The migration crisis and the imperial mode of living

Tourists on a cruise ship docked at Valletta, Malta. Source: Flickr.

by Miriam Lang

We are currently facing the most severe migration crisis in history. In Europe, the debate on how to tackle the root causes of migration, including forced migration, happens mainly amongst established political actors such as political parties, state institutions, and large international NGOs. This debate focuses on wars, catastrophes, arms trade, and terror, which are all framed as a state of emergency.

For these actors, it is difficult to find practical, immediate solutions to the problem, because this would require addressing the root causes of those wars, going against the immediate interests of European states and international organizations. In consequence, these actors propose “development aid“ as the panacea to address root causes of migration.This aid is then tied to bilateral agreements with Arabic or African countries to prevent migration from occurring in the first place, or which make the deportation  of migrants from Europe to their country of origin easier. Left-leaning critical migration researchers rightly critique this approach for misusing development co-operation as a tool for migration management.

One common response on the left is to, on the one hand, highlight the hypocrisy of trying to solve the crisis through development aid while continuing to drive these crises through arms deals and Western involvement in regional wars, and, on the other hand, framing the migrant crisis in terms of the right to free movement and the human rights of migrants.

Addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare

But this responds to only one dimension of a broader civilizational crisis. Anti-racist and migrant justice movements should not focus solely on issues of human mobility rights, the failure or even adverse effects of development aid, or Western military involvements. They also need to question the colonial division of nature and labor and what has been called the ‘imperial mode of living.’ Doing so would involve building  new paths of solidarity with societies in the geopolitical Global South. In this sense, addressing the refugee crisis requires questioning the dominant notions of what it means to live a good life, to think global when it comes to social welfare and to link up with movements such as eco-feminism or degrowth. This  could open up new possibilities to address social relegation due to immigration, as they exist in the Global North.


It is urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South

The left  focus on critiquing the mainstream discourse easily leads to an equally politically problematic counter-position, an attitude that principally welcomes migration as something positive without questioning its root causes or the deterioration of living conditions in the Global South. However, can migration be something principally unproblematic that is to be welcomed and even increased? Does the defense of the right to migrate necessarily have to lead us to ignore the manifold coercions that force people to migrate? Must we not, on the contrary, acknowledge the real-life scenarios in the geopolitical Global South and our historical, economic and political contribution to these?

Today, a counter-hegemonic project must necessarily result from a collective construction process between the global North and South, which understands their interdependencies. Of course we have to object when governmental institutions differentiate between “good“ or “legal” refugees on the one hand, and “bad“ or “illegal” refugees on the other hand. However, this should not lead us to ignore global power relations or to paint a naive and euphemistic picture of migration as a natural phenomenon with  positive connotations of  personal choice  and self-determination.

It is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

By relying only on a “right to move” framework, we fail to address  what makes this current wave of immigration unique. The decision of a German who prefers to live in the USA is radically different from that of a Nigerian who faces the dangers associated with fleeing and entering the EU undocumented. At the end of 2015, over 65 million persons were displaced globally—a historical record. In light of this situation, it is just as urgent to fight the accelerated destruction of livelihoods in the Global South, as it is to fight for open borders and dignified living conditions for those who have already fled.

As already mentioned, this process is rooted in the international division of labor, and, more specifically, the exploitation of nature (‘resources’) and cheap labor in the Global South to ensure unlimited consumption options in the North. Because of this, the geopolitical South is increasingly faced with  “accumulation by dispossession” as the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, to satisfy the demand for commodities of the North and new middle and upper classes in some southern countries. This greed for raw materials has led to a massive expansion and acceleration of extractivism: the export of oil, minerals or cash crops is often the only possibility for Southern economies to integrate themselves into the existing world market. As the reports of several human rights organizations show, these processes destroy the material conditions necessary for the lives of increasing numbers of people. The destruction is not only environmental, but often includes the very social fabric of the concerned regions.  People are forced to migrate, and are dispossessed of their social bonds and cultural contexts and knowledges. The so-called ‘green economy’, often mentioned as a ‘clean’ solution to combine ecological concerns with economic growth – for example wind or solar energy production or electric cars – also requires resources such as rare minerals, cobalt, lithium or copper, whose exploitation leads to destructive  social-ecological conflicts elsewhere.

At the same time, the globalized world market ensures that production chains and power relations, and effects like environmental destruction and exploitation which are inscribed in all consumer goods, remain abstract or are systematically obscured. However, those global value chains and power relations constitute a causal link between the imperial mode of living in the geopolitical North and the root causes for flight and migration in the South. In most cases, migration is not a freely-chosen emancipated decision, but a reaction to a specific concurrence of constraints, for example capitalist, gender-specific, ecological and/or (neo)colonial ones. Many of those people who play cat and mouse with the European border-regime today would rather have stayed in their own cultural and socio-economic contexts, if this had been a viable option.

The container port at Fos-Sur-Mer, France.


Who has the right to the imperial mode of living?

The imperial mode of living divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter

The term ‘imperial mode of living’, coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, does not seek to describe a certain lifestyle practiced by specific social milieus. Rather, it  refers to the hegemonic patterns of production, distribution, and consumption in combination with related cultural imaginaries and subjectivities. These are deeply embedded in the day-to-day practices of the majorities in the global North and increasingly find their ways into the upper and middle classes of countries in the global South.

This mode of living is imperial insofar as it assumes unlimited access to all resources – the space, nature, cheap labor, and sinks of the entire planet – only for a small and privileged minority of the global population. This mode of living is only possible while such unlimited access is secured either by political and judicial means, or by military means and violence. The imperial mode of living connects the geopolitical North and South insofar as it represents their shared hegemonic ideal of a successful and good life under current capitalist conditions, an ideal closely related to the promise of ‘catch-up development’. But at the same time, it divides the North from the South, because the prosperity of the former is historically rooted in the exploitation of the living environments and (often unpaid) workforce of the latter.

Without doubt, open borders and global mobility have to be fought for, especially against nationalist or right-wing environmentalism. But new questions arise around these claims if we consider the global division of labor and nature and the imperial mode of living. Does the claim to open borders and the right to move translate into the right for every human to participate in this mode of living, including those from the global South, if necessary, via migration? This is impossible for two reasons: firstly, while the multidimensional ecological crisis is already threatening the material conditions for the reproduction of life on our planet, the ecological destruction necessary to sustain this mode of living would be intensified. Secondly, because the imperial mode of living always requires an ‘elsewhere’, a foreign space to where exploitation and destruction can be externalized. But when applied to everybody, such an ’elsewhere’ would no longer exist. Without a doubt, many migrants indeed come to Europe hoping to participate in the imperial mode of living, which in most cases reveals to be an illusion, due to the manifold mechanisms of a “selective inclusion“ in place. However, the real question should be: do they, do we, or does anybody at all have the right to a mode of living that exploits and destroys the livelihoods of other people?

