Vaclav Smil – Energy and Civilisation: A History (MIT)
Vaclav Smil has largely rewritten his 1990s text on energy because developments in the field have outstripped his original efforts, even though the book remained in print, a staple of the subject. You can see why, too, the term ‘polymath’ was made for people such as Smil.
Smil begins ‘energy is the only universal currency’ and ‘one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done.’ He claims that ‘universal manifestations of these transformations range from the enormous rotations of galaxies to thermo-nuclear reactions in stars’. On earth they include ‘the terraforming forces of plate tectonics…’
What Smil does well is to question what energy is. Early on, he says that ‘even Nobel prize winners have difficulty in giving a satisfactory answer to that seemingly simple question.’ Richard Feynman once stated that he did not know what energy was, that he did not have a picture that energy ‘comes in little blobs’ of a definite amount.
‘What we do know is that all matter is energy at rest’, Smil then explains. Here, the anthropomorphism arrives, as though stones can be heard sighing, grateful to no longer be lava, if one listens closely enough.
This kind of anthropomorphism starts on page one and shoots right through the book. Smil does question the linear assumptions of science narratives though: Humans understood how to build nuclear bombs and power stations before they fully understood how photosynthesis worked; windmills acted as important energy catalysts for decades before the mass explosion of machine technology, even though many of the pieces were in place for such a revolution.
But this questioning of development, of ‘it’ moving from better to worse, in an even upward curve, is undermined by the structure of the book itself, which bears the imprint of the kind of thinking being critiqued. It moves from pre-civilised societies to advanced urban ones.
The bottomless depths of relativism open up often: The attempts to frame energy epistemologically, horsepower in Watt’s steam engine, Joules, etc; all of these seem to assume that another value form is nearby, the money form, which is so little touched upon that it is actually overbearingly present for a reader well-versed in Marx.
However, to understand that different types of wheat and then charcoal development led eventually to modernity, that foragers and farmers were co-existent for long stretches of history, because the energy needed for farming is more than for foraging, is to step into a bigger world. This book is that effective.
The scales of horses, from the pony to the shire, and later the power of the suicide bomber belt next to world war two shrapnel impact: This is a useful and instructive book. What it loses by being framed in a default 20th century way, it gains in detail.
That I can even see that a book on energy and civilisation is framed by the rapid movement, change and development of the previous epoch is hopefully an indication that it might not be in the future. Much of the information and narrative explanation in this book could lead to a better world, for humans.
This book makes a very good counterpart to a reading of Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres Trilogy. It would also be a really great resource for a reading of Latour’s object oriented ontology, because it gives a wide range of data in accessible form that could be reprocessed through a less whiggy history and a more constellatory philosophy. This, ultimately, is what is needed. Although Smil acknowledges that a quantitative approach cannot ever over-ride the fuzzier cultural explanations of energy developments, the book sometimes seens torn between hard science and the humanities in an occasionally compromised way.
Smil ends with the French essayist Senancour: ‘Man perisheth. That may be, but let us struggle even though we perish.‘ This book is evidence of how primitive and advanced we are at the same time, the one seemingly paradoxical judgment never cancelling out the other. We can see very far, although there is good evidence that we are reaching our limit, because at the same time we can never escape – despite the wildest post-humanist claims – from seeing through ourselves.
Marx claimed the ur value was money, Smil energy. There are scientists who can see the world as genetic drift after an epoch of only chemistry. But none of them can move us beyond the experience of most humans across the longer historical curve, who experience it all as though it is a peculiar dream. The one thing we can never escape, it seems, is being human. The idea of energy as anything at all is uniquely human, and the idea of energy as currency is unique to humans within a very particular and finite age.
But don’t read my picky comments as a bad review: This book is an absolutely towering achievement; it is that rare species in our times, a grand sweep work over 550 pages long, with more than enough detail to justify its panoramic pictures.
