Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian Perspectives on Migration and Civil Society Alliances

Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian Perspectives on Migration and Civil Society Alliances

by Óscar García Agustín, Martin Bak Jorgensen

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Solidarity without Borders reads the micropolitics of migrants as political actors within a Gramscian context by observing alliances between migrants and trade unions, worker organisations and other radical constituencies.

This book argues for Gramsci’s theory of the formation of a transnational counter-hegemonic bloc, by studying methods of modern resistance and new forms of solidarity between these forming groups. With case studies of the Gezi Park Protests in Turkey, social movements in Ireland and the Lampedusa in Hamburg, the authors consider how diverse new migrant political actors, newfound cross-border alliances, and spaces of resistance shape the political dimensions of protest.

As migrants are often deprived of agency and placed outside the mobilisations taking place across Europe, Solidarity without Borders demonstrates how new solidarity relations are shaped and how these may construct a new common ground for struggle and for developing political alternatives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783717620
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 02/20/2016
Series: Reading Gramsci
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 373 KB

About the Author

Oscar Garcia Agustin is Associate Professor at Aalborg University in Denmark and the author of Sociology of Discourse.

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Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian Perspectives on Migration and Civil Society Alliances

Óscar García Agustín and Martin Bak Jorgensen

12 September 2015 marked an important day for an emerging solidarity movement. In more than 85 cities in 30 countries across Europe hundreds of thousands of protesters marched under banners of 'Refugees Welcome' and 'Europe Says Welcome. Citizens participated in marches, demonstrations and other events during the day of action. The message was very clear: refugees are welcome here. In London the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, spoke to more than 100,000 people joining the Refugees Welcome Here event. This can be read as an act of solidarity; but support for the message goes beyond participating in a single march and reflects the need for a new politics of migration in which civil society speaks out and opens new spaces of cooperation and of rethinking social identities.

During the months following the refugee crisis in Europe, we witnessed a popular mobilisation. The solidarity actions included a wide range of participants, from veteran activists and leftist militants to people who approached the issue from a humanitarian perspective. All of them agreed on the need for elaborating new migration policies, very different from the existing ones, which were considered inhumane and restrictive. In different countries initiatives have sprung up developing new forms of everyday politics and acts of solidarity. In Austria 2,200 drivers joined a campaign to pick up refugees stranded in Budapest. In Germany, Denmark and Sweden locals have organised support for arriving refugees, donating food, water, clothes and other supplies to those in need, sometimes using civil disobedience by smuggling refugees to neighbouring countries or sheltering refugees privately. In Iceland more than 11,000 Icelanders (out of a total population of approximately 323,000 people) offered to accommodate Syrian refugees in their private homes and pay their costs as a response to the government suggesting that it would accept 50 Syrian refugees. These are citizens' initiatives which all express a solidarity that is more than a symbolic support, but that constitutes a genuine attempt to spur social and political change and to demonstrate solidarity beyond borders in practice.

The emerging solidarity manifests itself not just from below however; cracks are also opening up in the established political system. In Barcelona the newly elected mayor Ada Colau challenged the Spanish government and proposed creating a network of refugee cities, following up the proposal with the suggestion that 10 million euros of surplus funds from 2015 be allocated for this purpose. In the United Kingdom the prime minister, David Cameron, arguably bowed to the pressure from the popular mobilisations taking place over the previous months and agreed that Britain should take in another 100,000 refugees. On an even larger scale, German chancellor Angela Merkel took the decision on 4 September to suspend European asylum rules and allow tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Hungary to enter Germany via Austria. The consequences of this decision are enormous, both in terms of the numbers of refugees involved and, even more significantly, for the future of the European asylum system.