New perceptions of the good life

A critical left perspective on refugees and migration that is in solidarity with the global South requires a comprehensive paradigm-shift. The hegemonic discourse of what is considered a good and successful life is based on a number of problematic assumptions: that life as it is today in the Western World represents the highest stage of development of human civilization, and that modifying it would necessarily constitute a loss; that happiness inevitably relies on mass consumption and the accumulation of material goods; that the path of history is one and linear and that other modes of living that are less permeated by capitalist logics and based on different world views are necessarily inferior, backward and underdeveloped on this path; that the advancement of technology is only possible via multinational corporations; that it is the state which has to provide social welfare in a centralized manner; and that – as the idea of socialism in the 20th century suggested – one single, universally applicable master plan is needed before we can initiate change.

Modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

In my opinion, the key way to challenge this narrative  lies in the connection between anti-racist struggles for the right to migrate and struggles for a different, less alienated, less accelerated, and individualized life. Such struggles do exist in Europe and the geopolitical North and have gained strength over recent years. The degrowth movement and ecofeminism undermine the basis of chauvinist feelings of ‘entitlement’ to prosperity and of widespread fears of being socially deprived by the presence of migrants or refugees, insofar as these struggles fundamentally  question the narrative that the western, European way of life equals prosperity or a good life. As Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen puts it, “we inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are materially well-supplied or even over-supplied, but nevertheless we experience needs. The big problems of our times are individualistic isolation, loneliness and existential fears, as well as the recourse to racist, nationalist patterns of conviviality as we lack of emancipatory concepts.”

Movements such as degrowth and ecofeminism tackle consumption patterns of the imperial mode of living in their everyday dimension, thus opening up possibilities of active transformation for people in the geopolitical global North. These movements make it possible to collectively learn  that modes of living which require less material consumption do not necessarily mean a loss, but can give rise to genuine enrichment.

Of course, our social reproduction and the fulfillment of our needs do have a material dimension. But this material dimension a) does not necessarily have to be governed exclusively by money – see for example the debate and practice around commons and commonism – and b) is not the only dimension there is to poverty and wealth. Notions of abundance, value, and wealth related to quality of relationships, self-determination, self-reliance, the ability to redistribute, the experience of finding meaning in life, and the effective power to act are systematically made invisible by the poverty indicators which dominate the development discourse: quality of life is reduced to money, consumption and, at best, access to public services.

In the last decade, the alternative paradigm of Buen Vivir(living well) – emerged from some Latin American countries as a counter-narrative to capitalist wellbeing. It considers humans as part of Nature, thus promotes harmonic relations with all other beings, and puts emphasis on communitarian construction from below in a territorial sense, leaving plenty of room for diversity. Other important principles are equilibrium, reciprocity and complementarity instead of accumulation, progress, growth and competition. Buen vivir, if it is developed from the bottom up and, above all, in democratic ways – will inevitably have different shapes in different contexts. This is why emancipatory debates in Latin America increasingly speak of los buenos vivires in plural.

Movements such as degrowth or the commons can connect with struggles around Buen Vivir, post-extractivism and post-development in the global South, opening up a perspective through which people in the geopolitical North and South can work together to overcome the hegemony of the imperial mode of living. These approaches also take on responsibility for challenging imperial day-to-day practices and can directly and simultaneously address the root causes of forced migration, often caused by compensatory mass-consumption elsewhere, and the roots of the global ecological crisis.

Considering social welfare globally

Finally, what about the alleged threat that migration poses to the welfare state? If we are consequently striving for social equity, we can only consider welfare or social security in a truly global manner. Although this might sound threatening at first, in my opinion nobody has a birth right to certain social benefits. Some of the feminist debates around care and commons are path-breaking here. If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state, as it has existed only in a small part of the world, and only for a few decades – on the basis of cheap energy and centuries of previous value transfer from the global South – then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts. The commoning of care might be a possible pathway, while at the same time reducing the hours dedicated to paid labor – without abstaining from the state altogether, which would still need to provide the ideal conditions for this kind of commoning.

If it is impossible to globally extend the social welfare state then we need to replace the utopia of the social welfare state with alternative concepts.

Consequently, anti-racist movements and critical migration research cannot be content with fighting the European border regime by advocating open borders.. As an offensive strategy against racist prosperity-chauvinism, their critiques should just as much focus on the imperial mode of living and the associated uneven North-South relationships, as well as hegemonic perceptions of a good life. An up-to-date perspective on inter-peoples-relations should clearly tackle the root causes of forced migration by effectively reducing the energy and matter consumed in the global North, and, at the same time, develop new approaches for a global social welfare that do not consider welfare as a privilege related to one’s dwelling place or birth right.

The cruise ship Royal Princess at port in Gibraltar. Photo: Tony Evans.

A version of this article first appeared on

Miriam Lang is professor for Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. She studied Latin American Studies at Free University of Berlin and holds a PhD in Sociology. In the 1990s she was active in the anti-racist movement in Berlin. She has lived in Latin America since 2003, and for the last 12 years in Ecuador.

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“We’re here, we’re dying in the borders”

Port of Tangier, with Spain visible in the distance.
Port of Tangier, with Spain visible in the distance. Photo: Jo Magpie

by Jo Magpie

I met Michael* in the city of Tangier, on the northern coast of Morocco, where many West Africans try their luck to reach Europe. They risk their lives daily in flimsy, overcrowded boats on the Strait of Gibraltar and the razor-wire fences that divide the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco. If you can scale these fences, survive the beatings and the push-backs of the Moroccan Border Guard Units and the Spanish Guardia Civil, you can touch Europe.

Morocco has always been a transit point, hosting many people coming from East, South, and North throughout its history. In the 1960s, it became one of the biggest emigration countries, with Moroccans emigrating to European countries, such as those of former colonisers France and Spain, in search of work and a better life. Since the 1990s it has increasingly become a transit country for people from Sub-Saharan Africa, escaping abject poverty, political unrest, civil wars, and economic downturns in their home countries of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger—some from as far as the Congo.

In the past, these migrations were tolerated, but since the 1990s a series of agreements between Spain and Morocco have led to an increasingly harsh reality for those attempting the journey. Spain has attempted to seal off its borders through a complex array of high-tech surveillance equipment, huge razorwire fences, and militarised border guards. Meanwhile, EU countries began to effectively “externalize” border controls to countries like Morocco, Libya and Turkey, pressuring them to clamp down on irregular migration and sign readmission agreements in return for huge sums of money, military equipment, and improved visa conditions for their citizens. Morocco is now essentially paid to keep the migrants from the border, and none of the European governments are watching how they do this. Those who do call attention to the pervasive human rights violations are liable to be deported—or worse, if they happen to be West African.

At the time I met Michael in December, 2015, he had been in Morocco for a year and five months, and had survived—on occasion very narrowly—twelve failed attempts to reach Europe.

