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Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century – Review

by Stephan Scheel
21 Apr 2010 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos. London: Pluto Press, (2008), xx + 300 pp. ISBN 978-0-7453-2778-5.

The central question of Escape Routes sounds quite simple: ‘How does social transformation begin?’ But the answer that the book provides is provocative and contests many dominant explanations of social change: according to the authors it is not the brimming revolutionary events occupying the imagination of the left that capture the mechanics of social transformation but the seemingly ‘insignificant occurrences of people’s daily actions’. It is in the everyday practices and imperceptible moments which make up people’s ‘escape’ from a given social order that we can find the beginnings of social transformation. While sovereign power relies on what the authors call the ‘double-R axiom’ to control and stabilize a given social order by granting rights and offering forms of representation to particular social groups, people do not always confront or resist a given regime of control but evacuate and escape existing modes of rights and forms of representation and thereby force a given social order to transform itself:’Sovereignty manifests in response to escape…Control is a cultural-political device which comes afterwards to tame and eventually to appropriate people’s escape. Social struggle comes first’(p. 43).

Based on this thesis the authors describe the ongoing transformations of sovereign power from the perspective of people’s escape (Part I, pp. 1-82). While national sovereignty relied on the first ‘R’ of the ‘double-R axiom’ and tried to include subverting subjects, groups and interests in the Fordist welfare state by gradually expanding the distribution of cultural, social and political rights, this logic was challenged by the emergence of new social actors in the fields of migration, gender and queer politics, antiracist movements, worker’s autonomy which couldn’t be conceived within the existing framework of citizenship and therefore forced sovereign power to move beyond national boundaries. According to the authors’ main thesis cited above, the emergence of transnational neoliberal sovereignty is not primarily the outcome of the determining laws inherent to capital accumulation or the result of a successful attempt of some elites to expand their power on a global level, but comprises a ‘response to the necessity to tame the reappearance of imperceptible and escaping subjectivities in the post-Second World War period’ (p. 18).

The central hypothesis of the book is provocative because the theoretical conception of ‘imperceptible politics’ involves a harsh criticism of mainstream social sciences and left ideologies alike. As the authors write, ‘imperceptible politics is first and foremost a question of deploying a new perceptual strategy, [that] involves tracing disturbance and intrusion instead of mirroring existing conditions’ (p. XV). The authors reject positivist approaches of the social sciences as a form of maintenance of existing regimes of control. While these regimes of control work by employing the process of representation, escape relies on the ‘knot of fictionality and literality to construct and materialise new forms of experience’ that evade existing forms of representation. Control regimes react to these attempts of escape by interrupting the connection between fictionality and literality through representation: while the former is delegitimized as ‘impossible, quixotic or impracticable’ control tries to render the later productive by making it representable in current polity. In this sense positivist accounts of the given social order are one of the main instruments for ‘policing the border between the fictional and the real’.

Moreover the authors try to break with the two most influential schools of thought in the discourses of the contemporary left: the different varieties of Hegelian neo- and post-Marxism and Foucault’s conception of power. Because ‘imperceptible politics’ operate in the present, the authors break with ‘the faith in the event to come’, that is usually cultivated by the adepts of Marxism. According to them it is neither the future ‘revolution’ nor the state-centred ‘melancholic Keyenesianism’ of many contemporary left groups that is going to liberate people from control, suppression and exploitation. While the calming belief in the liberating event to come only served to justify the silencing of deviants and the enforcement of party discipline in the present the melancholic call for the paternalistic welfare state only resembles a variety of ‘left conservatism’ that reifies the nation-state. It is neither the belief in a redeeming future event nor the melancholic longing for the past but the potency of the present situation that initiates social change. This leads the authors to paraphrase the slogan of alter-globalisation movements of 90’s by claiming: ‘Another world is here’.

By asserting that escape precedes the formation of control Papadopoulos, Stephenson and Tsianos break with the circular relationship of power and resistance in Foucault’s conception of power. While Foucault thinks resistance as a constitutive element of a power relation and thereby assumes an omnipotent control regime that encompasses the whole of society, which is only refined by acts of resistance, the authors of Escape Routes draw on Nicos Poloulantzas state theory to ascribe a relative autonomy to social struggles. Because Foucault’s concept of power only allows to think resistance as an effect of and complicit to control the authors replace resistance with the notion of subversion to designate a desire that betrays given orders of control. These theoretical innovations make it possible to think resistance not only in negative terms – that is as a force directed against regulation – but as a positive force that strives to move beyond a given control regime by evacuating its terrain. Consequently, the authors say ‘adieu Foucault!’ without melancholy.

