The bare life of immigrants

A new EU directive allows tougher action against illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, Western citizens are

Behind every death there was a dream, and then a tragedy. More than 9,000 illegal immigrants have died since 1993 in the attempt to seek a better life in Europe, according to the European organization United.

They drown in Gibraltar are blown up in mine fields on the Turkish-Greek border, die in asylum custody, commit suicide and get killed when they are sent out of Europe. We don't think about it much. It is unwanted and dispensable life.

The European Parliament* has backed a much criticised new return directive which, when implemented by 2010, will allow governments to keep illegal immigrants, and those who have overstayed their visa period, in detention for up to 12 months, ban re-entry into Europe for five years, and make it easier to deport vulnerable people.

Maybe it seems like a simple and rational piece of legislation, but it is more than that. The Italian Philosopher Giorgio Agamben talks about "bare life"; life which has been reduced to biology whilst the person's political existence has been withdrawn by those who have the power to define who is included and who is excluded as worthy, sovereign human beings. Power through, for example, law can legitimately be exercised over them whilst their own voice is negated.

The thousands of nameless, faceless and unwanted people who risk their lives trying to cross our borders, desperate to make a better life for themselves, constitute such 'bare life'. Their aspirations and legitimacy can be effectively negated by the power of a bureaucratic vote in Brussels. Meanwhile, goods, capital, and western citizens are flowing freely around the globe in the name of globalization. The irony, tragedy and hypocrisy is obvious for those who want to see it.

For six years, I witnessed up close the agony and fear of a friend who was fighting for obtaining asylum status in my home country, Norway. He was from a semi-authoritarian West-African country, had joined the opposition as a youth leader, and ended up in prison, where he was tortured and starved. Friends with friends in the system managed to get him out and on a flight to Europe. But refuge in Europe had its price. Once a student of English literature, he found himself in a Kafkan limbo, living off occasional illegal jobs as a cleaner and friend's contributions while the authorities rejected his first two applications, arrogantly dismissing doctors' statements of physical and psychological torture and Amnesty International's reports on the political situation of his country. The police came after him to have him deported. He narrowly escaped through a back door, and hid in friends' houses.

When his appeal was rejected, he tried to commit suicide. I visited him on the psychiatric ward, the poisonous green hospital paint on the walls were as joyless as his eyes; eyes which had given up. But he is safe now. He was finally allowed to stay and has taken up school, aspiring to become a police officer. He has returned to a legitimate existence.

But for every harsh immigration law passed, for every statement made about the need to keep 'them' out, for every immigrant imprisoned, we make 'the others' a little less human and a little more 'bare life'.

* The UK and Ireland are not bound by EU immigration laws, and in some aspects, UK immigration laws are even more harsh.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times