Interview: Trade Secrets
Industrial: It’s About Overtime, Stupid
Unions: Full Steam Ahead
Bad Boss: The BBQ Battle Axe
Economics: Different Dimensions of Debt
History: Raking the Coals
History Special: Wherever the Necessity Exists
History Special: Learning from the Past
History Special: A 'Cosy Relationship'
Politics: Regime Change for Saddam
International: World War
Corporate: Industrious Thinking
Review: Jack High
Culture: Duffy’s Song
Satire: A Nation of Sooks
Poetry: Mr Flexibility
The Locker Room
Month In Review
Lessons from History
State Based Organising
Gino on the Gong
By Jess Whyte
A woman risks death by stoning to escape persecution and poverty under a regime installed by the CIA. She sells all she owns and leaves by boat.
In West Berlin a museum has been built to commemorate 'the Wall', and to honour those who have made 'great escapes' to the West. Their stories have become mythology. They are heroes.
In Australia concentration camps have been built to intern those who arrive from the global south. Their stories remain unheard. They ask if we know they are human.
During the Cold War, citizens of the Soviet bloc were not free to leave. The image of the Berlin wall, designed not to exclude 'outsiders' but to imprison a population, is the most vivid example. Yet there are many others. The Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, persecuted in Cuba for his writing and his homosexuality, described his attempt to escape from Cuba in his memoir Before Night Falls -
"Suddenly strange green lights began appearing in the bushes. They looked like lightning, except they did not come down from the sky, but sprang out of the ground, next to the tree trunks. I kept on walking and seeing green lights. A few minutes later I heard machine gun fire; the bullets seemed to be grazing me. I later found out that those green lights were signals; they were infrared lights. The guards had discovered that someone was trying to cross the border; they were trying to locate, and of course, exterminate the intruder."
Many years later, when Arenas was finally able to leave Cuba the boat he left in ran out of gas and was rescued by the US coast guard. He was welcomed in Miami [where he tells his life was now ruled "not by political power but by the sinister power of money"]. Arenas, like many others who fled during the cold war, had become a powerfully symbolic image. To those in the Soviet bloc, people like him were traitors. In the context of a cold war in which both sides strove to occupy the high moral ground, they sent a dangerous message to the world: that these workers' paradises were places worth risking one's life to escape.
To the West, these people were perfect propaganda, welcomed not as immigrants but as political trophies. They seemed to provide all the necessary proof that the West was, indeed, a bastion of freedom and democracy. Clearly there was a political usefulness in welcoming these 'heroes' who scaled the wall or risked the machine guns - in drawing attention to the very existence of those who had made a clear choice in a bi-polar world.
Today, those who choose to leave bear witness to another war - what Subcommandante Marcos has called "the Fourth World War" - the war of neo-liberalism against humanity. In this war, as Marcos puts it -
"humanity is now the enemy. The Fourth World War is destroying humanity as globalization is universalizing the market, and everything human which opposes the logic of the market is an enemy and must be destroyed."
Those who end up in Australia's outback camps are the 'collateral damage' of this war. They are people whose very existence draws attention to the dismal failure of capitalism to provide the "democracy and freedom" it had promised throughout the Cold War. As Stuart Rosewarne notes -
"The resurgence in the movement of people reflects the triumph of capital, but it also reflects its uneven development across the globe, and the upheaval consequent upon that triumph."
These people can never be political trophies, as their flight is a testimony to the Western complicity in the devastation that has propelled them away from their homes.
Marcos described the Fourth World War as beginning with the end of the Cold War, which like other wars ended with a "conquest of territories which destroyed an enemy." The world heralded by that conquest has been termed by others "the new enclosures." Under the 'old enclosures', the common lands of Britain were enclosed, "the dwellings of the peasants and the cottages of the labourers were razed to the ground or doomed to decay", and a "mass of free proletarians was hurled onto the labour market." Those enclosures destroyed lives, lifestyles and cultures: that is, the enclosures destroyed everything that would have provided a space from which to resist wage labour. Yet still people did resist being subjected to this new form of slavery. Hence new laws - what Marx called "the bloody laws against the expropriated" - were introduced. These laws criminalized "vagabondry", [allowing "whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds"] and dictated "if anyone refused to work he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler." Those enclosures provided the 'primitive' or original accumulation which the foundation of capitalism required. Crucially they were designed to decimate the ability of people to subsist independently of the wage relation.
