‘With or Without You’: Naturalising Migrants and the Never-Ending Tragedy of Liberalism

by Maïa Pal[1]


To be homeless is to be nameless. He. The existence of a migrant worker.

John Berger



The One Day Without Us campaign was launched in the UK in October 2016 ‘in reaction to the rising tide of post-Brexit street- level racism and xenophobia’ and, according to its website, ‘the divisive and stridently anti-migrant rhetoric emanating from too many politicians that has accompanied it.’ It held its target protest day on Monday 20 February 2017. ‘At a time when the political discussion about migration too often depicts a false narrative of “us versus them”, and when migrants are too often excluded from a debate that is supposedly about them, we wanted to provide an opportunity for migrants and British nationals to come together and celebrate the vital role that migrants play within their own communities.’ The campaign thus aimed to showcase a variety of pro-migrant sentiment and action across the UK. At my workplace, students and staff were encouraged to write on Post-its pinned to a map of the world their messages of support and solidarity, and what migrants meant to them. In other workplaces, one particularly striking message passing on social media emerged from a series of pictures of people contrasting what their work cohort looked like with and without migrants.

Emphasising how many migrants constitute our workforce and everyday life is a helpful way to create a contrast between the rhetoric of anti-immigration politics and the reality of migrant integration. Yet numbers are also threatening to some when imagined through The Sun-fuelled metaphors of hordes, swarms, and floods of monsters, coming here, taking our jobs. In its more extreme forms, the vocabulary of anti-immigration rhetoric shifts between the registers of environmental disaster to war and crusade. Against this, the One Day Without Us actions send out a powerful message of solidarity by numerically performing the sudden disappearance of the migrants amongst us to conjure up a bond that feels increasingly unbound.



But the message feels flawed. Maybe because it contains traces of the neoliberal economic discourse according to which migrants should be welcome because we need them to support our aging population and because they boost our economy, as multiple studies show year after year. This argument is too entrenched to rant about with any originality. To justify the presence and use of foreign people on economic grounds is, of course, a slippery slope to denying citizens benefits because they are not morally worthy, or because their productivity does not justify the expense. In other words, the logic of the economic argument is the same logic that leads, at its most extreme, to the extermination and/or excision of those deemed not useful to the reproduction of the ruling and dominant classes.

Aside from this dangerous utilitarian logic, most disturbing about the ‘with and without us’ message is how it implicitly draws borders between UK citizens and migrants, reinforcing a liberal conception of migration and subjectivity. By affirming who is and who is not a citizen, the message draws ideological borders between workers. What is missing in the ‘with and without us’ tactic is a clear and explicit rejection of how the category and process of migrant subjectivity is separated from that of national workers, putting the spotlight on this separation as a mere appearance that obscures certain labour processes and reinforces national constructions. The processes through which people are constructed as migrant subjects imply a constantly shifting set of social, political and economic conditions. The problem is not only that these conditions are erased or forgotten by the unquestioning acceptance of the categories of national citizen and migrant: their acceptance obscures how the creation and reproduction of these categories legitimates specific entitlements to life and resources that are thereby taken as natural and unchangeable.

For Sandro Mezzadra, what distinguishes migration policy today is the multiplication and diversification of recruitment schemes and types of visa, which aim at encoding the position of individual migrants according to their presumed ‘skills’ as well as to nationality, language, cultural and religious criteria.

In other words, if the social, political and economic conditions – constituting and determining the categories of migrant subjectivity – are constantly shifting and requiring reassessment, how can the state maintain a clear message of national identity? The point is that it constantly tries to fix national identity in opposition to the ‘diversification’, ‘stretching’ ‘multiplication’, and ‘permanent mobilization of subjective energies and potentialities’, as Mezzadra continues.



Subjectivity, albeit a difficult term for Marxists, is essential for grasping the complex relationship between migration and capitalism, what Mezzadra identifies as a tension between ‘mobility and containment’; or, in the words of the One Day Without Us campaign, ‘migrants and British nationals’. In effect, the aim of the campaign – and a result of this tension – was to provide, following Mezzadra again, ‘a subjective push towards the opening up of new spaces of freedom and equality’. This celebration of the relationships between UK citizens, migrants and non-UK residents was achieved in many respects. The slogan ‘we are all migrants’ was even a part of the campaign. Moreover, some workplaces preferred to emphasise that ‘without us’ meant literally the halting of production, in a very powerful show of empty space in an NHS ward, where it is clear that migrants are not just a part of our society, which can be added or subtracted at will, but that, without migrants, the basic services society needs to exist cease to function.

