We will not be the wall
«The philosopher produces ideas, the poet poems, the priest sermons, the teacher compendiums. The criminal produces crimes.»
We will not be the wall
By Heriberto Paredes and Lluvia Benjamin
Versión en castellano aquí.
«In the ancient States, in Greece and Rome, compulsory emigration, assuming the shape of the periodical establishment of colonies, formed a regular link in the structure of society.
The whole system of those States was founded on certain limits to the numbers of the population, which could not be surpassed without endangering the condition of antique civilization itself. But why was it so? To remain civilized they were forced to remain few. Otherwise they would have had to submit to the bodily drudgery which transformed the free citizen into a slave. The want of productive power made citizenship dependent on a certain proportion in numbers not to be disturbed. Forced emigration was the only remedy.
But with modern compulsory emigration the case stands quite opposite. Here it is not the want of productive power which creates a surplus population; it is the increase of productive power which demands a diminution of population, and drives away the surplus by famine or emigration…»
– "Forced Emigration", Karl Marx in the New York Tribune (1853)
In March 2001 the journalist Julio Scherer, then director of the newspaper Proceso, interviewed the late Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos.
It was the eve of the arrival of a Zapatista delegation to the Zócalo in Mexico City. There, facing each other, while discussing the country’s political climate, they touched on a fundamental point that is rarely discussed anymore: the Plan Puebla Panamá.
Cooked up at the end of the PRI regime, and fervently promoted by Vicente Fox, this plan intended to develop investment targets that, in concrete terms, would completely redefine the political, social, and economic borders as we knew them. Marcos stated that,
«When we say that the new century and new millennium are the millennium and the century of differences, we highlight a fundamental break with respect to the twentieth century: the great struggle of hegemonies.
The last one we remember, between the socialist and capitalist factions, led to two world wars. If this is not recognized, the world will end up being an archipelago in continuous war outside and inside the territories. It will not be possible to live like that.
However, the market can get used to this reality; it is possible for it to operate in a scenario of destabilization or civil war, and continue the stock market operations within these crises.
People are not told this. And, on the contrary, they are offered an idyllic world where supposedly there are no borders, to buy or sell... But the borders will not only remain, but will multiply, as will happen with the Puebla-Panama project, which will be a major catastrophe: the United States will run the border up to here, up to Milpa Alta, where we are now.
The rest of the country, downwards, will become Central America. And okay, they will have their guerrillas, their dictatorial governments, their caciques, like Yucatan and Tabasco.
In the rest of the Mexican territory, from here to the north, a brutal process of elimination of large social sectors is beginning to take place. In addition, all the indigenous people remaining on this side will be wiped out because they will not be assimilated by this neoliberal model. Nobody will invest in them…»
Shortly before the recent general elections in Honduras, David Jiménez González, a lawyer by profession and the current Mexican ambassador to that country, assured an international witness brigade that the nation he represents,
"always treats those who arrive in its territory well. Our country has a long tradition of asylum and refuge. This is why there is no racism or aggression against people of Central American origin who arrive en masse, they are cared for and protected."
The Mexican official knows perfectly well that what is currently happening in the territory is something else entirely: we recently witnessed the death of 55 people of Guatemalan origin due to a car accident.
They were being transported as merchandise, hidden in the box of a trailer, in the very same inhumane conditions mentioned by Jiménez González. This was only one instance, other similar tragedies and experiences did not return to occupy the headlines.
Days later, we witnessed how tens of thousands of people managed to advance through the country’s territory. Hundreds of families in towns and cities had been organizing to welcome them at different points along the way, to convey at least one clear message: migrants are our brothers and sisters, they are welcome.
Quite in contrast, from the different levels of government, with the National Guard on one side and immigration agents on the other, the State sends their own clear message. Not only to the Central American diasporas but to Mexico as a whole: we will be a firm wall. One committed to the economic interests of capital, committed to politicians who benefit corporations, committed to transnational capital. Committed to governments like the United States, which for at least 70 years has been clear that the regions of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are strategic.
This is why the Mexican ambassador to Honduras –with great kindness and calm in his voice– reproduces the standard foreign policy of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the political entity that held uninterrupted power for 71 years.
Speaking of fraternity, of the hospitable Mexican asylum tradition, of promising conditions for all Central Americans – he lies, and he knows he is lying. If media around the world has documented the serious atrocities committed by the Mexican State against migrants, it is impossible that he, for some reason, did not get the memo.
Before the exposure to the terrible images featuring the National Guard and the National Migration Institute –conducting the dirty work that the United States has outsourced to the south– we knew the wall was our failure to acknowledge that our economic conditions do not share the characteristics of our northern neighbors.
We are, one could say, a Central American nation-state under the present paradigm. Our economy shares the “developing” adjective, as the World Bank never fails to recognize, as the International Monetary Fund categorizes us, skipping over the historic roots of this accumulation gap.
