The Nomadic Proletariat: An Interview with Alain Badiou

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The Centrality of the Migrant

Thomas Nail: The sans-papiers are perhaps the single most cited example of a contemporary political event in all of your work. You say in De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? that their struggle “defines what is most important in politics today.” Why do the sans-papiers occupy such a privileged position in your work—and in contemporary politics?

Alain Badiou: My position is classical: Marx already considered the “late-arriving” proletarians who came from the countryside and who were not yet integrated into the logic of wages to be the “hard core” of the workers’ revolts in the big cities. It must also be remembered that these proletarians were also migrants (from the countryside to the cities) and that they were also undocumented migrants [sans-papiers]. Indeed, the right to remain in the city was subordinated to a document, the “worker’s booklet,” without which you could be sent home. Imperialist logic has only served to extend this attitude of police control, precarity, and permanent suspicion to proletarians coming from more remote countrysides of Africa, Asia, and others.This has in fact only internationalized the status of the proletariat in imperialist metropolises. Hence, the firm support for undocumented migrants [sans-papiers] is a natural and fundamental factor in the large-scale organization of the entire “nomadic” proletariat today.


L’Organisation Politique

TN: According to La Distance Politique, L’Organisation politique was created in 1983 and published its political writings from 1983 to 1991 in the journal Le Per- roquet. From 1992 to 1999 their writings were published in La Distance Politique.Where were the group’s writings published from 1999 to 2007? How would you characterize the group’s activity and writings during this time?

AB: The Organisation politique followed the more openly Maoist organization created in 1970 called the “UCFml” [Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste], Marxist-Leninist Union of Communists of France.The general inspiration that required the change of name was that the reference to Maoism and Marxism-Leninism was undoubtedly too classical on the one hand, too shared with dogmatic groups, and on the other, it did not place enough emphasis on our own properly political novelty, in particular the fact that our aim was no longer to quickly build a Party to“represent”the working class. But as far as I am concerned, I have always considered there to be a continuity of political practice between the two and believe that the change of name was not essential.

The Breakup

TN: Why did the group break up in 2007?

AB: In 2007 there was no longer sufficient unity and centralized political

labor on a scale large enough to maintain a national organization. Personally, as far as I am concerned, I would say that the action of the Organisation politique, in any case since the 2000s, had gradually become more and more limited: In fact, it existed practically only in the workers’ hostels of undocumented African workers. The living organization was in fact the one that had the name “the organization of the undocumented workers of the hostels and the political organization.” But “political organization” in this case no longer meant much. There have been four attempts to remedy this state of affairs. The first was to extend the organization to all hostels, perhaps on a national scale, which would have been a considerable extension. The second was to open political schools in the hostels. The third, to actively take over mass production in the factories. The fourth, and in my opinion the most important,was to create a“Council”of the Organisation politique and the militant workers who had demonstrated their great qualities as organizers and bearers of new ideas, and together create a new political direction truly anchored in the nomadic proletariat. I participated very actively in these attempts. But I also had to admit, against their success, some doubts about a certain inertia that I was not in a position to overcome. Eventually, I felt like the Organisation politique had become a specialized association of hostels and undocumented workers, and as such it was no longer “political.” This is because a political organization is an organization that is capable of holding, simultaneously, multiple processes among very different political situations.


Contemporary Analysis

TN: What has changed in your analysis of the sans-papiers since your work with them from 1996 to 1999? How would you compare those events to what is hap- pening today with other non-status migrant justice movements in North America and Europe more broadly?


Read the rest of the interview here.

Philosophy Today published whole special issue on Alain Badiou’s work, edited by Elisabeth Paquette, Amrit Mandzak-Heer, Dhruv Jain, “Critical Engagements With Alain Badiou” here.

Three Theses on Neoliberal Migration and Social Reproduction


Polygraph_27_Front Cover

Issue 27 of Polygraph is on “Neoliberalism and Social Reproduction” edited by Jaime Acosta Gonzalez, Jess Issacharoff, & Jacob Soule.

Read the whole issue free online here

Below is my contribution:

Three Theses on Neoliberal Migration and Social Reproduction

Today there are more than 1 billion regional and international migrants, and the number continues to rise: within 40 years, it might double because of climate change. While many of these migrants might not cross a regional or international border, people change residences and jobs more often, while commuting longer and farther to work. This increase in human mobility and expulsion affects us all. It should be recognized as a defining feature of our epoch: The twenty-first century will be the century of the migrant.

The argument of this paper is that the migrant is also a defining figure of neoliberal social reproduction. This argument is composed of three interlocking theses on what I am calling the “neoliberal migrant.”

Thesis 1: The first thesis argues that the migrant is foremost a socially constitutive figure. That is, we should not think of the migrant as a derivative or socially exceptional figure who merely travels between pre- constituted states. The movement and circulation of migrants has always played an important historical role in the social and kinetic production and reproduction of society itself.1

Thesis 2: The second thesis therefore argues that social reproduction itself is a fundamentally kinetic or mobile process. The fact that a historically record number of human beings are now migrating and commuting between countries, cities, rural and urban areas, multiple part time precarious jobs, means that humans are now spending a world historical record amount of unpaid labor-time just moving around. This mobility is itself a form of social reproduction.

Thesis 3: The third thesis is that neoliberalism functions as a migration regime of social reproduction. Under neoliberalism, the burden of social reproduction has been increasingly displaced from the state to the population itself (health care, child care, transportation, and other traditionally social services). At the same time, workers now have less time than ever before to do this labor because of increasing reproductive mobility regimes (thesis two). This leads then to a massively expanded global market for surplus reproductive laborers who can mow lawns, clean houses, and care for children so first world laborers can commute longer and more frequently. Neoliberalism completes the cycle by providing a new “surplus reproductive labor army” in the form of displaced migrants from the global South.

We turn now to a defense of these theses.

Thesis 1: The Migrant is Socially Constitutive

This is the case, in short, because societies are themselves defined by a continual movement of circulation, expansion, and expulsion that relies on the mobility of migrants to accommodate its social expansions and contractions.

The migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed, to some degree as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. We are not all migrants, but most of us are becoming migrants. At the turn of the twenty- first century, there were more regional and international migrants than ever before in recorded history—a fact that political theory has yet to take seriously.2

If we are going to take the figure of the migrant seriously as a constitutive, and not derivative, figure of Western politics, we have to change the starting point of political theory. Instead of starting with a set of pre-existing citizens, we should begin with the flows of migrants and the ways they have circulated or sedimented into citizens and states in the first place—as well as emphasizing how migrants have constituted a counterpower and alternative to state structures.

This requires first of all that we take seriously the constitutive role played by migrants before the 19th century, and give up the arbitrary starting point of the nation-state. In this way we will be able to see how the nation-state itself was not the origin but the product of migration and bordering techniques that existed long before it came on the scene.3

Second of all, and based on this, we need to rethink the idea of political inclusion as a fundamentally kinetic process of circulation, not just as a formal legal, economic, or other kind of status. In other words, instead of a formal political distinction between inclusion/exclusion or a formal economic distinc- tion between productive/unproductive, we need a material one of circulation/ recirculation showing how social activity is defined by lived cycles of socially reproductive motions.

One way to think about the constitutive role played by migrants is as a kinetic radicalization of Karl Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation.

Primitive Accumulation
Marx develops this concept from a passage in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “The accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour.”4 In other words, before humans can be divided into owners and workers, there must have already been an accu- mulation such that those in power could enforce the division in the first place. The superior peoples of history naturally accumulate power and stock and then wield it to perpetuate the subordination of their inferiors. For Smith, this process is simply a natural phenomenon: Powerful people always already have accumulated stock, as if from nowhere.

For Marx, however, this quote is perfectly emblematic of the historical obfuscation of political economists regarding the violence and expulsion required for those in power to maintain and expand their stock. Instead of acknowledging this violence, political economy mythologizes and naturalizes it just like the citizen-centric nation state does politically. For Marx the concept of primitive accumulation has a material history. It is the precapitalist condition for capitalist production. In particular, Marx identifies this process with the expulsion of peasants and indigenous peoples from their land through enclosure, colonialism, and anti-vagabond laws in sixteenth-century England. Marx’s thesis is that the condition of the social expansion of capitalism is the prior expulsion of people from their land and from their legal status under customary law. Without the expulsion of these people, there is no expansion of private property and thus no capitalism.

While some scholars argue that primitive accumulation was merely a single historical event in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, others argue that it plays a recurring logical function within capitalism itself: In order to expand, capitalism today still relies on non-capitalist methods of social expulsion and violence.5

The idea of expansion by expulsion broadens the idea of primitive accumulation in two ways. First, the process of dispossessing people of their social status (expulsion) in order to further develop or advance a given form of social motion (expansion) is not at all unique to the capitalist regime of social motion. We see the same social process in early human societies whose progressive cultivation of land and animals (territorial expansion) with the material technology of fencing also expelled (territorial dispossession) a part of the human population. This includes hunter-gatherers whose territory was transformed into agricultural land, as well as surplus agriculturalists for whom there was no more arable land left to cultivate at a certain point. Thus social expulsion is the condition of social expansion in two ways: It is an internal condition that allows for the removal of part of the population when certain internal limits have been reached (carrying capacity of a given territory, for example) and it is an external condition that allows for the removal of part of the population outside these limits when the territory is able to expand outward into the lands of other groups (hunter gatherers). In this case, territorial expansion was only possible on the condition that part of the population was expelled in the form of migratory nomads, forced into the surrounding mountains and deserts.


We later see the same logic in the ancient world, whose dominant polit- ical form, the state, would not have been possible without the material tech- nology of the border wall that both fended off as enemies and held captive as slaves a large body of barbarians (through political dispossession) from the mountains of the Middle East and Mediterranean. The social conditions for the expansion of a growing political order, including warfare, colonialism, and massive public works, were precisely the expulsion of a population of barbarians who had to be walled out and walled in by political power. This technique occurs again and again throughout history, as I have tried to show in my work.

The second difference between previous theories of primitive accumulation and the more expansive one offered here is that this process of prior expulsion or social deprivation Marx noted is not only territorial or juridical, and its expansion is not only economic.6 Expulsion does not simply mean forcing people off their land, although in many cases it may include this. It also means depriving people of their political rights by walling off the city, criminalizing types of persons by the cellular techniques of enclosure and incarceration, or restricting their access to work by identification and checkpoint techniques.

Expulsion is the degree to which a political subject is deprived or dispossessed of a certain status in the social order. Accordingly, societies also expand and reproduce their power in several major ways: through territorial accumulation, political power, juridical order, and economic

profit. What is similar between the theory of primitive accumulation and the kinetic theory of expansion by expulsion is that most major expan- sions of social kinetic power also require a prior or primitive violence of kinetic social expulsion. The border is the material technology and social regime that directly enacts this expulsion. The concept of primitive accu- mulation is merely one historical instance of a more general kinopolitical logic at work in the emergence and reproduction of previous societies.

Marx even makes several general statements in Capital that justify this kind of interpretive extension. For Marx, the social motion of production in general strives to reproduce itself. He calls this “periodicity”: “Just as the heavenly bodies always repeat a certain movement, once they have been flung into it, so also does social production, once it has been flung into this movement of alternate expansion and contraction. Effects become causes in their turn, and the various vicissitudes of the whole process, which always reproduces its own conditions, take on the form of periodicity.”7 According to Marx, every society, not just capitalist ones, engages in some form of social production. Like the movements of the planets, society expands and contracts itself according to a certain logic, which strives to reproduce and expand the conditions that brought it about in the first place. Its effects in turn become causes in a feedback loop of social circulation. For Marx, social production is thus fundamentally a social motion of circulation or reproduction.

In short, the material-kinetic conditions for the expansion of societies re- quires the use of borders (fences, walls, cells, checkpoints) to produce a system of marginalized territorial, political, legal, and economic migrants that can be more easily recirculated elsewhere as needed. Just as the vagabond migrant is dispossessed by enclosures and transformed into the economic proletariat, so each dominant social system has its own structure of expansion by expulsion and reproduction as well.