The specific message of ‘with and without us’ reveals the danger of entrenching the existence of categories of people who have a ‘natural’ privilege in occupying a certain space, merely by their nationality. It accepts the fixing of some people as citizens or nationals and some people as migrants, categories or subjectivities that thereby become understood as natural and inevitable. These categories are certainly useful in some respects, particularly in activists’ everyday struggles, and we cannot do without them. But the point remains that the practice of critical analysis – i.e. praxis – must be to caution against the habits of the everyday acceptance of why things are the way they are. Here, the ‘natural’ aspect of the privilege of nationality is constructed – and needs to be maintained – by the illusion and ideology of national borders in a liberal context that allows for economic rationality and utilitarianism.

Specifically, it seems logical to this ideology that where and to whom one is born should determine what resources and conditions one should survive in – justified legally by the respective principles of ius solis and ius sanguinis for determining nationality rights. The anti-immigrant rhetoric in most European countries today reinforces and restricts these principles. However, in other contexts such as North America, as Jessica Evans reminds us, indigenous peoples are ‘internal outsiders with a prior claim to both jus solis and jus sanguinis’ and yet ‘access to the state and to the right for a state of their own’ remains denied to them. In both contexts, however, xenophobic and exclusionary rhetoric finds refuge in the cataclysmic sense of emergency where everybody is meant to accept that the world is dying, resources are limited and cannot be shared, and, crucially, (European) Christian culture is threatened. Thus, people should stay where they are and deal with the lot they were given, whether this means war, famine, persecution, discrimination, colonial theft and trauma, unemployment, lack of healthcare, and more. What this implies is the erosion of the principle of solidarity. Although this principle, when coupled to Western liberal ideals, has often led to the worst of liberal interventionism’s civilising missions, it remains a cornerstone of basic human decency and co- existence, and of socialist politics. It therefore must be protected from European liberalism’s securitisation, retrenchment and paranoia.

Thus, the ‘with and without us’ message signals the challenge of this tragic yet never-ending liberalism, which, like the narrator character in the U2 song ‘With or Without You’, threatens to die but remains loudly and infuriatingly alive and dominant. Liberalism is currently deemed at risk by the advance of the far right; as critics of liberalism, should we not be rejoicing? No, because what is really at risk is not liberalism, but the principle of solidarity that some liberalism contains. Instead of dying, liberalism is merely becoming more and more securitised and economically ‘rational’. The principle of solidarity is trapped in the farcical tragedy of liberalism’s never-ending schizophrenic dance-off to two different songs; trying to cleave to its ideal of harmonious economic migration and human- rights discourse on one hand, and its need for retaining and cajoling the interests of state and capital through cheap labour and border controls on the other.

In ‘With or Without You’, Bono is wailing, taunting us with despair and the threat of death because the subject of his love brings him both joy and pain. He personifies today’s dominant ideology, asking migrants to stay and save liberalism’s soul, while complaining of how they threaten it, justifying the need to exploit them, detain them or kick them back into the equivalent of outer- space. Economic liberalism maintains and reproduces a moral discourse of righteousness and an institutional façade of human rights. Nevertheless, it must be rejected in toto because it necessarily also furthers a policy agenda of fear and social hierarchy that fills up the pockets of employers and fuels the growing migration security agenda and industry. Sonja Buckel captures this relation well when explaining that ‘managing migration’ means that ‘neoliberal open-border politics has been interwoven with a left- liberal humanitarian and human rights strategy, while also needing to make concessions to the conservative project’. Thus, she writes, ‘what is currently happening with the immigration crisis is not a crisis of neoliberalism. Instead, “managing migration” remains effective’.

The left can of course be co-opted into this management of migration, and this calls for vigilance towards instances when we see these categories and subjectivities being invoked and performed. To teach migration from a more critical perspective is to acknowledge and disturb our role as ‘educators’ or conductors of these categories and subjectivities. This means, firstly, to teach the origins of migration as a process tied to the commodification and value theory of labour, where workers are necessarily ‘moving- workers’ but have been alienated to only identify as national citizens or ‘bordered-workers’; and secondly, to rethink on a basic level how we are all necessarily migrants under capitalism.[2]