Michael is from Gambia, a former British colony, and so we were able to communicate easily with English as a shared language. After leaving his home in Gambia in search of a better life for his family, Michael has been beaten unconscious by border guards, almost drowned in the Mediterranean, and seen many friends die, or simply disappear. This is his story, one of many thousands like it.

What brought you to Tangier?
I left my city when I was studying. I was working in a hotel part-time, and it wasn’t working very well because the money there, it’s not as powerful as even the dirham [the currency used in Morocco].

My dad is no more. He died like five years ago, so my mum was struggling a lot paying my school fees. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers. They are very young. My mum struggled to pay for me, pay for them, and then bring foods in the house. It was going very tough for her, and as we grow, our educations are getting more expensive. My last examination that I took, only me, her and god knows how she get the money to pay for me. She sold even her clothes, everything, took her best clothes and sell them in the market, to pay for me to go and do these exams. Then I pass the exam to go to another level she cannot afford. If at all she did [that] for me, she will not be able to take care of the kids’ education, the younger ones. So I took this decision that I will just forego school, and then let her continue paying for my younger ones, because it really hurts me a lot if I see her struggling to bring food in the house. It pains me a lot, because I am the first child. I know that my mum cannot be young and strong forever to take care of us. I know that one day will come she will not be able to do all this, so by then I will want to be there to take care of her, you know? So that’s why I leave. I thought if I come here, if I work here, things might be better.

I know that my mum cannot be young and strong forever to take care of us. I know that one day will come she will not be able to do all this, so by then I will want to be there to take care of her, you know? So that’s why I leave.

I was in Casablanca for like three, four months. I worked there, but the things were not changing. All the salary that I have there was enough for food for me, maybe for house, and that is the end of it. I cannot do no changes for my family, and I thought that if that is the case, it’s better I stay back and be with my family.

My friends told me about Tangier and how close it is to Europe, “Maybe you can have the chance to get to Europe and maybe something else can change.” I said okay, I will come and try the chance. That’s how I came to Tangier. The first week, we were six people. I met two in Casablanca, so we came three of us. We met three other friends here. So we six, we were living together. In the first week, we hear about the Ceuta fences and we see on the Net how it’s just a fence that you can jump. We were all brave, thinking that we are going to do it. This is a fence. If the soldiers cannot run faster than you, or you have a plan once you hold the fence… We thought it was that easy.

We arrived, six of us. We arrived at the garage at midnight. I said to them, “Do you see how clear the lights are? The soldiers before the fence will not be sleeping by now, they will all be awake and at work. So we have to make a hide somewhere in the bush until maybe at two, three o’clock. By then, maybe many of them will be sleeping, or the dogs in the bush will be sleeping”—’cause you have lots of dogs in the bush to take people.

At one o’clock we start walking toward the fence. One kilometre before the fence, it’s a military zone on the Moroccan side. You have all the soldiers living there and protecting the fence, so you have to hide from the soldier camps, from the soldiers and from the dogs. We did that. We really struggled, like almost two hours, up to like three o’clock. We were like 100 metres close to the fence. Then, unfortunately, the fence start alarming. Maybe we were detected by the Spanish machines. The fence start alarming, whee whee whee. That’s how they caught us.

When they caught us, they tie our hands at the back, and then our legs—and tie very strong—and then laid us down on the floor. It was very cold by then. That was my worst punishment that I have ever experienced in my life. From that time, like around three o’clock, we were beaten up to nine o’clock in the morning, in the soldier camp, where everybody can beat you however or whenever they feel like. At the end, I was just lying down there. I shouted. I cried until a voice cannot come out of my mouth again. I cannot even feel anything if they beat me again. It was like my body was already dead.

A friend of mine got up then and asked them to kill him. He was tired. He was begging them to kill him so that he could  just relax once and for all. He was discouraged. We were bleeding. In the morning, they took us in the police station, without food, to register our names and they detained us there up ’til eight o’clock in the evening.

They drove us on the highway, where we could walk to get to the forest where the migrants live, in Fnideq at the border [with Ceuta]. We walked, six of us, we struggled until almost five kilometres inside the woods, where the other migrants live.

Many migrants live in the forests around Boukhalef, on the far outskirts of the city
Many migrants live in the forests around Boukhalef, on the far outskirts of the city. Photo provided by Michael.

We thought that we were going to relax, but unfortunately we met the migrants organising themselves in groups, wanting to make an attack [on the fence]. We were all weak, it’s true, [but] I told my friends that honestly I am not going to stay in the forest alone, because if they go, [whether] they make it or not, the soldiers will come to the forest to fetch more people, and I will not take that risk to sit here. I am going to follow this group again. I was already half dead.

My friend says okay, he’s going to come with us. His name was Mohammed. The other four wanted to come, but they cannot. They were so tired, it’s true. So me and Mohammed joined the group.

We were almost 270 people. At night we took the way toward the fence. We went up to where the lights were before the fence. The soldiers were already waiting for us. I think they knew that we were coming. We met almost three times our number of soldiers standing at the fence, armed and waiting for us, with their helmets and everything.

At the other side you have the [Spanish] Guardia Civil, who were with their cars, you know, making whee whee whee, waiting for whosoever they catch.

We said okay, there are three ways out: one, you make it; two, you die; or three, they catch you and you are seriously injured. So when that decision was taken, nobody have to go back, no single person. We go as one voice. And they start running to us then.

We faced them. We talk among ourselves that we have already come up ’til here and there is no way we can go back in the forest and sleep peacefully. No way. If we go back, these soldiers will come in the forest, and it’s going to be a massive torture there, and nobody will be free. We said okay, there are three ways out: one, you make it; two, you die; or three, they catch you and you are seriously injured. These are the three things that are there, the three results you expect that moment. So when that decision was taken, nobody have to go back, no single person. We go as one voice. And they start running to us then.

We ran toward them. We were all shouting, “Boza! Boza! Boza!” Boza means victory. It’s a general language that all the migrants here use to say victory. So we were shouting that, running toward them. When we ran toward them, they started throwing stones on us—big stones. When they started throwing stones on us, they were expecting us to open, to spread so that they can catch us easily. So we did not spread. We all came in a bunch and then run toward them. The soldiers opened up, we all rushed to the fence, hold the fence to try to climb. That’s where they surrounded us and that was the day I saw people lying down on the floor. That day I had to walk or run on top of human beings who were lying down on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. You know, they beat people to death that day. When I held the fence, there were blades already. I had gloves. When I held the fence, the glove will remain there, ’cause of the sharp barb-wire. So I held one, two, it all get off there. I said, there is no way I can climb here. There was no way. And if I’m late one minute here, I will be beaten here to death.

I tried to find my way back. That’s the first decision I took, to find my way back to escape. And out of that like two hundred and sixty, seventy people who went attacking, only twelve people escaped from there. They escaped back to the forest. And just one person made it to Spain, who was caught by the Guardia Civil and pushed back inside. And he was massively beaten. All the others were caught. All.

