Thursday, December 13, 2007

Review: Home Economics

[Nandita Sharma. Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.]

Despite my reluctant reference to nation in the name of this blog, anyone who reads it on a regular basis will know that I am no fan of Canadian nationalism in any of its flavours. Despite my disdain for left nationalism, and the fact that I read plenty of political writing, I'm not sure I've ever read a book like this one that combines an academic approach with radical anti-racist no-borders politics.

I definitely like it.

In the regular course of our swim through North America's political culture there is almost nothing to suggest that borders between states are anything other than natural, eternal, even apolitical in important ways. This is despite the fact that it is easily demonstrable that borders are not the least bit eternal and shift over time, and that their political impact is strikingly different for different people. Borders are vital tools for the maintenance of the nation and the state, which are in turn integral to capitalist social relations.

One of the central themes of this book is the importance of the construct of the nation in creating a sense of certain places as home for certain people but not others. This sense of home shapes our consciousness of the relationship between place and belonging and is used to organize difference among categories like "indigenous", "citizen", "immigrant", and "migrant worker". The modern liberal-democratic state cultivates a sense of home in its citizens in ways that encourage said national subjects to develop a commonsense understanding in line with the needs of ruling relations. This commonsense accepts as natural and inevitable the highly differential treatment of people who are denied entry into the category of "citizen" -- people like "migrant workers" -- in cases that would lead to widespread reactions of horror if (at least certain) citizens were treated the same way.

This sort of nationalist common sense is further entrenched by thought and action from much of the left, including many left-liberals, many social democrats, even many marxists and other radicals of various persuasions. One of neoliberalism's goals is to entrench all capital as at home within the bounds of Canada (and any other state) while sharpening the division between workers who are truly at home here and those who are not. Left nationalism seeks to resist this trend not by objecting to the construction of some workers as inherently more exploitable, as Other, as apart from the nation, as reasonably deserving of lesser treatment than Us, but rather by sharpening the national boundaries even further by making sure they apply to capital as well.

In understanding why this is a problem, it is not only important to look at how borders maintain apartheid at a global level -- how they are a tool for ensuring that mainly racialized workers in the global south face greater exploitation than mainly white workers in the global north. We must also recognize that they are one way in which differential experiences of oppression and privilege are maintained among people who are physically within the boundaries of a given rich state. In other words, 'foreignness' and the functioning of the border doesn't just keep some people out, it also serves to marginalize some who are let in.

Sharma makes some interesting points about how separation is a particularly capitalist approach to social control. In the development of capitalism in Europe you can see this with the gradual separation of 'work' from 'home', of 'public' from 'private', and the creation of the isolated nuclear family under patriarchal control in the service of capital accumulation. You can also see it in the way that capitalism has given rise to much sharper physical boundaries regulating movement between states, such that migrants have increasingly become understood not just as travellers but as trespassers. These divisions are among the many divisions that function to keep workers divided and less able to resist their exploitation.

I was also interested to read some of the points she makes about how racism in the West has shifted in the last few decades. It has moved from justifications that openly invoke (highly inaccurate) biology to more of a focus on "culture" -- how 'those people' do things differently and therefore wouldn't fit in and therefore must be excluded. She links this to an increase in the relevance of nationalism to the functioning of racism, and to a shift in focus from the inferiority of the Other to the undesirability of the Other.

The cluster of relations and practices we usually understand as "the state" depends on the idea of nation fostered by this shared but bordered sense of being at home, and on the idea that the nation is or at least can be a comfortable home for all.

It conceals the fact that the exclusions organized through it are integral -- not tangential or merely contingent on historical -- processes... The existence of a group of people considering themSelves to be part of the nation (or civil society) and therefore regarding themSelves not as ruled over but as ruled for helps to secure ruling relations and the continued existence of the national state. In other words, the construction of a civil or social sphere becomes a way to naturalize the power of the state to rule.


