Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzadra - January 2020
It should be obvious that European and North American societies need to mobilize to aid and protect migrants, who continue to die in horrifying and scandalous numbers crossing borders, especially at sea and in the desert. Governments augment the perils migrants face by implementing “prevention through deterrence” schemes, which force migrants to embark on ever more dangerous crossings; migrant adults and children are subjected to cruel forms of detention and often returned to unsafe countries; and governments increasingly criminalize the humanitarian efforts to aid and protect migrants in distress.1 Furthermore, the xenophobia and racism that accompany these antimigrant policies resonate with and amplify the host of other
racisms on the rise in these years. Mobilization is clearly necessary to protest these government policies and to limit the damage. Less obvious, however, is the obverse relation: that those walled societies of Europe and North America are in peril and that migrations carry the potential to save them. We need to recognize and affirm that migrants, through their myriad peregrinations, pose the right of movement as an essential freedom, one that stands at the root of all other freedoms. Beyond humanitarian aid and militant hospitality, open borders and freedom of movement are principles that should guide our politics today.
We do well to recognize, of course, that arguing to open borders and even to provide the basic protections for migrants situates us in the minority. Right-wing demagogues who inflame antimigrant sentiment have consistently won recent electoral majorities. Even on the left there is no shortage of antimigrant stances that claim to defend the interests of workers and “native” populations, casting migrants as intruders and threats to social peace and development. But being in the minority should not give us pause. Today’s antimigrant electoral majorities, in fact, may not be stable. It is remarkable how many people, regardless of political affiliation, recognize the dignity and necessity of aiding those in distress at sea or feeding those in need. Such experiences lead us to hope that public support for cruel and unjust policies toward migrants may not last long. But even in the meantime, swimming upstream, against majority opinion, is not impossible. It simply requires a different technique and a bit more effort.
Launching a Ship and Creating a Political Platform
The project to launch a migrant rescue ship began in discussions among a small group of Italian activists in June 2018. The Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini had just successfully closed Italian ports to the Aquarius, a rescue vessel contracted by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, with more than six hundred migrants on board.
This was the culmination of a violent campaign over the previous year that the Italian government had been waging against humanitarian NGOs conducting monitoring and rescue of migrants in distress in the Central Mediterranean. Although many of us had previously been critical of the increasing role of humanitarian NGOs in governing borders and migration, deploying “humanitarian reason,”2 we were well aware of the disastrous consequences of criminalizing humanitarian action. This effectively brought an end to the operations of monitoring the seas and conducting search and rescue missions, which previously had been fulfilled by humanitarian NGOs together with national coast guard and military vessels. We decided we needed to break this ban by launching a ship that, flying an Italian flag and
with an Italian crew, could not at the time legally be refused entry into an Italian port.
One of the remarkable discoveries we made as we conducted the daunting task of buying, outfitting, and launching a ship, is how many people from different parts of society immediately expressed support for the project. For instance, while visiting ship yards and docks to look for an appropriate ship and then to arrange for the necessary repairs, while learning the basics of marine engineering and maritime practices, we found that all seafarers passionately affirm the obligation to aid all who are in distress at sea and bring them to a safe port, a basic law of the sea. The justice of our project was for them beyond political differences. We also found ready, and much needed, support in an alternative financial institution. The Banca Etica, a cooperative bank operating in Italy and Spain, approved funding for the project with the guarantee of a small group of members of parliament from the Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left) party. On October 3, 2018, we were finally ready and launched the ship, the Mare Jonio, to conduct monitoring and, eventually, rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. That date was chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the 2013 migrant shipwreck off the coast of the Italian Island of Lampedusa in which more than 360 drowned. (On the experience of preparing and launching the ship, see Luca Casarini’s contribution to this dossier.)
The operations at sea of the Mare Jonio from its initial launch in October 2018 to early summer 2019 can be divided into two periods. In the fall and winter of 2018, the ship primarily conducted monitoring operations. It embarked on two-week missions in or near the search and rescue zone off the coast of Libya. (It is essential to recognize that Libya, a war-torn country
ruled by competing militias, has been designated as unsafe for migrants by the United Nations, and thus under international law it is illegal to return migrants there [United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2018].) During these months the ship did not rescue any migrants in distress. In fact, in several instances
it appeared as though the Italian government acted to prevent the ship from conducting rescues. In one instance, when the Mare Jonio approached the site of a distress signal, an Italian coast guard ship sped to the scene and itself conducted the rescue. In some respects, one could say that the project was already a humanitarian success because it had forced the Italian and
Maltese governments to reverse their positions and rescue migrants from sinking ships. In addition, the monitoring operations of the Mare Jonio were able to demonstrate the disastrous failure of the established “Search and Rescue” regime in the Central Mediterranean.
