Immigration Manhunts and British Post-​Colonial Identity

The founding act of xeno­phobic politics is the drawing of a boundary line between those who have to be pro­tected and those who can — or rather, must — be ex­cluded from protection.

No I will not show you my papers

Last week the British government’s Border Agency (UKBA) pushed its new and con­tro­ver­sial “go home” cam­paign into full ef­fect along with an ac­com­pa­nying, and highly cri­ti­cized im­mig­ra­tion stop and search at sev­eral London tube sta­tions. The vast ma­jority of the cri­ti­cism to UKBA’s cam­paign has been largely fo­cused on the basic premises that the Tories are either a) cyn­ic­ally trying to win votes from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or b) they are ra­cist. As plain and as simple as that. However I feel as though both of these ar­gu­ments are missing the larger picture.

I do not be­lieve that the Tories are so foolish as to sys­tem­at­ic­ally ali­enate al­most a quarter of the pop­u­la­tion only to win a few votes from UKIP. In fact even UKIP’s Nigel Farage has con­demned the “go home van” as well as UKBA’s stop and searches. The ul­ti­mate irony here being that in the wake of the Home Office’s new cam­paign, UKIP has come out looking more like “sens­ible and mod­erate con­ser­vat­ives” than the Tories (or at least until Godfrey Bloom’s com­ments about “bongo bongo land”). Nor do I be­lieve that it’s a simple case of the Tories being just plain ra­cist. That im­plies that they would have had overt policies of ra­cial ex­clu­sion as agenda items all along. But if that were the case I don’t think that they would have waited three years to launch their public at­tack on ra­cial and ethnic minorities.

At a time when we see in­equality grow, the eco­nomy fail to re­cover as fast as what the Tories had prom­ised and Theresa May’s own Home Office in shambles, threat­ening her polit­ical am­bi­tions, the co­ali­tion gov­ern­ment (es­pe­cially the Tories, who are the de facto con­trolling party) are suf­fering from a crisis of le­git­imacy and iden­tity. The gov­ern­ment needs to as­sert its status as “master,” and cul­tivate their iden­tity as leaders of the British people.

Historically, co­lo­nial Britain was al­ways able to define it­self by in­tro­du­cing a third de­hu­man­ized iden­tity to op­pose it­self to, the iden­tity of its col­on­ized sub­jects. Through co­lo­ni­alism the British Empire con­structed its iden­tity as cul­tured, civ­il­ized, edu­cated and moral from the op­posing col­on­ized people whom the Empire con­structed as base, savage, prim­itive and im­moral and who lacked legal re­cog­ni­tion as full people. This pro­cess, what Edward Said re­ferred to as Orientalism, is how the British co­lo­nial em­pire came to know it­self as well as ex­er­cise power over the col­on­ized world.

20212_523668617700112_1894000887_nToday the dis­course of power, know­ledge and iden­tity turn to­wards the il­legal im­mig­rant, a sub­ject who is con­structed as an in­ternal in­vader, a “non” person. In fact, in the late 20th and 21st cen­tury the il­legal im­mig­rant has be­come the non-​person par ex­cel­lence. Being “il­legal” means not having pa­pers in a con­text in which a paper iden­tity has be­come the es­sen­tial mode of a person’s ex­ist­ence. Considered nonex­istent as a legal person, even though they exist, these in­di­viduals are denied re­cog­ni­tion of their ac­tual per­son­hood. Thus states create on their ter­ritory a legal bor­der­line between those who can be pro­tected by the law and those who cannot (for more on this see Who Sings the Nation State by Butler and Spivak and Chanayou’s book Manhunts A Philosophical History).

Finally, much like co­lo­ni­alism, the iden­tity of the il­legal im­mig­rant takes on a ra­cial ele­ment. As Franz Fanon po­et­ic­ally il­lus­trated in Black Skin, White Masks, ra­cial drama plays out in the open; as such there is no un­con­scious ele­ment. The black person in an anti-​black so­ciety is fully con­scious of their situ­ation, be­cause their very body marks them as “Other.” The sim­il­arity to co­lo­nial dis­course is es­pe­cially striking here since ac­cording to eye­wit­ness ac­counts the cur­rent anti-​illegal im­mig­rant cam­paign seems to be ex­clus­ively tar­geting ra­cial and ethnic minor­ities. The il­legal immigrant’s body, like the co­lo­nial body, now be­trays it.

It’s im­portant to em­phasize that I’m not simply talking about the prac­tice of scape­goating, where the ra­cial­ized il­legal im­mig­rant is the easy target to blame for the government’s fail­ures. What is at stake here is the form­a­tion and main­ten­ance of a polit­ical iden­tity. This is an iden­tity where the British as­sert them­selves as a “civ­il­ized,” “cul­tured,” and “en­lightened” people tied to­gether by blood and soil while its op­posite is cast as an in­vader, or para­site that en­dangers the body of the na­tion. Hence the dis­course of pro­tec­tion comes to the fore­front. Grégoir Chanayou noted that the

founding act of xeno­phobic [and I would add ra­cist] politics is the drawing of this boundary line between those who have to be pro­tected and those who can — or rather, must — be ex­cluded from pro­tec­tion. Political xeno­phobia is defined by this op­er­a­tion of de­marc­a­tion whose matrix… was bor­rowed from the dis­course of eco­nomics (2012, 67).