Expansion by Expulsion

Expulsion is therefore a social movement that drives out and entails a deprivation of social status.8 Social expulsion is not simply the deprivation of territorial status (i.e., removal from the land); it includes three other major types of social deprivation: political, juridical, and economic. This is not a spatial or temporal concept but a fundamentally kinetic concept insofar as we understand movement extensively and intensively, that is, quantitatively and qualitatively. Social expulsion is the qualitative transformation of deprivation in status, resulting in or as a result of extensive movement in spacetime.


The social expulsion of migrants, for example, is not always free or forced. In certain cases, some migrants may decide to move, but they are not free to determine the social or qualitative conditions of their movement or the degree to which they may be expelled from certain social orders. Therefore, even in this case, expulsion is still a driving-out insofar as its conditions are not freely or individually chosen but socially instituted and compelled. Expulsion is a fundamentally social and collective process because it is the loss of a socially determined status, even if only temporarily and to a small degree.9

Expansion, on the other hand, is the process of opening up that allows something to pass through. This opening-up also entails a simultaneous extension or spreading out. Expansion is thus an enlargement or exten- sion through a selective opening. Like the process of social expulsion, the process of social expansion is not strictly territorial or primarily spatial; it is also an intensive or qualitative growth in territorial, political, juridical, and economic kinopower. It is both an intensive and extensive increase in the conjunction of new social flows and a broadening of social circulation. Colonialism is a good example of an expansion which is clearly territorial as well as political, juridical, and economic.

Kinopower is thus defined by a constitutive circulation, but this circulation functions according to a dual logic of reproduction. At one end, social circulation is a motion that drives flows outside its circulatory system: expulsion. This is accomplished by redirecting and driving out certain flows through exile, slavery, criminalization, or unemployment. At the other end of circulation there is an opening out and passing in of newly conjoined flows through a growth of territorial, political, juridical, and economic power. Expansion by expulsion is the social logic by which some members of society are dispossessed of their status as migrants so that social power can be expanded elsewhere. Power is not only a question of repression; it is a question of mobilization and kinetic reproduction.

For circulation to open up to more flows and become more powerful than it was, it has historically relied on the disjunction or expulsion of mi- grant flows. In other words, the expansion of power has historically relied on a socially constitutive migrant population.

Thesis 2: Mobility is a form of Social Reproduction

People today continually move greater distances more frequently than ever before in human history. Even when people are not moving across a regional or international border, they tend to have more jobs, change jobs more often, commute longer and farther to their places of work,10 change their residences repeatedly, and tour internationally more often.11

Some of these phenomena are directly related to recent events, such as the impoverishment of middle classes in certain rich countries after the financial crisis of 2008, neoliberal austerity cuts to social-welfare programs, and rising unemployment. The subprime-mortgage crisis, for example, led to the expul- sion of millions of people from their homes worldwide (9 million in the United States alone). Globally, foreign investors and governments have acquired 540 million acres since 2006, resulting in the eviction of millions of small farmers in poor countries, and mining practices have become increasingly destructive around the world—including hydraulic fracturing and tar sands.

In 2006, the world crossed a monumental historical threshold, with more than half of the world’s population living in urban centers, compared with just fifteen percent a hundred years ago. This number is now expected to rise above seventy-five percent by 2050, with more than two billion more people moving to cities.12 The term “global urbanization,” as Saskia Sassen rightly observes, is only another way of politely describing large-scale human migration and displacement from rural areas, often caused by corporate land grabs.13 What this means is not only that more people are migrating to cities but now within cities and between suburban and urban areas for work. This general increase in human mobility and expulsion is now widely recognized as a defining feature of the twenty-first century so far.14

Accordingly, this situation is having and will continue to have major social consequences for social relations in the twenty-first century. It there- fore demands the attention of critical theory. In particular, it should call our attention to the fact that this epic increase in human mobility and migration around the world is not just a minor or one-time “inconvenience” or “eco- nomic risk” that migrants make and then join the ranks of other “settled” urban workers. It is a continuous, ongoing, and nearly universal massive ex- traction of unpaid reproductive labor.

Urban workers have become increasingly unsettled and mobile.The world average commuting time is now 40 minutes, one-way.15 This unpaid transport time is not a form of simply unproductive or unpaid labor. It is actually the material and kinetic conditions for the reproduction of the worker herself to arrive at work ready for labor. Not only this, but unpaid transport labor also continuously reproduces the spatial architecture of capitalist urban centers and suburban peripheries.16 The increasing neoliberal privatization of roadway construction and tollways is yet another way in which unpaid transport labor is not “unproductive” at all but rather continues to reproduce a massive new private transport market.This goes hand in hand with the neoliberal decline of affordable public transportation, especially in the US.


Unfortunately, transport mobility has not traditionally been considered a form of social reproductive activity, but as global commute times and traffic increase, it is now becoming extremely obvious how important and constitu- tive this migratory labor actually is to the functioning of capital. If we define social reproduction as including all the conditions for the worker to arrive at work, then surely mobility is one of these necessary conditions. Perhaps one of the reasons it has not been recognized as such is because transport is an activity that looks least like an activity, since the worker is typically just sitting in a vehicle. Or perhaps the historical identification of vehicles and migration as sites of freedom (especially in America) has covered over the oppressive and increasingly obligatory unpaid labor time they often entail.

The consequences of this new situation appeared at first as merely tempo- ral inconveniences for first-world commuters or what we might call BMWs (bourgeoise migrant workers).This burden initially fell and still falls dispropor- tionally on women who are called on to make up for the lost reproductive labor of their traveling spouses (even if they themselves also commute). Increasingly, however, as more women have begun to commute farther and more often this apparently or merely reproductive neoliberal transport labor has actually pro- duced a growing new market demand for a “surplus reproductive labor army” to take up these domestic and care labors. This brings us to our third thesis.

Thesis: 3: Neoliberal Migration is a Regime of Social Reproduction

The third thesis is that neoliberalism functions as a migration regime of social reproduction. This is the case insofar as neoliberalism expands itself in the form of a newly enlarged reproductive labor market, accomplished through the relative expulsion of the workers from their homes (and into

vehicles) and the absolute expulsion of a migrant labor force from the global south to fill this new market.

