Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Slavery’s afterlife in the Euro-Mediterranean basin

Invisible to even the most progressive Europeans, antiblackness is the foundation from which to understand the tragedies now occurring in the Mediterranean Basin.

Tryon P. Woods P. Khalil Saucier
19 June 2015

A May 2015 vigil in Berlin for the unknown refugee dead in the Mediterranean. Florian Boillot/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

The tragic weekend of April 18-19, 2015, in which over 700 so-called African ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ perished less than 130 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa, with another 400 Africans stranded in the Mediterranean desperately awaiting rescue, repeated with violent clarity the terms of black death and suffering which continue to underwrite the modern world and the European project in particular. Lampedusa, as one of the southernmost outposts of ‘Fortress Europe,’ has buried scores and scores of Africans in recent years—this most recent spectacle will probably be eclipsed by the next one by the time this essay goes to print—as part of Europe’s ongoing confrontation with the world it created through African enslavement and colonial subjection for over five centuries.

Our intervention into the debate on Europe’s border policies addresses from the vantage of black political praxis the historical specter of slavery haunting current events. Calls for action on the Mediterranean crisis frequently mobilize the discourse of slavery in various ways, but never in the way most pertinent to our contemporary situation. The most ethical assessment of the Mediterranean crisis is not in the terms of what Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and many others call the ‘new’ or ‘modern-day’ slave trade, but rather in terms of racial slavery’s constitutive and consolidating role in the formation and functioning of Europe and modern society itself. The Mediterranean Basin has been an ongoing crisis for black people for the better part of the past and present millenniums. At issue, then, is a more accurate understanding of what slavery was in order to grasp what it is today. We suggest, following the leading edge of black thought, that today’s scene in the Mediterranean reveals slavery’s afterlife.

Slavery’s afterlife

One mark of slavery’s afterlife is the manner in which black suffering and death in the Mediterranean sustains and resuscitates European democratic society. Case in point is ‘The Charter of Lampedusa,’ a document produced by activists in response to the fatal shipwreck of October 2013. The ‘Charter’ deploys accessible black bodies in order to illustrate the tension between good and bad Europeanness in much the same way that antiracist protests throughout Europe have affixed images of dead black bodies adrift to their placards of choice. Thus, rather than the problem of antiblackness, the ‘Charter’ formulates the issue at hand as an excess of Europeanness and militarism, as the barbarity of EU border controls. It becomes a means of elaborating a positive European identity, an antiracist cosmopolitan identity ostensibly attuned to all human suffering, but in reality primarily concerned to save Europe from itself, for Europeans. In this instance, black struggle becomes a medium for psychic transformation: in death, the Lampedusa victims enable Europeans to re-emerge as civilized, which is to say enlightened, subjects.

One recent Italian commentator compared the public stripping and high-pressure hose washing of African detainees on Lampedusa to the Italian immigrant experience on Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century: “although not nearly as demeaning as what the refugees in Lampedusa undergo on a regular basis, we were humiliated by, and decried, the primitive physical examinations intended to discover which infectious diseases we were carrying. Only, at the time, it was easier to be outraged as we were the victims.” This effort to identify with the captive African turns in on itself because rather than feel what it means to be left to drown within sight of the European coast, over and over again, the Italian commentator instead begins to feel for himself, or for his national kin. The analogy falters across the abyss of slavery, for that is where black people were permanently imprisoned while Italians were momentarily detained at Ellis Island. In short, the antiracist is the policeman: in the attempt to counteract the indifference of European society to the immigrant’s suffering, the putative white body of the EU assumes the position of the captive black body in order to make the suffering in the Euro-Mediterranean Sea visible, legible, and coherent.

Europe’s antiblackness

Slavery’s afterlife remains hidden from these very same critics of EU border policies in part because Europe’s historical formation as antiblack is still impermissible knowledge today. Antiblack violence in the Euro-Mediterranean Basin has its roots in the earliest fifteenth century African slave trade and the subsequent ‘voyages of discovery’ that further established European dominance of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. The Europeans were soon purchasing cotton and other commodities in India to exchange for slaves in Africa to mine gold in the Americas, swiftly yoking four continents into one global accumulation regime premised on racial violence. Enlightenment thought emerges out of this crucible to produce a humanism reliant upon the provision of a dehumanized other; that is, a body of knowledge premised on the distinction between the ‘liberated’ and the ‘captive’—the subject and object of civilization. In turn, what we are facing today is a new declination of an old and repressed issue that haunts and composes the European project and modernity itself: the ‘human’ as an all-encompassing and non-racial category for thought and practice.

Yet, once we recognize that the ‘black Mediterranean’ is an integral unit of analysis for understanding contemporary forms of policing Europe’s borders, the cognitive model of the universal ‘human’ is thrown into crisis—as is antiracist discourse that revolves around issues of ‘security,’ ‘rights,’ ‘citizenship,’ ‘refugee status,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘no borders,’ and much more. To speak in non-racial terms of the policing of the Mediterranean, as evinced in antiracist slogans from around Europe such as “Lampedusa ist überall” (Lampedusa is everywhere) and “#IamAMigrant”, renews the suppression and quarantining of the black presence necessary for modern progress. At the same time, the important analytical work occurring today that exposes and challenges the racial violence intrinsic to nation-states, the liberal fictions of rights and citizenship, and the contradiction in facilitating the movement of capital and commodities across borders while policing people’s migrations through the same boundaries also mystifies slavery’s afterlife. In other words, liberal human rights discourse and ‘no border’ discourse both seek the ethical recuperation of human society without recognizing how the ‘human’ itself remains fundamentally unethical with respect to black people—in short, antiblack.

