Racial Capitalism and the “Migration Fix”



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Guest post by Gemma Bird (University of Liverpool) and Davide Schmid (Manchester Metropolitan University). This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms. As part of this initiative the full article, on which this piece is based, will be free to access here for the next month.

Zervou ‘closed and controlled’ Multi-purpose Reception and Identification Centre, Samos (2021)

Recent years have seen growing attention being dedicated to race and its role in global politics. Academic scholarship has sought to develop or recover concepts of analysis and critique to respond to and clarify the current conjuncture of white supremacist politics and anti-racist struggles. One important avenue of research has engaged with the Black radical tradition and the decades of work on white supremacy, racialisation and the implication of race in the functioning of global capitalism. In particular, the concept of Racial Capitalism has re-emerged as the core of a vibrant and growing body of critical scholarship interrogating the contemporary articulation of race, capital accumulation and white nativist politics.

In this blog we argue for the critical relevance of this body of thought for migration studies and draw on it to introduce the concept of the ‘migration fix’ which we develop from the work of David Harvey and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

A history of Racial Capitalism

The origins of the concept of Racial Capitalism can be traced back decades – to debates in the 1970s on Apartheid South Africa as well as the work of Cedric Robinson. At its heart, the concept highlights the fact that race and racialisation have historically played and continue to perform an active role in the development of global capitalism. Far from being a leftover of a bygone age, racialisation is central to the functioning of the contemporary global economy, from the workings of labour markets, to financialisation and global migration regimes. Racial Capitalism, then, operates through the categorisation of particular populations as ‘disposable’ and ‘undeserving’ for the purpose of regulating their right to mobility and access to labour markets and social welfare. Over the past few years, the concept has been expanded and deployed to analyse a wide range of topics and social domains, ranging from policing and the carceral system, to environmental collapse, urban politics and financialisation. Among these, an emerging body of work has begun to explore the usefulness of Racial Capitalism to the study of migration politics and the critique of contemporary border regimes and practises.

Racial Capitalism and its importance for migration studies

As scholars such as Gargi Bhatthacharyya, Prem Kumar Rajaram and Ali Bhagat have recently shown, the concept of Racial Capitalism is key for understanding the global politics of migration and the operations of the increasingly complex and deadly border regimes in North America and Europe. In particular, the emerging literature on Racial Capitalism and migration has highlighted the ways in which contemporary bordering practices around the world rely on the dichotomies of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ migrants, ‘authentic’ and ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers to organise and control displaced populations. These forms of categorisation, which depend on ever-shifting forms of racialised and gendered differentiation according to which individuals and groups of people are attributed value and worth, are key to the creation of populations marked as disposable. The management of these disposable or “surplus” populations, in turn, plays an important role in the political economy of global capitalism, ranging from the provision of an exploitable source of irregular labour for the stagnant economies of the Global North, to the articulation of nativist political projects conferring benefits to domestic populations racialised as white. Approaching the study of migration through the lens of Racial Capitalism, then, brings into relief the structural and oftentimes contradictory connections between the everyday practises of border officials, humanitarian actors and displaced populations themselves, and the operations of global capitalism. It is with the aim of clarifying these connections that we propose the concept of the “migration fix”.

Introducing the migration fix

In establishing the concept we draw inspiration from David Harvey’s understanding of the spatial fix in relation to capitalism's ability to draw on spatial responses to crisis tendencies, moving populations it deems surplus to spaces in which they are either needed for capitalist gain or can be ignored and forgotten. Like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we expand on Harvey’s ideas and apply them to a particular domain. Gilmore focuses in her work on carcerality, theorising prisons as ‘partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis.’ Whilst we recognise the key differences between carceral and bordering regimes, Gilmore’s focus on the role of the state and on the combination of different political, racial and economic dynamics is crucial for us in developing on Harvey’s original formulation of the spatial fix.

In developing the idea of the migration fix, then, we argue that state and international actors draw on a series of bordering and encampment practises to manage uneven patterns of capitalist development, creating certain racialised spaces and places for the housing and policing of displaced people. We expand on Harvey’s notion of the spatial fix in two ways: Firstly, the logic of the migration fix is not one based purely in economics, rather it responds to a broader range of political and social imperatives to maintain politics for the benefit of statist and nativist politics. Secondly, it does not rely on a simple logic of spatial expansion, instead making use of a range of channelling, bordering and containment practises to regulate populations it deems surplus and to create new opportunities to extract profit.

So why is this important?

In sum, we argue that the concept of the ‘migration fix’, developed in connection with the literature on Racial Capitalism, offers an important contribution to the study of migration and borders. It has the capacity to highlight the many and complex connections between everyday practices at the borders of the Global North, the security and biopolitical logics enacted by liberal border regimes, the dynamics of labour market regulation and management of surplus populations as well as the structures of racialisation and white supremacy. Ultimately, the aim is not to establish a neat ‘fit’ or fixed conceptualisation, but rather to reveal the tensions that exist between different logics and processes, such that the possibilities for political contestation and solidarity can also be made visible.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bird, G. and Schmid, D. (2022) Racial Capitalism and the “Migration Fix”. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/02/racial-capitalism [date]

Found within

Detention centres; immigration detention; border control


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