Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Art of Not Being Governed: Roms, Travelers and Migrants

With impeccable timing the European Union finally delivered its verdict on last year's expulsion of the Roms from France by the French government.  It was a disquieting event that I watched with  a great deal of interest since the people who were ejected are, to my knowledge, European citizens.  When a state decides to deport people who ostensibly have rights under the law, then measures against other migrants who have even fewer rights may be just around the corner.

It all started with this now infamous "circulaire" released on August 5, 2010 concerning an "'evacuation des campements illicites."  These illegal camps have irritated the authorities and French citizens for some time now.  Filled with camping cars and small children running about everywhere, everyone seemed to assume that these people were up to no good.  As J.C. Scott would say, these people were not "legible."

What was particularly shocking about this "circulaire' was that the French government openly stated that the Roms (gypsies) were to be a priority target in this grand endeavour.  It was later "corrected" (ah the flexibility of bureaucratic language) but the damage was done.  France proceeded anyway but under a cloud of suspicion and protest not only from human rights advocates but also from fellow member-states like Romania and Bulgaria.  And now Europe has spoken and condemned the actions of the French government calling them, "une violation aggravée des droits de l'homme" (a flagrant violation of the rights of man) and "discriminatoires" (discriminatory) et "contraires à la dignité humaine" (contrary to human dignity).  Strong language and surely there are penalties to fit the crime?  Not so fast.  All France is being asked to do is to show the EU how she will remediate the situation which is the equivalent of slapping her wrist and saying, "Please, mend your ways?" Mildly embarrassing for the government but hardly something that they need to take too seriously.

In all the years I've been in Europe I have never heard anyone say anything nice about these people. I have the impression that if they disappeared tomorrow, hardly anyone would cry for them or ask too many questions.  They are mysterious and illegible, they move around, and they stubbornly cling to their ways in spite of efforts to help them.  Acts for and against them seem to fall pretty consistently into these camps:  one that assumes that they are evil undesirables and the other which pities them and seeks to bring them into society.

 If you are interested in a slightly different take on all this, James C. Scott has two books out that are worth reading.  The first is Seeing Like a State (1998) and the second is The Art of Not Being Governed (2009).

In the first Scott gives the perspective of the state to show why the state has always been the enemy of the 'people who move around'.  Quite simply migrants and other mobile populations act in ways contrary to the classic project of "sedenterization" and rationalization which is the objective of all states.

It is very hard to tax and provide social services for people who don't stay in one place.  With the aim of making populations "legible" a state has a toolkit of methods:  inheritance laws, cadastral maps, written language, standardization of weights and measure, even the imposition of last names, which have been used to great effect all over the world.   We have only to look around us at all the state-imposed activities that we all meekly submit to and take for granted, to see how successful this has been. In exchange, of course, we get nice things like schools and roads and protection.  Scott is not arguing that this is necessarily a bad arrangement.  It becomes problematic when the state channels its power and knowledge into large-scale social engineering projects inimical to human freedom.  Destroying societies in the name of questionable "progress."

His second book, The Art of Not Being Governed, follows from the first but takes the perspective of the  "people who move around."  Or more precisely, the people who flee the state for any number of reasons:  taxes, war, conscription, discrimination or simply a refusal to be absorbed as a minority in a majority culture.  He contends that the "civilizational discourse" that presumes that people rarely choose to be barbarians, and that absorption into a state is the norm, is fundamentally incorrect.  More people flee than any civilization or state would care to admit.  In the past it was much easier to "vote with one's feet" since there were real geographically separate places beyond state control:  an area called "Zomia," for example in Asia that has historically been a free zone for people running away from the Chinese, Burmese or Vietnamese states.  Today "distance demolishing technologies" make this a bit harder though not entirely impossible.

What Scott is trying to show here is agency.  He contends that these people are conscious rational actors who understand quite well what they are giving up (literacy, protection, status, public goods) in order to pursue their own ends.  They have strategies that have proven fruitful in the past and appear to work even in modern times.

Using elements of his argument, it is worth taking a moment and trying to see the world of the "sedentary," from the perspective of a fugitive from state control.  Is there not something slightly horrifying about a settled population's submission to authority, their meek acceptance of state activities designed to control and rationalize them?  Are they not pigeons waiting to be plucked?

Perhaps dislike for the "people who move around" is more rooted in envy and grudging admiration than most would care to admit.  If they were completely honest they might acknowledge how the very existence of Roms, travelers and migrants is an important check on the state.  In small numbers these people offer a temptation - an alternative way of life that is the frontier brought forward.  In large numbers they provoke a reaction by the state since the state must take notice and action to respond to the situation (allow its own citizens more freedom, for example), or find itself fighting desperately to keep  its own people from imitating them or leaving.

Within the framework of Scott's argument it is possible to see a relationship between settled Europeans and the Roms that is symbiotic.  In modern Europe the Roms and their like have few places to flee utterly and irrevocably and so they live within the borders of established states, unloved and subject to actions like the 2010 expulsions.  But it is unlikely that they could survive outside of the European societies in which they live, and so they stay, a permanent fixture in European societies.  My argument is simply this:  their fellow citizens of Europe may have a vital interest in letting them be and negotiating terms of co-existence as one method among others to curb the power of the state.  They are less a danger to public safety and more a living breathing symbol of human freedom in a world where surveillance, rationalization and control are becoming the norm.  For all those reasons try to think of them more as guardians of liberty.  They are not just dangerous to the state - they are necessary for us all.

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