Karen Pinkus – Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (Minnesota University Press)
Fuel is matter that we use, and use up, to produce energy. When we talk about ‘sustainable energy’, we are describing a state wherein we have enough fuel to continue using it up without worrying about future energy lack. We can sustain energy supply, but we cannot sustain fuel. There are no sustainable fuels; that would be an oxymoron. The sun itself is not sustainable… at least not indefinitely.
Karen Pinkus’ new book, Fuel, is a heroic effort to remind us that sustainability is often an illusion caused by our human-sized view of the world. Where ‘energy’, ‘climate’, ‘environment’, and other ‘green terms’ bring to mind graphs and bar charts on the one hand and images of a pastel-coloured globe on the other (cf/ Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’ Fragile), fuel itself is a palpable thing; the thing we dig, the thing we pour, the think we eat and drink.
Pinkus’ dictionary lists our fuels and the human-sized illusions which imprinted us with the idea of sustainability. The Montgolfier brothers had a balloon ‘powered by air’, but lifted by burning fuel. Jules Verne’s wonderful machines were powered by ‘electricity’, and that’s all the enthralled reader needed to know. Windmills and sails and hydroelectric turbines and tidal power plants all capitalise on nature’s surpluses, during the hours those surpluses exist, but are themselves made of wood, skins, steel, labour.
Something always burns. Something’s always used up. With fuel then comes the measure of value. A refrain that runs throughout the text is provided by the Henry Ford Archive papers, in which are held many letters from mad inventors and speculators to the great magnate himself proposing the next Big Fuel.
Some are insane, some unprofitable, some merely less profitable than petrol: in the eyes of the industrialist all three categories are the same. But petrol itself was once the useless waste byproduct of the usable paraffin, and Ford himself invested in numerous ‘biofuels’ in the search for ethanol powered transport; the vaunted ‘boozemobile’.
Fuel gives energy to move machines but it also, Pinkus suggests, must move us. The chemistry is in thrall to economics, and economics to human-sized valuations. Did the booze ration fuel the British Navy, Pinkus asks, any more than the wind and wood? What fuel is in a flag that it could energise Crusoe alone on his island?
The form of the book itself draws attention to the human proportions of fuel. Presented alphabetically as a ‘speculative dictionary’, the claim to comprehensive coverage made by the form is everywhere undermined by the fragmentary, tangential and speculative content.
It is to be read, one feels, from start to finish. It should be used up like fuel for thought. It has more to do with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, or Sterne’s digressions, than with Rousseau, Dr Johnson, and the Enlightenment mission.
It is explicitly not the only catalogue of fuels you’ll ever need. It’s more like an antidote to the cataloguing disease: a textual disease with symptoms including perpetual over-consumption.
One of the few weaknesses of the text is its conclusion. Pinkus suggests a Heideggerian reconciliation with discontinuity as an alternative to forever ‘sustaining’ energy supply. My personal gripes with Heidegger aside, the image of a self-denying humanity runs counter to the fuel-thirsty animal of the rest of the book. We eat, we drink, we burn, we build, we list – collect, compile and consume.
Going without fuel seems to contradict the rest of the book which is, ultimately, an account of humanity’s desperate centuries-long scramble for more of it. If there is hope in the book it lies in the eccentric amateurs hunting out the next stop-gap, or the technologists seeking to make the next quick buck.
Great breakthroughs are not logical and linear in Fuel, they are bumbling, stumbling things often arbitrary in the time and place of their success. It makes for a great read rather than a practical solution. In fact, it offers so many practical solutions that one begins to suspect that we, as a species, are asking the wrong questions.
– Joe Darlington
Tom Jeffreys – Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press)
In Signal Failure, the writer and critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to walk the route of HS2 on foot, from central London to Birmingham.
The future promise of high-speed travel through middle England is slowed down, with Jeffreys stopping to ‘wild camp’ en route, and to meet and engage people directly affected by HS2, from those who live and work on the route to those who are responsible for the land’s upkeep and conservation.
