Migration Books of the Year: Here's my top five list for 2012
Ho-hum, another year drawing to a close and the old question of what exactly you’ve been doing with it asks itself once again.
Like every other year I’ve had my nose stuck in books for a good portion of my waking hours, seeing if other people have been able to do the thinking about the meaning of life, and everything, which I no longer seem to do for myself. This inevitably, for me, means reading a few books where the immigration theme looms large, and I thought I’d try the little indulgence of sharing these with you. So, here is my little list – five in all - of the best books dealing with immigration which I’ve read in 2012.
5.) Stealth of Nations – the Global Rise of the Informal Economy
At number five there is Robert Neuwirth’s Stealth of Nations – the Global Rise of the Informal Economy. Neuwirth does a great job in explaining just how globalisation has knit together not just the elite parts of the world economy, but also all the bits that go on in the back streets and the sweatshops. Ideologues of globalisation are apt to play up the story of super-efficient, shiny bright technology companies and financial administrators moving in and getting a bigger bang for everyone’s buck as a result of their ability to manage scale and coordinate production and marketing across scores of countries.
We hear less about the supply chains they have established which draw cash-strapped Nigerians into selling Chinese mobile phones in street markets in Lagos, Johannesburg or Woolwich. Or the undocumented Mexican migrants in California recycling purchases made in car boot sales to people in other communities as poor as themselves.
I’m not sure if it is directly a part of the argument Neuwirth is making, but for me it provided an insight into the sort of world we live in now where globalisation has aligned even the niche and marginal opportunities to earn a living into connected markets which send signals to people without work and without hope that, hey, c'mon over here and earn a living mowing lawns.
4.) The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age
Number four is Alana Lentin and Gavin Titley’s The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age. This is a densely-argued, often difficult book, but with a core message that needs to be better appreciated. Multiculturalism itself is shown to be something of a damp squib, having "rarely amounted to more than a patchwork of initiatives, rhetoric and aspirations in any given context."
Its importance is less than what it is, than what it has come to mean to our ruling elites. Yet resistance to the current mood of rejection of multiculturalism is important, because what is really at the heart of this attack concerns a "lived multiculture" which has been worked out in our towns and neighbourhoods. This contradicts much of the pessimism of the official mainstream, with people of different ethnic groups actually doing quite well in finding ways to live together.
The authors argue that the claims made for the failure of multiculturalism provide a platform for arguments about “good” and “bad” diversity, and for the state to be empowered to act within the realm of the lived multiculture to ensure that it produces outcomes compatible with the demands of living in a neo-liberal age. This is a challenging read, but with obvious relevance to those of us working in the field of migration rights.
3.) Border Watch: Cultures of Immigration, Detention and Control
Number three gets us to Border Watch: Cultures of Immigration, Detention and Control by Alexandra Hall. Hall’s interest was not so much the refugees and migrants held in detention centres, but rather the staff who work there and the outlooks and cultures which allow them to justify the job to themselves. It’s a fascinating insight into the sort of banalities of life that, as Hannah Arendt argued, give rise to great evil. I reviewed it in more detail in a blog back in September.
2.) Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights
Number two is Frances Webber’s Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights. Webber’s thirty-odd years as one of the country’s leading immigration barristers makes her the perfect scribe for this account of the battles that have been waged through the courts to lever some sense of migrants actually having rights into the immigration control system. One of its best features is to render the Gormenghastian world of the law comprehensible to those of us who mainly inhabit normal life, whilst explaining the importance of the issues decided by the tribunal and courts at all their various High and Supreme levels. I reviewed this one back at the beginning of December.
1.) Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants
At number one, and my recommendation as a Christmas gift for all your politically savvy friends and family members, is Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. Her acclaimed earlier book, Chinese Whispers, dealt with the position of Chinese migrants in Britain, providing the essential background to the stories which occasionally erupted into the media as accounts of ‘illegal migration’ and sometimes tragedy. But here Pai steps back to the country which produced these people, and the cruel economic system which offers them up to the labour market to lead exploited lives not far from the conditions of slavery.
Pai’s approach is one of reportage – eyewitness accounts of journeys across the vast country and meetings with the bands of workers as they move between towns and provinces in search of work. China’s rapid rise to industrialisation produced cities of millions, with more than half of these denizens consisting of illegal residents eking out a hand-to-mouth existence. Reading these accounts allows you to understand how the business of being an ‘illegal immigrant’ in any country in the world can be so empty of any negative moral component, since the holders of this status seem to have been born into illegality from the first days of their existences.
There was once a brief window in the development of capitalism – around the period of the first major oil crisis in 1973 – when it was possible to ask whether capitalism had finally rid itself of its voracious need for migrant labour. For two decades afterwards, these politicians in the West deluded themselves into thinking that the end of mass production industries on the old ‘Fordist’ model meant that people would no longer be required to move across borders in larger numbers to seek work. We now know that this was a fallacy, and that what has been nurtured in the globalised economy which came to replace the post-war model was actually an engine for rapid, unbalanced economic growth that has driven even larger numbers to migrate.
Scattered Sands provides the best insight into how this system works in China. Its achievement allows us to understand that we still live in a vast age of mass migration that is not going to end anytime soon. It also ought to remind us that, if we don’t do something to support the rights of those people flung into lives of migration, there will be a heavy cost in the not so distant future which will be carried by even larger groups of newly impoverished and marginalised people.