In the early spring of 2019, after a Winter period in which the seas were inhospitable, began a second period of the Mare Jonio’s operations. Twice in this period, on March 18 and May 9, the ship rescued migrants in distress, forty-nine migrants in the first case and twenty-nine in the second. In a third case, on July 4, fifty-nine migrants were rescued by the Alex, a ship that Mediterranea had sailed while the Mare Jonio had been impounded by the government. After each rescue, when the ship delivered the migrants to safe port in Italy, Mario Salvini vociferously condemned its actions on twitter, issuing government directives specifically targeted to prevent future operations of the Mare Jonio, and instructing the judge in Agrigento, Sicily, to impound the ship for investigation. The judge, however, cleared the ship and its crew of wrongdoing and these efforts to harass and criminalize have not deterred the continuing mission. (Enrica Rigo gives more detail on the rescue operations and their aftermath in her essay in this dossier.)
The Mare Jonio with its humanitarian mission at sea, although the most visible, constitutes only half of the project. The other half consists of Mediterranea, a platform composed of a wide range of organizations, associations, and social centers, that manages the project and has created a novel form of political cooperation and action (mediterranearescue.org/). Although
relations with NGOs, most notably Sea Watch and Open Arms, have been essential to the project, Mediterranea is not a traditional NGO and we have begun to think of it in terms of NGA, “non-governmental action,” in order to emphasize the activist core of the project. Whereas traditional humanitarian intervention focuses primarily on crisis areas, Mediterranea, in addition to its intervention in crises at sea, stresses the need to build and proliferate bridges between sea and land in a sustained way, even in times when there is no immediate crisis. Since October 2018, Mediterranea has organized dozens of debates and rallies in towns and cities throughout Italy, and has established lasting connections between what happens along maritime borders and the development of migrant struggles throughout the country. It has also worked to build coalitions to support the sea operations, cooperating, for instance, with writers and entertainers, church groups, unions, and the feminist movement “Non Una Di Meno.” As a result, Mediterranea has been adopted and recast by a variety of social and political actors, and its flags have been flown in all major demonstrations of social opposition across Italy in this period. (Alessandro Metz details the land operations of Mediterranea in his interview in this dossier.)
Freedom and Migrant Insurgency
The first rule for engaging the reality of migration should be to understand migrants not merely as victims in need of charity or protection, but as agents of their own destiny. Humanitarian action, of course, is necessary: those in distress at sea and in the desert must receive assistance—and this mentality is front and center, as it must be, for those directly engaged in material aid.
But the exclusive focus on victimization and violence slips too easily into a humanitarian logic that divides worthy refuges from illegitimate migrants, a point that is emphasized by scholars who adopt the “autonomy of migration” approach.3 Many migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and the US-Mexico border are indeed fleeing war and persecution, and thus squarely fit established refugee criteria, but there are myriad other reasons for flight, which are often mixed together, and many of these appear less noble from a humanitarian perspective: fleeing the effects of changing climate conditions, attempting to reunite with friends and family, pursuing better employment, running from abusive parents and spouses, exiting failed relationships, or simply seeking adventure. This is why the distinctions between “forced” and “voluntary” migration and between refugees and economic migrants are so unstable and so often criticized by critical migration scholars.
Once we invert the perspective and adopt the standpoint of migrants, we can recognize that all migrants, regardless of motivation, are engaged in a project of freedom, expressing and exercising the freedom of movement as a fundamental right. One must therefore, in addition to striving to limit the violence and to protect migrants from further harm, affirm the political content of what they accomplish. Here we can fully grasp the novelty and significance of Mediterranea, which reinforces the connection between land and sea. In addition to performing monitoring and search and rescue operations, it supports the practical exercise of freedom of movement by migrants.
Thinking through a project like Mediterranea, therefore, helps us tackle the question of freedom of movement. In theoretical terms, this means restoring freedom and liberation at the center of our political vocabulary, concepts that have faded in recent decades. By crossing borders,
migrants necessarily and objectively enact freedom. And it is amazing to note how intensely and consistently the word “freedom” is chanted, in a panoply of languages, at migrant rallies and demonstrations throughout the world. The essential link between migration and freedom, however, is not new and unearthing its complex genealogy can yield some unexpected support
for migrant politics today. Thomas Jefferson (1904: 64), for example, anticipated today’s migrants when he affirmed that freedom of movement is a universal right: “departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them [and] going in quest of new habitations” is “a right which nature has given to all men.” We know, of course, that, despite his universal
formulation, Jefferson had primarily in mind the white Europeans who had fled Europe for North America, not the enslaved Africans forced into the holds of ships on the middle passage nor the native Americans displaced and slaughtered or even nonwhite populations from other parts of the world, such as Asia. But it is often strategically useful to read Jefferson to the letter,
as W. E. B. Du Bois does, taking his universal claims for true, even when that means going further than he intended. The irrepressible f lows of today’s migrants across seas, deserts, and borders of all sorts, asserting their right to depart their country of origin in quest of new habitations, as Jefferson said, are affirming everyone’s freedom of movement, which is the pillar
of all other freedoms.