Imagine that then just two buses were deported to Marrakesh in the desert, in the detention centre. Two buses. At most you have like thirty or forty places there. Where are the other people?

They all lost their lives.

It was last year, December [2014], something like that. Here, they bury people in bunches. If six people die, they will go dig a hole, just bury these six people. Nobody will know that people died. That is how it goes here. After that you will not hear or know nothing about it. They will bury them and you will not see a body again. They have their own ways of doing things.

I will rather die in the sea and be eaten by fishes, but I will not go back to the fences again. Because if you fall down in the sea, you can die by drinking water—but it’s more painful if they beat you to death.

We twelve escaped. We went to the forest to see my other friends. That is when I last saw that friend [Mohammed] that I went with to join the group. Up ’til now I did not see or hear from him. And I know that he is not alive. If he was alive, he would be in Morocco and we would see him. We did not see him. His family thinks that he is still in Morocco, they don’t know he died.

We stayed there for like five days in the woods. We went out to the market, begged for some money, came back. We did that for five days. We made a little money, we paid transport and came back to Tangier. When we came back to Tangier, our other friends were here living in the same house that we left in Misnana [a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Tangier where a lot of migrants live].

A man sleeps in a grave to escape the cold in the forest.
A man sleeps in a grave to escape the cold in the forest. Photo provided by Michael.

Since then, I said I will never go back to the fences. I will rather die in the sea and be eaten by fishes, but I will not go back to the fences again. Because if you fall down in the sea, you can die by drinking water—but it’s more painful if they beat you to death.

I went to the sea several times. Two times that we went, people that I know—we have been together in the boat, you know—fell down in the sea. There is nothing that you can do about it. The only thing that you can do is to watch them die. You can’t get in the water and bring them back. The boats don’t have no machine to stop or things like that, so if they fall down in the sea, you have to watch them die. This is how my friends lost their lives.

When I fell down in the sea, I had a life-jacket, and the life-jacket just pulled me up… I saw our boat was already 200 metres away from me. I wasn’t seeing Morocco. I wasn’t seeing Spain.

I tried twelve times to cross. First was in the fence, the eleven more times were in the boat. The last time I went, I myself fell down in the sea, outside the boat. It was in the middle of the sea. When I fell down in the sea, I had a life-jacket, and the life-jacket just pulled me up. When it pulled me up, I saw our boat was already 200 metres away from me. There was no machine, the boat was rolling like this on the sea. I wasn’t seeing Morocco. I wasn’t seeing Spain. I was deep inside the international zone by then. I was just seeing big waves that are seven times taller than me.

I saw the boat very far. If it happens to anyone here, the person is forgotten. I was in the boat two times that happened to people who were on the boat with us, and they died there. When it happened to me, I was just thinking that it’s finished for me.

I said, okay, I will not be panic. I did not panic. I removed my life-jacket, because I know that with the life-jacket, I will not be able to swim. I threw it in the sea and I struggled to swim to the boat. The people on the boat stopped paddling. They stopped and the boat was just rolling like this in the sea. So I swam and swam for almost fifteen minutes before I got to the boat. I was not close.

I drank a lot of water. A lot of water entered in my eyes, in my nose. I was tired. I already give up. I give up because I cannot even rest my arm. My stomach was so full, and the water is very heavy. I was tired.

I opened my eyes again. I saw the boat was not very far from me. It was close. I continued then. That’s how I was saved. I got to the boat and was so very tired. Then in five, ten minutes, the Moroccan Marine arrived there and picked us up. They picked us up and brought us back [to Morocco].

When they saved us, they took us to the marine port here. I couldn’t even stand up. I was just lying down, and my friend carried me. So the people there knew that I was  very sick. The ambulance came and took me to the hospital.

After I got back home I said, okay, I don’t want to rush now to be risking my life in the sea and things like that. I think of all my friends who died here already. I know that there is no difference between me and them. I am not better than them. If they die in the sea, I see no reason why I cannot die in the sea.

That is why and how I am here up ’til now. That’s it.


What’s the situation in Tangier now?

Even if I walk now in the streets, I am scared. It’s even worse than four, five months ago. Now people are not even free to walk around the city. People don’t feel secure to go outside to beg for food, like they used to do before. People are not free even to work. Wherever they see migrants working, they will come to you.

 With or without papers, they will beat you up, take you. They don’t want to see your papers.

Even two days ago in the restaurant where lots of migrants go and eat, they went there and arrested everybody. Even the ones who were already eating, who just bought their plate. With or without papers, they will beat you up, take you. They don’t want to see your papers. I have a friend who had the card. He have this like residential permit, called Sejour. They break his card. They tell him, “Is this a card?” They break it, beat him up, put him in a car. They will not take him to the police station, they take them to the forest where the soldiers are. They leave them there in the cold, near the sea. In the cold, the whole night. I mean, why? Why are they treating people like this?

Lots of people now have been deported to the south of Morocco [in the desert, near Tiznit], where you have less houses. Thousands of people are there now, struggling to come back to Tangier, or else are struggling to go to other cities and work, because they have given up.

Lots of people are now planning to go to Libya, to see if they can cross from there. Libya itself is much more risky than here. And to get to Libya is another problem, ’cause you have to go through the Algerian desert, and you have to fight from the Algerian-Moroccan border, which is very dangerous too. The number of people that died in the Algerian-Morocco border is uncountable. People don’t know, because no journalist or activist go around that area, because the border is in the middle of a forest, it’s not in the cities, like here, or other places.

There wasn’t a fence there, but now they have built a fence, and they dig a hole of like six metres deep. You need to get inside the hole, then climb, before reaching the fence. It’s very dangerous, and the Algerians, they shoot people to death. They make their dogs chase you and the dogs there are trained to bite and kill. Many people lost their lives in that area. And the Libya-Algeria border too is not an easy task. There’s a road in the desert that separates the two countries. Before you get there, from Algeria to that road, you have to walk almost sixteen kilometres in the desert, where you’ll have nothing but sand and wind, and if you get to that road, the other twenty kilometres that you need to walk is the same. Mountains that are full of sands, rocks. Just that you will see. People die in this area. It’s very risky. If you see people going out of here going to Libya, it’s because they are not free here, and they are frustrated. If at all people were okay here, they would want to sit and would not want to take that risk again.

Just living in Morocco is a risk. Trying to cross in boats or cross the fence into Ceuta is a risk, so if people take the plan B, it means that plan A is not working.

Football game in Misnana 2
A rare moment of enjoyment. Men from various West African countries play a friendly game of football in Misnana, another run-down area on the outskirts of Tangier, where a lot of migrants live in precarious conditions. Almost all of these men have since taken the perilous journey to Libya to try to cross from there, where up to 500 people drowned when their overcrowded boat sank last week. Photo provided by Michael.

What do you want to say to people who are reading this?