National iden­tity then is neg­at­ively con­structed in terms of what it isn’t, or rather what it must be pro­tected from (68).

In his 2012 book Manhunts: A Philosophical History, Chanayou out­lined how polit­ical iden­tities are con­structed through the act of the man­hunt and what he calls the “dia­lectic of the hunter /​hunted”. Chanayou notes how the ex­ploit­a­tion of im­mig­rants serves as a visual re­minder of the failure of hu­manism and state sov­er­eignty (the very no­tion that a person ex­ists in a space “il­leg­ally” chal­lenges the concept of state con­trol; hence the il­leg­ality of that person ex­isting in a geo­graph­ical space is a threat to gov­ern­ment); how­ever, para­dox­ic­ally, they are also needed by the eco­nomies who profit from their ex­ploit­a­tion. As such they need to be made in­vis­ible, i.e. de­hu­man­ized non-​persons (in the legal sense of the word) (2012, 50). This cre­ates a push/​pull ten­sion that al­lows en­sures the in­vader is om­ni­present, and al­ways hunted.

Much like colonialism’s use of the co­lo­nial ad­min­is­trator, the hunter as­serts his or her mas­tery through an in­ter­me­diary (in the case of state-​sponsored man­hunts, the po­lice or mil­itary). Manhunts in this case be­come a public spec­tacle of sup­posed pre­vent­ative se­curity that is founded on a logic of the elim­in­a­tion of “dan­gerous” in­di­viduals in order to provide a measure of safety. The measure of safety, which is de­signed to pro­tect so­ciety from danger, is not de­term­ined by the ser­i­ous­ness of an act com­mitted, but by the es­tim­ated danger of an individual.

We find this mode of thought, today, in the no­tion of pre-​emptive man­hunting. Bringing in the dis­course of pre­vent­ative safety, the gov­ern­ment can not only create its iden­tity in re­la­tion to the “sub­human” hunted, but also stra­tegic­ally use man­hunting doc­trine to de­flect and si­lence cri­ti­cism from its own pop­u­la­tion since the ra­tionale is that “we are doing this for your own good.” The goal for the hunter here is not the cap­ture or the kill of their prey, but the af­fect of the chase. As such the idea of “bringing a man down” is not to kill or cap­ture him, but to de­value him, to re­duce him to an an­imal, to let the chase des­troy his “hu­manity” and then to as­sert their own iden­tity vis-​à-​vis their de­hu­man­ized prey. The ac­tual con­crete prac­tice of the hunt is to es­tab­lish a situ­ation where the hunted is denied their humanity.

The hunter must first in­stigate the hunt; they must make the prey run. This is done through either a) co­er­cion or threat or b) in­centive, i.e. the “go home” van cam­paign. The van proudly car­ried with it both the menace of threat (ar­rest and de­port­a­tion) as well as an in­centive (legal aid in re­turning to the country of cit­izen­ship). Chanayou notes that once the hunt is on, the first of these weapons at the dis­posal of the po­lice is the iden­tity check. This is a fil­tering tech­nique that calls for es­tab­lishing a check­point where people pass by, prefer­ably where the in­di­viduals sought live (2012, 83). The second weapon is the tech­nique of an am­bush that is fol­lowed by a spec­tac­ular roundup where a large group is ar­rested (83 – 84). UKBA has fol­lowed this schema for state-​sponsored hunts to the letter, com­plete with the most spec­tac­ular of roundups when UKBA flooded its Twitter ac­count with pic­tures of those ar­rested.

However this cam­paign car­ries with it the seeds of its own de­struc­tion. UKBA’s ra­cial­iz­a­tion of il­legal im­mig­ra­tion means that a large pop­u­la­tion of people who are guar­an­teed pro­tec­tion by the state find them­selves ex­cluded. In other words the im­plicit mes­sage is that the old co­lo­nial world­view where only white people have the right to be British is still with us today. Just as the treat­ment of col­on­ized sub­jects ex­posed the hy­po­crisy of European Humanism and helped to gal­vanize sup­port for anti-​colonial move­ments, the de­hu­man­iz­a­tion and hunting of ra­cial­ized il­legal im­mig­rants shat­ters hu­manist myths of pro­gres­sion, tol­er­ance and mul­ti­cul­tur­alism that con­tem­porary Britain has come to define it­self by. But today this is a pop­u­la­tion who are in a po­s­i­tion to leg­ally de­fend them­selves and take up cam­paigns of their own, such as the “Liberty van”, the Twitter storm cri­ti­cizing UKBA, and the strength­ening of op­pos­i­tional parties and politi­cians that chal­lenge hy­po­crit­ical policies.

In closing his dia­lectic of the hunter/​hunted, Chanayou points out that the his­tory of power is also largely a his­tory of struggle and that the asym­met­rical power re­la­tion­ship that comes from the pro­cess of being hunted can cause the prey to in­tern­alize the po­s­i­tion of the hunter. A re­versal then oc­curs in which the former prey be­comes the hunter, the tragic irony of the prey es­capes only by be­coming what it sought to es­cape from (88). So the bleaker pos­sible out­come of this cam­paign is the pro­spect of it cre­ating those who would wish to re­verse the hunt thereby es­cal­ating cycles of vi­ol­ence both within the UK and abroad.

Anthony Faramelli is a PhD stu­dent at The London Graduate School and part-​time lec­turer in Media and Culture Studies at Kingston University

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