State power, white power


he ascent of Donald Trump to the White House and the frequency with which organized white supremacists have reappeared in western democracies has made it impossible to ignore contemporary white nationalism. Meanwhile, the fact that Trump has hung a portrait of the slaver and Indigenous genocidaire Andrew Jackson in his seat of power serves as a reminder that these politics aren’t so alien to American institutions as many liberal critics would like to think (on Jackson, see Dunbar-Ortiz, 2015: 95-116). White nationalism has rarely lurked far below the surface of the American republic. Indeed, black and Indigenous movements have consistently highlighted the continuity of contemporary institutionalized white supremacy with the US’ genocidal and imperial past, to undue incredulity. Yet under the Trump administration, we are witnessing an increasing confluence of climate disasters and xenophobic border violence. With some contemporary environmentalists dismayingly allying themselves with this closed-border vision of the world, we feel it is necessary to highlight the ways in which struggles against national borders and against the racial geographies of capitalism more broadly are of central importance to any fight against climate chaos.

Trump’s signature promise was to “Build The Wall,” yet nobody—aside from a few construction CEOs perhaps—seems to know nor care if it will ever materialize. Nor is there any expectation that the envisioned Wall would make any meaningful impact on criminalized migration, much of which involves visa overstay rather than clandestine border-crossing. The Wall remains, far more than a policy instrument, a pledge of allegiance to whiteness: incomprehensible except in conjunction with White House issue incitements of police brutality towards racialized minorities.

Meanwhile, Europe, where walls are also proliferating, has been experiencing a "migrant crisis," much of which has been driven by the wars and interventions in Libya and Syria. The crisis has not really been one of numbers. For example, the majority of displaced Syrians are internally displaced (~7 million), and the next largest group are residing in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan (~5 million). Relatively few come to Europe: fewer than 1 million for the whole 28-member EU, and two thirds of that figure is accounted for by just two states, Germany and Sweden. Rather, as in North America, the crisis appears to be one of whiteness. Xenophobic populist forces have made ground in Poland, Hungary, Austria, France, and elsewhere. While she was Home Secretary, British Prime Minister Theresa May sent vans around London emblazoned with the time-honored racist slogan “go home”. As Prime Minister, May has overseen the extension of “hostile environment” policies, which mandate passport checks in schools, hospitals, and rented housing, explicitly to make life harder for migrants.

After Brexit, many black and brown people were indeed told to “go home” while walking the streets, amid a record spike in reported hate crimes. Meanwhile, lurid and often sexualized fantasies of brown penetration have proliferated, from Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘breaking point’ poster, to magazine covers depicting grasping brown hands and “the Islamic rape of Europe.” On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump’s attacks on trans people and reproductive autonomy, alongside his supporters' “cuck” anxiety, have similarly sought to make reproductive duty synonymous with womanhood, while reviving long-standing American fears of miscegenation.

Thus, even as many on the left continue to dismiss ‘identity’ struggles around black lives, trans rights, and feminism as distractions from "real" class politics, the right grasps the nexus of race-family-nation as key to the reproduction of capitalist class power (Mitropoulos, 2012). Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any president, but maintains majority support of one demographic: 54% of white voters still endorse his presidency. Indeed, "whiteness" has always meant identification with the ruling class—today, symbolised by a hereditary millionaire!—rather than functioning as a neutral demographic descriptor.

Mitropoulos (2012) designates this race-family-nation nexus “oikonomia,” from "law of the household," the etymological root of both economics and ecology. Today, the normative force of oikonomia is realized through a system of “border imperialism” (Walia, 2014). Border imperialism names the displacement of populations by war and structural adjustment followed by their capture in networks of border violence. Borders serve to sift moving populations into exploitable precarious labor (Germany’s relative openness to refugees cannot be understood apart from its labor shortages), and surplus populations marked above all by their proximity to death. These moving “death-worlds” (Mbembe, 2003) increasingly proliferate: think of the deserts north of the Rio Grande, the overcrowded vessels on the Mediterranean, Europe’s migrant camps, besieged by riot cops, and abuse-filled detention centres like Yarl’s Wood; and estimates of tens or even hundreds of millions of climate refugees over the coming centuries, the dystopia seems to write itself (though see this fact-check on the high-end numbers).

The World as Critical Dystopia

The dystopia seems to write itself—something the left sometimes seems too keen to celebrate. Yet as Lees (2013) has pointed out, to focus on the dystopian risks the erasure of collective struggle and the premature foreclosing of hope. Against this, we suggest reading our contemporary moment as what Moylan and Baccolini (2007) have called a "critical dystopia" (we’re adapting the term here: for them it is a literary genre). Against the deracializing effects of much contemporary dystopian fiction, this would attend to the racialized effects of climate change (and its intersections and co-constitutions with class, gender, sexuality and disability). Resisting the libertarian fetishism of dystopia it would reject narratives in which hope can lie only with the heroic individual. And contra the fatalistic tendency that Lees identifies with so much dystopia-evoking, it rejects any air of inevitability: the critical dystopia is threatened by moments and spaces of (potentially) utopian resistance—collective struggles that operate within that dystopia, act against it and prefigure a world beyond it.

