Reproducing the West
Imperial formations iterate the historicity of the past, affecting human relations with institutions, materiality, and other beings. I want to speak to some of the relations that have been reconfigured and the relations being renegotiated right now regarding imperial creep and migrants within Europe. Empire shapes the narratives that produce and the facts of the past and have led to the willful forgetting of the brutal and extensive colonial and imperial work of the Italian nation-state. However, the reproduction of the West and the peopling of that cultural-epistemological domain demand specific maintenance that is critical to the sociopolitical and economic expansion of the West. Critical to the devastating lurch of empire that Hom traces in Empire’s Mobius Strip is the reproduction of the West and its imperialist reasons, recast as common sense in all the many quotidian actions of daily life as well as in the sensibilities of the political community.1 The commonsense notions of what liberal society and the market demand reaffirm not only the centrality of empire to the current liberal political episteme, the wet-nurse of the West, but the sociohistorical domination of the West and its ideology that requires empire, demonstrating the Mobius strip of empire.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot has noted the inherent contradictions within liberalism and the notions of a market society in a world suffering and straining under the current precepts of globalization. The market economy itself prevents the rise of the market society—a frighteningly totalizing permutation of the “market” that has long been on the horizon—because people have nonmarket goals and desires, resulting in refusals of the market society. Considering these goals, Trouillot explains, “These goals and the moral values, cultural codes, and social ideals that sustain them ensure that the effects of economic processes can never be reduced to the economic sphere.”2 Inasmuch as globalization revolves around the market, forcing misaligned and inequitable relationships between those with power and opportunity and those without, the capitalist, neoliberal market world order does not generate or rely on an “agreement on the long-term meanings of social life.”3 Such ambivalences about how to live a social life—the inherent contradictions within liberalism—represent profoundly mundane and quotidian battles in society.
Similar to the Turco-Napolitano law that criminalized immigration in Italy, paving the way for the detention centers known as Centri di Permanenza Temporanea (CPT) and their most recent iteration in Lampedusa (the Center for First Aid and Welcome), Niger passed a law in 2015 criminalizing all human trafficking, including the harboring of unauthorized and undocumented migrants in the country. The EU, through incredibly uneven bilateral agreements with Niger, was able to push a weak country under an opportunistic leader, President Mahamadou Issoufou, to police its own borders against the migrants from other Black African nations traveling through Niger to work in North Africa and beyond. Niger is not an imperial nation or even one considered to have emerged from a unified imperial past; however, the EU and Niger’s former colonial ruler, France, do continue to extend their imperial domains via their relations with postcolonial states such as Niger. A different iteration of Hom’s Mobius strip at work, European pressure on resource-strapped postcolonial states like Niger to stem the movement of Black Africans northward to Europe is an echo of previous colonial engagements of exploitation. Today, the European empire is solidifying its borders by fiat within its own territory and within the territories of other nations, and such suzerainties are the new spectacularly mundane politics of this relatively recent normal.
Many European nations, including Italy, have vacillated between deploying outwardly xenophobic and racist migration policies and rhetoric, and more subtle antimigrant machinations that are Trojan-horsed by criminal justice ideology and immigration reform doublespeak. Denise Ferreira da Silva has indicated how some of these xenophobic “arguments” against allowing the Others of Europe into Europe have been used as “social scientific projects guided by the concept of the cultural.”4 Such social scientific projects include the racist, social Darwinist, and eugenicist IQ testing and phrenological studies used to claim that Africans were biologically inferior to Europeans and their movement as (post)colonial subjects should be managed and limited by Europe. Hom pointed out that Italian colonial administrators and Italian journalists documenting the conditions and plight that both Libyan and Italian (im)migrants experienced gave racist accounts of Italian imperial subjects that continue to reverberate into the present, as experienced by the Roma and Sinti groups and the rest of Italy’s Italian others.5
Empire’s Mobius Strip and Empire’s Reprise
Why is so much of society so comfortable with the precepts of empire making and even with the idea of restricting the movement of others? The repackaging and reformulation of imperial spaces and their histories, such as the camp, the village, and even the plantation, are essential to the continued devastating linkages of the ribbon of empire—the Mobius strip in which we are all constrained and to which we are confined. These echoes of empire force us to reprise past roles as new ones. It is important to see empire as a reproduction and simulacrum of itself and of its past selves. It evolves with incredible speed and devastating totality.