His initial motivation came from the notion that HS2 was a ‘vitally important project to question and analyse – on account of its scale and the number of people affected and what it might say about the country we live in’.
However, Signal Failure ends up simultaneously being about much less than this – it’s a book about the particular and the local, about places as they’re lived and experienced and, inevitably about personal journeys – and much more, posing big questions about value, power, ownership and authority.
Jeffreys wears his influences on his sleeve and places Signal Failure in a tradition of psychogeography as a (once) radical strategy of experiencing and using space. He also draws extensively on writing about travel, landscape and, to a lesser extent, nature.
Whilst he tips his hat to a lineage of heroic and often solitary male writers, Signal Failure is far from heroic – particularly striking for a book about walking and rail infrastructure are the times when Jeffreys has to be rescued by motor transport.
Jeffreys is honest about his own limitations, from his failure to complete the walk in one go, to his lack of knowledge about plants and trees, to (in a particularly memorable and miserable episode) his inexperience around horses.
What’s concerning, he suggests, is not just the lack of transparency around the origins, accountability and decision-making processes of HS2, but the fact that decisions often seem to be made by those with as little knowledge as him.
Signal Failure is partly autobiographical, describing Jeffreys’ Jewish grandparents’ journey from the city to the country, and his own journey in reverse, leaving the ‘home counties’ for university in Oxford and eventually making London home.
This is a common trajectory, yet Jeffreys also discusses a new trend, prompted by an overinflated property market – the flight of young professionals from an increasingly unaffordable capital to provincial cities – which may be accelerated by HS2.
Whilst some argue that HS2 will help bridge the north-south divide and bring London and regional cities closer together, others question who will benefit from a rail system which is already disproportionately expensive to use. Jeffreys also goes as far to suggest that trains actually cut off the passenger from the outside world, erasing the particularity of places which are passed through at speed, and resulting in a lack of depth of experience. Those he speaks to express concerns, too, that far from connecting communities, HS2 will cut through and isolate existing towns and villages.
Another concern is that despite having lived in Europe and travelled around Latin America, the rest of the UK outside of Jeffreys’ own small corner of the South East seems to be a mystery to him. His time in Birmingham – which Jeffreys visits only for the second time during his research for the book – feels rushed in comparison to earlier sections of the book and the eventual northern expansion of HS2 barely merits a mention.
Despite this, the detail of Signal Failure is impressively researched, offering historical context on the town planning that has altered the areas surrounding the route – from the suburban property speculation that shaped ‘Metroland’, to the modernist Alexandra Estate in north London to the redevelopment of post-war Birmingham – and the way in which the development and growth of places has been intertwined with histories of mobility and transport, from canals to motorways.
Signal Failure is also literary and poetic, and Jeffreys situates HS2 well in the surrounding political debates. The book is particularly strong on the nuances of landscape, acknowledging its links with culture, authority and identity, and positioning it as a place that is owned, mapped, managed and controlled.
Jeffreys challenges the accepted distinction between urban, suburban and rural ways of life, describing the Buckinghamshire town in easy reach of London where he grew up in a way many of us will recognise: ‘not quite suburbia’.
Jeffreys also acknowledges the fallacy of the man-made versus natural dichotomy: one of the most telling sentences is when he realises how lifeless and unnatural much of the countryside is, comprising bland agricultural landscapes and views already criss-crossed with pylons, roads and towns. As he notes: ‘One of the things that has struck me most immediately over the course of this walk is how unlovable parts of the countryside already seen.’
