We Are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood

We Are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood

by Gregory Feldman

ISBN: 9780804789332

Publisher Stanford Briefs

Published in Nonfiction/Social Sciences

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Under the absolute government of a single man, despotism, to reach the soul, clumsily struck at the body, and the soul, escaping from such blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics that is not at all how tyranny behaves; it leaves the body alone and goes straight for the soul. —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

We conventionally understand the migration experience as one of anomie, alienation, and disorientation. Migrants are uprooted from an alleged homeland where all surroundings were pleasant, familiar, and consonant with their psychological disposition. We understand that people have their natural places on earth, the estrangement from which can only be a stressful experience. Imagine refugees fleeing political or natural disasters, hoping to find safety in the welcoming arms of another country, but never quite understanding the local customs. Consider the immigrant neighborhoods in major metropolises, where satellite television dishes angle toward news arriving from the home country (to say nothing of the traffic in cell phone calls). If immigrants themselves never fully integrate, then the host society likewise never fully accepts them. Even immigrants who naturalize (that is, make natural their new national identity), and even their descendents, often confront the suspicious question, "Yes, but where are you really from?" Defensive citizens talk of immigrants in catastrophic terms: they invade our homeland; they arrive in waves; they are like viruses in an otherwise healthy organism. Sympathetic citizens speak in patronizing terms to help smooth a migrant's integration through language-training opportunities, job-training workshops, cultural outreach events, and so on. In either case, difference conjures up fear: the nationalist rejects the difference, the liberal attempts to transform it into similarity, and the multiculturalist wants to cordon it off in its own isolated space. Meanwhile, the migrant encounters what appears as homogeneity and feels foreign.

But is the migrant's situation so different from the citizen's? If the migrant is a "virus" in the national organism, then the unemployed citizen is regarded as a "leech" on its welfare system. If the migrant is a foreigner who does not really belong, then the nonconforming citizen is dismissed as a misanthrope who does not really want to be with "us" anyway. The pressures on the citizen to "fit in" are strong. The immigrant who finally blends in by prospering economically is held up as a model citizen for what she has become—a good entrepreneur or a good worker—not for what she was before she arrived. The citizen is thus reminded of what she should be if she has not become so already. If an immigrant can do it, then certainly the citizen can too. Without such conformity, one risks social status, job offers, promotions, and other opportunities, or receiving the cold shoulder from peers and neighbors. Granted, conformity does not always appear as the mass conformity of the mid-twentieth century; it is now often niche-specific to match the more refined marketing strategies deployed in today's world of fragmented consumer identities. However, the general discomfort in national politics with migrants testifies to the endurance of traditional mass nationalism in contemporary identity politics. Ironically, as citizens exclude migrants, citizens themselves become rhetorically indistinguishable from each other because in the very act of marginalization lies the assumption that citizens themselves are fundamentally the same. In the end, to think and act in terms of "citizens" and "migrants" is to stereotype each side of the dichotomy.

This situation of homogenized political subjects creates an existential challenge in the form of denying particular persons places in the political realm, regardless of whether they are citizens or migrants. What is missing is not the chance to say what one thinks—today's social media provide countless opportunities to do that. Instead, the missing factor is the presence of another person to seriously listen and directly respond, as one political equal would to another. Lacking that, the possibility for people to constitute public spaces in direct negotiations with each other—that is, from the different standpoints they necessarily occupy in the world—is at best seriously obstructed, and at worst eliminated altogether. As we are not empowered to undergo this foundational political act, sovereignty is either constituted upon us (as abstract representatives of a nation) or against us (as migrants who do not belong "here"). Unlike the politics of nonstate societies, the particular individual does not confirm his existence through negotiations in a positive political realm. Instead, he is sequestered to the private realms of hobbies, business pursuits, and leisure, where he is free to enjoy himself, enrich himself, and no more. Though each citizen may vote and while each person remains "among men," none of them "count as one" because none are politically empowered as particular individuals. Part 1 unpacks how this disempowerment, which enables mass society as we know it, works against both the migrant and the citizen in the political, economic, and social contexts.


To uncover the common platform on which the migrant and the citizen stand, we must ask how their dichotomization emerged. While neither term can be understood without the other, the birth of the modern "citizen" gave the "migrant" the sharp and abstract definition that we now know. Prior to the nation-state, "migrant" encapsulated a variety of people in motion, including pilgrims, exiles, traders, peasants working seasonally, and domestics working in one house then another. The people traveling in these circuits were not categorically defined as the "other," because they were not contrasted against an equally abstract category of "citizen": some people happened to be moving, while some people happened to be at home. Many of these travelers could benefit from local customs of hospitality. Rigid cosmological boundaries between inside and outside were not concretized in purist form as they would in the system of nation-states. Instead, most migrations were commonly understood as the routines of life in which anyone could be absorbed.

To grasp the sheer power of such an abstract category as citizen in shaping our collective imagination, one might ask a deceptively simple question suggested by Benedict Anderson: Of the millions of my fellow citizens, how many do I actually know? The question involves something different from a head count of one's friends and associates. It forces us to ask, on the one hand, how we come to identify with millions of people who will remain complete strangers to us, and on the other, to still look differently on the migrants whom we get to know on personal terms. The danger here is not simply that we might befriend a particular migrant rather than a particular citizen. Rather, it is the refusal to premise our ethics on the abstract categories of "citizen" and "migrant" in favor of assessing particular situations and persons. The primary political act within the confines of the nation-state system is to see the world in its particularity and then move to general, but fluid, ethical guidelines, rather than rely on abstract principles to instruct us in dealing with people in the particular. In contrast, the citizen-migrant dichotomy reduces complexity, diversity, and particularity to trite differences of "culture" stereotypically understood. The point here is not that the concept of the nation is insignificant for people on a deeply personal level; rather, the problem is that the concept so dominates how we understand complexity and difference that we fail to let the world speak to us in its own terms. It flattens how we see ourselves and others, and so limits the possible ways we can engage the world around us. The problem began at the end of the eighteenth century when the very emergence of that which liberated people from feudalism and royal whim also became the initial condition of modern migrant-hood: the birth of the nation.

