The Paper State

Burn the state and its papers. Belgium, April 2014.

Fucked Up and Photocopied. It was an appropriate title for a book documenting the first generation of American punk flyers. Published in 2000, just as print ‘zines were giving way to online gig listings and, eventually, blogs, the coffee-table sized collection could not have been more timely. It was as though it were a concluding chapter to an era, which had not fully given way to something else yet – the Internet.

Hence the anachronistic quality of the demand, highlighted by European refugee advocates, to show one’s papers, today. Known to many, in Francophone Europe as ‘Les Sans Papiers‘, illegal migrants are ironically targeted by government, and law enforcement, for not being in possession of physical documentation granting them the right to work, and to residency. At a time of all things digital, the requirement is of course contradictory seeming, as unavoidable as it still might be.

Like the aformentioned punk book, there is still something symbolically significant about the demand, as though paper were more than just a permit, but proof, of evidence of something important. As though the physical presence of asylum seekers, in need of work, and a home, were not enough to make them legal, on their own. This article’s photos and translation are a good example. Shot in Brussels, in April, they are testimonies to the continuing significance of paper, for the state, and those who live outside it.

“Burn the state, and its papers,” reads the French-language graffiti, in the lead photograph.


Immigrant advocacy. Saint Gilles, April 2014.


Document X, document Y. Translated by an interpreter, recognized by the law. Stamped by the Embassy, legislation of foreign affairs. Declaration of honor by a notary. Paper, stamp, paper, stamp.


To have the authorization to be in Belgium. Because the democratic state wants to control those in the country. Who to allow in the country, and of course, who not to allow. Because through residence permits, regularizations and pushing people into illegality by depriving them of documents, the State wants to supply capitalism with a docile workforce, ready to accept any kind of misery or conditions under the threat of expulsion. Through the use of papers and documents, the state tries to transform us into numbers and statistics, more ordered and therefore controllable than individuals without classification, without simplistic categorization with all their specifics and desires.


Then it gets complicated. Enough to throw your face into your hands. Then you learn the true meaning of administration, bureaucracy. Then all you want to do is burn every document on earth.


All those who work in the migration office have power over the lives of migrants. But what about the town hall’s pen pushers? What about the civil servants behind desks in the residence permit and civil registrar offices? Yes, these jobs are also part of the deportation machine, with its closed centers, waiting areas, rifles, assassinations, and beatings. It is one of the cogs of this world based on exploitation and domination. Through your job, you participate in the maintenance of this sickening order.

Day after day people arrive to beg for a piece of paper or a stamp, the system forces them into submission. Submission to a bureaucracy whose purpose is to humiliate people, a bureaucracy in which a person’s demeanor will decide how they will be treated. Day after day, these bureaucrats are invading our lives, our relations, our rapports and our desires with their paperwork, regulating through codes and numbers and through a language only spoken by the permanent repressors.


Do you get a buzz out of sending people empty handed when they have been standing around for an hour in your queue? Does it amuse you to show that you do not care about their situation for which you are partly responsible? Or even worse, are you so empty inside that all you are is a computer of the law? Someone who has learnt the rules and never questions them? “I can do nothing for you: the law is the law.” But you know, law is not just letters on paper, but also every job that protects the law and all those who work these jobs. You are the law. You and your computer, rubber stamp and paperwork. Every stamp that you refuse to do, every paper you do not give, every degrading look or nasty answer has consequences…



Translated from the French by Kit Rickard. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.

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