When we think of “fascist creep,” or even the steady retrenchment of states away from socialist and communitarian principles and toward nationalist fascism, we need to consider the organization of the actors and political calculations that comprise this slow crawl. In fact, we need to consider this as a movement toward empire—a stronger embrace of imperial dreams that manifests in imperial expansion and a simultaneously tightening grip on society, historicity, and spatiality. This “creep” of the liberal market ideology has exacerbated the wealth gap under the guise of globalization and market “competition,” enabling capitalist expansion throughout the Global South while simultaneously enforcing xenophobic immigration policies rebranded in liberal doubletalk as “trade protectionism.” In doing so, this creeping nature of empire of the twenty-first century has exposed more people to ill health, limited economic possibilities, and increasingly severe forms of surveillance and securitization, including the state’s right to control the movement of subjects, a sovereignty over the body enshrined in law and put to use in (im)migration policy.
What does this look like in resource-strapped countries—those who experienced empire from the bottom? How does empire reinvent itself to work in countries like Niger? Humanitarianism via migration control is a co-optation of humanist ideals in the service of antimigration and antimigrant policies. Humanitarianism and the health it offers to many in Niger are co-opted for imperial use. NGOs and development organizations work to repatriate Black Africans and keep them within Black Africa (because they are not allowed in North Africa either). They rely on the antimigration apparatus to offer care that is contingent upon repatriation—that is, the reversal of movement, the correction of wayward mobility. This is not the first time humanitarianism has been intimately implicated in the subjugation and occupation of Africans and Europe’s Others; empire reprised the role of humanitarianism as the handmaiden of imperialism, and in this remake, humanitarian benevolence is facilitating the migration control that is part and parcel of present-day iterations of empire.
That migration has been “taken up” as a quasi-humanitarian issue is no surprise, as the alignment of NGOs and humanitarian reason with liberal logics of border security, individual responsibility, entrepreneurial solutions, and personal property has been decades in the making. The European Union has relied on the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—a United Nations (UN) agency, reflecting an endorsement of the UN that itself emerged from the aftermath of World War II alongside human rights discourse on which many of its actions rely—to manage not migration in the West, but migrants within postcolonial, sovereign nations. In Niger, IOM repatriates migrants to their home countries in a procedure it calls “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” that garners the label of “humanitarian aid” and, according to the Niger Chief of Mission Barbara Rijks, offers migrants a “dignified return.”6 However, IOM, along with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), organized a system for identifying and referring to UNHCR persons likely to fall under the Geneva Convention category of asylum, in which IOM staff in IOM transit centers would screen migrants against protocols IOM and UNHCR have developed in order to determine refugee status. Thus the offer of return assistance serves as a filter for access to the asylum process, the latter being synonymous with “problematic return.”7 As asylum becomes even more impossible to achieve, involving more arcane rules and requirements that increasingly raise the bar for what one has to endure and prove in order to even have a good case for asylum, more and more migrants decide to discontinue or forgo the asylum process altogether. IOM’s repatriation assistance program presents itself as the next viable option, producing Europe’s desired effect: shunting migrants into humanitarianized protocols for repatriation keeps Africans “in place” and also provides political cover for Europe as repatriation happens under the veil of a sanitized, humanitarian UN banner. Voluntary return, humanitarian cover, and entrepreneurial (market) “solutions” are ways in which imperial liberal ideologies have hijacked humanitarian principles and attendant sentiments in order to both shepherd and launder racist and xenophobic neoliberal politics. Hom’s tracing of the continuities of Italian empire through time is instructive, showing how empire never really goes away; it reconstitutes itself and rebrands its tactics, redefining all that it encounters in its telos of global domination, such that all aspects of society are understood and negotiated through the prism of empire.