Nonetheless, at times Signal Failure adopts a slightly wistful tone, interweaving memory and a sense of loss. Jeffreys maps cultural change, celebrating the village green and cricket matches and eulogising the loss of pubs and communal experiences. Jeffreys ends by questioning whether HS2 is so important on a global scale. As Signal Failure demonstrates, perhaps it’s not the physical infrastructure of the train line, or high speed train travel itself that’s the issue – after all, countries across Europe are already connected much better than British cities – but HS2 should stop and make us think about an economic system which prioritises profit, economic growth and monetary value, and fails to take into account ‘real people’. These, says Jeffreys, are the issues of our time, and affect each of us individually, collectively, locally, regionally, nationally and globally.
– Natalie Bradbury
David Benjamin Blower – Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love (Resource Publications)
The Book of Jonah is fundamentally about a confrontation with Empire. But what sort of confrontation? This is the central concern in David Benjamin Blower’s short, meditative text on the prophet Jonah. Blower is a south Birmingham musician, theologian and activist. And his book Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love is essentially a companion work to his musical The Book of Jonah.
The musical is a rendition of the Old Testament text narrated by NT Wright with Alistair McIntosh as Jonah, all set to a soundscape and musical numbers provided by Blower. It’s a weaving together of recitation and sound, the ancient and the contemporary and shows the creative influence old texts can have on re-politicised forms and content.
The meditation begins with Blower and his friends playing a gig at a local bar. They’re tired of playing through works from the upcoming musical and so decide to leap full-on into a set of sea-shanties and nautical-themed songs. Inevitably, the figure of Jonah – the ancient prophet swallowed by a whale – resurfaces in songs by the Decembrists and Tom Waits and readings from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Drifting through accordion-backed dirges in a beer-soaked bar, Blower reflects on how the story of Jonah and the whale has ‘become ubiquitous legend, filed away in everyone’s mind’. But the whale is only a small part of the story. In the Book of Jonah, God calls the prophet to enter the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.
Jonah, instead, heads for the sea to get as far away as possible. On a boat to Tarshish, caught in a raging storm, Jonah offers himself up as dead weight to be thrown overboard. The sailors, who seem to have a fondness for Jonah, reluctantly do so.
It’s an act of self-destruction for the prophet, but then he’s swallowed by a whale and after three nights spat out on a beach. Jonah then heads inland to Nineveh, the City of Blood, to announce its destruction, its ‘overturning’.
The city does ‘turn over’, but no in the way Jonah expects or wants. The city takes hold of Jonah’s warning and goes into a state of mourning and repentance. The authorities and the people and the cattle wear sackcloth.
Jonah’s condemnation of the political centre becomes a transformation of the political centre. But Jonah isn’t happy. He wants annihilation, not transformation. He wants death, not hope. Jonah leaves Nineveh bitter and angry. On more than one occasion he asks God to strike him dead. God instead explains the radical transformation of Nineveh to him.
The text ends abruptly, and we never hear Jonah’s reply. The whale is only a small part of the story. Yet, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale holds a certain power. Jonah is a prophet in the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And although the Book of Jonah is only a small text within the Bible, taking up no more than two pages, the story of Jonah and the whale resonates across traditions, across the sacred and the secular.
For Blower, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale carries so much sway because it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. Quoting Carl Jung, Blower suggests that it serves as a metaphor for the ‘mysterious structures of the mind’, the division between the conscious and the unconscious and the known world from the unknown.
But, the belly of the whale also expresses our desire for safety and protection. When Jonah journeys into the abyss, it is the whale who protects him. Surface and depth, safety and terror, clarity and chaos – these are all at play in the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale. But there is also a problem. The image of Jonah and the whale can easily slide into cheap moralism.
Jonah is often cast as the disobedient individual, fleeing the will of God. And God summons the whale to put Jonah back on the good path. The story of Jonah is reduced to a morality tale. Blower also points out the lurking anti-Semitism in certain Christian readings of the text. Here Jonah is cast as the Jewish prophet who refused to communicate God’s message to non-Jews. He is disobedient and selfish and being swallowed by the whale is a deserving punishment.