Migration therefore has and continues to function as a constitutive form of social reproduction (thesis one). This is a crucial thesis because it stresses the active role migrants play in the production and reproduction of society, but it is not a new phenomenon. Marx was of course one of the first to identify this process with respect to the capitalist mode of production. The proletariat is always already a migrant proletariat. At any moment an employed worker could be unemployed and forced to relocate according to the demands of capitalist valorization. In fact, the worker’s mobility is the condition of modern industry’s whole form of motion. Without the migration of a surplus population to new markets, from the rural to the city, from city to city, from country to country (what Marx calls the “floating population”) capitalist accumulation would not be possible at all. “Modern industry’s whole form of motion,” Marx claims, “therefore depends on the constant transformation of a part of the working population into unemployed or semi-employed ‘hands.’”17 As capitalist markets expand, contract, and multiply “by fits and starts,” Marx says, capital requires the possibility of suddenly adding and subtracting “great masses of men into decisive areas without doing any damage to the scale of production. The surplus population supplies these masses.”18

What is historically new about the neoliberal migration regime is not merely that it simply expels a portion of the population in order to put it into waged labor elsewhere. What is new is that late-capitalist neoliberalism has now expelled one portion of the workers from a portion of their ownun-waged reproductive activity in order open up a new market for the waged activity of an as yet unexploited productive population of migrants from the global South. In other words reproductive labor itself has become a site of capitalist expansion. Wherever objects and activities have not yet been commodified, there we will find the next frontier of capitalist valorization.

The consequence of this is a dramatic double expulsion. On the one hand, the bourgeois migrant worker is expelled from her home in the form of unpaid reproductive transport labor so that on the other hand the proletarian migrant worker can be expelled from her home as an international migrant and then expelled from her home again as a commuting worker to do someone else’s reproductive activity. The burden of social reproduction then falls disproportionately on the last link in the chain: the unpaid reproductive labor that sustains the domestic and social life of the migrant family. This is what must be ultimately expelled to expand the market of social reproduction at another level. This expulsion falls disproportionally on migrant women from the global south who must somehow reproduce their family’s social conditions, commute, and then reproduce someone else’s family’s conditions well.19


Neoliberalism thus works on both fronts at the same time. On one side it increasingly withdraws and/or privatizes state social services that aid in social reproductive activities (child care, health care, public transit, and so on) while at the same increasing transport and commute times making a portion of those activities increasingly difficult for workers. On the other side it introduces the same structural adjustment policies (curtailed state and increased privatization) into the global South with the effect of mass economic migration to Northern countries where migrants can become waged producers in what was previously an “unproductive” (with respect to capital) sector of human activity: social reproduction itself.


This is the sense in which migrants play a constitutive role in the kinopolitics of social reproduction and neoliberal expansion. In other words, neoliberal migration has made possible a new level of commodification of social reproduction itself. Waged domestic labor is not new, of course, but what is new is the newly expanded nature of this sector of labor and its entanglement with a global regime of neoliberal expulsion and forced migration.

One of the features that defines the uniquely neoliberal form of social reproduction today is the degree to which capitalism has relied directly on economically liberal trade policies and politically liberal international governments in order to redistribute record-breaking numbers of “surplus migrant reproductive labor” into Western countries. Global migration is therefore not the side-effect of neoliberal globalization; it is the main effect. Neoliberalism should thus be understood as a migration regime for expanding Western power through the expulsion and accumulation of migrant reproductive labor.

Kinopolitics: Borders in Motion

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We live in an age of movement. More than at any other time in history, people and things move longer distances, more frequently, and faster than ever before. We live in an age of world historical global migration, increas- ingly rapid climatic changes, of high-speed digital images, of accelerating universes and accelerated particles. All that was solid melted into air long ago and is now in full circulation around the world like dandelion seeds adrift on turbulent winds. We find ourselves, at the turn of the twenty-first century, in a world where every major domain of activity, from nature and society to the arts and sciences, has become increasingly defined by patterns of motion that precede and exceed human agency.

We can no longer continue on with the same old theoretical tools under these circumstances. We need a new theoretical humanities that no longer starts and ends with humans and human systems (language, society, culture, the unconscious, and so on). Today, more than ever before, it is apparent that humans and their systems are not the only agents on this planet. Humans and their social structures are shot through and exceeded by more primary and constitutive material-kinetic processes and patterns. Humans are thus caught up in much larger meta-stable patterns of motion with their own kind of logic, yet to be systematically studied across the disciplines. Matters both living and nonliving (geological, geographical, climatological, microbiological, technological, and so on) are not merely passive objects of human construction. Humans and nonhuman beings are two dimensions or regions of the same systems of collective interactional agency or patterns of motion.

Studying these patterns does not mean, however, that we should abandon the study of human agency and structures. Far from it. The challenge of what is now being called ‘posthumanism’ or ‘new materialism’, of which I see my work as a part, is to provide a new theoretical framework to help us think through the entangled continuity of human and nonhuman agencies that now confront us. The natural sciences, typically charged with the study of non- human structures, have largely treated these structures as independent objects of subjective knowledge, without attending to the active role their objects of study have played in the shaping of scientific knowledge itself.2 The sciences, just as much as the humanities, therefore require a new theoretical foundation that takes seriously the collective agency of humans and nonhuman systems as dimensions of something else—of what I call ‘kinetic systems’. The anthropocentric project has come to an end.3 We have crossed the threshold of a new Copernican revolution. Now is the time to put forward new ideas, such as a theory of kinetic systems.

The contribution of my chapter to this larger project is to show some of the political consequences of posthumanist kinetic systems with the aim of avoiding ‘inhumanism’.4 In the hopes of bringing the theoretical human- ities closer to a more posthuman and movement-oriented perspective this chapter proceeds in three parts. Part one motivates and contextualises the shift in the theoretical humanities away from thinking about anthropocen- tric systems—starting with Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of assemblages. Part Two then provides a definition of and argument for a shift towards a movement-oriented perspective for thinking about politics in particular. Part three provides a concrete example of how this new perspective helps us to think about the contemporary border politics.