Empire’s Mobius Strip reflects fundamental concerns about Black African presence in the imaginary of the Italian nation-state and in Western (Christendom) imperial imaginaries. Does the African exist, beyond mere presence? The failure to articulate African political will in their protests of ill treatment by the Italian state puts forth the problem that African being holds for (post)colonial empire and its onto-epistemological offspring, Western modernity. Empire’s Mobius Strip noticeably sidesteps African political subjectivity in reaction to the interminable grind of Italian empire, and how this elision actually perpetuates negative descriptions of Africans. It is notable that during Italian occupation of Libya and Somalia, Italian colonial administrators, governmental officials, and journalists described Africans in terms similar to how the current Italian state demonizes the Romani. In this preservation of contemptuous description of Africans, Hom demonstrates yet another way that empire smooths categories and descriptions of humans across space and time. Subjectivity for Africans is continually denied, and this disavowal of certain beings from the realm of ontological significance—and by extension, the political community—is part and parcel of the mundane but wanton violence that is simultaneously empire’s method and effect. Such an insistence on the nonbeing of Africans in terms of political agency and subjecthood is empire working, specifically against Africans living under the yoke of European (neo)colonialism in Africa.
This lack of engagement with African political subjectivity on the part of the African migrant subject quietly asks, What sort of political possibility can we expect from those still considered as objects by a system that is designed to not recognize them as subjectival actors? Such a claim assumes that full recognition of Africans’ subjectivity can be realized and respected within empire—however, empire makes no space for such a dream. Empire’s horizon of expectations has circumscribed rights around white Man, a product of the Western cultural logic of social categories in which biology provides the rational organization for the social world, or what Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí calls “bio-logics.”8 Black Africans and other former colonized peoples who are outside the bio-logics of white Man are incongruous with the imagined political entity that is endowed with rights of Man, and inclusion within a political community that is antithetical to Black being is an impossibility.
It is African presence that reveals the aporia within the Italian imperial state and its characterization of African mobility specifically that African migrants are abject mobile subjects. This speaks to the ontological threat that Africans—especially mobile Africans—pose to Europe, the cultural-geographical area of the former colonial rulers of African peoples. Europe and its empire represent an ontological, epistemological, and material system of domination and physical-cultural accumulation that enriches the cultural and historical episteme through which Europe derived its notions of self and the West; however, the dominion over bodies and their movement is paramount to the integrity of the empire. When Africans—both colonial subjects and postcolonial “migrants”—can move anywhere and without permission, the entire ontological premise of Europe/empire is undermined. Italy considering African migrants (noncitizens) as subjects who have been collapsed under the rubric of the universal without being subject to any of its benefits (namely, the undisputed and unabridged rights of Man) is the aporia at the heart of the unending and devastating logics of empire, and the threat to empire—simultaneous African mobility and European dominion of African subjects—is built in the imperial fabric.
Protests and destruction of detention centers render objects visible within the framework of optimism that is inherent to positive humanism. In a world of “negative liberties” that comprise the normative, legal, and humanist framework for “universal” humanitarian action, positive liberties—which include social and political freedoms—are unattainable for these African migrants, and therefore Africans’ “political will” has no foundation in liberal ethics and politics. The field of negative liberties enables the thin humanitarianism that Italy invokes in order to defend human rights, resulting in provisions of “care” without social solidarity, political redress, and bureaucratically obfuscated social welfare programs. These Africans are not proper subjects in the eyes of Italy or the West. Therefore, the question of whether their political will and subjectivity are being ignored is one that we cannot ask, because it assumes a universal subjectivity for Africans for which there is no basis of truth in the Western onto-epistemological tradition. Again, this—along with Hom’s assiduous research of the history of Italian colonialism of Libya and Somalia she is trying to recover from the oblivion resulting from historical amnesia—is another feature of empire at work: the persistent framing of African nonbeing despite the reframing of everything else that structures African presence in the West, including the historicity of Italian empire itself.
Ampson Hagan is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work explores the inherent contradictions within humanitarianism and its goal to rescue Africans and how those contradictions impose limits on how Africans can participate within a liberal, humanist, anti-Black world.
Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason,” Theory, Culture & Society 16, no. 1 (1999): 43–44.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 61.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations, 61.
Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, Borderlines 27 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 151.
Stephanie Malia Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 121.
“Over 40,000 Migrants Assisted with Voluntary Return and Reintegration from Niger since 2015,” IOM UN Migration press release, November 8, 2019, https://www.iom.int/news/over-40000-migrants-assisted-voluntary-return-and-reintegration-niger-2015.
Florence Boyer and Pascaline Chappart, “Les enjeux de la protection au Niger: Les nouvelles impasses politique du «transit»?,” Mouvements, June 30, 2018, http://mouvements.info/les-enjeux-de-la-protection-au-niger/.
Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 5.