I think people should know that this situation of migrants is not all about Syrians, because that’s what majority of the world know. If you talk about migrants, they say Syrians. We’re here, we’re dying in the borders. People don’t even know we’re here. Every week people die here, but nobody will talk about it. They tell us here, “We respect the Europeans. If any European die in Morocco, it’s big problem for Morocco. But if you people die, no problem!” They tell us that. A soldier told me that.

If you talk about migrants, they say Syrians. We’re here, we’re dying in the borders. People don’t even know we’re here…. You have thousands of migrants who live in Tangier, but you will never see them. If you come as a tourist with your camera, you will think Moroccan is a nice country, you will see a beautiful country.

You have thousands of migrants who live in Tangier, but you will never see them. If you come as a tourist with your camera, you will think Moroccan is a nice country, you will see a beautiful country. You will see one, two, three or four migrants working in the Medina, when there are thousands living here. Why are they not here? If you ask any migrant, “Did you ever think of coming and living in the woods, sleeping on the floor in the cold like that? Did you ever think of it or want it?” They will tell you, “No!” People do it because they have no other choice. If life was better, they will not even risk the sea, they would stay here and work. People cannot even take their time to look at what the weather will be, or if their weight is too much in the sea. People have to go and try, ’cause they think they are not safe here.

We really want people to know that people are here and really suffering and really want support. We really want the world to know what is going on here.

*Michael asked not to disclose his last name.
Jo Magpie is a writer, a traveller, and a campaigner for social justice. She was born in England and currently lives in Granada, Spain.

Michael is a young man from Gambia. Since this interview was recorded, he has decided to return to his home country.

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“Docs Not Cops”

Photo: Emily Hatcher

by Sophie Lewis

Who works indirectly for the UK Border Agency? Volunteers help burn down migrant camps in Calais and elsewhere. In part due to cuts to its maritime services, bodies continue to wash up on EU shores. And as a result of recent policies, the government has made it clear that it would like the border control team to include landlords, neighbours, teachers, bank clerks, social workers, welfare administrators, and doctors. It is increasingly clear that the enforcement of the UK border is not limited to its ports of entry.

But the activists and medical trainees who go by “Docs Not Cops” are not going to comply.  In the context of the EU’s ongoing inadequate and even murderous response to migrants, I interviewed activists at DocsNotCops for Uneven Earth.* This group of medical workers and activists represent just one example – in Britain – of a struggle against border regimes that exclude and stigmatize migrants, to the detriment of everyone.


Why DocsNotCops?

The UK National Health Service (NHS), a system of socialized healthcare introduced in the aftermath of World War II, has been universally operative and “free at the point of use” since 1948. But advocates of privatizing public infrastructure (as pioneered by Margaret Thatcher) are gaining ground in their longstanding assault on the NHS.

In the years since, millions of people have taken to the streets to defend “Our NHS” against those who would tamper with it. The campaign of opposition to “our” NHS has been multi-pronged—involving de-funding, speculation, and propaganda—but the consensus is that it seeks to convert a public good currently organised along principles of universal welfare into a lucrative and stratified medical marketplace based on private care and insurance premiums, similar to that of  USA.

In 2015 and 2016, it is the NHS doctors on the “junior” contract, which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is threatening with reform, who have occupied the bulk of the spotlight within the wider social conflict over healthcare provision. In his attempt to impose the exploitative new terms, Hunt has come up against a tireless wave of resistance he visibly did not expect. Although public sentiment in support of a fully public health service was known to be high, the junior doctors surprised many by handing their union, the British Medical Association, an extraordinarily strong mandate for taking strike action against the government: the ballot showed that 98% of more than 37,000 in England had voted in favour of full strike action. Perhaps even more surprisingly, doctors on strike have consistently been found to enjoy full support from a vocal majoritarian cross-section of society.

Most of those involved with DocsNotCops are also heavily involved in the junior doctors’ struggle. One interviewee, who asked not to be named, explained the current state of affairs for the fightback against Hunt’s reform: “The vast majority of its members have said they’re willing to escalate things. Unfortunately the BMA (our trade union) has been dragging its heels and not wanting to appear too militant. We’re seeing many medical staff talking about simply quitting the National Health Service, or even quitting the profession altogether. They’re still a minority, those suggesting a mass exodus, but it’s catching on, and it’s a terrible argument for many reasons—most of all because it would play right into the hands of privatizers. At this point, any “emergency meetings” the government tries to have with our BMA reps will be stormed by activists so as to ensure that continuous, 48-hour plus, strike action is on the table.”

The [Immigration Act] enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders.

But, specifically, DocsNotCops came into being in response to the passing of the UK Immigration Act. Hotly contested and repeatedly blocked prior to its approval in 2014, the Immigration Act was justified by a series of xenophobic discourses in mainstream newspapers (from the Daily Mail to the Guardian). These ill-substantiated anti-migrant narratives, fuelled by soundbites from politicians across the party spectrum, connected widespread ill-feeling generated by austerity policies and slow post-crisis economic recovery with a supposed immigration and asylum-seeking crisis. According to them, an unsustainable influx of both “medical tourists” and refugees has “swamped” Britain’s capacities to provide care at taxpayers’ expense: supposedly “stretching” the NHS to its breaking point.

The bill enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders, inside institutions. It changes the fundamentally unpoliced nature of public medical provision by introducing unprecedented screening, designed to identify those the state deems (as above) “undesirables” at the point of healthcare provision, in order to charge them fees, exclude them, or else dissuade them from seeing a doctor in the first place. In other words, the bill – as they see it – essentially turns civil, medical and caring professionals into agents of harm: “cops”; border agents; spies and debt collectors.

The policy changes have already produced tragic effects. Reem Abu-Hayyeh (DocsNotCops) cites, for example, “the sad case of Dalton Messam (44), an undocumented migrant who died in 2013 in East Ham from an unknown illness, too afraid to seek medical treatment in case he was deported, is testament to the potentially fatal consequences of limiting or cutting off access to healthcare for migrants.”

The energetic ad-hoc network came together to prevent this kind of shameful occurrence from ever being repeated. In their own words, the aim is “a society in which people aren’t scared of illness.” One trainee doctor and DocsNotCops activist observed: “As we move on with this fight, we’ve all been obliged to re-think the question ‘What is cost, in the NHS?’ Because we’re constantly confronting the fact that it’s the capitalists themselves who are putting the numerical value on what happens to people’s bodies under this system.”

The activists frequently point out in their written materials that Aneurin Bevan, the minister who founded the NHS, understood this profoundly. Bevan famously affirmed: “Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalized, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community”. For these reasons as much as epidemiological ones, as DocsNotCops maintain, if a health system isn’t for everyone, it just won’t work.


