Book Review Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian perspectives on migration and civil society alliances, edited by Óscar García Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen
e Journal of International Relations
perspectives society alliances, edited and M artin Bak Jørgensen
David Feldman 0
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Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian perspectives on migration and civil society alliances, edited
by Óscar García Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen
London: Pluto Press, 2016. 244 pp. Paperback £18.04, (ISBN 9780 7453 3631 2)
Review by David Feldman
PhD student in Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara
In recent years, migration has emerged as one of the most politically charged issues in global
society. From the Bangladeshi government's harsh treatment of thousands of Rohingya families
fleeing the Burmese army’s genocidal campaign against them in late summer of 2017, to the Trump
administration's decision sustained attack on the new “sanctuary movement” and attempts to further
militarize the southern border of the United States, news headlines and social media around the world
are filled with images of repression against migrants, alongside impassioned calls for solidarity.
Despite its ubiquity, the coverage of these events tends to remain rather superficial, making Solidarity
without Borders a timely work that succeeds in unpacking some of the underlying issues related to
migration and the festering crisis of global capitalism, and hopefully contributing to the development
of a more powerful response from the left.
As is the case with Djordje Tomic's essay on the securitization of the Western Balkans in this issue,
the recent arrival of millions of refugees to the European Union serves as the launching point for this
edited volume. However, the contributors understand “migrant” in a very broad sense, and an analysis
of the participation of Alevi and Kurdish residents of marginalized urban neighborhoods in Istanbul’s
Gezi Park protests of 2013—often considered to be a middle-class uprising—sits comfortably
alongside an essay on “Lampedusa in Hamburg,” a self-organized collective composed of migrants
who eventually found their way to that German city in the aftermath of NATO’s destruction of Libya
in 2011. Drawing on the writings of the late Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the authors explore the
possibility for solidarity and joint action between migrants, other marginalized populations and civil
society as a whole, while remaining wary of what Peter Mayo calls “misplaced alliances.” In the
words of Susi Meret and Elisabetta Della Corte—and in the true spirit of Gramsci's famous pessimism
of the intellect and optimism of the will—this does not entail “entertain[ing] any illusion about an
imminent migrant-led revolutionary momentum knocking at our doors.” The point is rather “to
observe antagonistic forces at play in society: where and how transformative efforts arise, develop,
and often also fail in the permanent struggle for economic, social and political hegemony.” (204)
Political struggles and alliance formation
The most obvious example of misplaced alliances is the rise of right-wing neo-fascist
movements that seek to tap into the legitimate frustrations of those formerly privileged strata of the
working class currently suffering downward mobility in the face of neoliberal capitalist globalization
by incorporating them into anti-migrant nationalistic hegemonic blocs. Yet to consider the “white
working class” as a homogeneous and essentially racist bloc is fundamentally problematic. As David
Featherstone points out in his essay, this reductionist view not only misrepresents the heterogeneous
nature of past struggles and erases the history of “working-class multiculturalism,” it creates
significant barriers to the construction of broad-based solidarity across the various segments of today’s
highly stratified—and increasingly globalized—working class.
We might push his argument further and note how an anti-racist discourse that counters the
overtly racist far right with a vigorous denunciation of xenophobia and white supremacy, but remains
silent on capitalism and the particular class fractions that propagate and benefit the most from the
perpetuation of racist ideology and social structures, is quite compatible with the rhetoric espoused by
the more enlightened liberal wing of the capitalist class. Insofar as the latter seeks to manage more
adeptly the contradictions of a racist social order, but nonetheless to keep its overarching structures
fundamentally intact, there is the possibility that grassroots activists genuinely seeking justice for
migrants may ultimately be led into a misplaced appliance if they continue to ignore the class-based
dimensions of racialized conflict, and allow the multicultural liberal elite to assume leadership of the
Indeed, Meret and Della Corte’s analysis of the contradictory role played by the St Pauli Church
in Hamburg, which opened its doors to seventy or eighty migrants in June 2013, provides another
example of the limitations of liberal values in the fight for migrant justice. While the Church
mobilized many members of its community to support the struggles of Lampedusa in Hamburg, the
former generally operated within a humanitarian framework that proved to be incompatible with a
politicization of the plight of migrants and a direct confrontation with the state. For this reason, Ursula
Apitzch’s optimistic assessment of the potential for the establishment of an “alternative moral
hegemony” and a “liberal-progressive concept of human rights within the juridical sphere of Europe”
(38) seems a bit naive, insofar as it concomitantly assumes that such a harmonious relationship can
actually be achieved without directly challenging the prevailing capitalist social relations. Yet as the
editors Óscar García Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen stress in their chapter on “social dumping”
and free movement in Denmark, it is rare for even left-wing parties and unions to publicly talk about
the inherent contradictions between labor and capital. It follows that the struggle to maintain said
Scandinavian country’s formerly strong welfare state is often expressed in nationalistic and
antiimmigrant terms, as a defense of the national state and national labor conditions.
