Critical Theory Summer School—Illegal Migration as Civil Disobedience?

From June 3rd to June 8th the Critical Theory Summer School convened in Dubrovnik, Croatia. It brought together international scholars working within a diverse range of disciplines. The theme for this year was universalism. Presentations ranged from a debate on communism to papers on post-colonialism to rethinking materialism in social movements. The discussions were quite passionate at times, and important questions regarding the present and the future of Critical Theory were debated. Some of the questions included: what is the relationship between Postcolonial theory and Critical Theory? And is it still possible to hold on to a radically reconstructed form of universalism?

Critical Theory, which has its beginnings in the Frankfurt School, included thinkers such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin and Habermas. As is written on the first page of Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Eric Bronner, critical theory “questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice” and “insists that thought must respond to the new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances.” Using this concept of critical theory as a guide, I believe that one pressing problem that critical theory can be applied to is the current debate surrounding “illegal” or “irregular” migration.

For my presentation at the summer school, I discussed my working paper, “Challenging Global Epistemic Violence: Illegal Migration as Civil Disobedience.” Drawing upon Luis Cabrera’s work on illegal migration as a form of global civil disobedience, I set out to describe how we may be able to conceive of illegal migration as a form of transnational civil disobedience that is targeting an unjust global economic and political system—a system that is informed by epistemic violence and a neocolonial logic. By epistemic violence, I mean the historical production of knowledge of the “Other” as different, thereby enabling a violation of his/her human rights. An important question that is often asked is why certain affluent countries that claim to uphold values of universal human rights often violate the human rights of the “Other.” I drew upon Gayatri Spivak’s conception of epistemic violence to explain how the migrant, like the colonial subject, is seen as “Other”, and is therefore placed in a precarious position at the margins of “universal” human rights.

To challenge this unjust system, we can follow the anti-colonial, Gandhian route of civil disobedience. The Gandhian route, unlike what Rawls describes in his Theory of Justice, set out to counter an unjust imperial system. It did not express fidelity to the British law or government and instead sought to overthrow it entirely. Civil disobedience, as practiced by exemplary activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. does not necessarily fit the Rawlsian definition. This is why I believe there is some flexibility with how we may conceptualize transnational civil disobedience as a challenge to an unjust global system. Irregular migration could be seen in a similar light as anti-colonial civil disobedience because it also seeks to challenge an unjust system—whether it be a border system, the nation-state system or the global economic and political system. These systems are remnants of the colonial period when nation states were formed, when a core-periphery global economic regime was implemented.

After my presentation I received useful feedback, and moving forward some of the questions I will consider are: what is “epistemic” about epistemic disobedience? What is the link between epistemic disobedience and legal disobedience? Another point is the subjectivity of the migrant. By suggesting that illegal migration can be a form of civil disobedience am I projecting a particular subjectivity? Could illegal migrants be considered civil disobedient merely by crossing the border illegally, or should they make themselves visible as groups like the Sans Papiers in France have done? The other concern is the limit of the Gandhian model of anti-colonial civil disobedience as applied to transnational civil disobedience. Lastly, what do I mean when I say “system”? These are some of the points I will have to address as I move forward to develop my idea. Responding to these critical questions will probably not result in one answer; instead, it will give us a deeper understanding of the complexity of these constantly evolving issues.

-Natasha Basu