The Immigration Act: paving the way for more austerity and privatization

As one of their first initiatives, DocsNotCops devised a consciousness-raising survey: How will the Visitor & Migrant NHS Cost Recovery Programme affect you?  By responding to the survey’s prompts, anyone can easily learn that the government’s proposed measures include the introduction of charges attached to accessing A&E and general practice. There is also now a £200 surcharge on work visa applications, even though the majority of migrants already pay for the NHS in various ways: taxes, VAT, National Insurance, tuition fees.

Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none).

So, it’s not universal charges for the time being, but rather, charges for some of us—those of us who don’t meet certain residency and citizenship conditions. Rhetorically, this is justified in the language of ‘sacrifice’ with reference to overcrowding and balancing the budget. Yet it requires that hospitals work with the UK Border Agency’s data to scrutinize people – everyone, not just some of us – for their legal status, rather than just their illness. They must, of course, acquire the computer and bureaucratic staff capability to do so. DocsNotCops sees the introduction of this kind of administrative functionality as the thin end of a wedge that is designed to kill off any collective sense of entitlement to “no questions asked” medical care.

Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none). To combat this resistance, as Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) notes: “The Act states that NHS Trusts will receive ‘financial incentives’ to recoup costs. This could mean pressuring staff to racially profile patients … those deemed eligible for free care, and those not.” The ‘Overseas’ debt-collection teams now being introduced in many hospitals look set to start transforming UK healthcare into something more like the world’s infamously chaotic, ineffective, and inhumane for-profit models.

On a case-by-case basis, pro bono UK legal workers have argued for waiving medical fees on behalf of denied asylum-seekers awaiting appeal, and various other vulnerable people such as undocumented and mentally ill homeless migrants. Enormous quantities of time, money and energy have had to be invested for every individual in court in order to prove the principle: “can’t pay, won’t pay”. In 2015 DocsNotCops found out via a Freedom of Information request that one hospital’s eight such full-time staff, dedicated exclusively to recouping costs from migrants, succeeded with just 10% of invoices.

Perversely, increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions.

Perversely, such increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions. Similarly, both of the recent attempts to trial the type of computer system that is required to terrorize newly convalescing people in this way (linking the Home Office and NHS records), and thus supposedly enable savings, incurred a cost of around £10 billion and ended in complete failure. On the other hand, NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants. These precedents make clear that, even if the figure for the “savings” represented by denying migrants free care were true, introducing the requisite computer system would likely be a financial fiasco that completely buried that sum.

With the advent of DocsNotCops, theatrical “border controls” (“Checkpoint Care” stunts) have appeared outside hospitals. Asylum-seeking Virgin Marys—unable to pay the £5,000 fee for maternity care for non-resident migrants—were symbolically prevented from giving birth at Christmas, and videos circulated in which a white coat is peeled off to reveal a border guard’s badge. These protests expose the introduction of selective charging in the NHS as racist, a perversion of care, and detrimental to all. As the manifesto states: “Instituting this scheme will drive vulnerable migrants away from NHS services. … No doctors should have to police the people they treat. … Charging migrants for healthcare is the first step to normalising charging for everyone”.

NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants.

It is important to stress that the punitive UK border already existed to an extent within the National Health Service, insofar as it permeates British society in the form of immigration controls, raids, checks, and xenophobia. A 2015 report  by Doctors of the World found that, contrary to xenophobic tabloid narratives, the majority of migrants have felt deterred from using the NHS. And that’s before the Immigration Act had even been announced.

At a Docs Not Cops rally in April 2015, one doctor (active with Tower Hamlets Keep Our NHS Public, or KONP) was contemptuous of these reforms, which she referred to as racist: “This is an NHS which entirely depends on foreign workers. [Yet] a real hatred of foreigners is being stirred up in the country and in the NHS. … Our borders exist for rich people only when it suits them. … And they have the cheek to say that … people who come in to work in the country in poorly paid jobs are not entitled to healthcare! … We have to say no to this. We need to have humane care, we need people to come and work in our health services, and we need to have borders that are open for people.”


Photo: Mark Boothroyd on Twitter


“Making both arguments at once”: Connecting migrant justice and politics of care

Belief in the possibility of universal welcome and care for all is not utopian. For decades, among the ranks of public health-workers, it’s been practiced and substantiated – and that includes all sorts of workers, not only those who swear to do no harm. Pitted against their values and experience are the border regimes that gratuitously detain hundreds of thousands of people every day, in prisons and detention centres which – perversely – rely on doctors to function.

By strategically refusing to collaborate with the immigration police, DocsNotCops is innovative but not unique. While the experience of a defensive “rear-guard” campaign to defend a public good from buy-out is, at this point, an all too familiar one for the Left, in many ways it is when activists are on the ‘offensive’, making impossible-deeming demands and affirming a positive transformation, that they are most united worldwide.

DocsNotCops say they have been inspired by acts of resistance by doctors on the other side of the world. In February 2016, for example, amid migrant solidarity demonstrations, one hospital in Brisbane, Australia refused to discharge a baby whose parents are seeking asylum. And when staff at Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital protested against Australian government policies in October 2015 of placing children in detention and denying sick asylum-seekers care “a thousand doctors, nurses and other workers [had] finally howled in protest”—as Dr. Ranjana Srivastava put it.

So, today, DocsNotCops and their allies (a vast network including Doctors of the World, SolFed, London Black Revs, London2Calais, Together Against Prevent, ACT UP, 999CallforNHS, and KONP),  have mounted a counter-offensive against migrant scapegoating and capitalist enclosure of common resources. As they make the case for no borders, their members are also taking part in the nationwide industrial dispute raging over the government’s attempts to squeeze more profits out of the national junior doctors’ contract.

While anti-migrant austerity narratives can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism. 

This double focus of their struggle requires DocsNotCops’ messaging to be more thoughtful than others when refuting their opponents’ arguments for surveillance and austerity. For instance, they often come up against false statistics which suggest that non-tax-paying migrants and ‘medical tourists’ greatly burden taxpayers, or that the NHS is ‘bust’ and requires private buy-out. While these frames can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism. As Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) said to me, “it’s about making both arguments at once”. It is not enough to point out that non-British people in fact bring net income to the NHS – not to mention indispensable labour (although this is true). To stand in solidarity with migrants and asylum-seekers, and to centre them in NHS organising in the context of their persecution, cannot be conditional on their cost-effectiveness, usefulness or unobtrusiveness within the system.

The distinction breaks down anyway: diseases don’t make distinctions around visas or passports, and people who avoid health services, out of fear of questioning or deportation, won’t just die but will tend to spread them. Their suffering—from the viewpoint of the owners of capital—should represent false ‘savings’ that, as DocsNotCops activists have argued, lead to far more expensive outcomes for society.

But what they demand is an “expensive” imperative that is simultaneously ethical and medical: far more migrants in the UK should avail themselves of health services than currently do. DocsNotCops are unapologetic about the cost of both junior doctors and truly universal healthcare. To those who would turn health infrastructure and carers into a nationalist surveillance mechanism funneling the poor and marginalized onto deportation planes—or, who knows, highly profitable debtor’s prisons—demanding the very best of healthcare for literally everybody who needs it, literally everywhere, is the only conscionable response.