Historical Materialism: the origins and spread of accumulation
The fixing of territorial borders, the corresponding determination of nationalities and need for passports as markers of identity, are very recent phenomena. They were mostly consolidated worldwide in the long nineteenth century, the age of mass international migration, and one easily forgets how significantly lower today’s levels of cross-border migration are in relation to the nineteenth century. The process of fixing borders began in Europe, but occurred simultaneously in colonised parts of the world where people either continued to resist the imposition of colonial borders, or managed to use national borders as a means to help overthrow colonisers. In contrast, according to Jeffrey Williamson, countries where colonisers settled following mass dispossession, such as New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina, reached shares of foreign- born people between 40 and 25 per cent of their population by the late 19th century. The United States maintained a share of 14.7 per cent of foreign-born people from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. In Europe today, and the North more generally, the average percentage of foreign-born people is around 10–11 per cent. Overall, nineteenth century levels vastly surpassed today’s share of cross-border migration in the total world population, constituting now only 3.3 per cent. Of course, these are no golden days justifying nostalgia for a time of more open and welcoming borders. Although this period privileged the movement of low- income populations, this era of ‘free’ and mass migration entrenched was reminded that arguing that we are all necessarily migrants is an affront to indigenous struggles, which fight for the acknowledgement of their rights versus those of their settled colonisers. This is an important point. Yet I maintain it can be bracketed from the European experience, since the relation there is reversed. The racist, xenophobic and so-called white European ‘natives’, or as they are called in France, ‘les français de souche’ – more or less literally, soiled French – posit themselves as both proud colonisers and injured colonised. This justifies an argument against their ideology that is rooted in the specificities of European capitalism and constructions of identity, and it should not be abstractly applied to other contexts. The point here is to explore the idea that capitalism makes migrants of all of us in the hope that Europeans – the context where I work and write – rethink their relationship to national citizenship, rights and liberalism.

North-South inequalities and sealed with a deadly kiss the fate of colonised peoples and ‘semi-sovereign’ countries (e.g. Siam, China, the Ottoman Empire) in providing cheap and resourceful labour to Western Europe and the Americas. Taking a broader historical view of the category of ‘the migrant’ – and how it has become entangled with nationality – is to reflect on the origins of the right to move and its links to territorial sovereignty and borders. What becomes apparent is that the more fundamental shift is not whether we have the right to move or live somewhere other than where we were born, but the ways in which it became necessary to invent and shape this right. Like most rights, the right to move only becomes necessary to establish, protect, respect and fulfil, once the actual freedom to move is taken away. Global capitalism in the nineteenth century was not the first large- scale transformative social process to create dispossession and movements of people. Slavery, servitude, war and environmental disasters, such as floods and droughts, have consistently forced people to move or flee their homes for thousands of years. However, what capitalism changed in or added to these phenomena was that it institutionalised a specific form of movement through the process of primitive accumulation.

The origin of capitalism is based on the movement of people away from their land, as the process of enclosure forced people to find other means of subsistence and gradually transformed their social relations. Making labour more productive, as Colin Mooers recalls in Imperial Subjects: Citizenship in an Age of Crisis and Empire, ‘must have seemed as “unnatural” at its origins as the buying and selling of water resources or human body parts seems to us today’. In a capitalist mode of production, producing something extra from one’s labour – surplus-value – which can then be sold in exchange for a wage, implies – albeit at firstly a local and implicit level – movement determined by capital, i.e. determined by the social relation between the owners of the means of production and wage-labourers. At a more explicit and broader level, what characterises global capitalism are, according to Jessica Evans, the ‘Great Atlantic Migrations’ in the nineteenth century, which led to a massive transfer of populations as a ‘domestic market capable of absorbing European commodities’ and as ‘the human productive capacity’ to develop the production and export of primary commodities. Accordingly, this large-scale migration exemplifies most dramatically the process of ‘combined development’ defining global capitalism. If, then, for Evans, migration embodies a ‘specific mechanism by which so-called backward formations were drawn into the remit of the market’, is migration the logical consequence of the spread of capitalism, faced with the ‘so-called backwardness’ or unevenness of societies? Or is there something also in the origins of capitalism and the capital relation that makes individuals more subjectively prone to or accepting of moving as a necessary condition for survival?

Evidently, people move for a variety of religious, cultural, linguistic, economic, personal or political reasons, and reducing analyses of migration to the history of capitalism would be reductionist and counter-productive. Yet we assume as natural and inevitable the necessity to move to sell our labour, in the sense of being detached from our means of subsistence and production. What is this imperative or condition that unites the processes of migration inherent in the production of surplus-value – where people are forced away from their land, where labour becomes fetishised as a commodity, and where one’s relationship to nature and others becomes redefined by capital – to the global cross- border migrations where capitalism spreads, in as unevenly and combined a fashion as it can? In other words, is there something that unites the origins of capitalism and its spread? And, if so, is it the subjective condition of being a migrant? Or, to quote Evans again, ‘the political subjectivities’ underwriting ‘migrants’ material strategies of reproduction’ as ‘active and agential human beings struggling to reproduce themselves in differential, historical and material conditions’? Considering subjectivities and agency on the one hand versus strategies and combined unevenness on the other, provides a useful starting point to explore whether migrant subjectivity could unite two approaches to the history of capitalism, as regards its origins and spread.

