Migrants’ Rights Network: How society manufactured ‘them’ and ‘us’, and spread the myth that it couldn’t be anything different

by , under Don Flynn

By Don Flynn

Here’s a book which challenges the idea that the division between citizens and migrants is fundamental and couldn’t be any other way. Bridget Anderson argues that ‘them’ and ‘us’ are constituted out of different groups in different ways at all points in history. Progress has always meant overcoming these divisions, and building new forms of solidarity.

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Bridget Anderson’s work on immigration (Oxford University Press) is something you turn to if you are looking for approaches which challenge all the conventional prejudices which see it as a business in which those on the outside come across to grab stuff that belongs to those of us who live on the inside.

There is no real ‘outside’ anymore according to Anderson.  The global processes of trade, commerce, financial markets, production supply chains, and the exploitation of labour resources wherever they are available has made everything into one vast ‘inside’.  The real issue at stake is whether you are a relatively privileged insider who operates with the notion that you have a superior claim to all the good things that are lying around, or one of those who can be safely told to stand a long way back and keep their hands off.

Liberal lefties and outright conservatives are inclined to go along with notional divisions into ‘them’ and ‘us’ on the grounds that it supports a competitive economic system which facilitates rapid growth.  There might be some injustice involved in telling Bangladeshi clothing workers that they can’t expect to fully participate in the enjoyment of the wealth they have helped create with their labour, but we can at least encourage them with the hope that some of it might trickle down to their children or grandchildren.

Bangladeshis working at the end of the long subcontracted chains that extend outwards from the high streets and the shopping malls of the developed world are probably going to be sceptical about the terms of this deal, but from the standpoint of the politicians who govern the lands of mature capitalism, they don’t really figure (or at least short of the mishap of watching their broken and twisted bodies dragged out from the rubble of the collapsed buildings they were condemned to work).

Social justice

From the standpoint of the national political elites, the genie that really has to be kept bottled up is the concern about the sense of social justice that exists amongst the citizen-consumers of their own lands, who might be troubled if they ever grasped to its fullest and truest extent the fact that their wealth and security has depended on cruel exploitation of those further down the line.

Anderson’s new book, Us and Them?  The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control, is a polemic that aims to upset the ideological applecart that supports the notion that we owe greater duties of solidarity to those who have gone through all the bureaucratic procedures of modern, mass society and duly certified as being part of ‘us’ and thereupon relegating what is due to ‘them’ to the sort of activity associated with wearing red noses and singing along with Bono once a year.

Her very substantial contribution is to lay bare the social and economic processes which made us into ‘us’ in the first place.  “The history of the world is unavoidably a history of mobility” she tells us.  Peasant farmers are ‘liberated’ from the social relations which bound them to the land today just as they were 600 years ago in Britain when the Tudor magnates fashioned capitalism from out of their landed assets.  In doing so they opened up vagrancy, marginality, criminality and insecurity as the routes which led, over time, to the production of a vast population of property-less wageearners who would service the profit-hunting needs of business.  Out of these fires the first ‘us’ was forged.

However, emerging capitalism society presented 17th century England with a startling new crisis when it was discovered that the cultural mores of feudalism were no longer sufficient to secure the class solidarity needed between the greater and lesser castes of property owners who now existed.  Power had to be shared, and that meant an expanded role for the Parliament which kings and queens had once suffered to exist only to obtain a degree of consensus over the extortion of taxation from the population.  Parliament, rather than the monarch, was judged to be sovereign, and that meant that the few percent which was entitled to participate in elections now needed to adopt new frames of thinking to support the developing sense of obligation and duty they had to one another.  That frame was called ‘nationalism’ – the idea that membership of the same nation was the precondition for the trust and fellowship needed to order and secure society.

Rise of national solidarity

Anderson weaves the story of immigration into these historical segments, explaining that the genesis of our modern system of passports lay in the control the Tudor state wished to assert over the movement of its own subjects, rather than in dealings with foreigners.  Under Parliament, as the Atlantic world was forged out of empire-building and the displacement of rival powers, the space for being one of ‘us’ was extended to those who were still two centuries away from having the vote, but whose loyalty and identification with the imperial mission needed to be obtained to provided the manpower for the ships of the Royal Navy and the foot soldiers of the chartered companies.

As modern stated became more bureaucratic to the notion of ‘us’ became embedded in the paperwork and filing systems which were needed to govern growing, potentially unruly populations.  Anderson explores this in the context of the development of nationality law and, more recently, points-based systems of immigration control.  To legitimise the complexity of the emerging system, with all its costs and infringements of personal liberty, a sense if the threat posed by the hoards of uncivilised others had to be ramped up.  With the constant fear of having to deal with ‘them’, it seems that citizens have been made willing to carry the increasingly heavy burden of a security state which is less capable of providing welfare to its people, but which, at a minimum, can still be relied upon to keep ‘us’ safe.

Anyone reading this book should be prepared to encounter a tumult of ideas and insights which can be overwhelming at times, as Anderson is carried forward by the floodtide of her own logic.  It is a long way from being a finished work.  Its 180-odd pages are the sketch of a theory and approach to immigration which moves us far beyond the idea that this has to have the story that ‘them’ and ‘us’ are fixed categories that arise from the fundamental nature of things. But much more is there to be said about, for example, the logic of the welfare state, with its need to determine who merits the benefit of the services it provides, further structures and conditions our sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

This book challenges us to follow up by filling  in and deepening the record of our own experiences of how modernity has fated us to live our lives as ‘us’ and ‘them’.  What a gain it will be as we move to fill in all the blank spaces in this story, offering the hope that we can act and build on other principles of human solidarity as we understand more, and strengthen the hope that we will move beyond the confines of the divisive template that history has imposed on us all.

Read original story here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.