You can get in touch with DocsNotCops by visiting the website, finding their Facebook page and events, joining the mailing-list, or following them on Twitter @DocsNotCops.


*some DocsNotCops activists asked not to be named in this piece.


Sophie Lewis is researching the uneven geographies of reproductive technology and ‘outsourced gestation’ (aka surrogacy) at the University of Manchester. She pursues joy and feminist killjoyism in equal measure and enjoys dancing, writing (e.g. at Mute, The New Inquiry, Jacobin), mushrooms, and militancy. She tweets @reproutopia.

Basic income is not a panacea

Source: Crypto Coins News

I’ve recently seen a lot of excited talk about basic income. A bit over a year ago, it was announced that the Swiss would soon hold a referendum for its citizens. Then we were confronted with exciting stories of a small Canadian town that had experimented with the idea back in the 1970s. A couple of weeks ago, Finland’s government made it known that it would seek to implement it in the near future, with backing from the Right, Left, and the Greens. Then the Dutch city of Utrecht pitched in, claiming that they would give it a try. And now both mayors of two of the most conservative cities in Canada, Calgary and Edmonton, are trying to give it a go.

Each piece of news has been greeted with great enthusiasm. I’ve seen the words radical and progressive used many times to describe these announcements.

The idea of basic income–also referred to as guaranteed minimum income and universal income–isn’t new, but it is starting to see a large following. It is appealing for those on the right, who want to minimize the role of the state and end the abuse of welfare. Others think it is the best economic solution to the increasing replacement of workers by robots, and the simultaneous onslaught of bullshit jobs in the economy. It is attractive to the left because it would mean access to income for the most marginalized, and it would allow people to pursue their own interests, furthering democratic society. It would also help support those who mostly do care work, especially women, which is less economically valued in Western society. Because it is appealing to both conservatives and progressives, it is seen as a compromise even the far right and far left could agree on. Largely because of this, it is hoped that, if implemented, it could become a catalyst for a more just economic system.

And so major news sources are responding to this general excitement by publishing articles like “A guaranteed income for every American would eliminate poverty — and it wouldn’t destroy the economy“, “What you should know about the idea that could revolutionize the 21st century“, “Universal basic income, something we can all agree on?“.

As it is being proposed currently, basic income can make things worse: it can strengthen racist policies, increase environmental impacts of our current economic system, and increase wealth inequality between the rich and poor globally. Right now, at best, it seems more like a poor compromise–one that’s slanted toward the benefit of the elite.

But I’m not that excited. I agree that a compromise, if it is strategic, can help us get closer to our goals. But I don’t think this is a strategic compromise. Basic income can only be a strategic compromise if it is  proposed along with a host of other policies that would limit its negative effects. But it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening. To illustrate this, it might help to briefly provide some basic facts:

  • Yes, Switzerland is moving toward a basic income referendum. But Switzerland’s main business is providing a tax haven for the world’s richest people. It is also one of the most racist countries in Europe, with leading parties pursuing actively discriminatory electoral campaigns, and even green parties taking anti-immigration positions.
  • In the Canadian town, Dauphin, the experiment was cancelled when faced with an economic recession, caused by the collapse of Canada’s lumber and mining industries, which were predicated on the over-exploitation of one of the world’s largest forested areas–significantly driving climate change.
  • The party proposing basic income in Finland is centre-right, with neoliberal leanings. Other parties supporting the proposal are the Fins’ Party, which is anti-immigration and conservative.
  • Calgary and Edmonton make most of their money from the tar sands, one of the most environmentally catastrophic and socially unjust extraction projects in the world. This would fund their basic income schemes.

In each situation, it’s worth asking where the wealth that would sponsor it comes from, who it will benefit, and who it will exclude.

As it is being proposed currently, basic income can make things worse: it can strengthen racist policies, increase environmental impacts of our current economic system, and increase wealth inequality between the rich and poor globally. Right now, at best, it seems more like a poor compromise–one that’s slanted toward the benefit of the elite.

In this essay, I argue that current proposals of basic income can be problematic and help to further the goals of the elite. I also provide some suggestions of ways to address this problem while keeping the positive effects of basic income proposals intact.


Source: Washington Post

Basic income: a tool for economic, social, and environmental exclusion?

J. M. Keynes’ ‘welfare economics’ was seen as the only satisfying compromise between the capitalist class and the increasingly powerful workers’ unions. But this was by no means a radical compromise–it guaranteed continued profits to the market system while making a deal with the poor. In this way, it remained in line with liberal economic thinking.

Liberal economics is based on the idea that the state ought to make it easier for the market to operate. The main way to do this is to build infrastructure that makes it easier for enterprises to conduct their business. A secondary role for the state is then to regulate the market’s negative impacts. Welfare liberalism is the extension of this role: to redistribute market surplus to, on the one hand, improve the livelihood of those who cannot participate in the market, and to further bolster the market by giving lower classes sufficient capital so that they too can become consumers, further driving economic growth.

Welfare in the minority world guaranteed consumption and production at a level never seen before. And while this really did raise the standard of living, many of the costs were eventually off-loaded onto the backs of the majority world.

A half-century later, and we now know the impacts that this has had. Welfare in the minority world guaranteed consumption and production at a level never seen before. And while this really did raise the standard of living, many of the costs were eventually off-loaded onto the backs of the majority world. Sweatshop labor, mining disasters, pollution, and now migration due to climate change–these are all rife in ‘Third World’ countries. Countless people are now forced to move from their land because it has either been privatized or their basic means of subsistence has been destroyed through free trade agreements.

These people will often strive for better lives and migrate to the ‘First World’, where they are faced with systemic racism, terrible working conditions, and a legal system that regards them as second-class citizens. At the same time, the increased political and financial power of the growing class gave rise to the ‘Not In My Backyard’ phenomenon, pushing polluting industries to the Global South, where states had less regulatory power and poor people have less ability to resist environmental injustice.

Add to this the fact that the money that made welfare programs possible was already derived from centuries of colonialism, which involved dispossession and resource-grabs backed by violence.

And even within countries welfare can be exclusive. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward have argued that welfare in the US was designed primarily for quelling dissent in times of unrest, and for forcing the lower classes to enter the workforce in times of political stability. In this way, it can be seen as a mechanism for perpetuating the current economic system, not fixing it.At first sight, welfare liberalism might seem like a positive way to address the inequality inherent in capitalism. But if you zoom out, it starts to look more like a tool to placate the poor within rich countries, all the while justifying continued exploitation of the rest of the world. In this way, it remains simply a compromise, legitimating the power of the elite, while externalizing the costs of the economic system to those who don’t have the privilege of being citizens of a rich country.