You can read the rest of my chapter here from Posthuman Ecologies: Complexity and Process After Deleuze, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Simone Bignall.

Asylum Report from the US-Mexico border (Dec, 2018)


This report looks like essential reading for understanding what is going on at the US-Mexico border right now. Thanks to @_gesanchez for sharing this!

The report is based on fieldwork conducted during this past November on 8 regions along the US Mexico border. It involves extensive observations at ports of entry,  extensive caselaw analysis and interviews with law enforcement, civil society, government officials and ordinary citizens on both sides of the border.

Our report identifies the existence of a clear, widespread strategy leading most asylum seekers to present themselves at official US ports of entry to initiate their claims, yet being returned for this purpose to Mexican territory under the claim that the US lacks the ability to process them. This has led to significant delays and to the emergence of ad-hoc systems for asylum seekers’ processing coordinated by Mexican civil society, local and state agencies. Despite their good intentions these systems are plagued by insufficient oversight, allegations of corruption and abuse. But most troublingly, we identify increasingly precarious conditions and growing uncertainty among the thousands of people stranded on the Mexican side for the border, and which play a role in their decision to opt for alternative forms of crossing that put their integrity and potential chances to secure asylum relief at risk.

Download the report here: AsylumReport 2018

Sanctuary, Solidarity, Status!, Thomas Nail (2018)

I just got my copy of Open Borders, edited by Reece Jones. This is a landmark collection of work on open borders and is filled with excellent contributions. I will definitely be teaching from this! You can read my chapter from the book here.


The aim of this chapter is to describe the current possible path toward a world without borders. Rather than provide a speculative vision of what a borderless world might or ought to look like, this chapter begins instead from where we are and, more importantly, what the road ahead will likely look like.

Open Borders

Border control continues to be a highly contested and politically charged subject around the world. This collection of essays challenges reactionary nationalism by making the positive case for the benefits of free movement for countries on both ends of the exchange. Open Borders counters the knee-jerk reaction to build walls and close borders by arguing that there is not a moral, legal, philosophical, or economic case for limiting the movement of human beings at borders. The volume brings together essays by theorists in anthropology, geography, international relations, and other fields who argue for open borders with writings by activists who are working to make safe passage a reality on the ground. It puts forward a clear, concise, and convincing case for a world without movement restrictions at borders.

The essays in the first part of the volume make a theoretical case for free movement by analyzing philosophical, legal, and moral arguments for opening borders. In doing so, they articulate a sustained critique of the dominant idea that states should favor the rights of their own citizens over the rights of all human beings. The second part sketches out the current situation in the European Union, in states that have erected border walls, in states that have adopted a policy of inclusion such as Germany and Uganda, and elsewhere in the world to demonstrate the consequences of the current regime of movement restrictions at borders. The third part creates a dialogue between theorists and activists, examining the work of Calais Migrant Solidarity, No Borders Morocco, activists in sanctuary cities, and others who contest border restrictions on the ground.

You can buy the book here.

Migrant Cosmopolitanism (A Talk Given at Lund University, Sweden)


Here is the talk I gave today at Lund University, Sweden.

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The twenty-first century will be the century of the migrant. At the turn of the twenty-first century, there were more migrants than ever before in recorded history. Today there are over 1 billion migrants. Migration has risen by nearly 50 percent since the turn of the 21st century and more than 56,000 migrants have died or gone missing worldwide over the last four years. More than ever, it is becoming necessary for people to migrate due to environmental, economic, and political instability. In particular, climate change will significantly increase international migration over the next forty years [although figures on this are too complex to know]. What is more, the percentage of total migrants who are nonstatus or undocumented is also increasing, thus posing a serious challenge to democracy and political representation.4

[EX: I think we will see a lot more movements like the migrant caravan in the future. Complex causes: It is partially caused by climate change, US imperialism, political violence, poverty, etc. vs. right wing nationalism. Trump has brought 6,000 national military violating posse commitatas. He has said they will shoot, he has declared a “refugee ban,” “invasion.”]

The phenomenon of migration thus presents a unique problem for political theory. If citizenship and legal equality are the concepts by which many nation-states and liberal democracies understand the political agency and rights of a people, what does this mean for the 15–20 percent of people living in countries like the united States, for example, without full status? It means that a continually increasing population of migrants with partial or no status are now subject to a permanent structural inequality—the lack of voting and labor rights, possible deportation, and other deprivations, depending on the degree of status. This is difficult to reconcile with almost any political theory of equality, universality, or liberty. The fact that hundreds of millions of human beings are currently living outside their country of origin as a result of migration and frequent relocation should dramatically challenge the conditions of political life assumed by political philosophers.

Unfortunately, much of political theory has either been unwilling to acknowledge the structural nature of this exception with respect to the territorial nation-state. If we want to understand the prospects for a truly global community, we have to move beyond the critiques of citizenship, nationalism, and liberalism, and propose an approach that will not structurally exclude the millions of migrants and refugees of the world. We must create what I propose to call a “migrant cosmopolitanism.”


In this paper I want to do three things: Part I: Give a brief history and criticism of political theory (Aristotle) and modern cosmopolitanism (Kant and the Republican tradition). Part II: Propose two defining features of what I call “Migrant Cosmopolitanism” or “social transformation from below.”: (Sanctuary and Solidarity).

 Part I: From Polis to Cosmopolis


Aristotle articulates an exclusion at the heart of Western politics clearly. For Aristotle, political status is fundamentally tied to one’s inclusion in the polis. for those who do not have a polis, Aristotle reserves the term βάρβαρον(barbaron, barbarian). The Greek word βάρβαρος(barbaros) originates from the onomatopoetic sound of the babbling of the foreigner who does not speak Greek. In this way, the determination of the “nature” of the barbarian migrant is already relative to a geographical and political center: the Greek polis. Barbarism is thus a political determination. With respect to the center, the periphery is barbarian, mobile, migrant, diffuse, inferior, unintelligible, and so on. Accordingly, the antonym for the Greek word barbaros was civis or polis—both words that applied to cities. The barbarian is the “non-Greek, noncity-dweller.”