Shaming Jonah and moralising about the prophet becomes a means for Christians to get one over on their sister religion. In the end, although there is a richness and depth to the image of Jonah inside the belly of the whale there are also cheap interpretations and we can easily lose focus on other elements in the text.
For Blower, the key relation is not Jonah and the whale, but rather Jonah and Nineveh. The whale needs to be spat out so that we can move on. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It is the City of Blood, the centre from which pours out conquest, assimilation, death and occupation.
Blower writes, ‘their fetish for violence and their imperial spirit expressed itself in their way of decimating not only peoples, but also peoplehood, by deporting the surviving peoples of conquered lands and scattering them across the empire’.
The Assyrian Empire was on the doorstep of Jonah’s homeland. Jonah didn’t flee to Tarshish because he was disobedient, but because he was terrified. Entering Nineveh would surely be a kamikaze mission.
Blower goes as far as to compare the Assyrian Empire with Nazi Germany, suggesting that Jonah’s appearance in Nineveh is akin to a Jewish person interrupting a Nuremburg Rally in order to condemn the Nazi regime.
The comparison feels a bit hyperbolic, like a textual version of Godwin’s law where any online discussion will sooner or later involve a comparison to Hitler. But perhaps this is not so far-fetched. In 1938 the Hungarian poet Mihály Babits re-imagined the Book of Jonah, with Jonah as a prophet against the creeping fascism of Europe. Nineveh serves as a sort of cipher. And Blower sees it as both Empire and its Other.
Another, more contemporary, comparison is used here: The West and ISIS. On the one hand Nineveh represents our ‘own order with its history of imperialism, its economic power, its military dominance, and its citizenry organized around a consumerist pattern of life: the neo-liberal order that is drunk on oil and falling down the stairs’.
Nineveh is the ‘power under which we live’. On the other hand Nineveh represents the enemy and its counter-brutality. The city of Mosul in northern Iraq is built on the foundations of Nineveh.
Mosul is also one of the cities occupied by ISIS and in 2014 ISIS militants destroyed the mosque housing the tomb of Jonah. These comparisons between ancient Nineveh and modern Mosul are raw and real. There is a connective tissue between story of Jonah and today. And whether we view Nineveh as our ‘own order’ or the site of particular brutality – and surely it should be both – the terrible mission of the prophet Jonah becomes apparent.
When Jonah does enter Nineveh it’s not as some sort of Protestant missionary imploring people towards religious conversion, but as ‘a Hebrew prophet confronting the politics of empire and the diabolical greed of imperial violence’.
Jonah’s confrontation with Nineveh is short. He enters the city and announces that in forty days it will be destroyed. But the city immediately humbles itself and exchanges its weapons for sackcloth. Jonah’s interruption brings the empire to a halt. What sort of confrontation is this? For Blower it is the radical politics of enemy-love. Jonah walks unarmed into the City of Blood and brings it down without violence. It’s an act of faith that Jonah is not entirely in control of.
Blower terms it the ‘Jonaic Interruption’. The imperial clock has stopped and a new world is possible. The Kingdom of God in the here and now. It’s an imperative that Blower takes up. ‘Grass roots enemy-love decentralizes power’, Blower writes:
‘It develops solidarity among the people, which cultivates resilience and resistance to the oppressive interests of the powers at the centre of empire. […] Grass roots enemy-love enables us as ordinary people to become political agents shaping the world’.
– Mark Rainey
Jones, Gunaratnam, Battacharyya, Davies, Dhaliwal, Forkert, Jackson and Saltus et al – Go Home? The Politics of Immigration Controversies (Manchester University Press)
The social sciences should be reactive and responsive to their surroundings rather than simply writing for and within their particular disciplinary cocoons. There is a need for what Les Back terms ‘live sociology’ and it requires being historically situated and attentive to the changing and often chaotic nature of the social world. Live sociology is a call to be inventive, reflective, and partisan.