These provocative theoretical innovations are likely to trigger defensive reactions. Moreover the authors develop terminology which oppose the common understanding of the vocabulary. For example ‘escape’ is usually conceived as a weak and sometimes forced reaction to severe circumstances like war or political prosecution but not as a creative and initial force that is capable of triggering social change. The concept of ‘imperceptible politics’ which is composed by the non-intentional everyday practices of the people is even more suspicious to a reader who is used to regard social movements, trade unions and other forms of identifiable political organisations as the decisive initiators of social and political change. Doesn’t this neologism just romanticize people’s daily struggles for survival as radical acts of subversion? Aren’t the authors just inventing something which is not there at all when they demand from us to ‘deploy a new perceptual strategy’ in order to perceive these ‘imperceptible moments’ that supposedly lead to social transformation? Aren’t the authors just inviting us to participate in a passivity that results in the apolitical affirmation of the given when they call for the overcoming of established forms of political organisation? And isn’t the call to leave behind ‘the left’s fixation with events’ just another variety of reformism in new clothes that tries to diminish the belief in the possibility of radical change? Such objections are countered in the second part of the book (pp. 85-300) by examining the role of imperceptible politics and escape in three distinct ’social-material fields’: the material field that is constituted through attempts to remake the composition of life processes (pp. 85-161), the global field that is traversed by migrants’ mobility (pp. 162-221) and the reorganisation of the structure of production and employment relations through precarious labour (pp. 222-300).

Here I will focus only on the second field in order to show how the questions raised above are addressed. In this section of the book the authors present the concept of autonomy of migration (probably for the first time in a consistent way to an English readership). As the name implies its main hypothesis claims that migration comprises a moment of autonomy against the measures adopted by state agencies to regulate and control it. In contrast to approaches which usually regard migration as a dependant variable of the conditions on the labour market or as a mere response to poverty or war migration is conceptualised  – literally – as asocial movement and migration policy is seen as a reactive response to the ever-changing practices of migratory movements. While mainstream migration research usually adopts the perspective of the state discussions of the autonomy of migration assume the perspective of mobility in order to ask how migrants circumvent, overcome and subvert border controls. This explains the authors’ call on us to hone our senses in order to perceive the imperceptible moments that make up people’s escape. As most contemporary approaches in the social sciences still hinge on a positivist epistemology and are thus occupied with describing and explaining (and thereby reproducing) existing political institutions, laws and headline events they tend to overlook the subversive daily practices of the people. In contrast the authors break with this naive ontological understanding of the world as an object waiting for inquiry and with the epistemological myth of the neutral or just simply socially constructed production of knowledge. They draw on Donna Haraway’s ‘apparatus of bodily construction’ and Karen Barad’s notion of ‘intra-action’. According to this post-positivist ontology neither subjects nor objects nor the relations between them pre-exist as such but are engaged in ‘a continuous process of passionate construction through their own interdependent activities.’ As a consequence the world comprises an ‘ontological unity of intra-actions’, that is understood ‘as a wholeness of possibilities, involvements and mutual metamorphoses’. From this follows that scientists like all human beings are entangled in the ontological unity of the world and that the accounts they provide of the social are not only biased but constitute a form of world-making.

Seen from the perspective of this epistemological understanding of social sciences the concept of the autonomy of migration challenges the holy orthodoxy of migration theory of economistic thinking versus humanitarianism. While the former reduces the migrant to a ‘useful and adaptable worker’ the later deploys a ‘logic of victimisation’ that justifies not only the ‘paternalistic interventionism’ of many state agencies and NGOs alike but includes also an ‘imperative to act’, that ’similar to a regime of exception’ allows the post-liberal border regime of the EU ‘to implement actions and evade laws to an extent, that would be impossible during peacetime’. For example the depiction of smugglers as a criminal, globally organised mafia network exploiting the misery of the migrants justifies the intensification of border controls as a humanitarian measure in order to save the poor migrants from these ruthless criminals. This example shows that all acting in the world – including the production of knowledge – is ‘onto-political’ because it encompasses not a passive description of the world but has certain effects on its actual and virtual composition.

The vicitimization of migrants is contested by emphasizing their agency: how they possess a wide knowledge about mobility and consciously incorporate the services provided by smugglers into their movements in order to realise their migration projects. Migrants rely on social networks in order to realize their migration projects and their collectively organised mobility is not conceptualized as a necessary function of capitalism built on wage-labour but as ‘a form of imperceptible politics of escape’. Migration movements temporarily precede the attempts to control and regulate them. The proliferation of camps that follow the routes of people’s migration perfectly illustrates the main thesis of the book about the initial character of escape which forces a given control regime to transform itself in a reaction to people’s escape.

