Sam Miller’s new book, Migrants: The Story of Us All, comes when vilification of migrants and refugees is at the top of the Tory government’s and media’s agenda.
Barely a day goes by without a politician painting refugees and migrants as a dangerous “other”. Just last week, Rishi Sunak said he was “aligned” with home secretary Suella Braverman when asked about her racist rhetoric. She had described immigration as “out of control” and said only the Tories are serious about “stopping the invasion” of the south coast of England, echoing the language of the far right.
Miller aims to “cut through the toxic debates” and puts migration at the heart of human history. He adopts a broad definition of migrants first coined by psychologist Greg Madison. It says, “A migrant is someone who has moved from one culture to another and is challenged to undergo some adjustment to the new place”.
Such a broad definition sees Miller trace the story of migration right back to the first humans, sapiens and Neanderthals. It continues through ancient history, exploring the Bible, Babylon and the Romans, and then on to the present day. He points out that just 400 years ago a third of the world’s population was nomadic.
It’s positive that Miller offers a narrative that challenges the dominant, negative one about immigration. He reflects throughout the book on the daunting task of challenging the vitriolic narratives around migration in politics.
However, in trying to take on these sorts of right wing arguments, he argues that humankind has an “urge to move”. This means the book ahistorically lumps together very different things—for example, Miller talks about the devastating nature of colonisation and settlers bringing diseases to North America. But the beginning of the British Empire was driven by our ruling class’s interests, not an age-old human desire to move around.
At some points it feels as if Miller, the highly-travelled former BBC journalist, is romanticising the idea of migration as an innate sense of curiosity based on his own experiences as a self-proclaimed “nomad”.
Miller argues against something he terms “the tyranny of sedentarism”, an ideology that normalises the idea that we are meant to stay put. But to understand the dominant narrative about migrants, we have to understand the relationship between capitalism and migration.
Capitalism relies on labour to meet its drive for ever more growth, ever more accumulation, and we’ve seen huge movements of people to meet it. Sometimes that takes place within countries—think of the vast numbers of people who moved from China’s interior to the eastern seaboard as growth took off. Sometimes that means ruling classes encouraging migration.
But, at the same time, capitalism relies on racism to divide working class people. The nation state, borders and immigration controls aren’t age-old, but bound up with the development of capitalism. While Miller does not point the finger at the needs of capitalism, he maps the relatively recent creation of passports, visas and border controls.
Today, the Tories both seek to clamp down against refugees, but also pull in more cheap and productive labour from overseas. This contradiction sees the narrative of a “good” and “bad” migrant.
Miller’s book is far from a left wing analysis and doesn’t go in depth as much as I would have wanted it to do. He acknowledges this in an afterword, even apologising to those “who were hoping for something else from this book”. But it does its best to subvert the mainstream arguments that migrants are a problem by reclaiming the lost voices of migrants old and new.