As Les Back and Nirmal Puwar argue, new strategies and ‘live methods’ need to be developed and, ultimately, this not only means arguing for an alternative future, but crafting one into existence. Go Home?: The Politics of Immigration Controversies, published by Manchester University Press, is an exercise in this sort of academic practice.
The book, which is authored by eight academics and activists, was the result of research formed in direct response to the UK Home Office’s ‘Operation Vaken’ in 2013. Vaken was a pilot operation intending to increase the number of ‘voluntary departures’ from the UK and combined hard-edged immigration enforcement with a media strategy that included journalists accompanying officers on immigration raids and the Home Office tweeting images of the arrests under the hashtag #immigrationoffenders.
Perhaps the most notorious aspect of the operation were the so-called ‘Go Home vans’ which were driven around six London boroughs carrying billboards that read, ‘In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’. The text was accompanied by an image of handcuffs. As the authors write: ‘The moment of the Go Home van seemed to us to be a turning point in the climate of immigration debates – a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech rhetoric as far-right racists.’
This heightened level of state-funded vitriol was disturbing and in the context of increasing border enforcement across education, healthcare and housing, the deployment of the vans also raised the issue of how changing immigration laws and practices become entwined with public feeling and discourse. A central question the book takes up in response to Operation Vaken is ‘how do we map the variety of perspectives and stories surrounding immigration enforcement?’
The impetus behind this question – and the book – emerged as academics and activists connected over social media platforms to discuss, debate and respond to the Go Home vans. Immediate and unfunded street surveys were carried out to capture, as quickly as possible, reactions to Operation Vaken. Focus groups were held in cities across the UK, from Bradford to Glasgow to London, and included recent migrants, long-settled migrants, and ethnic minority and white British citizens. And an Ipsos MORI poll on perceptions of immigration enforcement was also commissioned. The research that underpins this book was undertaken across physical and virtual sites, from the London street to Twitter and this raw and multi-method approach is apparent throughout.
Each chapter begins with an example of ‘living research’, whether conversations between activist groups and researchers, debates with a professional research organisation over the exact wording of survey questions, or difficult and ethically-charged moments that researchers encountered during their fieldwork. All of these examples of ‘living research’ challenge notions of a stable and fixed research field and continually raise questions about method and practice and ethics.
My own PhD research, alongside destitute and refused male asylum seekers living in Manchester, coincided with Operation Vaken. One afternoon, in the early summer of 2013, I was sitting in the front room of a house in south Manchester with a young lad who had recently had his asylum claim rejected and was now being housed by a local charity. The television was on and a piece on the Go Home vans flashed up as the headline item on the BBC news.
The message of the vans was ostensibly aimed at him – a refused asylum seeker who was now expected to leave the country. ‘What do you think of this?’, I asked. ‘It’s just a show’, replied, seeing it as a sort of publicity stunt. His comment reflected some of the cynicism that this book’s authors were encountering across the social and political spectrum while conducting their research.
Yasmin Gunaratnam’s focus groups in Barking and Dagenham included anti-immigration UKIP supporters and a former electoral candidate for the far-right British National Party. The former BNP candidate, and others, regarded the vans as a public-relations game saying that the government was just ‘trying to give the impression that they’re doing something about it [immigration]’.
Some of this ‘popular scepticism’, as the writers term it, reflects a wider antipathy towards ‘elites’, ‘technocrats’, orthodox economics and government initiatives. Immigration becomes an empty signifier for all sorts of socio-economic issues and this is read through a broader shift away from liberal forms of governance in which statistics and macroeconomics tended to be the ultimate arbiters of ‘good policy’ towards a ‘postliberalism’ that appeals to displays of ‘toughness’ in regards to immigration, as well as notions of security, belonging and national identity.
Yet, despite all of this scepticism, there seems to be an ongoing, dialectical relationship at work: the far-right expresses distrust over government initiatives against migrants at the same time that the state moves away from evidence-based policy formation and begins to adopt the very language and rhetoric of the far-right.
