Migration and the political

Published 20 January 2015 / By Dace Dzenovska

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This blog was first posted in the series “Migration and Citizenship”, a collaboration with Politics in Spires, on October 30 2014. 

Ever since the collapse of second-world socialisms as “actually existing” political alternatives to global capitalism, the political terrain has shifted considerably. Old political subjects, such as class, seem to have disappeared or waned in significance, while new political subjects are elusive. Political action consists of seemingly unorganised and spontaneous mass events without clearly articulated agendas or of practices of daily life that have subversive political effects. Both forms of political action are often invested with hope that they will somehow enable alternatives to the currently predominant forms of organising collective life.[1]

This political desire also attaches to migration. Some years ago, Étienne Balibar wrote of immigrants as “today’s proletariat” (2004: 50). More recently, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Vassilis Tsianos and Niamh Stephenson (2008) have written about clandestine migration as imperceptible politics, namely as a social practice that does not have an explicit political goal, but that brings about large-scale shifts in the political field. The prevailing sentiment in activist circles seems to be that if migration is disruptive, as mainstream political elites suggest, then this disruption might as well be put to different political ends. Thus, for example, a group of scholars and activists working on borders recently occupied the discursive terrain by introducing new keywords in migration and borders, such as “militant investigation”, “counter-mapping” and “bordering” among others (Casas Cortes et al. 2014).

Sale conceptI am also thinking about migration and the political in my work on Latvian outmigration following accession to the European Union in 2004 and the financial crisis in 2008. When it became clear that outmigration was a mass social phenomenon, people in Latvia began to talk about it as something political—a collective expression of discontent rather than an individual act of life improvement. Some linked migration to lack of organized and sustained political protest. As one intellectual said to me prior to her own departure for Canada, “the only reason we have not had a revolution is because we have been able to leave.” Many savvy scholars will identify the “exit, voice and loyalty” model in this explanation of the relationship between lack of protest and migration. Indeed, Albert Hirschman’s “simple hydraulic model”—namely, the view that “deterioration generates the pressure of discontent, which will be channelled into voice or exit; the more pressure escapes through exit, the less is available to foment voice”—seems to be a convenient tool for imposing order upon the unruly migration scene unfolding in Latvia (Hirschman 1993: 176). Some scholars have, in fact, turned to this model to make sense of the puzzling lack of protest in the Baltics in the face of the severe financial austerity measures (e.g. Sippola 2013).

I too have been urged to consider the “exit, voice and loyalty” model for making sense of migration and the political in relation to Latvian outmigration. However, I find this framework severely limiting. I am not the only one. Hirschman (1993) himself identified notable shortcomings in this model when he used it to think about the political scene in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 2008, Bert Hoffman argued that exit, voice and loyalty are categories developed within the framework of “methodological nationalism” and that the transnational turn requires a fundamental rethinking of these categories. Still, Hoffman suggested that the “exit, voice and loyalty” model might still be a good heuristic device for tackling the messy terrain of migration and politics.

I want to suggest here that the heuristic value of the “exit, voice and loyalty” model can only be preserved if one assumes that modes of power in relation to which exit, voice or loyalty gain meaning remain more or less the same. This is one of the shortcomings of the paradigm of transnationalism. Namely, even though the paradigm of transnationalism emphasises cross-border connections, multiple identifications, and social fields that traverse nation-state boundaries, it is not sufficiently attentive to shifts in modes of power, such as sovereignty and statehood. To put it another way, thinking transnationally does not automatically mean a more sophisticated understanding of contemporary modes of power. Understanding contemporary modes of power requires a rethinking of statehood as multiple and historical rather than taking the state to be a universally recognisable mechanism with “certain features, functions, and forms of governance” (Hansen & Stepputat 2001: 7).

For example, in Latvia, debates and arguments about who and how is to do something about outmigration often invoke seemingly conflicting notions of the state. “The state has to follow its citizens,” urge some diaspora activists as they argue for more political will behind diaspora politics. “They don’t understand that they are the state”, say civil servants who criticise migrants for complaining about how “the state” has not created conditions for leading a good life at home. “The Latvian himself changes as he moves to Britain,” observe diplomats in London, “in Britain, he respects the state, whereas in Latvia he tries to avoid it. Where does this come from? From within or without?”

I think it is only possible to make sense of this “state talk,” where individuals are at times equated with the state and at other times differentiated from it, when we do not focus on the state as a coherent entity, but rather on the distribution of multiple forms of statehood. These forms of statehood are not necessarily linked to the same historical state or the state at large, but are rather distributed across spatially and temporally different state regimes. For example, when Latvians migrate to the United Kingdom to improve their well being, they remain committed to the Latvian state as the condition of possibility for the existence of the Latvian nation. We can thus observe a particular pattern of redistribution of statehood and reterritorialisation of sovereignty. Namely, while Latvia’s citizens are turning to the United Kingdom for a form of economic and social statehood, they turn to the Latvian state for their and the nation’s sovereignty.

Changing global configurations of power also suggest that it is increasingly difficult to pin down agents, such as a particular state or a particular government within a state, that could be held responsible for the conditions within which people attempt to craft their lives or which people try to change by moving. This introduces additional difficulties for attributing the labels of exit, voice or loyalty to particular actions, for it is not clear in relation to what—a state, a global corporation or else—a particular action gains political traction.

To summarize, then, my interest in migration and the political is as much about forms of power in relation to which actions gain political traction as about the action itself. And I find that the model of “exit, voice and loyalty” is not helpful for that purpose.

[1] In a recent seminar that took place at the University of Oxford, we referred to this as political desire (previous events)


Balibar, Étienne. 2004. We the People of Europe: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Casas-Cortes, Maribel & Sebastian Cobarrubias, Nicholas De Genova, Glenda Garelli, Giorgio Grappi, Charles Heller, Sabine Hess, Bernd Kasparek, Sandro Mezzadra, Brett Neilson, Irene Peano, Lorenzo Pezzani, John Pickles, Federico Rahola, Lisa Riedner, Stephan Scheel & Martina Tazzioli. 2014. “New Keywords: Migration and Borders.” Cultural StudiesDOI:10.1080/09502386.2014.891630

Hansen, Thomas Blom & Finn Steputtat. 2001. States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hirschman, Albert O. 1993. “Exit, Voice and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic: An Essay in Conceptual History.” World Politics 45(2): 173-202.

Hirschman, Albert. 1990 [1970]. Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. Harvard University Press.

Hoffman, Bert. 2008. “Bringing Hirschman Back In: Conceptualizing Transnational Migration as a Reconfiguration of “Exit”, “Voice” and “Loyalty”.” Working Paper No. 91, German Institute of Global and Areas Studies Research Programme “Legitimacy and Efficiency of Political Systems”. Available:

Papadopoulos, Dimitris, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos. 2008. Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century. Pluto Press.

Sippola, Markku. 2013. “The Awkward Choices Facing the Baltic Worker: Exit or Loyalty.” Journal of Baltic Studies 44(4): 451-473.