Concepts of citizenship are the ideological glue that bonds the nation to the state. Citizenship provides the legal framework through which the state performs its role as ruler for the nation. Together they legitimate the power of the state to subordinate foreigners. Denying the rights, entitlements, and protections that citizens have to those positioned as non-citizens is a crucial feature of how hegemonic conceptualizations of nations as homes operate within today's global capitalist economy. In this, citizenship and immigration policies are the key avenue through which nationalism is performed. [17-18, emphasis in original]

Sharma links this in concrete terms to the creation of 'migrant workers' in Canada. Before 1967, Canada's immigration system explicitly demonstrated preference in terms of race and nation. In that year, the 'points system' was inaugurated. It assigns a certain number of points for characteristics mostly related to labour market needs rather than explicitly discriminating. For the first few years, it actually functioned in relatively open ways. As white Canadian anxieties mounted about increasingly racialized immigration after 1967, the federal government decided to maintain the points system but to tighten the requirements for qualifying to become a full immigrant -- a 'permanent resident' on her/his way to becoming a 'citizen'. At the same time, it created the category of 'migrant worker', which is a group of people admitted to the country, ostensibly on a temporary basis, and denied in law access to most of the rights, entitlements, and protections given to those qualifying as 'citizens' while at the same time functioning as a source of highly exploitable labour in the service of capital accumulation. Since the mid 1970s, more of the (mostly racialized) people who have entered Canada destined for labour force participation in most years have done so under conditions that essentially make them indentured labourers than have done so in categories rendering them eligible for permanent residency and ultimately citizenship. Though the program constructs these people as temporary and as coming in response to temporary needs, in fact it is often the same (mostly racialized) people that come recurrently, filling positions that remain largely constant.

This history is examined in detail over two chapters. Along with tracing the shifts in legislation, Sharma examines the shifting discourse of nation and related concepts in Parliament during the period of the initial debates on the migrant worker program. This is very powerful stuff, though I didn't feel I got as clear a sense as I might've liked of the larger patterns of what MPs were saying and how they said it -- I get the feeling that perhaps these findings had already been presented elsewhere in another form, and the author did not want to include the whole formal rigamarole yet again. Or it may be that I am just unfamiliar with the expectations in presenting this sort of analysis. The other chapter dealing with the program examined in detail the shifting numbers of who was allowed entry into Canada and under what conditions over the intervening decades.

The rest of the book explored related themes in different ways. One chapter and part of another, for instance, focus on an examination of discourse produced by different theorists identified with "anti-globalization" in Canada. She demonstrates that despite important differences in various schools of thought, those which oppose globalization in nationalist ways all serve to reinforce the legitimacy of tools of ruling related to borders and distinctions in state and nation. I quite appreciated her point that one of the flaws in the nationalist anti-globalization positions that rarely gets identified is that they all erroneously assume that there was some point in the past when states were, in fact, sovereign expressions of popular will.

Regarding national states as having once been sovereign simply belies the historical record of how state practices have been a part of, and not a populist response against, global capitalist social relations. Historically, the nation-state system has not been predicated upon sovereignty, but upon its linkage to a global capitalist system and the structural interdependence that national states -- and the people living within their boundaries -- have with each other. [44, emphasis in original, references in original]

Responses to neoliberal globalization that treat it as something new and try to counter it with left nationalist nostalgia for some imagined social democratic golden age are, she says, fundamentally a white nationalist project. She relates having seen many instances of puzzlement and even hostility from white left nationalists when indigenous and non-indigenous racialized people speaking at public events in the last decade have put neoliberal globalization in the context of the last 500 years. It is an important form of the age-old devil's bargain of privilege.

In a world where the capital of investors has increasingly been granted 'national treatment' (i.e. citizenship) rights...the denial of exactly this to people categorized as migrant workers is very much part of how state practices reconstitute competition between and within nationalized labour markets. Ideological state practices that are productive of the nation enable processes of globalization precisely because nationalist ideological frames not only organize the super-exploitation of foreigners but also conceal the otherwise obvious fact that both those represented as foreign-objects and those seen to be Canadian subjects work within the same labour market, a market made more competitive through the hegemony of nationalist ideologies. Thus, while notions of Canadianness continue to legitimize the rule of White Canadians over non-White and non-Canadians, other ruling relations are buttressed, including those social relations through which most Whites are themselves oppressed and exploited. In fact, the exploitation of all workers, including White workers in Canada, hinges upon the commonsensical acceptance of extra-coercive state action against those rendered as foreign-Others. [149, emphasis in original, references in original]