Blind to anti-blackness

This antiblack blind-spot shared by liberals, humanitarians, anti-colonialists, anti-racists, and leftists of many stripes is countenanced, in part, by privileging a political economic analysis of power and policing. In the Mediterranean Basin, as with most borderlands in the contemporary post-colonial era of neoliberal globalism, a political economic analysis of policing centers around the coercive power of neoliberal projects. Policing and related practices of “securitization” are said to be facets of the larger mechanics of neoliberal capital’s reproduction of the colonial era’s global inequalities. ‘The Charter of Lampedusa’, for example, outlines the principles underlying the struggles taking place against EU border policies (e.g. Eurosur and FRONTEX) and calls for the freedom and autonomy of all peoples regardless of citizenship status or birthplace. The Charter says little about racism and nothing about antiblackness, and much of the document bears the language of political economy: inequalities, market roles, class division, outsourcing, marketization, and predominant financial interests. This is also the lexicon of the neocolonial order, in which ‘the dangerous classes’ of most pressing concern to capital and the metropolitan Western states are migrants from the former colonies of the global South, marshalled into global circuits of labor conscription.

Although global neoliberalism is a major factor in the problem at hand, a political economy take on the crisis in the Mediterranean would suggest that the violence that befalls Africans on the move to Europe is an effect of their transgressive act of crossing borders. It is solely punishment for breaking the law. Such a premise guides almost every analysis of migrants and immigration. Although civil society may deem excessive the price paid for the transgression, and condemn police practices accordingly, the unstated recognition is that one precipitated the other. In this sense, the 1,500 dead in the Mediterranean Basin thus far in 2015—almost half as many as died in all of 2014—are thought to be no different from other border tragedies in this era of global mass migration, such as US-Mexico, or even Palestine-Israel.

It is a mistake to view Lampedusa in this manner, as a case of contingent violence, a punishment for a transgressive act, and hence as merely an instance of capital’s and colonialism’s ongoing oppressive forces. This error is enabled by confusing the empirical for the structural—or, permitting the level of lived experience to subsume the larger structure of meaning about human existence in which all full (white) humans, lesser (non-white, non-black) humans, and (black) sub-humans are positioned. In the world slavery makes, violence against the black body is gratuitous, not contingent, instrumental, or incidental: it is punishment for being. It is not due to colonial occupation, labor exploitation, or political repression. Gratuitous violence is the mark of the sub-human, of objectified human existence par excellence. The Lampedusa victims are not, nor are they thought to be, in Zygmunt Bauman’s words merely “human rubbish” and “disposable humans.” Rather they are held, in memoriam, in the Mediterranean’s abyss of blackness; a plane of non-existence connoting a position of subjection in excess of experiences with exploitation and oppression.

The role of African enslavement in constructing the present remains stridently disavowed in contemporary social and political thought generally, and with respect to policing specifically. It requires that we approach the Mediterranean situation not simply through the lens of capital, colonialism, immigration, national border policy, or any other dimension of the political economy. The archive of black studies presents a corrective to the poverty of these approaches.  Keeping our examples within the context of European history, for instance, Western culture generally beholds Nazism and fascism as anomalous and singular in its horror, as the most egregious violation of civilized society. Alternatively, the black studies archive is replete with the recognition that Europe was simply being engulfed during the Jewish Holocaust with precisely the form of genocidal power it had unleashed on non-European peoples for hundreds of years through slavery and colonialism.

From Aime Cesaire to George L. Jackson, fascism was not understood as a rupture in Western civilization’s march of progress, but rather as its logical climax, an extension of a global system rooted in self-destructive racist ideologies and violence established through the slave trade. The fascist problem, then, is the understanding that Western civilization has always and already been constituted as fascist and totalitarian with respect to non-Western peoples and to black people in particular. As Frantz Fanon famously noted, the Jewish Holocaust was simply a ‘family feud,’ an intramural conflict within the fold of humanity. This compares to the ‘structural antagonism’ of enslavement, in which human beings confront their ethical dilemmas (of which the Jewish Holocaust is but one example) through the accumulation and fungibility of captive black bodies. Put differently, the Jewish Holocaust was the definitive ethical crisis for the modern world precisely because it revealed Western civilization to itself and required the further elision of black suffering (e.g., the African Holocaust) from the realm of ethics altogether. Will black struggle remain similarly quarantined today from how we understand Lampedusa and the Mediterranean crisis, or will we see the situation for what it is, the latest signposts of slavery’s afterlife?

This essay extrapolates from a larger research paper: P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods, ‘Ex Aqua: The Mediterranean Basin, Africans on the Move, and the Politics of Policing,’ Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory (special issue on global policing) 141, December 2014.

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