The question of who the Go Home vans were actually aimed at seems unclear: migrants or the far-right? Were they an exercise in stoking fear or political appeasement? It’s likely both and this lack of clarity was part of the effectiveness of the Go Home vans, because despite all the scepticism this sort of performative politics, with its associated hardened policies, creates raw and real effects.
Phrases like ‘Go Home’ are not just located on government-sponsored billboards but are part and parcel of a historic and ongoing racist discourse. With the ‘Go Home vans’ there was no clear separation between official discourse and everyday racism. A visceral fear emerged from some minoritised focus group participants, regardless of citizenship or residency status, when discussing encounters with public displays of border enforcement.
Emotion and fear, cynicism and distrust, racism and rhetoric, and the physical violence of border enforcement all form a tangled web – a vicious complexity that can easily bear down on people in malign ways. There is another crucial and difficult issue addressed in the book: the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrant.
It drills down through discourse and policy, distinguishing the citizen from the immigrant, the ‘wanted’ migrant from the ‘unwanted’ migrant, the ‘good’ migrant from the ‘bad’ migrant, and the ‘illegal’ from the ‘legal’. It’s a toxic form of moralising that apportions blame on those considered ‘other’, separating those considered to ‘belong’ and those who do not, those who are deserving of rights from those who are not. It’s a discourse that lies behind policy formation and it sits there in the open as seen in the Immigration Minister Mark Harper’s letter to the Daily Mail justifying the Go Home vans (which is quoted in block form in the book).
But, it’s also a mobile discourse, utilised by different groups in different ways. It is not just a discourse operating from a privileged centre to the margins, but also part of the fight for moral worth by those who experience marginalisation. In focus groups researchers found that some participants, who were migrants to the UK, adopted the deserving and undeserving distinction in relation to other migrants while an activist from Southall Black Sisters who was engaged in anti-border enforcement protests reflected on negative responses to her work from her own community.
The deserving and undeserving distinction raised itself in my own research too. The destitute men I was spending time with in Manchester sometimes spoke out against benefits claimants who were seen as lazy and spending their money on drugs and alcohol, while also occasionally complaining about other refugees, who were seen as liars who falsified their claims and took the place of those who had been wrongfully rejected. The deserving and underserving distinction is seemingly all pervasive. And it’s not simply an object of study for me as it flashes up in my own family history of migration.
For the authors of Go Home? the deserving and undeserving distinction is the product of long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a neoliberal economic and social frame that holds individuals responsible for poverty and inequality rather than institutions and structures.
‘Neoliberalism’ is a big slab of a term that can be all-too-easily deployed by academics as something they can position themselves against in text, but here it emphasises the context in which the deserving and undeserving distinction becomes an all-pervading discourse, deployed in multiple ways against multiple people. The authors do not leave it here. They also look for moments that disrupt and breakdown this discourse. These are not only high profile moments of resistance, such as the 2013 ‘Chinatown Shutdown’ in which businesses, staff, anti-racists and cultural organisations closed shops and took to the streets of London’s Chinatown following a series of heavy-handed immigration raids fishing for migrants working illicitly, but also more mundane moments where ‘seemingly banal comments about warmth, hospitality, and love could be profound in a context where migrants were struggling against the daily strictures of immigration controls that are material, social and emotional’.
The dehumanising actions and rhetoric of immigration enforcement need to be countered with humanising actions and rhetoric. There is work to be done. And it is being done. It’s being done in the emergent City of Sanctuary movement which has its origins in Sheffield – bringing local communities and those seeking asylum together. It’s being done by multiple activist and community groups across the country. The strength of Go Home? Is that it takes the singular moment of the Go Home vans to expose all sorts of issues, from sweeping and historic political shifts to everyday experiences of immigration enforcement and all the vicious material and emotional and discursive knots that connect the two. This is ‘live sociology’, responsive and partisan and necessary.
– Mark Rainey