But what makes the barbarians inferior is not only their non-Greek status (although most non-Greeks also did not speak Greek), but their inability to use political speech and reason (logos) that were politically bound to the specifically Greek logos. Thus the figure of the migrant barbarian unites three concepts tied to the polis: (1) the inability to speak the language of the polis (Greek), (2) the inability to use the reason of the polis (logos), and (3) an excessive geographical mobility in relation to the polis.

Above all, the term “barbarism” designates a political inferiority: a natural incapacity for proper speech and reason that disallows political life [ex: national anthem in Spanish]. If people do not have a city-state, then they cannot possibly have political rationality, and vice versa. for Aristotle, barbarians are those whose temporary encampments, mobility, and even geographical distance from the polis create a natural inferiority. As Herodotus states, “[i]nstead of establishing towns or walls, they are all mounted archers who carry their homes along with them and derive their sustenance not from cultivated fields but from their herds.” The barbarian is the social figure whose inferior migrant motion outside the polis is ultimately enslaved in order to expand the rising political and military power of the state.

However, if the origins of politics are found in the exclusionary walls of the polis, the origins of cosmopolitanism can be found conversely in the opening of the city walls—and of political membership itself—to the entire world. In contrast to the parochial polis or walled city, the kosmopolis is the political community that is open to the world. There are at least two major types of modern cosmopolitanism. unfortunately, both types fail to fully account for the inclusion of one of the fastest growing groups of disenfranchised peoples in the world: migrants.



The first modern theory of cosmopolitanism was developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century. Kant argues that the progress of human history can be defined precisely by our capacity to increasingly open up our city walls so “that which nature has as its highest aim, a universal cosmopolitan condition, can come into being, as the womb in which all the original predispositions of the human species are developed.” Since the invention of the ancient polis, human societies have slowly become more inclusive and should continue to do so, Kant argues.

Unfortunately, Kant’s cosmopolitanism is limited by his privileging of history and time over the figures of migration and motion. For Kant, historical progress is accomplished insofar as humans struggle through their natural antagonisms with one another and as a result, “advance [their use of reason] gradually from one stage of insight to the next.” Through this antagonism, “the greatest problem for the human species, to which nature compels it to seek a solution is the achievement of a civil society which administers right universally.” However, this same unsociability that compels humans to abandon the lawless state of savagery and enter civil society also compels them to abandon the “barbarous freedom of the already established states” and establish “law-governed external relations between states.” Thus humans develop this “concealed plan of nature” through the two interlocking forms of right: constitutional right and international right. But what of migrants, nomads, and those without or between states? How can universal right be realized while there are still people who exist outside these laws or as nonmembers of states?

The third form of right that Kant creates to deal with these people is cosmopolitan right—achieved through universal hospitality. While Kant is quite clear that migrants do not have the “rights of a guest . . . (which would require a special, charitable contract stipulating that he be made a member of the household for a certain period of time),” the migrant does have the right to visit, to which all human beings have a claim, to present oneself to society by virtue of the “right of common possession of the surface of the earth. Since it is the surface of a sphere, they cannot scatter themselves on it without limit, but they must rather ultimately tolerate one another as neighbors, and originally no one has more of a right to be at a given place on earth than anyone else.” universal cosmopolitan right or “the right of everyone to the surface” is essential for the historical progress of humanity. If states or persons ignore this right, then they reject the universal progress of human reason.

However, while Kant’s gesture of visitation seems more inclusive than Aristotle’s, its exclusion is actually much more radical. for Aristotle, alien migrant residents can still reside in the polis, and they can even participate in office via prostatēs (sponsors).28 for Kant, migrants, nomads, and strangers are not even guests allowed inside a household, much less allowed to participate in political life; they are only visitors to the spatial exterior or “surface of the earth.” Just as time is the inner form that provides the unity of the subject in Kant’s transcendental aesthetic, so political time (history) provides the unity and progress of reason. for Kant, migrants, nomads, and other non-citizens are only allowed temporary access to the territory of a state: visitation (Besuchsrecht), not residence (Gastrecht). Kant’s right of cosmopolitan hospitality may protect nomads and migrants from slavery but only through their ahistoricity at the hands of the true movers of cosmopolitan history: citizens and states.

Therefore Kant’s theory of cosmopolitanism does not resolve the structural exclusion of migrants; it only alleviates it temporarily. contemporary proponents of the “federation of democratic states and societies,” such as David Held, encounter a similar problem. More often than not, cosmopolitan institutions composed of nation-states exist to protect the interests of citizens and states above and at the expense of migrants and the stateless. for example, the united Nations, an institution similar to what Kant had in mind, defines the right to leave a territory as a human right, but not the right to enter a territory. In short, powerful nation-states want to protect their wealth from the global poor. Another example: the united Nations Migrant Workers convention, signed by many states, provides basic rights and protections for migrants with status, but deliberately excludes rights for nonstatus migrants for the same reasons as above.30 Thus the cosmopolitanism of nation-states is not enough to protect or include all global migrants.


Republican cosmopolitanism

In response to this, the second major type of cosmopolitanism proposes that global institutions such as nongovernmental organizations (NGos) and transnational corporations would be more capable of implementing a civic set of cosmopolitan laws based on global justice and shared humanity than nation-states biased by their own parochial interests. This “civic cosmopolitanism,” however, only displaces the problem of requiring benevolent and knowledgeable lawmakers in these institutions as the sufficient condition for cosmopolitan inclusion. It is certainly true that NGos and other global institutions are capable of following principles of global justice, and in some cases, better than nation-states. But the proliferation of global migrants and refugees cannot be resolved by NGos like the Red cross in tent cities and refugee camps. In fact, rather than increasingly including migrants and refugees in political membership, humanitarian camps accomplish precisely the opposite: they depoliticize migrants and refugees by treating them as mere human beings. Refugee camps provide food and shelter, but they do not provide political voice and agency for their populations. Global institutions do not have the power to include stateless people in political membership. This is the danger of cosmopolitan institutions—that everyone becomes a mere human body to be managed in a camp. It is true that global institutions provide an important cosmopolitan role that should be increasingly regulated, but global institutions alone are not sufficient to protect or include global migrants.