Emphasizing migrants’ agency and the primacy of escape does not mean considering ‘migration in isolation from social, cultural and economic structures’ (p. 203). The Section on the field of mobility starts with a Chapter (10) that provides an account of the contemporary regime of mobility control in Europe, which comprises the conditions for the practices and tactics of the migrants intending to overcome, circumvent and subvert it. As stated above, imperceptible politics are driven by the desire to leave behind existing modes of representation and the trust in a possibility which is not yet realised. From the perspective of the regime of control this desire constitutes a void because it cannot be represented and thus exceeds its means of control. Considering the situation at the porous borders of the European Union, the enumerable elements that make up the situation at the border (border patrols, smugglers, detention camps, social networks, asylum laws, knowledge on migration matters etc.) are ’structured around an absence: the embodied and unrepresentable desire which people follow as they cross borders’. Imperceptible politics is defined as the moment when the desire is translated into an action or seen from the perspective of the control regime ‘when the void of mobility [...] becomes subversive’ by escaping the given regime of border control. It is the uncontrollable plenitude of thousands of independent decisions that are taken by migrants for a wide variety of different reasons which constitutes the surplus that escapes the regime of control and renders borders permeable. This is the autonomy of migration.

But how do the migrants actually overcome, circumvent and subvert border controls? The authors quote different examples of strategies of dis-identification. Here I will mention only two: Some migrants assume several identities over time and thereby enter into a permanent process of indefinite change by continuously reinventing their existences. This strategy challenges the prevailing understanding of migration as a unidirectional and intentional process: ‘Even if migration starts as a form of dislocation [...] it is not relocation but the active transformation of social space’ (p. 211). Another example of dis-identification is resembled by the ‘brûleurs’ who burn their documents before reaching European soil in order to avoid deportation. By refusing to be identifiable the migrants voluntarily abandon the regime of human rights: Instead of claiming asylum they enter a life outside of visibility in the informal networks of clandestine labour in the European metropolises. These two examples of dis-identification together with several others discussed in the book subvert the very basis on which control operates: the logic of representation that renders individuals governable by making their bodies identifiable. Imperceptible politics rely on the political practice of becoming ‘through which social actors escape normalising representations and reconstitute themselves in the course of participating and changing the conditions of their material corporeal existence’ (p. 81).

Dis-identification points to the objectlessness and non-intentional character of imperceptible politics. Migrants become imperceptible in order to escape the regime of border control without primarily intending to change the immigration laws or asking for their regularisation. But nevertheless ‘imperceptible politics …becomes a constituent force because it constructs new material realities where it operates, not because it strives to erect a better society in general. Imperceptible politics does not believe in the future to come, it believes in its everyday actions…’ (p. 75). In the case of mobility, migrants don’t engage with visible forms of politics in order to demand their recognition but collectively organise their imperceptibility through ‘cooperation, solidarity, the usage of broad networks and resources, shared knowledge, collective anticipation’. It has never been the primary interest of migrants to change the society they migrate to or aspects of its political system. Instead migrants have been concerned with prolonging their stay by earning a living in the clandestine labour market, renting apartments using their friends’ papers, evade racism by building communities of support, by using doctors who offer medical treatment without demanding insurance cards or finding a partner for a fake marriage. These daily practices of migrants led to the construction of ‘material realities’ which can no longer be ignored by mainstream migration research. In their book Worlds in Motion, which became part of the canon of migration theory, Douglas Massey and his colleges acknowledge the fact, that all western European societies have become multicultural immigration countries ‘without any popular referendum or explicit decision on the matter’.

The concept of the autonomy of migration is one among several theoretical innovations developed and presented in Escape Routes. Instead of lapsing into defensive reactions in order to vindicate the pure teachings of Foucault, Marx, Bourdieu or any other icon of social theory their adherents should consider the theoretical innovations offered in Escape Routes as enhancements of critical social theory that might even provide possible escape routes out of its contemporary crisis. For the ongoing crisis of capitalism reveals the even more serious crisis of critical social theory, which is underlying the perplexity of the left: while many left parties and organisations in Europe like ATTAC resemble a ‘left conservatism’ which is characterised by a melancholic cry for the paternalistic welfare state and the invocation of national sovereignty, the adherents of the numerous varieties of neo-Marxism remain paralysed because they are numbed by a fear of something worse than global capitalism and by a calming hope of the remedy that a ‘revolution’ might bring in the distant future. In contrast Escape Routes offers the theoretical tools that make it possible to start thinking of moving beyond the longing for the past and the fear of the future that characterise the contemporary left.

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