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Refugees as Surplus Population: capitalism and common marginalisations of migrants and subaltern populations

Academic & Research
The CEU Campus
Thursday, November 24, 2016, 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm
In this presentation, I will make connections between migration and broader histories and politics of labour, capital and state making. I argue that the marginalisation experienced by migrants in this constellation of powers can be connected to similar marginalisations faced by other ‘subaltern populations’. Scholarship has a tendency to presume that the forms of social, political and economic marginalisation that migrants face is of a significantly different order to that experienced by other marginal populations. One consequence is that migration is distanced from its connections to histories, politics and sociologies of nation and state making, of the production and management of difference, and of capitalism. Refugees, and ‘economic migrants’, may be seen as surplus populations produced by the imperatives to growth of capitalism and its resultant inequalities. This is especially the case in the way capitalism plays out in modern cities. I suggest then that Marx’s labour theory of value allows for a historically embedded account of migration projects and state and societal responses to them, encompassing economic, political and cultural ideologies and practices. Indeed migrants and refugees are central to the capitalist state: more than any other population in Europe currently, they are embodiments of disposable labour, labour whose value can be extracted quickly and with as little cost as possible. The informal sector, populated by refugees and migrants and other members of a surplus population (a reserve army of labour), allows for the maintenance of capitalism itself and the registers of value that mediate social relations (imputing value far and wide from a capitalist and market logic) in capitalist societies. Migrants and refugees are not marginal others to the European state, but core elements allowing the functioning of contemporary capitalism. 

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