A third option would be to combine both democratic and civic cosmopolitanism into a “three-tiered system of political authority.” Political decision making could come from subnational entities like cities, nation-states, and supranational institutions like the European union and the united Nations. Many theorists have formulated some combinatory version of this thesis.

However, the combination of multiple cosmopolitan law-creating institutions, while important, in principle still does not allow us to understand the most basic aspect of how those without the “rights to have rights,” like many migrants, come to attain cosmopolitan rights in the first place: through political struggle. Any theory of cosmopolitanism that focuses exclusively on the power of democratic leaders and their institutions to create laws of inclusion for dispossessed peoples is fundamentally inadequate. cosmopolitanism is not just about the creation of globally fair and inclusive laws and institutions; it is more importantly about the popular struggles required to demand and win those laws in the first place.

Part II: Migrant Cosmopolitanism


The first major tactic of this migrant cosmopolitanism is sanctuary. Before any larger social or legal changes are instituted, sanctuary will likely be required to defend migrants, and provide the first sites of collective resistance. Migrant sanctuary has a very long history, going all the way back to the fourth century, originating as a religious institution. Even today it is churches, more than anywhere else, that have maintained a space of juridical exception where the law of the state does not apply and where the police are not allowed, either by law or by historical convention. Related to but distinct from this religious tradition, the proliferation of sanctuary cities around the turn of the twenty-first century is a clear indication of a growing social desire to protect undocumented migrants and refugees seeking asylum. Sanctuary cites are cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement in one way or another. On one end of the spectrum there are cities like Denver which does not officially call itself a sanctuary, but is still considered by ICE to be a sanctuary city because it does not enforce immigration policy or ask people about their legal status and share that information with ICE.[i]On the other side there are cities like San Francisco that not only make it illegal for municipal entities to cooperate with federal immigration but also forbid city employees to limit city services or benefits based on immigration status.[ii]

In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to remove federal funding to all sanctuary cities. The recent rise of sanctuary spaces of all kinds, #SanctuaryRising, #SanctuaryCampus and others after President Trump’s aggressive proposal to deport millions of migrants from the U.S., and executive orders to defund sanctuary cities and block refugees to the US, are an important continuation of this very basic gesture of protection that had its first major political demonstration in the 1996 French Sans Papiers(without papers) movement.[iii]

One of the most important recent historical events of migrant cosmopolitanism is the sans papiersmovement in France. In 1996, the first autonomous organization of undocumented migrants was formed in France against the anti-immigrant Pasqua Laws. On March 18, 1996, 324 Africans, including 80 women and 100 children, occupied the church of Saint Ambroise and demanded the regularization of their immigration status. Four days later, on March 22nd, the police evicted the sans-papiersfrom Saint Ambroise, an action authorized by the church. Soon after, there were two large public demonstrations in Paris in support of the sans-papiers, and in June the government regularized twenty-two of the original Saint Ambroise demonstrators. Because of the clear public support for the Saint Ambroise sans papiersand their partial regularization, their struggle lead to the creation of more than twenty-five sans-papierscollectives in France. In Lille and Versailles, hunger strikes were conducted that in some cases led to regularization.[iv]However, by far the most well-publicized sans-papiersoccupation was the occupation of Saint Bernard Church in Paris later that year, beginning on June 28th. Three hundred undocumented Africans occupied the church and demanded regularization. Ten men went on hunger strikes in the church for fifty days, and set up the Coordination Nationale des Sans-Papiers (Sans-Papiers National Coordinating Committee). Saint Bernard Church was occupied from June 28th until August 23, 1996, until riot police violently broke down the church doors with axes, using tear gas on mothers and babies, and dragged everyone out. That night, 20,000 people marched in the streets to support the sans-papiers. By January 1997, 103 of the original 324 had received temporary papers, 19 had been deported, and 2 were jailed.[v]

After the Saint Bernard occupation, sans-papiersoccupations only increased across France. As the left and right political parties prepared for elections in June 1997, the right attempted to distinguish its party with the anti-immigrant Debré laws. Among other things, these laws required anyone who allowed a foreigner to stay in their residence to report this to the local town hall or they would be charged with aiding and abetting a “illegal” (clandestine). Following the first application of this law by a French woman living with a sans-papiersin Lille, sixty-six filmmakers called for a massive civil disobedience protest against the Debré law. Soon after, daily newspapers published lists of writers, artists, scientists, university teachers, journalists, doctors, and lawyers, all offering to accommodate foreigners without asking for papers. On February 22, 1997, 100,000 people demonstrated in Paris against Debré. In March 1998, the sans-papiersoccupied the Notre Dame de la Gare and Saint Jean de Montmartre churches, and later others marched from Toulouse to Paris, demanding “Regularization for all!” Cosmopolitanism did not happen in the voting booths; it happened in the streets and emerged from sanctuary spaces.

After many years, the sans-papierswon several important battles for their papers, rights, and inclusion in French society, yet there is still much to be done. These rights were not won simply because of beneficent leaders with broad ideas about cosmopolitan justice; these rights were won by starving migrants who were publicly beaten, experienced racial discrimination, and expelled by the police. These rights were won because hundreds of thousands of French people said they would rather break the unjust laws against harboringsans-papiersthan turn their back on their fellow humans. This is migrant cosmopolitanism.



The second major tactic along the path to migrant cosmopolitanism is solidarity. By solidarity, I mean not only a feeling of kinship, but specific tactics that go beyond the non-cooperation and protectionism of sanctuary practices. In particular, I mean the active organization of migrant justice social groups and demonstrations by migrants and allies including, but not limited to, the extension of social service provision to partial and non-status migrants such as free clinics, Doctors Without Borders, Lawyers Without Borders, safe houses, food and water provision like No More Deaths, Casa de Paz, No Borders camps, and many others; providing cell phone maps to help Mexican migrants survive the desert and avoid border patrol like the Transborder Immigrant Toolin the U.S. and the InfoAidApp to help refugees navigate their way through Europe. I use the term “solidarity city” or “solidarity organizations” to distinguish groups that actively help, support, or treat as equal in one way or another, partial and non-status migrants. In other words, while many sanctuary cities and organizations in the US do not require city employees to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, not all cities actively make this illegal and not all (non-municipal) organizations in the city actively provide services to non-status migrants or publicly support them. Instead of waiting for a borderless world the solidarity city is an attempt to start making one now.

