back to

e-flux conversations

Recuperating the Sideshows of Capitalism: The Autonomy of Migration Today


This text is a reflection on our 2007 contribution to the TRANSIT MIGRATION research project, “The Autonomy of Migration: Ten Theses Towards a Methodology.” Within the project, we analyzed the movements of migration and the migration policies deployed against them at the edges of the EU, in order to decipher the contours of a new regime of emerging migration politics. We were interested in investigating, from the perspective of social theory, what was symptomatic in movements of migration. We were interested in tracing the crossing of borders, the traversing of territories, the enmeshing of cultures, the unsettling of institutions (first among them nation-states, but also citizenship), the connecting of languages, and the flight from exploitation and oppression—interested, in other words, in investigating what migration teaches us about the conditions of contemporary forms of sociality, and that which goes beyond them. With this article, we pick up the thread and offer some further thoughts.

Ten years ago, we gave a name to our efforts to create a new basis for political work dealing with migration: the autonomy of migration. Dazzling term, slogan, and program all at once, its use, first and foremost, functioned for many as an act of liberation. It not only demanded that migrants themselves be allowed to speak of their struggles (or, more generally, that migration discover its own language) nor did it simply seek to interrupt the helpless recourse to the history of victimhood that oppresses through racism; and it certainly was not about adding another decentralized social movement to those that replaced the workers’ movement after its demise—on the contrary, the idea was to contribute to the construction of new connections within the social struggles concerned with migration, in order to gather the different layers of subjectivity (as men and women, as workers and employees, as citizens and the illegalized) to form a foundation with which to accelerate these struggles in emancipatory ways. Ultimately, this opens the possibility for analytically and practically connecting various struggles within the context of migration, beyond national limits; for understanding the transformation of borders both on the edges of the European Union and within it; for allowing these transformations to become the locations of conflict.

We considered the autonomy of migration to be a program of research into both the political and the pitfalls of an emancipatory politics that was too purely focused on either the global or national levels. We hoped that migration, understood from this perspective, could offer a research framework that could take into consideration both the local and the global, while also revealing the separations and segregations that characterize our lives today—a framework, in other words, able to bring the contradictions of capitalist sociality to the fore in a manner that might indicate how those same contradictions can be left behind.

Various effects followed from the deployment—by ourselves and others—of the concept of the autonomy of migration. It unsettled several things that had until then been taken for granted within anti-racism debates; a coherent “politics of autonomy,” however, did not emerge. The autonomy thesis was rebuffed where it was interpreted phenomenologically, as an empirical description of processes of migration; as if we had presumed migrants to be autonomous individuals who “did their thing” regardless of border controls and migration policies. There was fear that the turn away from the misery of migration could prove a flawed strategy; that the emphasis on the agency of migrants would play into the hands of those who had always inferred homo economicus and the pursuit of self-interest in migrants. But this quickly becomes a fatal, circular argument that rests on the precondition that migrants may only ever be regarded as the victims of circumstance. The liberals set the precedent, and for the Left there only remains the option to play along or lay the groundwork for the Right. Instead, one must ask how it could be possible to lay the foundation for a broader movement in the concerns of migrants? Beyond basic pity and general human rights, what could be brought into play as a common terrain?

Read the full article here.