A world on the move

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
30 April 2003

A concept is born: People Flow.

The term has been used as corporate speak for mobility through an organisation, and as a technical term in assessing the layout of public spaces. But Theo Veenkamp and Tom Bentley’s team at Demos have now given it a new meaning.

It names, and by so doing makes normal, something that is all around us which national cultures everywhere define as abnormal.

It used to be known as migration, or immigration, or asylum seeking or being a refugee. Each implies that the particular event – the leaving, the arrival – is an exception.

With People Flow, the new pamphlet Demos is co-launching with openDemocracy, the movement of people is given what its authors argue is its true place in our lives. To speak of people, ourselves and everyone, is to talk of a species in movement.

How can we achieve life, liberty and happiness without accepting ourselves as what we are?

This, then, is a Copernican moment. If Veenkamp is right, all the desperate measures to legislate control over ‘migration’ are like the bizarre epicycles of the last period of the Ptolemaic system, when the assumption that the stars and the sun revolved around the earth came up against increasingly systematic observations which this assumption could not explain.

A simple, fundamentally different starting-point was needed. Copernicus provided it: it was the earth that moved.

Veenkamp too seeks to alter the fundamental starting-point. People flow. Policy, attitudes, culture, citizenship, notions of belonging, our understanding of our society and of what it means to be human must begin with movement not residence, flux not stasis.

Not so fast, says Anthony Browne. He makes a passionate, eloquent case for the nation-centric view.

How are such questions considered by traditional media? Even before Theo Veenkamp’s report had been launched the British press had come to its own conclusions about its contents. The Guardian announced (22 April) that Veenkamp had ‘come out in support of British Home Secretary David Blunkett’s controversial plan to send all asylum seekers to processing centres outside the EU’, the day after The Daily Telegraph had announced that ‘David Blunkett’s plans for asylum seekers to be held in camps outside the European Union will be criticised this week’…by Veenkamp’s report.

That was the broadsheets. The tabloids were more confused. For the latter, this is all copy flow, prejudged, trivialised and sensationalised – the mere movement of words in print, functioning to ensure that attitudes are reinforced while little changes – especially not minds.

Meanwhile, close readers of openDemocracy will be aware of two major discussions which tend to favour the Veenkamp analysis from different angles.

Hugh Brody has shown how the neolithic revolution which launched humanity into farming and settlement drove the nomadic peoples to the world’s margins. As it did so, the hunter-gatherers were seen as less human because mobile and without homes. In fact, he shows, they occupied a known landscape. It was agricultural settlers who, seen as they should be across generations, were always expansionist and on the move. In the process they drove hunter-gatherers to the edge – from where Hugh Brody writes his regular column for us.

One of the features of modern times is acceleration. If Brody is right, perhaps Veenkamp and his co-authors are simply identifying a fundamental aspect of the tradition of settlement, namely the migration of younger generations, that has picked up speed.

Another way of seeing this, is that the people flow the pamphleteers identify is simply the international form of the movement of people from the countryside to the city. Tom Nairn considers this in his discussion of the costs of a ‘borderless world’ in his essay on America versus Globalisation.

In different ways, Hugh Brody and Tom Nairn speak to the dynamic processes that are transforming lives across the planet. Anthony Browne, by contrast, addresses the fears and uncertainties of those – especially in Europe – who seek settlement and security amidst the convulsions of people flow.

An Editor’s Note is a chance to be personal. On this great issue of our time, there are strong arguments on all sides, and I have not yet made up my mind.

All the more reason why openDemocracy welcomes our partnership with Demos in publishing and debating a bold and important blueprint for a new way to look at migration and asylum. Over the coming weeks we hope openDemocracy will bring a new quality to the discussion of this contentious issue. Here you will get the debate in full – the problems and perhaps some answers too. Please join in.

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