work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology


10.23.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

That migration is a genuinely bad thing seems to something the political Right and Left can agree. For the Right it is mainly that it is harmful to the country in which migrants settle, for the Left it is harmful for migrants themselves and also for the country from which they migrate. Both sides overlook that migration is also an expression of the human capacity of imagination and spirit of discovery. That staying where you are is something that from a conservative perspective is better than going somewhere else is not surprising, but it is strange that observers who would see themselves as “progressive” fail to see the this other side of migration (alongside, of course, the hardships, dangers and sufferings that are a characteristic of so many migratory movements).  Recently I have taken issue as it struck me as part of a vicarious anti-consumerism and authenticism which condemns the denizens of the non-West to immobility:

Migration within a globalized world is viewed with suspicion. Subcommandante Marcos [whom Naomi Klein adopts as hero of the anti-consumerist movement, a universal avatar for he ‘is simply us, we are the leader we’ve been looking for’ (2002: 3)] speaks of the ‘nightmare of migration’, which ‘continues to grow’ (2001: 565). He is rightfully concerned about xenophobia and the marginalization of large groups of migrants, but anyone who knows a bit about migration will be troubled by the blanket notion of a ‘nightmare’. More significantly, he adds the ‘loss of cultural identity’, a genuine conservative concern, as equally devastating as hunger and police repression.

On the other hand – if alienation (instead of inequality, domination, discrimination) is allowed to become the key critical concept in the fight against capitalism, then the matter is clear. If alienation is the central characteristic of suffering under capitalism – what could be worse than being an actual alien, a stranger, in a capitalist country?

One of the most acute analyses of late 20th century labour migration in Europe, that of John Berger and Jean Mohr, seems to support this sort of attitude. And understandably so. In the 1970s life of Italian, Tunisian, Yugoslav, Turk and other migrant workers in Germany, Switzerland, France… was hard and often enough outright miserable. But even here Berger detects some of the self-assertive and hopeful aspects of migration. Although they state, in vulgar-Marxist manner, that the migrant worker is governed ‘by historical necessities of which neither he nor anybody he meets is aware.’ (Berger/Mohr 2010: 47), as a conscientious and engaged observers they cannot help but understand migration also much as resulting from an aspiration and not just as an escape, made inevitable by the way the international relations of production play out. What they find resonates with the age old attraction of the city as that where, paradoxically, by confining themselves to an environment intra mures – by walling themselves in – humans find freedom and opportunity that the village and country more often than not curtail:

‘Every day he hears about the metropolis. The name of the city changes. It is all cities, overlaying one another and becoming a city that exists nowhere but which continually transmits promises. These promises are not transmitted by any single means. They are implicit accounts of those who have already been to a city. They are transmitted by machinery, by cars, tractors, tin-openers, electric drills, saws. By ready-made clothes. By the planes which fly across the sky. By the nearest main road. By tourist coaches. By a wrist watch. The are there on the radio. In the news. In the manufacture of the radio itself. Only by going to this city can the meaning of all the promises be realized. They have in common a quality of openness. The road leads out of the village, across the plain or through hills. After a few kilometres the village is out of sight; the sky continues over the land. He is far more aware of the phenomenon of the horizon than most city dwellers. Yet it is openness that the metropolis represents for him. Within that openness is opportunity. The opportunity to earn a living; to have enough money to act.’ (Berger/Mohr 2010: 27)

That this yearning for the city has a history reaching back before the 19th and 20th centuries we usually think of as the ages of the metropolis becomes clear immediately when looking at Italy and its tradition of proud city states. But also in the Ottoman Empire (and before that in Seljuk Anatolia) cities, at times at least, embodied freedom – so much so that there is a surprising agreement between Karl Marx and Celâleddîn Rûmî on the virtues of urbanity. In fact, if we look to the tradition of Islamic mysticism we find that, on the one hand, exile (gurbet) is used as a metaphor for the pain of separation, the suffering of the creature as torn from the creator. But it is also a state to be sought in in the pursuit of enlightenment. It is a spiritually, and cognitively, privileged position a position in between.