We noticed, as a result, that the wall is to arrive in the United States (if successful) and become invisible. Or worse: a prey. Prosecuted, harassed, a permanent target. We could tell that the wall is strengthened by the trafficking of weaponry falling on the hands of cartels, and the expulsion of what is considered human garbage: thousands who await the chance to be reunited with their families, or escape violence, famine, and unemployment. This system not only constantly reproduces the wage-worker as wage-worker, but produces always, in proportion to the accumulation of capital, a relative surplus-population of wage-workers to keep all in check.
And we knew –and we know– that the wall is not only deportation, but also the ease with which the Mexican government enforces the militarization of the southern border, while affirming that it does not repress or resort to violence against anyone. We know that the wall consists of us, when we turn the other way, and allow the criminalization of migrants.
So, what determines criminality, then? What assigns the label to each act, and what parameters are applied to this classification, which claims to judge all entities in the same way?
«The philosopher produces ideas, the poet poems, the priest sermons, the teacher compendiums.
The criminal produces crimes.
This delinquent produces not only crimes: he partakes in the production, in addition, of the criminal justice system and, with it, of the professor in charge of the courses on this subject – as well as the inevitable collection in which this same professor throws his lessons into the market as a commodity.»
For the petty bourgeoisie, the nuances between crime and punishment are inseparable from liberal ethics, from utilitarianism, and from the fascination enveloping moral dilemmas.
Heroic acts – and, therefore, their antithesis – can be evaluated by removing the systemic complexity of social apparatuses that exert a suffocating subordination on our will, on our daily decisions, our convictions and on our compass of priorities.
Jean Valjean, the tragic protagonist of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, from the perspective of liberal thought, committed a crime when he stole bread to feed his widowed sister's seven children in a moment of desperation.
Confronted with this transgression, society points its accusatory index finger at the natural“organization of civil society”, its bourgeois jurisprudence, citing its daughter, the statutory legislature for mediation.
“Jean Valjean should not have stolen bread”, the choir supporting the judicial doctrine soberly states. Judges, gowns, and a hammer determine his deed a crime drenched by the aura of irrevocable authority that these symbols elicit.
Little is said about the system that allowed that hunger, suffered by the infants, which motivated Jean Valjean to take the food despite lacking the socially acceptable form of exchange. The evaluation of his misdeed, of the crime, always tries to examine the individual, and never the society that gave birth to her, nor the mode of production that allowed hardship for most, and opulence for a few.
The very concept of the criminal also produces, according to Marx, "the entire police and criminal justice system: henchmen, judges, executioners, juries, etc., and, in turn, all these different branches of industry which represent as many categories of the social division of labor."
Would the business of the locksmith exist without the ubiquity of private property, the very thing that restricts access to procure our most basic needs? Or would the need to defend, guard and surveil? If, once one leaves the sphere of private crime, would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime? Would even nations have arisen?
A déjà vu
History tends to repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. It is unsurprising, therefore, to see present day conditions and the catastrophic years tied to the NAFTA era emerge in the horizon as a déjà vu.
We are not surprised. That déjà vu appears from the moving contradiction: capital presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it places labour time, on the other side, as a sole measure and source of wealth.
Plenty is written on the historiographic specificity, of the period that gave birth to this treaty.
We see, however, that "neoliberalism resists specification, because neoliberalism in itself lacks specificity. Indeed, it is not a coherent object of study. No doubt the era has its ideologues, but neoliberalism isn’t an ideology, a plan, or set of policies except in the sense that any aggregate of things that were done is a set of policies.”
The general law of capitalist accumulation suggests that, over time, more and more workers and capital will find that they simply can’t reinsert themselves into the reproduction process. Accumulation of capital is inseparably entangled from the multiplication of the proletariat.
Having said this, we return to the déjà vu. Before the opening image, of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Canadian Prime Minister –and fervent admirer of blackface– Justin Trudeau, and Joe Biden, we compare the photograph of then Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, George H. W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in October 1992. It reverberates like an ominous echo, anticipating a familiar journey. What happened in 1992 when the three nations met to sign the treaty?
Bland platitudes about progress and free trade are not enough to silence the pain witnessed by history – the unfortunate consequences attributed to the trilateral pact. We understand, instead, the treaty as just an appearance: an outward component, a shell disguising the inner dynamics of capital.
Canada, the United States and Mexico: I know this song!
Instead of the promised ticket Mexico yearned for to finally join the “First World," as former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari had promised, NAFTA authorized transnational corporations to conduct legal plundering. The economic regime of free trade’s exploitation, disguised by this ceremonial agreement, always aimed at consolidating prosperity – prosperity for the bourgeoisie, that is.
The law, after all, “rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery.”
A case that exemplifies the flawed and exploitative strategy is that of the Guess? denim brand. In the early 1990s, the Marciano family profited from the production of this commodity. However, beneath competitive pressure from Calvin Klein, they began to look for cheaper and cheaper manufacturers. The price was forced to drop from $70 to $48.
