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2014 in books: Borders, identity and the good society

Here’s a few notes on the most interesting of the books I’ve been looking through this past year. This year’s list is organised by topics, rather than as last year’s more straightforward “Top 5 picks”. That felt more appropriate given a high number of excellent new books and the broad scope of subjects covered. But if you happen to be short of time, do not despair, there’s a “Best book of 2014” recommendation at the end of this blog. Happy reading!

 Refugees and families

Citizen to Refugee - Uganda Asians come to Britain, by Mahmood Mamdani

The much-repeated statement that Britain has a proud record of accepting refugees, invariably followed by “…but now is the time”, led me to pick up a short account of the Ugandian Asian migration to the UK in the late 1960s, provoked by their expulsion by General Idi Amin. From Citizen to Refugee – Uganda Asians come to Britain, by Mahmood Mamdani serves as an excellent primer on the history of British colonialism in the region of the Great Lakes and also of the predicament that the Asian community found itself in as the new countries moved towards independence. Mamdani writes of how Amin’s ascent marked weeks and months of fear and uncertainty on the part of the Asian community, but it was only after arriving in Britain experiencing the life of a refugee that he experienced a truly totalitarian regime, aiming as it did to control every aspect of the lives of its hapless victims. A truly sobering account revealing the distasteful truth of Britain’s record on receiving refugees which is unlikely to be admitted by many politicians.

 Ethics of migration

"The Ethics of Immigration" - Joseph Carens

My next pick, based on a recommendation from Chris Bertram who was kind enough to comment on my reading list last year, is Joseph H. Carens’ The Ethics of Immigration. An eminent political scientist, Caren’s tackles the issue by asking what a consistent application of liberal democratic values would mean for management of immigration.

Leftish liberals arguing from this standpoint (John Rawls, Michael Walzer and others) have been inclined to conclude that democratic societies require boundaries and boundaries require rules as to who is on the inside and who is on the out. Well-organised liberal democracies tend to give rise to wealthy societies which others will want to share in, but the citizens of these virtuous polities are under no moral compunction to share what they have earned from the sweat of their brows. The borders of wealthy, well-governed countries can therefore remain closed to outsiders, or at least hard to cross.

Carens unpicks this standpoint by working through the actualities of the rather complex question of who can be considered to have the right to ‘belong’ to any given society. Rules based on birth right are inclined to flounder in the modern world where developed countries will have large populations of non-citizens resident on their territory, some of whom produce offspring who have to be provided with a citizenship. Then there is the case of children born to citizens resident outside the country to which they belong. Are they insiders or outsiders?

Across many layers of reasoning Carens builds to the point where he confidently asserts that the modern world is too complex to admit to simple rules of belonging and liberal democratic societies therefore have admit that its core commitments to human rights and respect for the individual has to extend, in principle, to the outsider. It is not an argument for ‘no borders’, as he points out himself, but the solid groundwork for a regime of ‘open borders’, which assumes that a right to cross borders will be acceded to when there are no obvious reasons for its refusal. In short, the world following Carens prescription would look a lot like Europe with its regulations allowing for freedom of movement extending across the continents.

Global perspectives

Come the month of March and I was ploughing through the 5th edition of The Age of Migration, the absolutely unavoidable single text explaining why people move in the modern world. The combined work of Stephen Castled and Mark J. Miller, joined for the first time by Hein de Haas, it is a book which I suppose will renew itself every couple of years with a fresh edition, updated to include the best of recent research in the area. I shall be first in the queue for my copy whenever that happens. Here’s a longer review on the book I wrote back in March.

 Families on the move

Child Migration & Human Rights in a Global Age

MRN’s campaigning work around family immigration brought Jacqueline Bhabha’s Child Migration & Human Rights in a Global Age to my attention. Bhabha’s work begins with a reflection on what was being widely reported as happening on the US-Mexican border as tens of thousands of child migrants were arriving at the desert crossing points. I reviewed the book earlier in the year, so do revisit that to be reminded of just what an important study it represented. Immigration law and policy at the global level is having an increasingly important impact on the way in which family life is maintained and supported in many countries where its citizens have been drawn into migration as an important means to make a living. Bhabha’s work suggested that the countries receiving these people as workers should not be indifferent to this fact and ought to ensure that its immigration policies facilitate family life, rather than actively impede it.

 Europe, migration and welfare

Europe's immigration challenge

Europe’s Immigration Challenge: Reconciling Work, Welfare and Mobility eds. Elena Jurado & Grete Brochmann came out in 2013 but has become even more relevant to the debates going on at the moment, which increasing have the issue of welfare and social security at their heart. A collection of ten essays by different authors, the book does very well, as its title suggests, to set out the challenges, though the avenues for meeting them is not so clear.

