Wretched of the World

Karl Marx Strasse, Neukolln. September 2012.

They’re ideal leftwing subjects. Irreplaceable, they can make demands of employers. Exploited, they’re inclined towards solidarity with one another. Foreign, they’re intensely marginalized, for cultural, as well as economic reasons. Impoverished, their hunger inspires them. In other words, they have something to fight for; not just anything, but social equality. Such are the building blocks of class consciousness. The kind which Vittorio Longhi sees as being integral to today’s migrant, and why, under the right conditions, these new, transnational subjects constitute their own revolutionary class in the making.

The subject of The Immigrant War,  the Italian journalist’s new book reads like a classic Marxist treatise on what constitutes the basis for radical transformation. Whether it’s in the Persian Gulf, the United States, or Europe, the possibilities remain largely the same. The idea that such a global class exists, with the potential to be radicalized, is not a new one. The framework, or style of argument, is integral to historical materialism, and is as old Marxism itself. What’s new about The Immigrant War’s version is its narration of the contemporary labor zeitgeist.

Longhi’s migrants are not just blank slates, upon which he projects his own ideological fantasies. His characters are, by themselves, iconographic of their era: rootless, mobile, without rights, invisible, yet everywhere, consistently occupying the lowest rungs of work in the highest of income countries. These workers are not so much politicized as they perfect examples of a particular ideological way of thinking, and it’s continued value, during the era of capitalist globalization. Perfect, that is, from a market-driven perspective, as much as a progressive one. They are the raw material of a global economy, as much as they are raw material for the labor movement.

In this sense, The Immigrant War is as much an exercise in the continued value of anti-capitalist theory, as it is a monograph of an emerging class, struggling for survival. One can’t help but walk away from Longhi’s book feeling gripped by its raw conceptual binaries: hierarchy versus equality, exploitation versus unions, Europe versus the global south. Such political categories still mean something, and are helpful in making sense of today’s working world. Hence, the intense labor activism the author reports on, continuously taking place behind the scenes. Whether it is France or Bahrain, the distinction is unimportant. Freedom comes through organizing and migrant rights advocacy.

Despite its commitment to universals, The Immigrant War is equally engrossed in its own cultural details. French labor politics emerge from an entirely different set of national coordinates, for example, than those of the United States. Indeed, it is the book’s European chapters that feel the most intimate. Though, perhaps it’s the book’s opening chapter, on the Persian Gulf, that may count as the most memorable. The fact that this intensely wealthy part of the world is so dependent on foreign labor, though not unknown, is still shocking, at least according to Longhi’s account of it. No wonder it also produces amongst the most profoundly alienated politics of recent decades, such as those professed by Al-Qaeda. While religion is not a subject of the author’s concern, once can see such reactionary politics obvious on this chapter’s margins.

The fact that southern European states such as Italy have anything in common with Gulf Emirates, says a lot about the consistency of the migrant experience, not to mention, of course, Italy. The developed world, obviously, cannot claim any superiority, in this regard. To return again to Longhi’s French chapter, the author makes a compelling, as well as unique argument, about France’s transition from a state of tolerance, to a state of xenophobia. The challenge, as I understand it, following reading The Immigrant War, is not only to come to grips with its indictment of the present, but the reversals that await today’s migrants, in the future, once they have become sufficiently enfranchised. That’s the subject of another book, I wager. One which, Longhi makes an excellent case for.


Photograph courtesy of the author


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