New Clear Vision

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The Ghost of Excepted Labor

September 29, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Devon G. Pena, Economy

An Undocumented Multitude Resists Further Demonization

by Devon G. Peña

Reports from across the country over the past year continue to confirm the damaging economic effects of policies adopted by some twenty states (and counting) that have passed and adopted extremist anti-immigrant legislation (e.g., Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, etc.). Civil rights lawsuits and Justice Department actions against these “exceptional” laws also continue to unfold.

As predicted by myself, and in numerous other sources including studies by academic organizations cited in the May 2010 NACCS Letter to Governor Brewer on SB1070, these unconstitutional state laws are “political play,” but they have exacted fairly immediate economic damage on capitalist interests, especially in the agribusiness sector. Farmers and large growers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of laws that demonstrably interrupt or eliminate the availability of the largely undocumented workers that harvest our food crops.

The most recent reports of this damage come from Alabama, where rotting fields of squash and other labor-intensive crops are widespread. White growers are alarmed and protesting this state-level immigration law crackdown.

Alabama’s statute is currently considered the toughest (most criminalizing of the Other) among the dizzying variety of right-wing anti-immigration laws that have been passed in more than twenty states ever since Arizona “led” the way with its now largely court-neutered SB1070, which was signed into law in April 2010 and overturned by federal district and appeals courts later that summer (July 28, 2010). There are also dozens of cities and municipalities with similar laws seeking to restrict access to health care, housing, and education.

This is the pure and violent (not just mean-spirited) politics of the “bare life” — a widening battle over the reproduction of specific kinds of human populations, and it is largely fueled by a eugenics-like obsession among Tea Party advocates who fear the looming transition that will make “whites” a demographic minority.

The Alabama law, which the media pundits have anointed as “Arizona on Steroids,” makes the statute passed in the Land of Citrus, Cows, Cotton, and Chicano labor seem downright “lite.” Alabama’s steroidal version of 1070 is the nation’s most restrictive, aggressive, and punitive of the state laws basically designed to force undocumented workers out the state’s labor markets. I say this with knowledge that Oklahoma’s version allows the state to seize and sell the real estate property of an undocumented immigrant to pay for court, detention, and deportation costs plus penalties. The Republicans then smugly proclaim themselves the defenders of private property rights.

The ACLU has of course challenged the Alabama law and, again, we fully expect the courts will resolve the issue simply by re-asserting federal supremacy in the setting of immigration policy and law, as is specified under the U.S. Constitution. Regardless, Governor Robert J. Bentley (R) signed the Alabama statute, known as HB56, this past summer on June 10, 2011. He and other Alabama Tea Party Republicans justified the law as a panacea for addressing the state’s 9-10 percent unemployment rate.

They also cited the statute as a law and order move. The Governor and his allies declared they designed the law to strengthen the state’s role in the national security apparatus. Here immigration and labor law reform and the War on Terror get conveniently conflated into one big bundle: Mexicans — alongside “Arab” and “Muslim” people — are the biggest internal security threat to a permanent state of economic exception (a new American apartheid?) to go along with the permanent state of emergency designed to forever wage an endless “War on Terror” but that actually serves as an attack on the very civil and constitutional rights that make it possible for the multitude to assert “constituent” power.

The pundits and policy-makers are of course debating what to do but they are largely oblivious to certain key trends: One is that even the most conservative ranchers and growers are now thinking twice about supporting the extremist bent so widespread among the Tea Party-dominated Republicans. It may even be that agribusiness interests will not likely to vote, or at least withdraw active support, for any more anti-immigrant candidates.

Even members of the American Farm Bureau, an organization chartered across the fifty states that provides insurance and other related financial and business services to farm owners and operators, are taking exception to the Tea Party’s obsession with imposing a state of economic exception on Mexican workers in agriculture. This fact alone may lead to Congressional action on a “guest worker” program for the agribusiness corporate sector — even before the next election; even with the current radical and obstructionist GOP caucus in charge. Obama will surely oblige in the securing of a policy that blends militaristic control of the border, continued deportation of the “illegals,” and a new Bracero Program for the “importation” of “temporary guest workers.” These state sovereignty administration advocates should be careful what they wish for.

Both sides are “spooked.” The Tea Party wing is spooked by Mexican workers and the coming demographic transition to a majority of minorities. The agribusiness and corporate wing, especially in the agricultural but also construction and manufacturing sectors, are spooked by the “ghosts” of Mexican labor — the rotting fruits and vegetables in the fields; unfinished homes and office buildings; lack of kitchen help; and unassembled garments and furniture sets; all these are constant reminders of how restrictive anti-immigrant laws are creating “phantom” workers, the abstract labor that has disappeared for now.

I see this disappearance is a form of resistance, a refusal by the undocumented transnational worker to be rendered as a mere Homo sacer; this is an escape not back to Mexico but to safer ground beyond a state intent on imposing economic exceptionality on a category of humans that have been stripped of their humanity, demonized, and denied the right to work or even just to live.

It is this last point that most of the punditocracy overlooks. The denial of a right to work, let alone live, is coded right into the language and intent of the Alabama statute: People are not just denied jobs no one else is taking; they are denied access to housing (even renting to “illegals” is now a crime that punishes both landlords and tenants); they are denied access to health care and education and pretty much anything related to our biological and social reproduction. These laws attack the very conditions that temper our ability to remain alive and healthy.

In this sense the phantom workers of the undocumented multitude are the “canaries in the mine.” They are the “indicators” that ALL workers are endangered and threatened. When the most vulnerable among us, the undocumented workers that have in almost every case faced inter-generational historical trauma and structural violence; when the most “marginal” and excepted among us; when this multitude resists, then it is time to start listening.

These are not acquiescent victims. These are agents of change; precursors of transformation; even perhaps protean forms of our own future as change agents? When we understand this as U.S. citizens, albeit as members of a social class that is always teetering on the verge of being stripped down to a state of abject rightlessness, will we finally understand the need to redefine exactly what citizenship is? Will we have the wisdom to understand how the undocumented present the fact of globalization from below and our future as a constituent power depends on how strongly we are able to connect to all workers, regardless of their place of birth?

This leads me to think: Sure, squash and pumpkin are rotting in Alabama’s farm fields. But there is something else rotting in Alabama and the rest of this state of exception nation: Our souls, the very core of our sense of common humanity. And as a result, our prospects for democracy and a turn toward the exercise of our constituent power.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

0 Comments to “The Ghost of Excepted Labor”

  1. Step by step, the USA is revealed as the home of the wealthy capitalist elite that is determined to control and manipulate the sovereign economies of the world.
    It is not the home of the free……unless you are ‘white’.
    All people are not equal……unless you are ‘white’
    The USA remains the home of a powerful, racist, capitalist, elite.

    The white racists are a minority, determined to control, abuse, exploit, the Mexicans, the Latinos, the Hispanics, the Afro-Americans, the Asian Americans,the Native Americans.
    Don’t you think it is time for all ‘non-white’ people to unite and claim their rights and freedom under the US constitution.

    go to


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