The opening essay, by Gary P. Freeman, takes us back to the presumptions about migration and liberal democratic societies that Joseph Carens sought to dispute in his book. But the view that welfare requires closed communities made up of people who relate to each other through kinship and common values is shown as being battered by the realities of globalised economies, which show that wealth is accumulated through planet-wide circulations of capital and commodities which make the notion of especially virtuous national communities somewhat redundant. Yet that is what the European social model has been based on for the last 60 plus years and the unhappy fact that its foundations rest on a misapprehension of reality lie behind the current sense of crisis. But if the world requires motion and movement to produce the resources that are the components of welfare, then how do we make collective provision against the risks that ordinary people have to take on in their working lives? Come up with an answer to that and we will have the key to a much more optimistic future.

Identity, migration and post-national outlooks

Katherine Tonkiss’s Migration and Identity in a Post-National World battles through arguments that the limits of the good society are set by the boundaries that divide us into countries and states. Again, I reviewed it earlier in the year and commented on the important points it makes in sustaining the commitment that solidarity and mutual aid do not depend on national identity to make them real.

 The world of art mixed with migration

Breaching Borders

Breaching Borders: Art, Migrants and the Metaphor of Waste, edited byJuliet Steyn & Nadja Stamselberg speaks to a spirit very much present in MRN’s work, and we think also with anyone wanting to see the social imagination extend to the creation of a common life which no longer hinges on national identities. One contributor, Nikos Papastergiadis sets out the enormity of what is being attempted when he says that

“The new paradigm on migration is […] not a nostalgic reclamation of a previous form of belonging, nor is it an attempt to assert its validity within the existing terms of the national citizen. It announces a new and radical form of identity that defines itself through mobility and interactivity with others.”This is clearly not a task to be taken on purely within the mundane realm of mainstream politics, and the book ushers in a role for art in the forging of the ways of thinking and relating which will be needed if we are to move forward. Steyn and Stamselberg explain:

“The political significance of art increasingly lies in promoting a democratic dialogue between different people that can relate local experiences to global process.”What that means in terms of what the artist can do is the subject of contributions which venture deep into the terrain of aesthetic theory which I am afraid the present author could view only as in a mirror, darkly. But the sense of dimensions to the public conversation about migration being deep and wide and fed by many different viewpoints and experiences comes across throughout the book, and gives rise to the hope that ways will be found to move them from the margins to the mainstream.

And the best book of 2014 is…

Illegality inc

Best book of the year? With all the usual reservations about the virtues of each and all of everything I’ve dipped into in 2014, I’m going to go for Ruben Andersson’s Illegality, Inc. A social anthropologist, Andersson is interested in what the ever-evolving social institution of the border makes of us all as migrants, citizens, actors in the political, administrative and civil society sphere. He explains early in the book that the strengthening of the role that borders play in our lives has made people who were once humdrum, mundane travellers into something “observable, controllable – and, as migrants themselves insist, profitable.”

He draws on experiences gained from wandering with migrants from the ocean shores of Senegal through to the regions of the deep Sahara, eventually pitching up in the surreal pseudo-European enclaves that hunker down behind barbed wire entanglements on the Mediterranean costs of Morocco. Throughout all of these landscapes he brings out the ways in which awareness of borders and the relationship which the various actors have with them brings out a set of predicable roles – the border cop, the humanitarian naval guard, the calculating NGO activist, the aggrieved, indignant migrant, the camp welfare officer, right the way through to the anti-globaliser ‘no borders’ protester.

Borders are there to tell us the range of behaviours that are expected of us and the actions and attitudes that betoken, on one hand, security, and on the other, threat. They invite role-playing on the part of citizens and this plays into the forging of the identities which they are expected to cling to as functional members of a given polity. But while borders take on an ever-clearer role with regard to defining the insider and the outsider, they seem less useful when it comes to deciding who gets the benefit of whatever personal welfare society feels it is able to put on offer.

All in all, Illegality, Inc seems a good way to end a year that began with a spell of thinking about the relationship between liberal democracy and the role that immigration policy might play in shoring up its values and purpose. The plain fact seems to be that the further we move from being the sort of society that can check the tendencies of the market to produce inequality and unfairness, the more central borders become to teaching us how to keep to our place and play out our prescribed roles in a world that spirals towards greater injustice. Winning the battle to keep movement across them as open as it can be, and to extend our capacity for solidarity to those who borders tell us are supposed to be on the outside is one of the ways we have to light a beacon of resistance to the direction in which we are being dragged.


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