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#09- 33 Against slavery

Dmitry Vilensky // Editorial

This issue of Chto Delat deals with migrant labor, an issue today at the center of not only Russian, but also world politics. Although our world has always been “globalized,” the numbers of people migrating in order to better their existence, whether economically or otherwise, are unprecedented. Discussion of this issue is complicated by the fact that we immediately find ourselves on slippery terrain occupied by the shadowy figure of the immigrant, who like the Wandering Jew in its time has come to function as a synonym for danger, contamination and the alien per se. Racists and nationalists of all stripes and lands rally round (so to speak) this fictional villain as they defend the supposedly homely but no less fictional spaces of nation, race and tribe from invasion by aliens. Judging by recent election results in certain “liberal democratic” European countries and legislative innovations in US states such as Arizona and Georgia, the “commonsensical” and “down-to-earth” slogans and prescriptions of the tribalists really are sometimes capable of generating a “groundswell” of “grassroots support.”

Some people have always found it hard to share their homelands, hometowns and neighborhoods with different languages, skin colors, and ways of understanding world, self and community. However, it is all too easy to accuse “the common folk” of being the source and support of xenophobic sentiments. As British sociologist Paul Gilroy has argued, when left to their own devices the “working classes” and “common folk” (whatever their “primary” tribal allegiances) are just as often capable of creating a “convivial” existence together, a life where each person’s allegedly essential difference informs and shapes a totally unexpected common good, a new commons. In reality, it is more often the liberal (or, now, neoliberal) talking and ruling classes, whose experience both with conviviality and the (non)realities of ethnic difference is frequently limited to a fondness for certain cuisines and holidaymaking in the global south, who shape the xenophobic and nationalist agenda via the media they produce and control, via the obscurantist norms and repressive laws they promulgate in the public space. It is this “common sense” from above that is the main instrument for stigmatizing and excluding people who sometimes lack the right language to tell us both about their plights and their joys, who frequently lack the right papers to exercise their individual civil rights and their collective right to struggle for a better lot in life.

Amidst this latest flowering of xenophobia, leftists often invoke the spirit of internationalism, which is supposed to immediately infect everyone with love and solidarity for the newcomers. Just like the old appeals for communism, the slogan “No Borders!” is not enough for those of us who want to popularize and implement the ideas of equality and emancipation. To resurrect the legacy of radical universal emancipation (as Ћiћek writes) we need to fundamentally reassess the world we have made and attempt step by step to free ourselves from the prison of post-colonial and “post-imperial melancholy” (as Gilroy calls it).

But this task is not simple. Wars, hot and cold, rage around us. The difference in living standards between the first and third worlds grows, and each of these worlds “colonizes” the other, producing Mogadishu-like slums amidst the west’s great cities, and oases of luxury and refinement in the deserts of the Middle East. These contradictions can and do provoke a radical rejection of any emancipatory project, especially when it comes dressed in the idioms of culture, art and critical thought, often perceived as the latest projection of a faltering western hegemony.

That is why today, both in Russia and elsewhere, we need to set ourselves the “modest” task outlined by Badiou: to loudly and visibly manifest our respect for working people, especially immigrant workers. They are doubly exploited, even though our present prosperity is largely underpinned by their ceaseless, invisible labor. Their presence in our midst is an object of scorn and neglect, just like the uncomfortable fact that we share the same planet with billions of people in the Third World who do our dirty work, whose countries are poisoned by our toxic factories, and whose own essentially slave labor provides us with our beautiful consumerist idyll, an unsustainable (anti)utopia incapable of recognizing limits and borders.

We imagine that intellectuals, artists, and all other people of good will and sound mind should constantly expose these fundamental inequalities. Collective repentance and charity are probably wonderful things, but they are beside the point here. The real point is that if our planet is to have a future, it can only be a common future. And this common future will be possible only if we learn how to build it in common. By trying to figure out how we can do this, we immediately call into question the current capitalist system and force ourselves to seek ways of moving beyond it.

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