‘Exile is usually thought of in terms of physical separation, but the term can also mean the capacity of the self to distance itself from the trappings of the world. In distancing oneself from such creaturely dependencies, one may have to forego the pleasures of home, family, and one’s intimate knowledge of the breezes of the seasons and instead suffer the pain of distance and alienation. One notion of exile Ghazālī articulated is the idea of consciously placing on hold or banishing into exile our sentiments, namely, our desires and passions. He had a simple rationale: absence and renunciation only enhance the desire for an object denied. […] Self-exile, or self-banishment, was truly a characteristic feature of Ghazālī’s life. Self-exile means voluntarily taking a position that is not always the beaten track. But “exile” can also be thought of in another sense: it can mean taking a position that brings one into the center of several tensions that lead to a certain amount of estrangement, described as the position of a gharīb – in the best sense of the word, a “stranger”. Despite his commitment to the mainstream, Ghazālī often found himself at the center of conflicting viewpoints that positioned him to experience what it is to be both an insider and an outsider at the same time.’ (Moosa 2005: 119f.)

In the context of Turkish migration to Germany, at first, Sufi-inspired Islam was instrumental in making the bitter and cold experience of migration (referred to as gurbet) bearable (Schiffauer 2007: 69f.)

But despite the continued exposure to racist discrimination and the disadvantaged starting position, there is a keen sense of achievement in those who dared to move and worked hard to build up a new life and a new home – Turkish migrants and their descendants are now demanding that they are no longer referred to as gurbetçi.

When writing on the working-cosmopolitanism of migrants from South Asia, Werbner highlights the (apparently surprising) fact that migration can be understood in terms other than passive suffering. She summarises the account of one of her respondents, a follower of a Pakistani sufi order, who went through several processes of migration:

‘His experience of overseas travel is thus not one of alienation but of triumphant mastery, rooted in his localised faith in his saint – which is, simultaneously, very much also a faith in Islam as a world religion. Hence, one of the most exhilarating aspects of his migration experience for him is the sense of Islam as boundary-crossing global faith.’ (Werbner 1999: 24)

But it is not only faith and spiritual pursuits that can account for the more agentic and self-asserting sides of migration. There is also economic heroism – such as displayed in migrants from Afghanistan whose motives for embarking on a dangerous and in all so many ways uncertain journey is not simply a matter of pure desperation, is not only driven by poverty and war, but carefully considered, planned, dreamt, aspired to as Assunta Nicolini reports. This does not mean that it should not be a central concern for progressive politics to support economic development and improve living conditions in countries like Mexico or Afghanistan. But it means that this should not be driven by a well-meaning desire to protect authentic and place-bound cultures by discouraging migration. In fact, to change one’s socio-cultural environment, and not just to escape poverty and war, can be a powerful motive for migration as well. Acknowledging these latter, quite compelling, reasons, Nicolini makes sure to give a more complete picture by citing the following example

In addition, migration represents an escape from traditional structures and obligations. The expectations of the family, such as being able to provide for the family, are very high from an early age. Samiullah, 18, from Kabul says:

“I came to London because I wanted to be free from my relatives; they had planned my entire life, marriage, job and all. The only way I could buy time without a fight was migrating abroad, which made my father and uncles happy because that way, my family could aim for a better bride, and the same advantage would be also passed onto my younger brothers.”


Increasingly social research recognises the migrant as possessor of “agency”, as someone who thinks, plans, dreams, desires rather than someone who is just a victim of capitalist globalisation. A critique of consumerism that cannot see its imaginative potential as a force for creative transformation cannot help implying the opposite: that migrants are always driven out by poverty (which they indeed often are) and pulled in by the deceptive incentive of consumer culture (which may also be true – but there’s more to that), and thus are not really in charge of their own lives, are not subjects but only subject to constraints and false needs.


Migrants often do suffer, often are exposed not only to economic hardship but also to discrimination and humiliation. But they are also resilient as they know they have dared what most among they live haven’t dared. They may do – sometimes quite literally – shit jobs, but they are determined that their children will do better. Many are proud of what they achieved. A pride that sustains them through the initial frustrations, humiliations, anger – I think Gogol Bordello communicate this poignantly



Berger, John/Mohr, Jean (2010) [1975]: A Seventh Man, London: Verso

Moosa, Ebrahim (2005): Ghazālī & the Poetics of Imagination, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

Schiffauer, Werner (2007): ‘From Exile to Diaspora: The Development of Transnational Islam in Europe’, in: Aziz Al-Azmeh/Effie Fokas (eds.): Islam in Europe: Diversity, Identity and Influence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.68-95

Werbner, Pnina (1999): ‘Global Pathways: Working Class Cosmopolitians and the Creation of Transnational Ethnic Worlds’, in: Social Anthropology, Vol.7, No.1, pp.17-35




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