The migrant-citizen dichotomy only makes sense relative to the modern nation-state. France became the first nation proper when its 1789 revolution, the definitive revolution of modern times, became defined as a popular movement undertaken in the name of the suffering masses. The masses became the "people" understood as the nation in whose name the republic—res publica, or public thing—was called into existence. The category "people" did not apply universally to all people on earth, but rather it indicated a delimited category of nationals who became the French citizenry. Moreover, people were not understood as an eclectic group of particular individuals, but rather as a mass of living beings who shared the same national essence and the immediate biological demand for bread. Reduced to a singular national entity that could theoretically speak in one voice, they would thus be spoken for by a revolutionary elite who tested political rivals' loyalty to the revolution by the extent to which those rivals demonstrated their compassion for the "people." Political legitimacy was now rooted in an earthly abstraction, which cannot in actuality speak, rather than a divine one. The American Revolution, occurring just a few years earlier, did not transpire in the name of the people qua homogenized mass. "We the people" in the Declaration of Independence assumed a heterogeneous public and the revolutionary leadership originally had aimed only at restoring the colonies' governing powers usurped by the monarchy. Its aim compared modestly to what became of the French Revolution, namely, nothing short of an attempt to completely reorganize society. (Indeed, the French Revolution completely changed the original political meaning of the word "revolution," which had adhered to the astronomical definition: a full-circle return to a previously occupied position rather than the beginning of something fundamentally new.) By the early nineteenth century, however, the United States would begin to adopt a homogenous concept of the nation similar to the French. Boorstin relates how U.S. nation-building began with the apotheosis of George Washington as its mythical founding father within months after his death in December 1799. Mason Locke Weems, a salesman and an Anglican priest, presented Washington after his death as a man of saintly virtue who could unite a new and diverse nation, even though he had been a highly controversial politician during his life. From that point until the Civil War, the cult of George Washington grew to consume the United States and established him as the mythical father of the national family.

The newly emerged American and French nations signified "civic" nations, which meant that any individual could join them as long as the would-be citizen adopted the national language and culture. The concept of the civic nation made sense at a historical moment in which "humanity" was being discovered. The Age of Enlightenment demanded a radical equality based on the universal capacity for human reason, thus eliminating differences based on religion and inherited social rank. Nevertheless, a certain ambiguity lurked in this new apparent freedom. Did it mean that people could deploy reason to govern their own affairs or, much differently, that people could only deploy it to adapt themselves to the supposed natural direction of history that intellectuals would claim to discover? The former empowers people to constitute themselves in a body politic rather, per the latter, than submit to being governed as categorical types that behave according to some allegedly intrinsic law of motion or history. The latter interpretation would swiftly take priority, but in either case no reason remained to explain why the life of a monarch, ruling by divine right, should be valued more highly than that of a peasant or anyone else. The old argument required a particular Christian belief in which salvation was a gift of the afterlife. The new, modern thinking demanded salvation here on earth and during this lifetime. This salvation meant freedom from misery and poverty. Indeed, the appeal of modernity has always been its promise to liberate humanity from all possible forms of suffering. However, its definitive limit has also been that which made it so distinctively unprecedented: its radical insistence that each person is fundamentally equal. This equality did not refer to political equality among qualitatively different people, but rather an equality which assumes that all people are fundamentally the same. The abstractions that would underpin modern political order—such as the "people," "nation," "working class," and now "humanity"—fail to make sense without the latter understanding of equality. To this problem, we can add the paradox of maintaining national identity in the post–Cold War age of humanity: while nationalism assumes that each nation differs fundamentally, humanitarianism assumes that all people are the same regardless of their national origin.

Indeed, the contradiction between nation and humanity (as opposed to the abstract citizen versus the particular speaking subject) crystallized quickly as Napoleon swept eastward across Europe to spread the virtues of the French Enlightenment. If he fought his wars in the name of a common humanity (while seeing himself as its savior), then surely the diverse peoples of Europe would want to join the French civic nation. (Postwar American hegemony operated on the same contradictory template as did the left-wing revolutionary aims of the Soviet Union. Surely everyone would want to be either an American or a member of the international working class.) Of course, the peoples of central Europe showed little interest in getting absorbed into a French style of universalism. After their own liberation from ancient dynasties, they sought to root themselves in their own linguistic and cultural traditions. They developed the concept of the "ethnic" nation, whose tenets were best articulated by the German linguist Gottfried Herder. Ethnic nationalists found French civic nationalism void of substance and devoid of what people needed in a new, disorienting modern world: a place to call one's own. If anyone on the European continent could be French, then what was so special about the honor? Opponents of the French model decried it as a form of rootless cosmopolitanism based on imperial interests rather than one's particular cultural identity. (Today's debates between "globalism" and "localism," or "secularism" and "fundamentalism" operate on the same template.) Central Europeans sought substantive community on the basis of common language, unique ties to the surrounding lands, shared mythologies, and fictionalized kinships testifying to their own particularity and exclusivity. Ethnic nationalism recognized particular groups of people as organic parts of the land, and each member of the ethnic group obtained the cultural essence from this "mother's milk." Strictly speaking, a migrant could not be absorbed into the "ethnic" nation because membership was a matter of blood and organic ties to the land, not a social contract.

Excerpted from "We Are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood" by Gregory Feldman. Copyright © 2013 by Gregory Feldman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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