Another chapter tackles Marxist understandings of "free" and "unfree" labour. Marx and many followers have argued that free labour is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism. Sharma argues that unfree labour is now and has always been integral to capitalism, and migrant workers in Canada are one instance of that. The "freedom" of some workers, though certainly won and enlarged by struggle at various points, often functions as a way of gaining a mass base of acceptance for a system that both exploits "free" labourers and depends inherently on many others being bound to unfree labour. She also points out how the association of unfree labour with racialization helps more privileged participants in these relations see unfreedom as more about inherent flaws in "those people" than as a necessary feature of capitalism.

The final half chapter of the book goes beyond just questions of nationalism and borders and wrestles with questions of the political meaning of difference and sameness and diversity more generally. Sharma uses "difference" and "diversity" in very particular ways. By the former, she means those aspects of human diversity that have social meaning because of relations of power. By the latter, she does not mean the way that it is used in liberal discourse -- that is, as a way of masking the the power imbalances of socially created and enforced difference -- but rather as Vandana Shiva would use it in both ecological and social contexts as a radical, fine-grained, heterogeneity that flows from lived experience and undermines rather than masks relations of power. The book paints a very seductive picture of a world in which what is in common flows from lived experience, not from ideological categories, and in which commonality is imminent rather than transcendental or imposed and based on practice rather than identity. She points out how this socially organized difference tends to enforce homogeneity and hierarchy within the two massive samenesses that are opposed to one another and it "does not produce diverse and varied ways of living so much as it shapes our consciousness of the authenticity, and therefore naturalness, of parochial forms of power" [158]. She calls for us to "rid our imaginations of the negative dualities of always-colonizing systems and the identities that they produce" and heed "the call to base our feelings of commonness on shared experience" [165].

I find this vision of liberatory, anti-normative heterogeneity -- a form of difference-from-below, if you will, as opposed to the difference-from-above of multiculturalism and other illusions of oppression-hiding liberal plurality -- to be very, very attractive. Yet I am deeply concerned about it, particularly with the hostility expressed towards active embrace of the oppressed half of privilege/oppression binaries by those forced to live within them. I mean, it is easy to see plenty of examples in history of that embrace being homogenizing, oppressive to some while it is liberatory to others, and a social product of the work of elites within the oppressed group to maintain their own power and functionally collude with dominant elites, whether that is conscious or not. Yet it feels that at this point in the book, as wonderful as I find the vision of liberation to be, it slips away a bit from practical grounding. There is mention that radical diversity is "a lived reality, a goal, and an organizing strategy aimed at achieving social justice" [160], but I think it does a disservice to those who have fought hard by rallying around the socially created and enforced oppressed identities to advance such a vision without a much, much more comprehensive and practical discussion about what it really means for it to be "an organizing strategy."

Beyond what I've noted above, I have two areas I would have liked to see explored more fully in the book. The first is a more full engagement with indigenous nationalisms on Turtle Island. I think the importance that nation can have as a basis for resisting colonization and capitalism in an indigenous context needs to be given greater consideration. As well, in my limited understanding, traditional indigenous understandings of what a nation is can be quite different from those European-derived approaches that shape the nations (both European and not) currently existing in symbiosis with states. Engaging with these understandings might provide insight into different, perhaps less difference-making, ways in which human collectives can be organized.

The other area that I thought could have been addressed more completely was the role of exclusions not between "citizen" and "non-citizen" but within "citizen" via the workings of things like race and gender and sexuality. Sharma acknowledges that these are important. There is also nothing wrong with the fact that the focus of her work is the understudied importance of the former. Still, I think more discussion of exclusion among those admitted to the legal category of "citizen", and of the non-legal mechanisms by which social relations generate and depend on difference infused with power, would round out the book in important ways.

If any of you are still reading after this many words, you probably don't need to be told that I liked the book and think it is an important one for developing a radical understanding of what it means to live in what currently gets called "Canada".

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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