Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, albeit not by a popular majority of votes, largely on his promise to “build the wall” that would stem the tide of illegal immigration across the southern border. Two and a half years into his administration the trope of the “wall” has become a master signifier for the increasingly and hostile partisan politics that threatens to crush and granulate any lingering, minimal semblance of popular consensus in American democracy.
On the one hand the inflammatory rhetoric of the Trump presidency over immigration has merely served to accentuate existing ideological divisions, first captured two decades ago in the metaphor of the “culture wars”, that draw strong, bold lines in unprecedented ways between long-standing divisions as well as disagreements over social values and collective moral norms. We live in an era, thanks to both the character – and the intense competition for attention between the proliferating forms – of contemporary media when politics in general is no longer merely a matter of polemics, but of systemic distortion and untempered fabrication and hyperbole.
At the same time, something singular and distinctive is happening right now in human history – one which is unique and has few, handily intelligible precedents – that the “reality TV show” we experience daily as the Trump presidency only serves as a monumental and mind-dulling distraction.
Major historical changes often blow up suddenly like violent thunderheads out of a serene and cloudless Kansas sky on a spring afternoon. We have little inkling of them until they are all at once upon us. Very often these events defy the comfortable and complacent wisdom, while the thin membrane between demagoguery and prophecy is exceedingly difficult to discern.
Given Trump’s unflagging fulminations over the border, and the reflexive and scornful pushback of the mainstream media against his recent declaration of a national “emergency”, it has been difficult to take notice, let alone attempt to comprehend, what is actually happening with immigration from the southern hemisphere.
As late as last month all but the standard-issue conservative news outlets pointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s own statistics that showed the numbers of undocumented border-crossers were significantly below their earlier peak around the turn of the millennium. The editorial board of the Trump-baiting Washington Post event went so far as to opine snidely: “So let’s stick to one big, basic truth: There is no crisis at the southern border.”
But just recently The New York Times, perhaps the runner-up in the gaggle of progressive media contending to be Trump’s premier nemesis, released a major story with the headline “The U.S. Immigration System May Have Reached a Breaking Point”. So what happened?
The Times story was more remarkable for its headline than for its content, which was largely anodyne and consistent, at least when it came to injecting commentary, in its unrelieved criticism of the Trump administration’s approach to immigration from Latin America. For more than a generation now the immigration issue itself has never been a matter of raw data so much as political optics.
The Times itself noted early on in the article that it was the appearance of whole families from the “Northern Triangle” countries of Central America, the sector of the Western hemisphere most steeped in poverty, violence, and political corruption, that altered the perceptual Gestalt concerning immigration. The article noted:
The very nature of immigration to America changed after 2014, when families first began showing up in large numbers. The resulting crisis has overwhelmed a system unable to detain, care for and quickly decide the fate of tens of thousands of people who claim to be fleeing for their lives.
Such language was reminiscent of reporting about the abrupt and overpowering impact of the Syrian and North African refugee influx into Europe that began in late 2015 and had profound ripple effects for at least two more years. In many, key respects the two “crises” have eerie similarities with respect to both their origins and to their outcomes.
It is hardly debatable that the European refugee crisis, regardless of how “just” the claims of those fleeing their homelands, both mobilized and energized the present slide of European politics toward ethno-nationalism and right-wing populism. The current media spectacle of vast, swelling immigrant “caravans” of people demanding instant ingress on to American soil is likely to reinforce the same political predilections in this country, which already had its own raffish paladin in a former commercial real estate developer turned media grandstander turned officeholder.
The political bombast at both ends of the spectrum has tended to frame today’s immigration challenges solely in moral and juridical terms. Conservatives harp on whether migrants have followed authorized entry procedures, lumping those who have found their way into this country in other ways with the generic criminal element of society.
At the same time, progressives these days tend to dismiss the relevance of legal criteria entirely while increasingly emphasizing broad “humanitarian” as well as vague social and ethical rules of normativity, including the usually de-contextualized scriptural passage from the Hebrew Bible that “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Exodus 12:49).
Yet the immigration issue is much broader, complex, and compelling as well as far more nuanced than the current idées fixes that both infest and polarize our domestic debates. Massive movements of people have usually coincided with major historical upheavals that permanently change the social and political topographies of the civilizations they overspread. One has only to think of the so-called Völkerwanderung of the Germanic peoples in the fifth century that led to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West along with the millions of refugees in the wake of the devastation of World War II that created the blocs of states that became embroiled in the Cold War.
Accelerating rates of migration is the most obvious and visible manifestation of the deeper, worldwide social, economic, and cultural shakeout that have been popularly folded together under the general rubric of what is termed “globalization.” But as with the concept of globalization, the notion of “migration” does not necessarily have a clear positive or moral valency. As the philosopher Thomas Nail has argued,
…not all migrants are alike in their movement. For some, movement offers opportunity, recreation, and profit with only a temporary expulsion. For others, movement is dangerous and constrained, and their social expulsions are much more severe and permanent.(2)
“Walled States, Waning Sovereignty”
Wendy Brown, who is well-known for her highly influential work on the invidious effects on democracy of the new globalized economic system we know as “neoliberalism”, has offered the argument that the ever more contentious give-and-take among Western political factions over “open borders” versus “build-the-wall”-style demands for curtailing immigration is not any kind of Manichean struggle between morally righteous “cosmopolitans” and the minions of reprobate “populists”.