How can these emerging solidarities between civil society and refugees be explained? It would clearly be insufficient to reduce them (as well as the social and political power they imply) to the political moment. Without denying the importance of that moment and its strong impact on European public opinion, the different kinds of solidarity that have been forged during the years prior to the refugee crisis must not be ignored. The actions of solidarity, many of them developed under unfavourable circumstances, have been carried out in different manners as a rejection of hegemonic migration politics. In this regard, we find it necessary to consider all those alliances and shaping of spaces of resistance which have enhanced a different way of understanding migration politics, produced within the civil society sphere. To account for those solidarities and their effects we find it intriguing to return to the ideas expressed by Antonio Gramsci and place them in dialogue with the current political and social context. The main reason for this choice is that 90 years ago Gramsci was already reflecting upon the potential of such popular mobilisations and the power of alliance building in expanding a conflict and bringing about social and political transformation.


In 'Some Aspects of the Southern Question' (1926), Antonio Gramsci traces a geographical model (Said 1995) to explain the division of Italy into two regions, North and South, intertwined in a relation of exploitation between the industrialising North and the dependent South with its economy based on agriculture. The bourgeois democracy strengthened this asymmetry and the dominance of the North, using state power to reinforce the industrial development of the North and increasing the South's dependence. The bourgeoisie in the North and landowners in the South took advantage of this division and the lack of a common response by proletariat and peasants.

Indeed, Gramsci's main message in the 'Southern Question' is that proletariat and peasants should form a new alliance to change the hegemonic order. Solidarity between the subaltern groups (here subjects on the margins of history, immersed in the autonomous space of their own historicity; see Mellino in this volume) should be beneficial for both proletariat and peasants and enable them to transform social and economic relations and eliminate exploitation and dependence. Gramsci assigns to the proletariat the role of the leading class against capitalism that might attract other popular classes and incorporate the claims of the peasants into a unified struggle.

Today, Gramsci's reflections on the 'Southern Question' (and his work in general) are as relevant as they were then. The economic crisis which began in 2008 revealed a structural crisis of capitalism which was not limited to the financial or economic arenas. It turned into an organic crisis (i.e. a rupturing of the structure and superstructure) as political consensus dissolved and the ruling class was incapable of leading society forward. Especially in 2011, citizens mobilised, became politically active and rebelled against the capitalist system in the name of democracy. In 2015 we have seen citizens mobilising under paroles of humanitarian obligations and solidarity. However, it is unclear if these contestations will be constituted as a new historical bloc (i.e. a unity of structure and superstructure) with an alternative hegemonic system (i.e. hegemony obtained by a fundamental class exercising the intellectual, political and moral role of leadership as well as monopolising the 'common sense' within the system) (Mouffe 2014). Gramsci proposed an alliance between proletariat and peasants to form a new historical bloc. Nowadays it is still unclear who the social and political actors involved should be. In Gramsci's words, 'the old is dying but the new cannot [yet] be born' (Gramsci 1971: 275-6, Q3§34). However, it is certain that the terrain of civil society has become the terrain for hegemonic struggles in which political society can only use coercion and not persuasion. We add the 'yet' in Gramsci's famous statement and investigate, in the contributions of this book, civil society alliances in historical and especially contemporary perspectives, reflecting on their potential to challenge the hegemonic system.

In recent years, there has been a growing literature on what can be characterised as Gramscian and neo-Gramscian perspectives on transnational solidarities in the era of neoliberalism (e.g. Bieler 2014; Bieler and Morton 2004; Featherstone 2012; Morton 2007). Approaches in this literature include case studies on the (transnational) labour movement, alliances between unions and social movements, subaltern class struggles, the global justice movement, anti-colonial struggles and lately anti-austerity struggles. They underline the fact that exploitation and resistance to exploitation cannot be reduced to material aspects, but include amongst others ethnic, nationalist, religious and gender-based identities, which are all engaged in struggles (Bieler and Morton 2004; Cox 1987). Despite a theoretical openness to diversifying struggles, there has been little focus on migrants. Our objective with this book is to analyse alliances in civil society comprising immigrants and non-immigrant actors that challenge the hegemonic order and undo the political closure which, in the form of consensus, has allowed the implementation of restrictive and exclusionary immigration and integration policies. The contributions offer long historical perspectives as well as case studies on contemporary issues. Their common focus is that they analyse alliances in civil society through Gramscian and neo-Gramscian perspectives.

