The migrant as an invented subject: A response

Published 10 July 2012 / By COMPAS Communications

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I detect a note of frustration in Xiang Biao’s introduction to last week’s blog. Readers are refusing to be provoked so he tries again to be provocative and so far at least there still seems to be no response. So I’ll take the opportunity to respond.

In fact I strongly agree with Biao’s bottom line, that the migrant is an invented subject. I think it is very important that we start to recognise the ways in which, not only immigration controls, but academia and activists, construct the figure of ‘the migrant’. But I do not think that we can say that ‘Before the world was divided up into nation-states, migration was hardly a concern for anybody’. Perhaps it was not a concern for China but certainly in the geographical space that is now known as ‘England’ the mobility of the poor was of tremendous concern, and rulers attempted to control the mobility of the ruled long before the nation state.

The 1349 Ordinance of labourers was concerned to limit the geographical mobility of serfs and tenants. During feudal times, geographical mobility was clearly linked to labour mobility: to be mobile was to be able to sell your labour to a different master and the vagrancy statutes attempted to substitute for serfdom.  These new methods of disciplining and controlling labour were also linked to the imposition of service relations, tying masters to servants and contracts of indenture. It is by thinking back to these earlier times that we can understand how it is that in the UK at least, migrant labour is too mobile, and unemployed labour ‘at home’ is not mobile enough, stuck in housing estates and not bothered to ‘get on your bike’ (a couple of weeks ago Andrew Jimson on the Today programme described the importance of the changes to welfare benefits to help the unemployed ‘in motionless despondence in a dreary life’).

So Biao, I would respond by saying that mobility, if not ‘migration’ was a profound concern, indeed that the control of mobility was an important way in which kingly authority (sovereignty) extended its grip. This is not to say that mobility is abnormal, in fact the history of world is unavoidably a history of mobility – we talk about pioneers, pilgrims, settlers, troubadours, slaves and conquistadores rather than ‘migrants’ though. Mobility does not just happen within ordered social and political structures and undermines, reshapes and reinforces power relations and institutions. Migrancy, like vagrancy, is above all a crime of status, of refusing to accept one’s position. Nowadays however, this is not cast as one’s position as a serf, as belonging to a master, but one’s position as belonging to a state.

One of Biao’s insights that I would be interested in taking further is this notion of the migrant as a ‘free self-motivated individual’. This helps us make new and interesting connections. The immobility of the poor had been more successfully promoted by the Elizabethan poor laws than ever it had in practice by vagrancy legislation. By Victorian times this ‘success’ was backfiring as it discouraged the migration of the able bodied rural poor to manufacturing districts where their labour was much needed. There was a rebalancing of response and rather than evidence of disorderliness being mobile became increasingly seen as about being ‘free’ and improving oneself through selling one’s labour rather than being masterless. This is just one example of the endless recasting of the relation between mobility, freedom and labour that ‘migration’ continues to be part of Attention to ideas of freedom and autonomy remind us that our analyses of migration are not only infused with assumptions about nation states, but also with assumptions about contract, property and self-ownership.

Now I’d better go and read McKeown, as recommended by Biao. But can I also recommend Robert Steinfeld’s ‘The Invention of Free Labor’ and Laura Brace’s ‘The Politics of Property’. Neither of them have much to say about ‘migrants’ but they have everything to do with migration.