In 1978, the song Factory, on Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album, offered a lament for the working life:
End of the day, factory whistle cries,/ Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes./ And you just better believe, boy,/ somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight.
A little less than 20 years later, the figure haunting his work was often the migrant, rather than the factory worker.
In his 1995 Ghost of Tom Joad album, Springsteen revisited John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which he had first encountered on television as a child through John Ford’s 1940 film. But in Springsteen’s return to a film, and the novel that inspired it, which both remain all too contemporary, many of the characters in motion are moving from south to north, across the Rio Grande, rather than from east to west.
In Across the Border, the protagonist looks to the fullness of life as a possibility to be realised “somewhere across the border”.
Ten years later, on the Devils and Dust album, the song Metamoros Banks opens with a body drifting in the Rio Grande:
For two days the river keeps you down/ Then you rise to the light without a sound/ Past the playgrounds and empty switching yards/ The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars.
The narrative winds back, to a man in car-tyre shoes attempting to cross the river into Brownsville, Texas:
The lights of Brownsville, across the river shine/ A shout rings out and into the silty red river I dive.
This is not just an American story. The migrant — along with the border and the cops policing it — is fundamental to the story of our time. The New York Times reports that one in every 18 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa drowns. The same report puts the number of people who drowned while attempting to cross into Europe between January and July this year at 1 600.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the Okies, escaping the dust bowl and the Great Depression and moving west from Oklahoma to California, face brutish forms of discrimination and hostility. Today the right is on the rise across much of Europe, including Italy, Austria and Germany, and Sweden. The new right is explicitly constituted around hostility to the migrant. The same politics festers in Europe’s settler colonies, particularly in Australia and the United States.
In democracies that have always been racial projects, and that have, therefore, never been authentic democracies, there are powerful forces that would prefer to respond to migration by curtailing rather extending democracy. In these societies, the anxiety about migration is deeply raced. It is also classed. The family flying into John F Kennedy or Los Angeles International airports on a business-class flight are not received in the same way as the family crossing the Rio Grande.
It is easy to condemn British politician Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump, and their investment in the old order of domination and oppression, from Johannesburg. But we must also cast a critical eye on our own societies, in what is now the Global South.
In India, a politics frequently termed fascist sustains consent for a ferocious form of hypercapitalism by turning the people whose lives it wrecks against each other in the name of religion, language, point of origin and caste.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi built his political power on the back of an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. More recently, rumours circulating on social media, and in particular on WhatsApp, have led to a spate of public murders, often termed lynchings, across India.
In the Caribbean, the situation is most acute in the Dominican Republic, where migrants from Haiti face profound prejudice and discrimination. This goes as far as mass deportation, including people born and raised in the Dominican Republic but still deemed to be Haitian.
Africa is not exempt from the global phenomenon of hostility to the migrant. As early as 1961, Frantz Fanon warned that, although anti-colonial nationalism constituted new nations in resistance, and marshalled extraordinary courage and commitment in struggle, without “a rapid step … from national consciousness to political and social consciousness”, new forms of chauvinism could emerge. “From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism … These foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked.”
Across Africa, colonial arrangements that tied rights to territory, within or between national borders, continue to be exploited by elites to sustain oppressive forms of rule. Mahmood Mamdani’s compelling body of work has illuminated the failure of most post-colonial states to break with the colonial attempt to divide people into ethnicities tied to territories.
In South Africa, migrants who arrive from countries like Somalia or Pakistan, and without great wealth or professional accreditation, face systemic discrimination from an extremely corrupt and abusive state. Politicians shamelessly refer to people, irrespective of their legal status with regard to citizenship, as “foreign nationals”, and the conflation between “illegal immigrants” and “criminals” is relentless. Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s xenophobia is repulsive to the point of being Trumpian in its crudity.
But the ANC, the Congress of the People and the wider Democratic Alliance have all pandered to and incited xenophobic sentiment.
In more local politics, it is common, particularly in some parts of the country, for officials and politicians, including senior politicians, to openly encourage hostility against people deemed to be living in the wrong province or to be of the wrong ethnicity. This is especially crude in Durban, where it is routine for people to be told, if they wish to access government services, they should do so in the province from which they are deemed to have originated.
There have also been cases where unlawful and violent state action against impoverished people has been explicitly legitimised in ethnic terms. This is seldom met with much interest, let alone opposition, in the elite public sphere.
In Soweto, the most recent attacks on migrants were, in many respects, similar to recent forms of social media-driven violence in India. Rumours were spread on social media, there was complicity from other actors, and then public attacks, resulting in murders.
As in India, vulnerable people were scapegoated by an intersection of interests — from local business interests to opportunists in the media on the hunt for clicks, state actors and the commanding heights of political power.The result is that social antagonisms are deflected into horizontal forms of violence, rather than into organisation and struggle that direct antagonism vertically.
A key difference between the situation in India and South Africa is that, in India, inciting popular violence against vulnerable people is framed within an explicitly right-wing project. In South Africa, it is often framed within the language of radical nationalism. Ideas and actions that would more or less everywhere else on the planet be seen as extremely right-wing, even fascist, are given a left-wing gloss.
At this time, when one can open a social media channel and see a committed Cosatu union federation member peppering his language with communist and radical nationalist phrases, and presenting an attack on a Somali shop as a radical act, it is vital that we work towards conceptual clarity.
In 1670, in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza drew an important distinction, pithily explained by Etienne Balibar as that between “nationalism (the ideology of the divine election of a people) and universalism (the identity of citizen and neighbour)”.
More recently, Mamdani has argued that, given the enduring weight of colonial strategies to govern the colonised via the constitution of ethnic authority, it is vital that progressive African states must award rights on the basis of residence rather than origin.
This kind of politics is not in the realm of the yet to come. There are many concrete historical examples of forms of solidarity, or even just everyday life, founded on shared residence or forms of work. Despite all the forces committed to the normalisation of chauvinism as nationalism, we can see concrete forms of contemporary day-to-day life and solidarity taking place outside of the xenophobic spirit of the age.
There are vast differences in the political cultures and practices in organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. But they share a striking openness to multi-ethnic and multinational participation and leadership.
In the first case, solidarity is built on shared residence, on the ethic of neighbourliness and in the second,on shared participation in labour. But in both cases, the cosmopolitanism of everyday life is not understood in terms of threat, and oppression is conceptualised along a vertical rather than a horizontal axis.
Fanon was right. Nationalism on its own is a double-edged sword.
In contemporary South Africa, it can raise vital questions about, say, land ownership and, at the same time, constitute the migrant from Somalia or Pakistan as an enemy who can be murdered —in public, in broad daylight —in the name of the nation.
It is vital that we reconstitute a social consciousness, one appropriate to our time and place.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research