BasicIncome (1)
Source: Katoikois

Let me use an example to illustrate why basic income can be a continuation of this. It is telling that the country that has advanced the most in bringing basic income into the policy discussion–Switzerland–is also one of the most racist and migrant-unfriendly places in Europe. In this case, the Swiss try to redistribute the profits from their banking system (which are derived from providing tax havens to world’s richest people) to a small and already privileged society, while excluding others. At the same time, as it would increase the finances available to the poorest Swiss, it would also increase spending and therefore consumption, driving up the costs unloaded on to society and the environment. These costs will mostly not be borne by the Swiss, but by people in the Global South, who are the most affected by climate change, work in far more dangerous conditions, and are forced to migrate when their land and livelihood is destroyed. Effectively, basic income in Switzerland would entail closure of the world’s riches, for the benefit of a small community.

As it is currently proposed, basic income simply redistributes the profits of already rich nations to its poorer classes. It keeps in place, and strengthens, the divide between the Global North and South.

In most policy proposals for basic income that I’ve seen so far, the pattern is the same. As it is currently proposed, it simply redistributes the profits of already rich nations to its poorer classes. It keeps in place, and strengthens, the divide between the Global North and South.

It’s true that basic income, if it were designed right, could potentially address Piven and Cloward’s concern that welfare has been inherently exclusionary within nations. In fact, they themselves supported basic income as a solution. But while it seems like basic income might create some sort of level economic playing-field, it could also be blind to any kind of structural inequality that already exists. That is, if black people in the US received basic income, they would still have to contend with a history of racism, which continues to be embedded within the US legal structure, housing, education, and financial system. And it wouldn’t necessarily take into account the fact that the money funding basic income schemes has been made mostly through unequal trade with the rest of the world.

There’s another reason why basic income could be a big problem, which I have rarely seen discussed by its proponents. Let’s say these countries and cities do end up creating such a program. Would they also extend it to migrant laborers and undocumented migrants?

Because if they don’t, one could well imagine a scenario where corporations just stop hiring legal citizens (because they would start making demands for better working conditions once they have basic income) and instead hire cheap migrants, who have very little legal support. They would also pressure their governments to change regulations to facilitate their reliance on precarious migrant labor. In this scenario, basic income would simply be a tool for more efficiently redistributing the profit from the exploitation of secondary citizens to rich countries.

I do acknowledge the potential of basic income to help reform the current economic system for the benefit of those who are the most affected by the current economic system–women, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, and so on.

But basic income policies in countries like the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, and Finland could, potentially, make many of the world’s problems worse. By raising the average income, it would also help increase GDP and the spending power of the lower classes, as happened with welfare. Without adequate policies limiting environmentally destructive and socially unjust consumption, we would see a repeat of the negative effects of welfare, creating uneven burdens on the Global South. While it could give many a boost, because it gives everyone an equal amount of money, it would help make the system blind to existing oppressive institutions. It could help further the exploitation of migrants. In short, it would simply redistribute the profits of ongoing colonialism within the rich countries’ borders.

This may be due to the fact that basic income is, in each case, proposed by alliances between right, centrist, and leftist governments. But while this may look like a strategic compromise by the left, it can also become a way to further the goals of racist, neoliberal politicians, as well as the corporate elite. So when I see the news that Finland wants to experiment with basic income, I’m not that excited, because I know that it may just as well pave the way for more conservative policies shutting out, and legitimizing the exploitation of, the Global South.

As it stands, basic income is not a radical, progressive policy. It is more of a compromise between Keynesian welfare and neoliberalism, under the guise of economic equality within a nation’s borders. So no, it wouldn’t “eliminate poverty”, and it wouldn’t “revolutionize the 21st century”, but it would certainly help keep the current economy intact–with disastrous consequences down the line.

Source: PBS

Beyond basic income: a more just proposal

So what would be necessary for basic income to be successful? It would mean not assuming that simply redistributing capitalism’s surplus will solve our problems. It requires a host of policies to be implemented, without which it may increase inequality globally. Here are some criteria for a more just basic income:

  • First and foremost, it should be seen as an end, not a golden ticket. It cannot substitute existing public services. For example, it cannot replace health insurance, since the key to a low-cost healthcare system is collective bargaining of medicine and equipment costs, which would no longer happen if it were assumed that basic income would replace this.
  • Limit environmental exclusion and externalization. This would require policies limiting consumption, specifically resource-and energy-intensive goods, as well as policies regulating environmental destruction and addressing environmental and social injustice, especially in the Global South.
  • Limit economic exclusion. Provide support for alternative economic enterprises that are less exploitative, especially in the Global South. Limit exploitative labor. Limit excessive working days, especially for low-income people. Raise minimum income. Put in place policies that allow (but not force) women, migrants, and people of color to be more involved in the economy.
  • Limit social exclusion. We need policies that guarantee accessibility of basic income for migrant workers, and/or ensure legal and financial support to migrants and refugees without status. In addition, policies must be put in place that better support historically marginalized groups within countries, such as black, indigenous people, or ethnic minorities. This would help address the social exclusion that would likely happen along with a basic income policy, which tends to be ‘blind’ to existing inequality.

As you can see, these are big demands. None of these can be implemented very easily, let alone at the same time. But, importantly, the list shows that basic income will not, by itself, bring about all the changes that the left is hopeful for. This requires strategic implementation of a wide platform of policies that are complementary and respond to existing inequalities, both within countries and outside of them.

When I’ve raised these concerns to others, many have responded that basic income might not be the be-all end-all, but it can get us a lot closer. People see it as a strategic stepping-stone, arguing that basic income could help facilitate a transition to these other policies.

But take again the example of Switzerland. These same proponents might argue that basic income could, potentially, free up time for people to get involved in politics and caring activities. In this way, it could be a crucial step toward a more democratic and just society.

But this is magical thinking. Without adequate research, it cannot be assumed that it would automatically lead to more democracy rather than, for example, an increase in protectionism, racism, and consumption. Creating a more just world is a lot of work, and there is no one policy that, somehow, paves the way for others. To do this, it must come hand-in-hand with other policies that limit its potential negative effects.

I want to stress that I’m hopeful for this policy to be part of a platform that may change our economic system for the better. But considering the type of parties that have proposed it so far, I’m worried that it could actually increase inequality between the North and the South and help drive economic growth and climate change. In particular, I would like to challenge basic income advocates to think a lot more about issues of citizenship and migration, and how basic income could contribute to the exploitation of migrants. This means that it can only be proposed as a part of a wider platform of policies.

I would like to challenge basic income advocates to think a lot more about issues of citizenship and migration, and how basic income could contribute to the exploitation of migrants.

Anything less would just help further close off the minority world–and drive the exploitation of the majority world. Getting excited about progressive policies is great, but only if they are actually progressive, not half-assed compromises between the existing elite and the middle and lower classes who already profit the most from the current economic system.

Thanks to Adrian Turcato for the title.

Thanks also to people at the Social Costs of Automation and Robotics group and the Degrowth reading group for the discussions on this topic.