Today the process continues. It continues in the direct sense of the enclosure - now referred to as restructuring - of communal lands from Africa to the Pacific, dictated by Structural Adjustment Programs. Or as The Economist put it, Africa's land "must be enclosed and traditional rights of use, access and grazing extinguished" as it is "private ownership of land that has made capitalism work." This physical enclosure is a process that has helped to contribute to the existence of the 30 million internally displaced people on the globe, and the desire of a small proportion of those to make the journey to the so-called 'developed world.'
Arundhati Roy, in her book The Cost of Living describes the fate of the victims of many of today's enclosures, particularly those who lose their homes to dam construction in her native India -
"The millions of displaced people don't exist anymore. When history is written they won't be in it, not even as statistics. . . the great majority is eventually absorbed into slums on the periphery of our great cities where it coalesces into an immense pool of cheap construction labour that builds more projects that displace more people."
Roy tells of bulldozers, which periodically arrive to 'clear the hovels' and of three slum dwellers shot in Delhi for shitting in a public place. These people, whose homelands are decimated, become the 'marginals', the hyper-exploited, the beggars or, occasionally, the refugees. And just as those who were brutally removed from their land in the late 1400s were made illegal so they could be made to work, those who today attempt to flee the poverty and decimation which exist throughout the planet are similarly termed 'illegals'. They are people who don't fit within the narrow confines of the refugee convention [no one yet has won a case that they have a "reasonable fear of persecution" by capitalism]. Once more we see, in 'border protection legislation', a set of "bloody laws against the expropriated." Those who flee today are the modern day 'vagabonds.' Those who attempt to resist the slums, to resist the export processing zones, and to resist subordination to capital's dictates become criminals: a euphemism for those whose resistance cannot be incorporated into capital.
It is important to recognize, then, that the people in Australia's camps are not simply victims of this war, but are a part of the resistance of the side Marcos terms humanity. They are part of a struggle by people throughout the world: the refusal to be redefined as labour power. Today capital faces the same problem that Henry Ford identified when he asked "why is it that every time I want a pair of hands I get a human being?" Neo-liberalism's onslaught on humanity is an onslaught that aims to commodify us: to create the ideal worker-the "pair of hands" Henry Ford longed for, detached from desire, from resistance, from imagination. Capital is a system that seeks to subordinate the entirety of human activity to market relations, to the creation of surplus value. This war, to redefine human beings as labour power, is a war that is raging throughout the global factory, not just in the sweatshops of the East but in the office blocks and the homes of the West.
Since the days of the enclosures, capital has expanded throughout the globe. What we know as globalisation is a world of globally integrated capitalism. Yet it would be mistaken to see capitalist expansion as merely spatial. Rather there is an attempt to colonise and commodify every aspect of our lives. Workers are monitored and surveilled -from finger scans to urine samples - corporations like Monsanto patent 'brands' of rice or grain, ideas become 'intellectual property', our movement is regulated through borders and checkpoints, and anti-capitalist protests, like those in Seattle and Genova, are turned into expensive Playstation games like State of Emergency, in which you can join the "Freedom Movement," cover your face with a black bandanna and throw Molotov cocktails at the "American Trade Organisation."
But within this dystopic picture, there is another story - or perhaps the same story - the story of resistance. This is the story of the dignity of the Zapatistas, of thousands of Brazilian peasants reoccupying their land, of workers' councils in Argentina, general strikes in Italy and 'riots' within Australia's concentration camps. This is a story that exists on a smaller scale within each workplace and within every one of us. Those who cross the borders are a part of this story: a part of the refusal of capital's enclosures and domination, and the struggle for a world that is not defined by the imposition of work.
As Linebaugh and Rediker say -
"The globalizing powers have a long reach and endless patience. Yet the planetary wanderers do not forget, and they are ever ready from Africa to the Caribbean to Seattle to resist slavery and restore the commons."
To restore the commons is to resist capital's enclosures. To restore the commons is to refuse to be defined by capital's borders. But to restore the commons is to do more than simply escape. Rather it is to create a new world. In our refusal we should all be 'economic migrants', refusing to stay where we can be best exploited. In creating a new world we should learn from those who have come so far and risked so much.
One such man, who escaped from Woomera at Easter only to be later recaptured, said to me, as we smoked cigarettes in a tent in the desert: "Thank you. You are doing something really worth humanity." Today, to resist is to fight for that very humanity, against a system that attempts to dehumanize us all. This man talked of those inside Woomera-people who are called by numbers not names- as the "people anonymous". I was struck by the extent to which this is what we all are to capital: "people anonymous, 'human resources', any pair of hands will do". Yet through our struggles we can begin the journey towards a world where no one is anonymous, and create a world in which each of us can be fully human.
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