The key insight of the “autonomy of migration” theoretical perspective, which has emerged within academic literature through discussions and political collaborations between European theorists, U.S. sociologists, and scholar-activists from the global South, is to see migrants themselves as active subjects whose mobility has definite political implications. The point is not to romanticize migration – migration, we know, is often anything but beautiful – or to impute immediate revolutionary motives to all who take on such journeys. Instead, it’s to take some distance from a detached sociology which would make migrants mere objects of market forces being passively “pushed” from one country, the so-called sending country, and “pulled” to another, the so-called receiving country. It’s also distinct from a kind of liberal humanitarianism that might merely view migrants as symptoms of capitalism’s moral failings. While economic and moral factors may be at play, migration as a contemporary phenomenon is “paradigmatic” of capitalism’s relations of exploitation, and not only insofar as it illustrates the power of markets. Today’s migration points to the multiple forms of exploitation and dispossession that define the contemporary working class: from the corporate land grabs, climate change, and state violence that make subsistence farming impossible to the ways that the drug trade, finance, and the “migration industry” are able to extract surplus independently of the wage and, in the process, make life unliveable. Yet it also illustrates the active capacity of the working class to pose new forms of resistance to their subordination – or at least the conditions of their subordination – within and in relation to the labor process. In other words, workers may move to avoid specific working conditions, or to avoid being part of the industrial reserve army that otherwise sets the conditions of exploitation in a place like Honduras. In this sense, migration is autonomous because it is something conceptually and logically prior to the emergence of the state’s ever more extensive biopolitical and disciplinary border and labor management techniques. These techniques don’t simply seek to stop migrant flows, but actually use migrant flows to further segment and structure labor markets along the migrant trail in the countries of origin, reception, and those crossed along the way (…) The “autonomy of migration” perspective therefore poses a politics that stands at a remove from “the people” as a subject of electoral democracy, because migration is in itself a political challenge to state sovereignty, both in the act of border crossing and in the presence of those whom the state does not recognize or differentially includes. The partisan perspective within US politics can only seem to register the phenomenon of migration as a “border spectacle” in an instrumental way. This goes for both parties insofar as Democrats are only happy to respond when the most visibly repressive border control methods, like child-separation or blanket travel-bans, are posed by their political opponents. These spectacular moments of faux-compassion stand in contrast to the fact, much cited on the socialist left now, that among U.S. presidents Obama still holds the record for deportations. On the other hand, migration as an autonomous social movement, or a movement which poses a subject whose focus is obviously not—and cannot be—the electoral arena, suggests another political horizon altogether, in which mobility is a form of resistance and the basis for new subject positions within capitalism, considered in its global dimension. What Yann Moulier Boutang terms, in a pathbreaking work, the “anonymous, collective, continuous, and uncontainable force of defection” is thus not counterposed to class struggle, but a constitutive feature of it, with powerful structuring effects on class formation.
In The border crossing Us (Viewpoint)