The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex

I just published a short piece at the New School’s Public Seminar magazine on migration and climate change. A further development of the idea that climate migration is a form of primitive accumulation.

Read online here, download here.

Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”

This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.

Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?

This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”

Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.

If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.

We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.

Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.

From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?

The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.

Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.

Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).

The Migrant Image

 

How can we think of art history as a discipline that moves process-based, performative, and cultural migratory movement to the center of its theoretical and methodical analyses?

With contributions from internationally renowned experts, this manual, for the first time, provides answers as to what consequences the interaction of migration and globalization has on research in the field of the science of art, on curatory practice, and on artistic production and theory. The objective of this multi-vocal anthology is to open up an interdisciplinary discourse surrounding the increased focus on the phenomenon of migration in art history.

Buy here and here.

Here is an extract from my contribution to the collection.

You can read the full chapter here: “The Migrant Image.” in Handbook of Art and Global Migration, ed. Burcu Dogramaci and Birgit Mersmann (De Gruyter Press, 2019); 54-69.

Migrant aesthetics
The mobile image and the centrality of the migrant mark a new period in aesthetics. The digital image is not only mobile by virtue of its form but by the mobility of its content and author. Some of the most shared and viewed images of the past few years have been digital images of migrants, refugees, and the conditions of their travels, and even their death. The image of Alan Kurdi, the dead Syrian 3-year-old is now one of the most influential images of all time. The popular media has been saturated with migrant images and has thus been confronted in a new and dramatic way with the visible lives and deaths of migrants.

Furthermore, the widespread access to cell phones with digital cameras has also made it possible for migrants and refugees themselves to generate more images of their own movement and experience than ever before. The itinerant, grainy, handheld, and “poor” images of migrant cell phone cameras have become their own film genera: the “wretched of the screen” (Steyerl 2013). In these videos migrants are not silent victims but creators of new aesthetic forms, “an imperfect cinema” (Espinosa 1979) as demonstrated in Elke Sasse’s 2016 film #MyEscape.

Cell phones have also become literal lifelines for migrants to obtain travel information in isolated areas, to share videos, sounds and images with friends, family, and authorities. The digital visua l and sonic images produced by migrants have become the material basis of the aesthetic threads that hold together numerous committees across borders, not just refugees. Although it is most obvious in the case of refugees, these are the same aesthetic lifel ines that make possible sustained social and informational communities around the world. The migrancy of the digital image is what allows for community in a world of global migration, continuous mobility, and displacement. What would global migration look like without without the migrancy of the image and the images of the migrant,

The migrant image thus marks the limits of the previous century and the outline of a new one defined by the mobility and migration of the image. This requires a new approach both to the politics of migration and the aesthetics of the image. However, the advent of the present is never limited to the present alone. Now that our present has emerged, it has become possible in a way it was not before to inquire into the conditions of its emergence and discover something new about the nature and history of art. in other words, the present reveals something new about the nature of sensation and what it must at least be like so as to be capable of being defined by the primacy of motion and mobility as it is. At no point in history has the image ever been anywhere near as mobile as it is today in the digital image.

So, what does this say about the nature of the image such that it is capable of this mobility? lf the image is defined by the primacy of mobility today yet existing theories of it are not, then we need a new conceptual framework. We need to produce such a new conceptual framework based on the primacy of motion to better understand contemporary sensation and aesthetics, as well as the historical events from which it emerges. in short, the rise of the mobile digital image draws our attention not so much to its radical novelty, but to a previously hidden dimension of all previous images throughout art history that can only now be seen (Hansen 2004; Hansen 2006; Manning 2012; Massumi 2007; Naukkarinen 2005; O’Sullivan 2001; Gregg/Seigworth 201 0).

The research program proposed by this chapter is therefore neither a theory of the migrant image that applies strictly to the novelty of the digital image nor an ahistorical theory of the image that applies forever and all time to all images and media. It offers a different approach…

The Migrant Image