In our dystopia of border regimes one particularly immediate form of struggle is the constant, collective refusal of borders by migrants themselves. Although only a minority of environmentally displaced people currently cross international borders, business-as-usual warming of 4oC or more could render significant areas of the world inhospitable to human habitation (see Lynas, 2008). Hence struggles against the border regime form an important part of climate politics. Such refusal both threatens the reproduction of the border. It also calls into being a series of secondary struggles against it, as people act in solidarity with migrants attempting to reproduce themselves (see King, 2016; Walia, 2014), creating new infrastructures of solidarity in the process. Whilst these can be witnessed the world over, they often take occur at the heart of colonial power.

These "secondary," infrastructural struggles include the network of squats and mutual aid organized by anarchists in Greece, providing housing and space for the self-organization of some of the thousands of refugees trapped there by the hardening of the EU’s internal national borders (see also King, 2016). In Europe they include the actions of Cédric Herrou, the French olive farmer who has become a folk hero for defying a law against assisting migrants to shelter undocumented people. “Our role is to help people overcome danger, and the danger is this border,” Herrou has said. They include the organizing by Glasgow residents who joined "buddy schemes" to help recent migrants adjust to their new lives. These proved so successful that Glaswegians turned out en mass to block dawn raids attempting to deport their new neighbors (see Baumard, 2015). In turn, the UK government formulated policies designed to make the UK a "hostile environment" for asylum seekers, an approach which has been met with further resistance. They include Docs not Cops, who bring healthcare workers and activists together to campaign about the extension of passport checks, information sharing with immigration enforcement, and treatment charges for migrants in the NHS. And they include the work of Against Borders for Children, which has been organizing parents to boycott new requirements for schools to request nationality information. In what the government claims is merely a census exercise, data on up to 1,500 pupils per month are now being shared with immigration authorities. (Parents are not obliged to co-operate.)

In North America, resistance to border imperialism has upped the ante in 2017, seeking to instantiate a widening network of “sanctuary cities” whose everyday culture is one of “sanctuary in the streets.” Whilst the legalism of the movement has received criticism from some state-sceptic quarters, it has also enabled broad coalitions of actors to work together; and provides a footing in which more radical struggles may take hold (Walia, 2014). Indeed, the  fightback against Trump’s #MuslimBan and his draconian immigration policies has developed links with antifascist and Indigenous power networks, sabotaging attempts by the state to arrest, detain or deport people: buses are blocked, knowledge is shared, support infrastructures are developed, and allies are trained in effective solidarity in the face of police raids. Such struggles include the work of No More Deaths / No Más Muertes, who provide water, first-aid, and other humanitarian care to migrants along the US-Mexico border; and whose provision of basic services in the Arizona desert is so offensive to the state that they have become a target of the US Border Patrol.  They are also frequently linked to struggles so often dismissed through "identity" as a slur: in San Francisco a large group of feminists blockaded the headquarters of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on International Women’s Day in an action they described as a “Gender Strike,” explaining that “ICE is a direct manifestation of the worst forms of oppression faced by the most vulnerable women, queer and trans folks (....) ours is a feminism that must destroy every patriarchal wall or border.” Those who are marginalized, oppressed, and exploited by our uneven dystopia are at the forefront of challenging it.

The maintenance of a hostile environment

Migration need not necessarily lead to tension or conflict. If it did, creating a “hostile environment” wouldn’t have to be active state policy. Our dystopia is not inevitable, and it does not make itself. The transnational, working class struggles grounded in solidarity work against it; and the work the state puts in close those down are key to its reproduction: a violent, material anti-utopianism. Nor, we should stress, does climate change produce conflict or displacement by itself.  It does so via political-economic institutions: from food markets to neglected public housing to private ‘security’ apparatuses. As Neil Smith has noted "there’s no such thing as a natural disaster’"; and even as the climate becomes more adverse to our sustaining ecologies—from the food we grow, to extremes of precipitation and drought—it is states and markets that make the environment hostile. Amartya Sen (1983) showed long ago that famines are not so much characterized by a decline in available food, but by a collapse in rural incomes. Under market conditions food follows the money out of the area hit by (for example) drought. Meanwhile, fresh water is a renewable transnational resource—it becomes a source of conflict, when states impose national borders on its flows (Zeitoun, 2017).

Alongside the struggles to block fracking and oil pipelines, coal power and airport expansion, there is, then, a "home" front to climate insurgency: one focused on social reproduction under these hostile conditions; one that works against the violence of the present whilst opening up cracks in which an alternative world flickers. Hence, we have sought to highlight the way in which the numerous struggles against the proliferation of borders and myriad acts of migrant solidarity worldwide are key unacknowledged sites of environmental politics.

The persistence of Trumpist policies; and the authorization of widespread nationalism and violence requires not a doubling down on the liberal, multicultural nation, but instead an abolition of the oikonomic race-family-nation nexis. The perennial peddlers of green alibis for national borders, and green cases for nationalism must be rejected; and migrant solidarity and resistance to border imperialism understood as central to climate justice. Green politics must be hostile to whiteness. 


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