By Mike Davis
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The Great Wall of Capital

This article is over 20 years, 2 months old
The free market means a maze of fortified borderposts.
Issue 282

When delirious crowds tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989 many hallucinated that a millennium of borderless freedom was at hand. Globalisation was supposed to inaugurate an era of unprecedented physical and virtual-electronic mobility. Instead neoliberal capitalism has built the greatest barrier to free movement in history.

This Great Wall of Capital, which separates a few dozen rich countries from the earth’s poor majority, completely dwarfs the old Iron Curtain. It girds half the earth, cordons off at least 12,000 kilometres of terrestrial borderline, and is comparably more deadly to desperate trespassers.

Unlike China’s Great Wall, the new wall is only partially visible from space. Although it includes traditional ramparts (the Mexican border of the United States) and barbed wire fenced minefields (between Greece and Turkey), much of globalised immigration enforcement today takes place at sea or in the air. Moreover borders are now digital as well as geographical.

Take, for example, Fortress Europe, where an integrated data system (upgrading the Strasbourg-based Schengen network) with the sinister acronym of PROSECUR will become the foundation for a common system of border patrol, enforced by the newly authorised European Border Guards Corps. The EU has already spent hundreds of millions of euros beefing up the so called ‘Electronic Curtain’ along its expanded eastern borders and fine-tuned the Surveillance System for the Straits that is supposed to keep Africa on its side of Gibraltar.

Tony Blair recently asked his fellow EU leaders to extend white Europe’s border defences into the heart of the Third World. He proposed ‘protection zones’ in key conflict areas of Africa and Asia where potential refugees could be quarantined in deadly squalor for years. His model is Australia, where right wing prime minister John Howard has declared open war on wretched Kurdish, Afghan and Timorese refugees.

After last year’s wave of riots and hunger strikes by immigrants indefinitely detained in desert hell-holes like Woomera in south Australia, Howard used the navy to intercept ships in international waters and intern refugees in even more nightmarish camps on Nauru or malarial Manus Island off Papua New Guinea.

Blair, according to the Guardian, has similarly scouted the use of the Royal Navy to interdict refugee smugglers in the Mediterranean, and the RAF to deport immigrants back to their homelands.

If border enforcement has now moved offshore, it has also come into everyone’s front yard. Residents in the US southwest have long endured the long traffic jams at ‘second border’ checkpoints far away from the actual lines. Now stop and search operations are becoming common in the interior of the EU. As a result, even notional boundaries between border enforcement and domestic policing, or between immigration policy and the ‘war on terrorism’, are rapidly disappearing. ‘Noborder’ activists in Europe have long warned that the Orwellian data systems used to track down non-EU aliens will be turned against local anti-globalisation movements as well.

In the US, likewise, trade unions and Latino groups regard with fear and loathing Republican proposals to train up to 1 million local police and sheriffs as immigration enforcers.

Meanwhile the human toll of the new world (b)order grows inexorably. According to human rights groups, nearly 4,000 immigrants and refugees have died at the gates of Europe since 1993 – drowned at sea, blown up in minefields, or suffocated in freight containers. Perhaps thousands more have perished in the Sahara en route. The American Friends Service Committee, which monitors the carnage along the US-Mexico border, estimates that a similar number of immigrants have died over the last decade in the furnace-hot deserts of the southwest.

In the context of so much inhumanity, the White House’s recent proposal to offer temporary guest-worker status to undocumented immigrants and others might seem a gesture of compassion in contrast to the heartlessness of Europe or the near fascism of Australia.

In fact, as immigrant rights groups have pointed out, it is an initiative that combines sublime cynicism with ruthless political calculation. The Bush proposal, which resembles the infamous Bracero programme of the early 1950s, would legalise a subcaste of low-wage labour without providing a mechanism for the estimated 5 to 7 million undocumented workers already in the US to achieve permanent residence or citizenship.

Toilers without votes or permanent domicile, of course, is a Republican utopia. The Bush plan would provide Wal-Mart and McDonald’s with a stable, almost infinite supply of indentured labour.

It would also throw a lifeline to neoliberalism south of the border. The decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement, even former supporters now admit, has proven a cruel hoax – destroying as many jobs as it has created. Indeed the Mexican economy has shed jobs four years in a row. The White House neo-Bracero proposal offers President Vicente Fox and his successors a crucial economic safety valve.

It also provides Bush with an issue to woo the swing-vote Latinos in the southwest next November. Undoubtedly, Karl Rove (the president’s grey eminence) calculates the proposal will sow wonderful disarray and conflict among unions and liberal Latinos.

Finally – and this is the truly sinister serendipity – the offer of temporary legality would be irresistible bait to draw undocumented workers into the open where the Department of Homeland Security can identify, tag and monitor them. Far from opening a crack in the Great Wall, it heals a breach, and ensures an even more systematic and intrusive policing of human inequality.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and Dead Cities and a contributor to Under the Perfect Sun.

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