The creation of solidarity cities for migrants is of course continuous with the sanctuary legacy. The creation of sanctuary cities and asylum is as old as slavery itself; today cities all over the world choose not to enforce federal and state immigration laws in their cities. The solidarity city is a more radical incarnation of the practice of modern church sanctuary that emerged across North America in the 1980s, in response to U.S. foreign policy and civil war in Central America. The idea of entire sanctuary cities has now spread to thirty-one cities in the United States and many others around the world. While top-down “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) city immigration policies may be legally binding at the local level, they often do not stop police, service providers, and individuals in the city from reporting non-status persons directly to federal immigration enforcement. So while many sanctuary cities of the United States may directly discourage police from helping immigration officials because it is “not their responsibility,” they often can and do. DADT is thus a precarious policy that always risks betrayal to the federal level. This is why DADT must become a matter of solidarity, similar to the underground railroads of the United States in the nineteenth century. Sanctuary practices that merely discourage working with federal immigration are not enough. We need solidarity practices that seek out ways to help non-status migrants through active city provisioning of services, a culture of popular antagonism against federal immigration enforcement, and specific organizations dedicated to supporting non-status migrants.

One recent attempt to coordinate this kind of effort and move beyond mere city sanctuary ordinances began in Toronto in 2009 and spread to Montréal and others.[vi]In 2013, Toronto became the first Canadian city with a formal policy allowing undocumented migrants to access services regardless of immigration status.[vii]The solidarity city movement is a migrant justice movement to (1) ensure that all city residents, including people without full immigration status, can access essential services, such as housing, health, education, social services, and emergency services, without fear of being detained or deported; (2) ensure that municipal funds and city police are not used to support federal immigration enforcement; and (3) ensure that residents of the city are not required to provide proof of immigration status to obtain services, and if such information was discovered it could not be shared with federal immigration enforcement. But the goal of the solidarity city is not just a legal formality—it is a social and political project to network with other community organizations to establish organizations that actively assist non-status migrants, including clinics, schools, food banks, and women’s shelters that will (1) provide access to anyone regardless of status, (2) have frontline staff who adhere to this commitment and will be sensitive to non-status issues, and (3) create a larger culture of antagonism with federal immigration enforcement and solidarity with precarious migrants.[viii]

The density and diversity of migrants in the city of Toronto make it a particularly fecund milieu for the creation of a solidarity city network. With over eighty different ethnicities and more than half of its city population born outside the country, Toronto is demographically the most diverse city in the world.[ix]An estimated 500,000 non-status persons live in Canada, and Toronto is home to more than half of them.[x]The Toronto migrant justice group, No One Is Illegal,has taken the idea of sanctuary cities one step further. NOII first began in Germany in 1997, inspired by the sans-papiersorganizations in France, and has spread to countries all over the world. NOIIcalls for the regularization of all non-status persons, an end to deportations, an end to the detention of migrants and refugees, and the abolition of security certificates.[xi]NOII’s strategy is pre-figurative insofar as it is aims to build a solidarity city in which all the institutions and people of the city agree to serve and protect everyone, regardless of papers. The aim is to mobilize the whole population of the city in collective civil disobedience against the Canadian government’s immigration policies, effectively building the cosmopolis that they envision without waiting for the state.[xii]

This is what we need to try and do now for the migrant caravan in the US.

 In conclusion, republican cosmopolitanism is only part of cosmopolitanism— the most reactionary part. The true agents and movers of cosmopolitan history and politics have always been, and continue to be, migrants.




[i]“But in some key ways, Denver has taken a moderate tack. Most notably, the measure agreed upon this month by Mayor Michael Hancock and its City Council sponsors maintains the sheriff’s practice of giving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement a heads-up before releasing inmates wanted on a detainer.” Noelle Phillips, Denver Post, September 28, 2017.


[iii]An earlier “sanctuary movement” occurred in the US during the 1980s to house central American political refugees in churches.

[iv]Teresa Hayter, Open Borders, 144.

[v]Teresa Hayter, Open Borders, 144.

[vi]Earlier efforts to radicalize the sanctuary city by provision ordnances can also be seen in US cities like San Francisco and New York that actively forbid city employees to work with federal immigration and to withhold social services. Thomas Nail, et al. “Building Sanctuary City: No One is Illegal–Toronto on Non-Status Migrant Justice Organizing,”Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Actionno. 11 (2010): 149–162.

[vii]Nicholas Keung, “Toronto declared ‘sanctuary city’ to non-status migrants,” The Toronto Star. Fri., Feb. 22, 2013.

[viii]DADT policies still need solidarity.

[ix]Nicholas Keung, “A city of unmatched diversity,” The Toronto Star. Wed., Dec. 5, 2007.

[x]According to No One is Illegal’s website:

[xi]A “Security Certificate” is a mechanism by which the Government of Canada can detain and deport foreign nationals and all other non-citizens living in Canada.

[xii]As NOII states, “The Solidarity City is about bypassing the ideas behind nation-states and centralized governments.” Thomas Nail, et al. “Building Sanctuary City: No One is Illegal–Toronto on Non-Status Migrant Justice Organizing,”Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Actionno. 11 (2010): 149–162, 159.

From What Shore Does Socialism Arrive?

This is the best thing I have read on the Caravan so far.

Ultimately, no doubt, the left in the United States will have to confront the fact that there is never likely to be an ‘American revolution’ as classically imagined by DeLeon, Debs or Cannon. If socialism is to arrive one day in North America, it is far more probable that it will be by virtue of a combined, hemispheric process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements.

— Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class1

Read here.