The relationship between migrants and organized labor in Ireland has been quite different. The
short-term growth associated with the radical neoliberalization of Ireland’s economy in the 1990s
alongside the opening up of the Eastern European labor market led to the island—a former colony of
Britain that has long been a country of net outmigration—becoming what Mary Hyland and Ronaldo
Munck call a “social laboratory” for the study of migration. Facing a decline in union density and
bargaining coverage in the early twenty-first century, much of organized labor consciously shifted
away from prior corporatist arrangements towards more social-movement based organizing. This has
included actively organizing immigrant workers and launching explicitly Anti-Racist Workplace
campaigns. While far from perfect, organized labor’s response has played a large role in stemming the
tide of a possible xenophobic reaction to increased migration, even though it was not able to defeat the
“racist referendum” of 2004, which removed automatic birthright citizenship to children born in
Laurence Cox delves deeper into the disintegration of the corporatist relationship between
organized labor and the state during the “Dev’s Ireland” era, locating it within a broader hegemonic
alliance in which national capital, large agribusiness and the church succeeded in incorporating small
farmers, small business, organized labor and women as subordinated partners. With the rise of
neoliberalism, national capital and small business have become subordinate to Irish-based global
capital, clerical power has given way to a “modernizing” liberal alliance, and conflict between labor
and capital in general has assumed the form of a so-called “partnership.” With the state gradually
turning to attacking even this “partnership,” Cox argues that there is the potential for an incipient but
broad social alliance bringing together the working-class left, poorer rural interests and culturally
radical movements to actually mount a serious challenge to the current power structure.
In refusing to treat the state and the capitalist class as monoliths, and critically analyzing the
detrimental effects of the co-option and institutionalization of the more radical movements from the
1960s to the 1990s, Cox offers a particularly strong application of Gramscian theory. His analysis of
the disintegration of the hegemonic bloc in Ireland is emblematic of recent structural changes
occurring on a more global scale, as attested by the anti-austerity movement in Greece, the uprisings
in many of the Arab-dominant countries of the Middle East, the Indignados in Spain, the Occupy
movement in North America and elsewhere, #YoSoy132 in Mexico, the aforementioned Gezi Park
protests in Turkey, and the more recent Nuit Debout and massive protests against the “Loi Travail et
son monde" in France. Clearly, the always-tenuous global neoliberal hegemonic bloc, previously
analyzed from a Gramscian perspective by
, has all-but-disappeared in the decade
since the global crisis of 2008.
Gramsci, global capitalism, and the specter of Marx
Unfortunately, Cox’s Gramscianism is not exactly representative of the volume as a whole,
which often operates from within a certain postcolonial and cultural studies interpretation of Gramsci
that has an ambivalent—if sometimes hostile—relationship with the dialectical Marxist method that so
thoroughly guided Gramsci’s own thinking. The most egregious example of this can be found in
Miguel Mellino’s routine denunciation of Marx’s belief that capitalist modernity contains a
universalizing impulse as Eurocentric. Marx did in fact point out the inherently expansionary character
of capital, and show that it alone operated through the reduction of various forms of concrete labor to
human labor in the abstract. However, in doing so he was demolishing the prevailing view of
bourgeois political economists who uncritically assumed capitalist social relations to be
unproblematic, transhistorical, and eternal. In apparently conflating universalization of value and
homogenization of culture, open-ended “totality” and unidirectional “totalization,” and “historical
materialism” and “historicism,” Mellino’s critique of an undialectical “Marxist” straw person comes
off as both superfluous and somewhat willfully misguided, particularly in view of the publication in
recent years of works by Marxist scholars such as Vivek
and Kevin B.
, who methodically unpack the differences between the above concepts and highlight Marx’s
own unequivocal and quite emphatic rejection of any attempts to use his writings as the basis for a
formulation of a teleological and unilinear theory of capitalist development.
Although Mellino is the only contributor to put forward an explicitly postcolonial reading of
Gramsci, most seem to operate under the assumption that the latter was the sole Marxist of his time to
consider questions of culture, language, and subalternity when thinking through the possibilities for
constructing hegemony, unaware that as a representative of the Italian Communist Party in the
Communist International, Gramsci was in fact deeply influenced by the wide-ranging debates on these
questions taking place in the early days of the Russian Revolution (Brandist 2015). The timidity of the
authors to engage directly with Marxist theory unfortunately results in several disjointed chapters in
which far too much attention is devoted to analyzing the minutiae of Gramsci’s views on otherwise
obscure particular political figures from the 1920s, culminating in perfunctory and unsatisfying
analyses of the current conjuncture. On the other hand, the prominent place that many reserve for the
unfinished essay “On the Southern Question” is welcome, since Gramsci's call for an alliance between
peasants and the industrial proletariat in Italy—once again echoing the Bolshevik position regarding
Russia—continues to remain a vital reference point. However, sharper editing could have made the
multiple references to this key essay less repetitive, and some dialogue amongst contributors would
have been welcome.