In political terms, the practices of migrants should be recognized as an internationalist insurgency. It might seem odd to impute such political value to migrations since the vast majority of migrants explain their own journeys in individual terms and cannot articulate their actions as part of a larger political project. There is no global migrant coordinating committee,
few organizational structures, like the caravans traversing Mexico, and there is no collective statement of principles or demands beyond simple expressions of defiance, such as the verse of a song frequently sung in the caravans, “La frontera está cerrada pero vamos a pasar” (the border is closed but we are going to cross it). Despite this lack of consciousness and visible organization, however, if one stands back to look at the concert of actions of migrants across the world, there emerges a coherent pattern of constant flows across borders as a de facto political strategy. Migrants constitute an acephalous party of internationalism in action, and it is difficult to rethink internationalism today (which is indeed an urgent task!) without taking seriously migrant practices as a material basis and a source of inspiration. They challenge the armies that patrol the borders and undermine the foundations of walls through innumerable singular actions that have a cumulative global effect, thereby constituting a sustained, continuing insurgency against the militarized border regimes and forces of social exclusion. Even though at first it may be hard for us to discern, the ruling authorities certainly recognize
the global migrant actions as an insurgency, and they have deployed their full arsenal of counterinsurgency measures against it.
The internationalist character of the migrant insurgency and its foundational call for freedom provide guides for political action in the dominant countries. The slogan “Refugees welcome” should, of course, continue to be affirmed, but it has to be filled with positive content. Hospitality is a virtuous attitude, but it is not enough and, moreover, it does not capture the political potential of our current situation. The real challenge today is to forge a political project that takes migrants’ movements, struggles, and claims as key to understanding society as whole, and to addressing questions of labor, justice, and democracy. Some important contributions to the current debate on open borders on the left build precisely on that political potential. Rather than merely expressing acceptance of foreigners and willingness to share a
limited portion of their social wealth, those in the dominant countries need to grasp the creative political force of migrants and recognize migrants as heralds of a new political freedom. Migrants bring various forms of social and cultural wealth, of course, and thus break the monotony and cultural poverty of homogeneous societies. But more importantly, in contrast to a society huddled in fear behind walls with militarized defenses, a society that affirms open borders and the right of movement for all is a free society characterized by public happiness, as Enlightenment intellectuals like Jefferson would say.
North Americans and Europeans must recognize, then, not only that migrants need their aid, but also and more importantly, that they need the aid of migrants to save their own societies. A politics of freedom may also help initiate new relations among migrants’ countries of arrival and their countries of origin, fostering processes of transnational and transcontinental cooperation. Highlighting the call for freedom and transnational cooperation are two of the central contributions of Mediterranea as it operates on the shores and across the sea that European migration policies have turned into a mass grave.
Original article from: The South Atlantic Quarterly 119:1, January 2020
Michael Hardt is an American political philosopher and literarry theorist. Hardt is best known for his book Empire, which was co-written with Antonio Negri. It has been praised by Slavoj Žižek as the "Communist Manifesto of the 21st Century". Michael Hardt's writings explore the new forms of domination in the contemporary world as well as the social movements and other forces of liberation that resist them. In the Empire trilogy -- Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth(2009) -- he and Negri investigate the political, legal, economic, and social aspects of globalization. They also study the political and economic alternatives that could lead to a more democratic world. Their pamphlet Declaration (2012) attempts to articulate the significance of the encampments and occupations that began in 2011, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, and to recognize the primary challenges faced by emerging democratic social movements today.
Sandro Mezzadra works as an Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna, where he teaches postcolonial studies and contemporary political theory. He has published widely on the areas of migration, postcolonial theory, contemporary capitalism, Italian operaismo and autonomist Marxism. His work has centered on borders, contemporary capitalism and globalization. With Brett Neilson he is the author of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013) and of The Politics of Operations. Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2019) As an activist he is currently engaged in the "Mediterranea Saving Humans" project.