authority and its desire to oppress. This book makes no more than a few scattered references to capitalism as such, and when they occur they subsume the notion to just one of several different species of deplorable activity that anarchists tend to be against.

The result is an account of collaborations between ‘activists’ and migrants which are always disappointing. The disappointment is all the greater because the anarchist invests so much hope in the migrant being the hero of her fantasy of a group of human beings who are intent on living ‘autonomous’ lives. They are ‘refusing the state’ and the challenge for the activist is to make sure that they do not backslide into compromises that might bring about only partial gains. King makes it clear that she appreciates that a conundrum exists here and she calls on her comrades to be more understanding that ‘engagement’ with the forces that are denying you the right to cross a border is pretty well the inevitable consequence of fighting them in the first place. The thing to strive for from this perspective is a set of institutions – safe houses, communal kitchens, community centres and the like – which embody anarchist ethics and which might be the basis for an investment in a future, alternative, way of existence.

Unfortunately the examples she offers from her experiences in working with migrants in Athens and Calais show just how vulnerable these experiments are to be washed away by a turbulent political and economic environment. If what we want from our activism is lessons well learnt about the nature of the power we are up against that haven’t come from this experience. Despondency, if not outright despair, seems to be the legacy of jungle camps that are raided by police, migrant personal belongings wrecked, and people scattered to the wind. The brief experience of communal living ends up as not much more than a wistful memory after the evictions have taken place and the authorities cease control of the property.

Yet there is a rock which is capable of breaking the force of the current that would sweep people on the move on to defeat. It is a type of organisation which, maybe existing as nothing much more than an ephemeral network of collaborating organisations and individuals, nevertheless has learning about the ways in which the enemy can be taken on and defeated at its core. The task that lies at the heart of this collaboration is understanding how capitalism structures the state and the ways that this configures the controls that exist at borders. This process brings us face-to-face with a vast range of tensions as the interests of different stakeholders within the system of power clash and begin to reveal the extent of the contradictions that exist at every level of the social system. A strategy which aims to maximise opportunities for escape from the control of the state when it comes to exercising a right to move freely needs to be more cognisant of what the nature of these conflicts are and how they can be used to the advantage of the subject group.

When the various collectives and networks whose work King reviews are really doing a useful job (and, if this review seems rather negative in assessing their role, let me say that I think they do a lot of really important work) then they will be alongside migrants in accomplishing this task of probing and pushing back at the structures of power. This, after all, is what migrants who are on the move do all the time in any event. Grandiose ideas about exercising an autonomous right to migrant seldom figure in the plans of a Filipina social care worker looking to evade the onerous obligations of being ‘self-sufficient’ as she pursues her profession, or the Eritrean refugee stopped by border controls from reaching the networks that would provide support and a degree of security.

What they want are tactics which will push back and paralyse the efforts of immigration controllers to harass, imprison and deport them. A movement which builds on the capacity of the working class to resist the oppression and exploitation endemic to the capitalist system ought to be able to play a role in helping migrants in achieving that end. What a shame that anarchist theory, which once helped workers and peasants organise a practical fightback against capitalism has, in the egoistical version presented in this book, got so little to say about how those battles might be resumed..

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