To explain these debates further, one must recall that migration – and specifically migrant subjectivity – remains a limited field of study in Marxist scholarship, especially theoretically. Most contributions turn towards a focus on its role in the spread of capitalism. Over the last few decades, the agency-structure debate has been reshaped by the dialectic of space and time, moving away from more anthropoid analogies. This is a considerable shift from an understanding of agency as social and historical relations that Derek Sayer urged us to take in the 1980s. In line with his critique of structural and analytical Marxisms, Sayer urged us to develop Marx’s method and recover history through social and historical relations ‘constructed by human beings’. This has the major advantage of emphasising human beings’ capabilities in changing their historical and social conditions.

Historical materialism’s methodological innovations then turned more to problems of space – largely shaped by David Harvey and other critical geographers of the 1990s. This turn has been arguably broadened more recently through the concepts of ecology, nature and the Capitalocene, through the influence of critical geography and a conception of capital-in-nature where agency and structure are conceptualised as, according to Jason Moore, ‘a web of life whose interconnections are much denser, more geographically expansive, and more intimate than ever before’. The ontological centrality of the Cartesian individual as separate from society and nature is, finally, in full crisis. Consequently, attention to capital accumulation has been moving beyond a reductive notion of capital as accumulated labour (wage-labour) – focused on social relations constructed by human beings – towards more ‘spatio-temporal’ conceptions of accumulation.

As separate and/or combined conceptual axes, space and time have redefined our understanding of accumulation, from, returning to Moore, the ‘annihilation of space by time’ to the ways in which capital ‘produces space’: from accumulation by dispossession to capital-in-nature, that is, how capitalism works through nature. The spatial influence of critical geography on Marxist analyses of migration is seen in a focus on resituating the role of migrants in the global structures of labour and capital. The problem is not so much who moves or how people move but how the movement is embedded in deeper and more pervasive structures and practices of domination, control, and exploitation. Hence the focus is on the structures and practices that exercise that domination: the state; law; or corporations. In this focus, movement can slip into being problematised as a pathology, an anomaly, a symptom of the tensions and contradictions of the combined authorities of states and markets.

The focus on space to understand migration, exemplified by the use of the concept of spatial fixes, highlights, in Moore’s words, how ‘movement creates territory’. It therefore becomes tempting to understand capital accumulation as shaped by the movement – in the sense of spread – of people. In addition, the more recent influence of Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development has also led to emphasising the focus on spread rather than on origins. Can this work account for the construction – and crucially, the separation – of migrant and national subjectivities? Can it provide a basis for critique of these categories? The relationship between national citizens and migrants – or ‘mobility and containment’ à la Mezzadra – needs to be tackled from a methodological standing point that retains the process of movement both as part of primitive, and hence capital, accumulation and dispossession and from the vantage point of individual subjectivity. This requires us to look at migration in terms of origins and agency.



My practical and political concern with investigating migrants as agents of accumulation starts with how this topic is taught, and how conceptions of individuals and political ‘others’ through are shaped through teaching. Neoliberal universities are engaging with students as subjects with less and less care for others, what Louiza Odysseos and I have explored in terms of increasing ‘disposability’ and diminishing ‘other-regardedness’, or in other words, solidarity.

Categories and critical pedagogy
What, if any, types of agency are we justifying – or absolving students of – by transmitting knowledge of fixed categories of people who more or less legitimately receive benefits, housing, or entry? In today’s ‘university factory’, as I have discussed with Kerem Nişancıoğlu, students are more and more becoming consumers more and more; educators selfish researchers; and non-academic staff outsourced workers. Thus, teaching about ‘others’ in the social sciences, and especially through the context of borders – as in my subject Politics and International Relations – is an ethical process of conduct and counter-conduct, but it is also embedded in the broader political and economic conditions of the capitalist system.

