The grid of repression

The West should acknowledge that the current refugee crisis can be traced back to the age of empire.

World War II. American soldiers in France
The reason so many people were able to leave Europe was because there existed few controls on movement, writes Dasgupta [Getty]

The common mythology of the three great Mediterranean religions begins with a woman who, in the face of political terror, floats her son away on a river in the hope he will be carried to a better life. The plan works: He is rescued and adopted by a princess.

But as sometimes happens, the survivor of terror cannot settle down into decadence. Moses is outraged at the injustice of Egyptian slavery, and when he can do nothing to change it, he becomes a refugee for a second time – leading the entire Hebrew underclass on a journey to a new land.

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History is unleashed by “exodus” – and perhaps this displays an important insight about our species. For the most basic fact of human beings might be this: that they have always, when struck with natural adversity, violence, or just plain curiosity, moved. 

The nation-state system

Europe should understand this better than other places, for contemporary Europe would not have emerged if a significant fraction of the population had not been able to leave it. Between the Napoleonic Wars and World War II, some 70 million Europeans fled their homes for a new life. This flight acted as an essential safety valve to the boiler of the industrial age. Without it, the comparative tranquillity of post-1945 Europe might have looked very different.

The reason so many were able to leave was because then, few controls on movement existed. The mobility of capital was mirrored by the mobility of populations.

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Since the 1960s, movement has been progressively curtailed. The fantasy of contemporary globalisation as a time of unprecedented movement is convincing only in the enclaves of the world’s elites, of which Western Europe is the largest. In much of the rest of the world, fences loom large, and free international movement is the stuff of historical recollection.

What has brought this about is the emergence, in the decades following 1945, of the nation-state system. A political form that had taken 1,000 years to evolve in its native Europe was exported as the universal mode of political organisation. “The nation” was rolled out everywhere, sometimes with no precedent or even preparation. Formerly colonised peoples had their own country, and – it soon became clear – an implied duty to stay in it.

But it should by now be clear to all that this supposed equivalence of countries was illusory.


A country for everyone

Suddenly the half-billion “British subjects”, for instance, were segregated into groups with very different possibilities of movement. By 1965, a conservative member of parliament could stand up in the British House of Commons to claim “that the overwhelming number of English people would like to see these immigrants return to their own countries”. It was only a technicality that many colonial migrants to Britain did not yet have “their own country” to return to; what was important was that the nation-state era had already established a new – negative – moral weight to the act of migration. A country for everyone, and everyone in their country.

But it should by now be clear to all that this supposed equivalence of countries was illusory. Many of the nation-states hurriedly set up in Africa, Asia and the Middle East after World War II turned into fundamentally different entities from the old, rich, democratic and globalised nation-states of Europe.

Where there was no previous political culture of a sort that could avert it, the various monopolies granted to the modern state – over violence, tax collection, etc – produced a collection of clan fiefdoms riven by ethnic conflict and only held together by the authoritarianism of internationally sponsored strongmen. 

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The resulting devastation of vast swaths of the world’s social and economic capital has evacuated the nation-state system of nearly all its erstwhile promise, and turned it, for a great part of the world’s population, into nothing more than a universal repressive grid. It is no accident, therefore, that the revolutionary movements that have emerged in the Middle East and Africa in the wake of the strongmen, locate their idealism, less in the nation-state, than in religion, ethnicity and empire. These movements have, in their turn, pushed the disaster of several nation-states to its final stage – and other nation-states will blow up too, before this phase is complete.

The disaster has only been intensified by the readiness of Western armies to bomb the civilians of those same places – in contravention of the resolutions passed in Europe at the birth of the aeronautic era. This has made it abundantly clear that the internationalist platitudes of the nation-state era are exactly that: An Iraqi citizen clearly has a very different status from her Western counterpart. The only lasting way to secure the legal protections which, according to UN slogans, accrue to all humans, is to go west – and lay one’s hands on a Western passport.


Contemporary apartheid

Against this background, the intensification of border controls, and the suppression of that fundamental human instinct – to move – completes the picture of what we can call our contemporary apartheid – in which affluent, peaceful, democratic nations exclude the rest of the world from their own advantage. Their citizens have done little to earn this advantage, which is produced by exactly the same system that elsewhere produces such fatal realities. But no matter – as long as those born into violence remain fenced in, and continue to absorb the violent consequences of what is, after all, our shared political failure.

The real task that faces us is to reinvent the international system brought in after the age of empire, which has failed in fundamental respects. But that is a long-term project. Meanwhile, we must expect the exodus to continue from the lands once crossed by Moses. It is for today’s refugees, as it was for him, the only remaining choice.

Rana Dasgupta is a British novelist and essayist based in Delhi. He is the author of Capital: The Eruption of Delhi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.