The government intervened with a policy to enforce the minimum stipulations contained in the labor code, and Guess? complied, joining the list of "good businesses" published by the U.S. Department of Labor (OASAM).
In 1996, in the Guess? warehouse, its union began organizing. Pressured by the syndicate, the Department of Labor repeatedly became aware that the products were manufactured under extremely substandard conditions.
The union "began to enlist public support from allies, ranging from a Los Angeles poetry group to college students joining the protests."
In the winter of 1996, the company's manager announced that it was moving most of its contracts in Los Angeles and Southern California to Mexico, reducing its U.S. presenceby more than 40%.
"In Mexico, the company's seamstresses earn between $20 and $40 a week, compared to $5 hourly wages for their Los Angeles counterparts, the vast majority of whom are immigrants.
The gap reduces the cost of each pair of jeans and explains, in part, why U.S. garment jobs have fallen 43% since 1973."
In this case, the free movement of capital and goods between Mexico and the United States allowed a major labour code violator to circumvent its compliance by simple relocation in search of a new pool of workers to exploit.
All socially constructed frontiers contain historical and transitory products: the U.S.-Mexico division witnessed the settlement of opposing drug cartels disputing border supply chains. NAFTA helped the free movement of commodities for corporations, lifting trade barriers. Yet, it restricted this characteristic to people. At the border, a new form of capitalist social relations manifested itself after the spatial and temporal specificity of this economic divide.
Human smuggling by coyotes became an inseparable element of the border town landscape. Disposable migrants seeking to get to the US were met with surveillance, torture and marginalization. Between 1990–1995, deportations increased to about an average of 40,000 a year. From 1996 to 2005 the average increased to over 180,000.
The maquiladora worker faced extreme conditions of exploitation, in all spheres possible. International firms would declare openly, “the first reason for being [in Mexico] is low-cost labor. The second reason is productivity. Union negotiations often determine productivity standards. Not here. In Mexico, the firm itself solely determines the standards. The absence of a union means that we have a virtual haven for productivity, free of bargaining fetters. This is so much easier than the U.S.”
In the fall of 1996, while the minimum wage in the United States was $4.75, the minimum wage in Mexico was 41 cents an hour. But alas, it was not just immiseration. For places like Ciudad Juárez, a particular circle of hell emanated: femicide.
The border line descends, like a limbo pole
Popularly known as Plaza de las Americas, this place located in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, is home to one of the greatest contradictions of our time.
It hosts a large and crowded camp of migrants who survive day by day in the most inhospitable ways possible: from handouts, donations, food provided by sympathetic people, to scavenging in the garbage bins, and working in squalid positions. These are mostly families of Haitian and Central American origin who, for very specific reasons, are fleeing the place where they used to live.
Oscar Martinez, Salvadoran journalist and writer once commented that "if the people who migrate are willing to go through hell on the way through Mexico, you have to imagine what they would be fleeing from." In the present day, the year 2022, the situation has worsened.
The scene of the plaza and the encampment is a description of the state of limbo where thousands now reside across the U.S.-Mexico border cities. Distrustful of the federal government –it goes without saying why– the new immigration policies either try to integrate people-in-transit into circuits of economic exploitation, or they beat and persecute them relentlessly.
Those who manage to escape the beatings, and avoid being absorbed into the kindness of the Mexican economic system exploitation, do everything possible to enter into the Stars and Stripes’ country. The wait, nonetheless, can be devastating and often leads to worsening living conditions.
In front of this plaza, and here is the contradiction, stands the international bridge that connects pedestrians with the state of Texas. On the lower right, the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants stands, its offices deserted – just like the rest of the city, incidentally.
How do these two worlds coexist, the threshold to freedom and the cramped migrant settlement under conditions of indescribable misery? The answer lies in this system of exploitation, its need to generate a cheap labor force that is so desperate, so destitute, of such morale that it is willing to endure every kind of labor abuse, as long as the situation improves a bit.
The justification for this brutality disguises in the mythology whispered by bourgeois economics. Just as Adam bit the apple, thereafter sin fell upon mankind.
Long, long ago, there were two classes of people: one, the diligent, intelligent and, above all, frugal elite; the other, composed of lazy scoundrels who spent everything without saving, without considering future misfortunes, living hedonistically.
Thus, punishment fell on the second class, and it was imposed on them to survive by the sweat of their brow. And with this same sweat, the lazy working class must add to the labor time necessary for its own sustenance an extra amount to produce the means of subsistence of the owner of the means of production. The diligent, frugal, industrious bourgeoisie.
Legislation and boundaries appear as eternal laws of the universe. Little is said about the application of the notion of vagabond, beggar, or thief. And of thievery, we can say that the proletariat is created by dissolution of the link between the worker and her land – in other words, expropriation.
Stripped of her territory, with nothing but her ability to work, the worker walks into the labor market forced to sell herself, voluntarily. But capital often finds her and her kind not worth the trouble.
As the late Subcomandante Marcos reminds us: nobody will invest in them.