It’s Not About Four Years, It’s About Five Centuries

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Amazon workers on strike in Shakopee this past summer, Photo by Kerem Yucel.

By Duncan Riley

12/22/2019

 

In response to the Trump administration’s most recent reactionary measure targeting immigrants, an executive order giving counties and states the right to block refugee resettlement, Governor Walz asserted in his recent letter to Secretary of State Pompeo that Minnesota will continue to welcome refugees, highlighting the economic and social benefits they bring to our communities. However, despite this friendly rhetoric, the actual record of Governor Walz and the State Government contradicts this welcoming stance. Earlier this year, when a popular movement growing out of immigrant communities had pushed the proposal for Driver’s Licenses for All through the House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans both added amendments that would have forced immigrants to undergo criminal background checks in order to obtain a license while also emblazoning the license card with “not valid for voting.” What could have been a step towards greater freedom and equality for immigrant communities was thus transformed by both parties into a tool to criminalize the very people it claimed to help – though, in the end, the legislature simply allowed it to die at the end of the session. Just last month, the fire at the Cedar-Riverside high rise killed five people, among them Somali refugees. As many commentators have noted, the fire likely would not have been so deadly had it not been for the lax regulations of the Minnesota Public Housing Authority, which did not require the building to have sprinklers. And, as a 2016 study demonstrates, the poverty rate among immigrants in Minnesota rises far above the rest of the state’s poverty rate. As such, while Governor Walz may allow refugees to settle here, the welcome they receive is more often than not social exclusion, economic exploitation, and dangerous living conditions.

That Governor Walz and the Democratic Party, despite their rhetoric, have done little to ameliorate the structural racism and discrimination immigrant communities face should come as no surprise. As politicians, their ultimate role is to administer a political and economic system that was built upon the expulsion and genocide of the indigenous peoples of Minnesota and the exploitation of immigrant labor, from the Scandinavian “sewing girls” in Minneapolis who went on strike to protest law wages in 1888 to the Somali workers who led the strike against Amazon this past Summer. Thus, to expect the state government, in the hands of the Democrats, to suddenly transform itself into a tool for social transformation is to ignore the historical processes that have shaped it as an instrument of repression.

Foremost among the historical developments which have contributed to the rise of the modern state and the war it wages against immigrants is the capitalist economic system. As Italian Historian Silvia Federici argues in her book Caliban and the Witch, the growth of capitalism, beginning in the 15th century, was predicated upon the expulsion of European peasants from their common lands and communities by economic and political elites, solidifying private property rights and a money-based economy. The peasantry, thus uprooted from its traditional communal way of life, turned to “vagabondage,” wandering the roads of Europe in search of food and work. In response to this trend, European states passed draconian laws that punished these vagabonds with imprisonment and even death, in an effort to compel the displaced peasantry to accept poor wages and working conditions as day laborers and hired hands in the emerging capitalist economy. Further, as Justin Akers Chacón points out in No One is Illegal, modern capitalism continues this trend. Neoliberal economic policies that were imposed on Mexico through structural adjustment programs and NAFTA in the 1980s and 90s rolled back the gains that Mexican workers and peasants had made in the revolution of 1910-1919, abolishing the protections that Article 27 of the Mexican constitution had provided for small-scale farmers. The result was that millions of Mexican peasants were expropriated from their lands by North American agribusiness, forcing many to immigrate northwards. In the United States, these immigrants were met with a system of political and economic disenfranchisement that the State and Capital, working in concert, have built to ensure immigrants remain a cheap and exploitable work force. Consequently, the injustice immigrants face, both in Minnesota and across the world, is an intrinsic facet of an economic system predicated upon inequality and profit, a problem which cannot be washed away by a nice letter.

Thus, by studying the historical context which surrounds the outrages committed by the Trump administration against immigrants, we can come to a deeper understanding of their causes and how to fight them. At their root lies not Trump’s individual cruelty or prejudice (though those are undoubtedly contributing factors), but rather the more banal and quotidian cruelty of the businessman, politicians, and bureaucrats who uphold the present social and economic order. As such, when Trump leaves office, whether by impeachment or by the ballot, it will not be enough to simply return to things as they were before 2016, as seems to be the hope of the Democratic Party. Indeed, even the left wing of the democrats, represented by Bernie Sanders, has failed to move beyond the constraints of capitalism, Sanders having maintained in both speeches and the debates that he opposes the abolition of borders and that his administration will still have “strong border protections.” Rampant deportations, mass incarceration, perpetual war, patriarchy, and racism all plagued our society long before Trump, and exorcising him from the political scene will do little to end these injustices. The only thing that can put an end to these injustices is a mass movement of workers, citizens and immigrants both, autonomous from the State and dedicated to advancing the vision of a society based upon liberty, equality, and solidarity for all. To many, of course, such a vision seems unrealistic, and thus they advocate we must accept society as it is and work within the political system, compromising and allowing some injustices to continue in order to make progress on other questions. To this I would respond that a political and economic system that requires the acceptance of any degree of injustice, no matter how small, in order to function, has no right to continue existing.

Furthermore, there are indications that such a movement is already forming, and that the potential for liberty, equality, and solidarity to triumph in our society already exists. In the strikes against Amazon, in the growing popular movement for immigrants’ rights, and in the resistance of indigenous peoples to Line 3, the rejection of injustice and the assertion of a fundamental dignity and moral value common to all humanity are evident. Thus, within our present society, the seeds of justice are already being planted. Furthermore,  this year we have witnessed an upsurge in popular struggle across the world, and in popular assemblies and protest marches alternatives are beginning to develop. From Chile to Iraq, from Ecuador to Algeria, ordinary people are constructing a vibrant, local and direct democracy which contrasts sharply with the prevailing system of liberal democracy, in which every couple of years the people abdicate their right to administer their own affairs to a distant legislature. Equally, work, which at present is alienated from the rest of life, will be transformed as this movement advances, ceasing to be a stultifying task performed for the benefit of rich CEOs and blossoming into a vital and integral component of community life, inextricably linked with art, culture, and friendship. What is necessary now is for all these movements across the world to coordinate themselves, coming together to form one great redeeming tide dedicated to making the earth anew, so that the seeds of justice today being planted will sprout into the light of day, bursting asunder the cracked sod of a decaying society.

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