On the contrary, Brown sees the proliferation of both positions as “signs of a post-Westphalian world”, where territoriality and sovereignty, which in the modern era were inseparable theoretical constructs, are now giving way to a new status quo in which “transnational” agencies and apparatuses of control replace familiar forms of political representation. According to Brown,
Nation-state sovereignty has been undercut…by neoliberal rationality, which recognizes no sovereign apart from entrepreneurial decision makers (large and small), which displaces legal and political principles (especially liberal commitments to universal inclusion, equality, liberty, and the rule of law) with market criteria, and which demotes the political sovereign to managerial status. (34)
“Neoliberal rationality” has often been blamed for depressing the wages of native blue-collar workers, even though empirical studies on this score have proved inconclusive and conflicting. The implication has been that what Brown calls “waning sovereignty” is directly correlated somehow with both exacerbated migration flows and strong statistical evidence of growing income inequality.
Brown, at least intuitively, has out her finger on an important global trend. The less capacity national governments have to enforce laws and regulations that benefit their own citizens, the more sovereignty will be “transferred” from representative political institutions to unaccountable multi-national commercial satrapies.
Whether this kind of socio-political metamorophosis has the net effect of lifting or holding back wages becomes largely immaterial when the unmistakable outcome is the capture of a truly representative politeia by a new kind of worldwide economic feudalism in which masses of stateless laborers are favored by elite stakeholders over citizens of nation-states with their corresponding legal obligations and entitlements.
The pipedream of a borderless oikoumenē where anyone can live, work, or merely “squat”, and where resistance to, or critique of, the imminent realization of such a vision is condemned straightaway as inhospitable, charitable, or racist and xenophobic, may salve the ethical anxieties of the neoliberal ruling classes who suffer from their own condign guilt about past as well as present exploitation of what today we know as the “Global South”. Yet at the same time it also defers conveniently the inescapable political question of how the output of both labor and capital are justly distributed in such a vast, “ecumenical” zone of civic indeterminacy.
For there to be an effective “new internationale,” as Jacques Derrida dreamily put it a quarter century ago, the invisible masses of migrants must be visibly incorporated into a larger community that enjoys the coercive power and redistributive agency of the state itself. The result may be the breakdown of states as we know them, but there still must be a state.
Capital, Citizenship, and the Meaning of the “Political”
Furthermore, the power of the state to create “citizens” in an act of formal inclusion also entails its right to exclude, as Aristotle makes clear in Book III of his Politics. The kind of exclusive inclusivity that defines the conferral of “citizenship” by the state, according to French Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar, transforms the politeia into “a system of relationships that citizens establish among themselves, because it emerges out of the development of their own conflicts of interests and values.” (19)
Furthermore, if one is to take seriously the Marxist critique of capital as the expropriation of labor value, one cannot be beholden to the kind of sentimental neoliberal moralism, often masquerading as Christian humanitarianism, that demands inclusion of everybody without qualification in every circumstance. Marx in his early writings understood the “proletariat”, Balibar suggests, as a formless, but insurrectionary “reserve army of labor,” but gradually came to understand that revolution was only possible if it were endowed with a certain state-like formalism that could mobilize, and in theory at least claim to “represent”, those who as wage-workers had previously been “stateless.”
In other words, revolution is impossible without the formalization of real and effective sovereignty on the part of those who were once excluded.
Balibar notes how “it is extremely revealing that the institutions of the revolutionary labor movement have always started in internationalism only to end up in nationalism.” (23) With historical hindsight it becomes apparent that the “nationalization” of stateless labor in the twentieth century was the inevitable response to the innovations of what Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, as he laid the groundwork for the new German imperial project, termed a Sozialstaat (“social state”) that would provide minimum levels of personal security for workers in exchange for obedience to the new expansive, militarized Reich.
But whether we are talking about fascism, communism, garden variety authoritarianism, or both representative and “participatory” instances of democracy as they have become known to historians, the constitution of the “political” on the archetypal Aristotelian model of an effective autarchy requires both the delineation of borders and the separation of “citizens” and “aliens” according to respective principles of inclusion and exclusion. In other words, as Balibar emphasizes, for any spatial arrangement of human habitation to take on a recognizable political character there must also be some clearly operative rule of “alterity.”
“All political practice is territorialized,” Balibar writes, as “determinations of the universal, which is to say into regimes of rights and access to rights.” (68-9) Without this concomitant transformation of what Hannah Arendt has called mere Zwischenleben (“living together”) into an enduring political modality through for which the initial condition is its territorialization.
Even more decisively, Balibar defends so-called “populism” as a contested form of indigenous political resistance to the process of de-politicization and “de-democratization”, which the “stealth revolution” of neoliberalism has loosed upon the planet.
Populism persists in defiance of the emergent unholy alliance between neoliberal commodification of human worth and the proliferation of what Balibar refers to as “compensatory communities” that have only pseudo-political status and persist as utopian, self-serving fantasies of the social, economic, or educational elites (e.g., Hardt and Negri’s “multitudes”), as remorseful romanticization of human dislocation and suffering that defer responsibility for difficult political decisions (e.g., the migrant as inherently “deserving” of admission into the promised land “flowing with milk and honey”), or as hallucinations of righteous and world-purifying collective violence in the service of some divine cause (e.g., ISIS or al-Qaida).
These “compensatory communities,” according to Balibar, turn out to be nothing more than ghostly mimetic doubles of the de-politicized, de-territorialized, and dehumanized terra incognita that neoliberalism has stripped down from the myriad, erstwhile life-worlds of real people bonded together with real political standards of belonging.
Today’s crisis of borders is far more than the challenge of “waning sovereignty”. It is a crisis of the political as a whole that is beginning to play out dramatically out on the global stage in a manner with incalculable consequences.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, will be published by Edinburgh University Press later this year. He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.