Thus, when teaching migration, we cannot avoid listing and explaining the various categories used today to refer to migrants and stateless people. Debates about migration are centred on the legitimacy of different categories of migrants – asylum-seekers, refugees, stateless people, economic migrants, internally displaced people (IDPs) – and on the criteria necessary to cross a border – visas, money, status, evidence of persecution, skills. Or they are based on what can be done to improve the regularisation and legalisation of migrants, which inevitably falls back into the trap of legitimating neoliberalism and multiplying what Mezzadra calls ‘fantasy’ practices such as Eurodac’s fingerprinting or Frontex’s ‘transnational’ surveillance and policing. Today, these ‘fantasies’ have more and more concrete effects in ensuring the ‘maintenance’ and ‘renewal’ of a living labour force, with flexible notions of ‘just- in-time’ and ‘to-the-point’ migration, temporary, seasonal and circular recruitment schemes: hotspots, transit zones or points, push-back policies, and external or outsourced border controls.

The practical and political question of how to teach about categories of migrants demands a theoretical and historical answer to a broader question: what is the role of these categories in capitalism today? Beyond the theoretical debates discussed above, the focus on origins and agency is justified by the processes identified above of ‘diversification, multiplication, stretching’ and various forms of subjectivation. In a similar way that imperialism in the nineteenth century had to find a myriad of legal regimes to accumulate more territory – colonies, protectorates, mandates, spheres of influence, extraterritorial courts, and so on – legal systems today are increasingly used to accumulate by dispossessing people of agency in terms of legal subjectivity, personality or citizenship. Marxism’s analytical focus on space, movement, and the spread of accumulation can be problematic because it can lead us to drift and ignore this more ‘anthropoid’ process of accumulation, with a return of a Cartesian individual, a neoliberal happy-face emoticon, jumping into the frame like the Lego film character singing ‘Everything is Awesome!’

If so, it might be useful to return to Derek Sayer’s conception of structure and agency if we want to maintain an immanent critique of neoliberal capitalism, and continue to provide an alternative historical materialist conception of agency, against the dominant model of rational-choice agency. Politically, as educators, we are complicit with or even actively involved in this process of dispossession of legal subjectivities; legitimating the dividing, limiting and fixing of rights and resources by the teaching of categories. Therefore, we can – and must – also develop critical pedagogies to resist these processes. Part of our work in academia is an opportunity to critique dominant ideologies – but also to some extent the project of critical pedagogy itself when it returns too simply to notions of citizens and civic engagement, rather than more socio-economic legal subjectivities. Our teaching must emphasise how creating citizens is actually inseparable from creating, or justifying the values of, workers, as categories of nationals and migrants.

Thus ‘migrant subjectivity’ under capitalism is a false category that naturalises borders and national citizenship. By forgetting the ways in which capitalism forces us to be on the move as a systemic condition, we create and reinforce relations of hierarchy and inequality between people that are constructed and historically contingent. In turn, those relations make it seem ‘unnatural’ and even shocking that in a capitalist mode of production, we are all – at least in a subjective sense – necessarily migrants. More precisely, movement – or the expectation of its potential – is an inherent condition of our indebtedness and servitude to capital accumulation and of our alienation as happy citizens and passionate workers, as Frédéric Lordon describes neoliberal individuals. People reject migrant subjectivity as a secondary, desperate and devaluating status in relation to the holy grail of citizenship, as if citizenship and national belonging will save us from the moral depravity of having to sell our bodies to work. Inescapably, however, accessing citizenship is also one of the only ways for migrant struggles to achieve real short-term benefits and progressive living conditions, and often to escape persecution, death and poverty. The One Day Without Us campaign is a necessary part of this protest against increasing processes of subjective dispossession, with the means and categories we have at our disposal. However, we must also remain critical of our complicity in completing this vicious circle of liberalism, by which we never allow for its tragic end to come forward. For this struggle, the teaching of theory and history, however elusive, remains worth salvaging.

[1] The author would like to thank Claire Vergerio, Jessica Evans, Myriam Fotou and Louiza Odysseos for their comments, as well as the conference participants in Coimbra, London and Beirut where this paper was presented.

[2] When presenting some of these thoughts to North American colleagues, I was reminded that arguing that we are all necessarily migrants is an affront to indigenous struggles, which fight for the acknowledgement of their rights versus those of their settled colonisers. This is an important point. Yet I maintain it can be bracketed from the European experience, since the relation there is reversed. The racist, xenophobic and so-called white European ‘natives’, or as they are called in France, ‘les français de souche’ – more or less literally, soiled French – posit themselves as both proud colonisers and injured colonised. This justifies an argument against their ideology that is rooted in the specificities of European capitalism and constructions of identity, and it should not be abstractly applied to other contexts. The point here is to explore the idea that capitalism makes migrants of all of us in the hope that Europeans – the context where I work and write – rethink their relationship to national citizenship, rights and liberalism.

This article was first published in Salvage #5: Contractions, in October 2017.

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