Updating Gramsci's analysis for the present conjuncture also demands clear definitions of key
concepts such as the working class, but these are sometimes lacking. For example, at certain points the
editors essentially reduce the working class to the classical “industrial proletariat,” and argue that we
must give space to other political subjectivities such as migrants, the unemployed and the indebted.
Elsewhere, however, they seem to recognize that the working class—particularly when understood in
the Marxist sense of referring to all human beings who lack ownership of the means of production—is
internally fractured, and that the concept does in fact encompass all of the above social groups. A
similar ambivalence is on display when Mellino defines contemporary global capitalism as
postcolonial capitalism as a means of highlighting the importance of ongoing primitive accumulation
in the Global South. The irony is that in turning away from discourse and towards political economy,
Mellino ultimately latches on to the most explicit manifestation of the expansionary, universalizing
nature of capital.
Migration and primitive accumulation
It is certainly a positive development to see postcolonial scholars embrace the study of political
economy, but we must not forget that the study of ongoing primitive accumulation in areas not yet
fully incorporated within the capitalist system, and the articulation between capitalist and
noncapitalist modes of production, has been a subject of fierce debate in Marxist circles since the
publication of Rosa
) Accumulation of Capital over a century ago. How might we
build off of this rich body of historical and theoretical analysis in order to better understand the
relationship between land dispossession through primitive accumulation and migration today?
Meret and Della Corte offer an initial response to some of these questions when they state that
“[c]ontemporary migration flows are unique mainly in the sense that they are triggered by an
accelerating process of globalization and capitalist accumulation that has reached the limits of the
world market,” and suggest that “migration flows are signs of the capitalist system’s weakness and
fragility.” (218) As Mike
hammers home in Planet of Slums, new rounds of primitive
accumulation are occurring in a context in which the capitalist system no longer generates nearly
enough formal employment to absorb the millions upon millions that it violently uproots from the land
coveted by capital. With this in mind, the fact that the Burmese leader and Nobel laureate Aung San
Suu Kyi—until quite recently hailed by the global corporate elite as her country's last great hope for
“democracy”—has essentially condoned the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya should push us to
move beyond simplistic and mystifying identitarian-based explanations for such cruel campaigns, and
ask whether the land grab might be related to the recent moves towards a liberalization of the Burmese
Davis’ frightening analysis is also notable for his refusal to approach this type of forced
migration from a Eurocentric perspective since, as “surplus humanity” from the standpoint of global
capital, the vast majority of these migrants settle in sprawling urban slums in the Global South that
more closely resemble Victorian Dublin than Manchester. It is disappointing that in a book that
features contributions by scholars seeking to “decolonize” Western Marxism and demystify the
contemporary “migrant crisis,” not a single author makes reference to the fact that non-European
countries have experienced far higher levels of migration in recent years, and that Syrian refugees now
comprise roughly a quarter of the population of tiny Lebanon.
It would nonetheless be a mistake to assume that global capital has no use for contemporary
migrants, aside from their convenient role as scapegoats for crises and raw materials for the
militaryprison-industrial complex. Immigration policy in the US, the European Union and the rest of the
Global North cannot be understood exclusively through the lens of exclusion. Although global capital
has an interest in relegating ever-growing surplus populations to less developed regions, it also seeks
to assert tighter control over a cheapened and flexibilized—but not always docile—migrant and
immigrant workforce in the North.
(Euskirchen, Lebuhn and Ray 2007; Feldman 2017)
capital’s desire for the precarious but highly-skilled labor power of formerly middle-class refugees
fleeing the violent upheavals and political crises related to the radical restructuring of the global
capitalist system goes a long way towards explaining that country's relatively “welcoming” response
to the nearly million refugees who arrived in 2015. (Cyran 2017) This is not to downplay the active
engagement of a full ten percent of the broader German population in support networks, but the
eventual triumph of a more repressive state policy ought to push us to interrogate the limits of
solidarity based exclusively on liberal humanitarian values.
Rather than Stuart Hall’s later writings on Gramsci, race, and ethnicity—a strong influence on
many of the authors here—a more appropriate reference point from the field of cultural studies would
be the magisterial final chapter of 1978’s Policing the Crisis. Hall et al's analysis of the crisis of the
postwar Fordist regime of capital accumulation and the concomitant rendering of large swaths of
Black immigrant workers superfluous, the various forms of racial and class consciousness engendered
by these processes, and their overall relation to working-class political struggle, addresses the pressing
issues in no uncertain terms.
(Hall et al, 2013)
Despite its flaws, Solidarity without Borders also makes
a vital contribution in demonstrating the danger of misplaced alliances and reaffirming that migrants
are—and must—remain at the forefront of struggles for a more just world. What Hall and his cultural
studies colleagues' reading of Gramsci teaches us is that the type of solidarity between migrant and
non-migrant workers must ultimately push them to confront their common enemy of global capital as
conscious members of a heterogeneous but single global working class.
David Feldman holds an MA in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and an
MA in International Relations and Diplomacy from the American University in Paris. He is currently
working towards completing a PhD in Sociology at UCSB, where his research focuses on capitalist
globalization and the political economy of immigrant labor control.
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