The category of the migrant is characterised by heterogeneity. The same can be said for the analysis of migrants as political subjects. The chapters conceptualise migrant subjects from four angles: labour mobility, migration (both economic and political), colonialism and transnational relations. We here understand processes of subjectivisation as being produced by mechanisms of social and cultural exclusion, division of labour and ethnicisation in a context of global capitalism. Figures such as the numbers of precarious workers, refugees, undocumented migrants and labour migrants are analysed. Furthermore, we consider the multidimensional conception of migration in the dynamics of global capitalism necessary to understand how new alliances and relations of solidarity, with other members of civil society who are exposed to similar processes of precarisation, can emerge. In our opinion, this scenario makes it particularly relevant to rethink Gramsci in relation to migration.

Following Edward Said's and later Adam David Morton's (2013) approach, we read Gramsci's framework as a 'travelling theory'. Solidarity struggles are situated in place and space and on a hierarchy of scales. Gramsci's 'Some Aspects of the Southern Question' establishes the framework for understanding how new alliances are composed and their potential to change the capitalist system by different degrees and at different levels. We thus speak against more recent contributions like that of Richard Day (2005), who claims that 'Gramsci is dead' because he does not capture the demands of the latest social movements. We argue that Gramsci's analysis of alliances and solidarities is very much alive in the dynamics of subaltern political activism and the generative character of political struggle (Featherstone 2013). Consider for instance the emerging refugee solidarity movement Venligboerne (literally 'friendly inhabitants') in Denmark: its membership now numbers thousands of people across the country. This is not primarily an urban phenomenon; it started in the countryside and spread from there. Its activities include legal aid, practical help, medical support, language training, job-seeking assistance and everyday donations as well as engagement in political protest against what is believed to be a xenophobic policy. Rethinking 'Some Aspects of the Southern Question' entails addressing four important topics in order to understand the relation between immigration and civil society as resistance against the current hegemonic policies and political consensus:

1. The heterogeneity of political actors

2. Solidarity and alliances across and around borders

3. Avoiding misplaced alliances

4. Spaces of resistance

We consider these four dimensions, which correspond to the four parts of this book, useful for explaining the potential (as well as the limits) of civil society as spaces of resistance offering alternatives to the political closure on migration and integration policies.


Gramsci supports the idea of the proletariat as the class that would propose and lead a new hegemony and defeat capitalism. He explains how Turin communists furthered their cause by including the Southern question on the agenda. Despite their vanguard role, workers could not lead social change without establishing new alliances, especially with the peasants in the South, in order to mobilise the working population. One social class cannot challenge the hegemonic order without opening up to other social actors. This conclusion does not derive from a general reflection about working classes but from a historical and situated reflection that makes every development unique. We have to contextualise social struggles if we want to understand why specific alliances are formed and what possibilities they represent.

The proletariat can no longer be the only class leading a process of social change. Other popular classes must be taken into account as well. As Hall (1986) points out, we cannot expect a homogenous class to be decisive when an organic crisis occurs. It is more reasonable to think that the class composition will be complex. Furthermore, 'though such a political and social force has its roots in the fundamental class division of society, the actual forms of the political struggle will have a wider social character' (Hall 1986). For instance, the Occupy Wall Street movement has tried to change the terms of social conflict by distinguishing between the 99 per cent (the people) and the 1 per cent (the representatives of the interests of capital). This reflects the effort of rethinking a more inclusive conception of class composition which is open to other groups, and not only the proletariat. In this sense, it is possible to move beyond the interests of those particular groups and identify common goals. Gramsci talked already about the need to overcome particularism as the only way to include different kinds of workers and peasants:

[I]t is necessary – in order to win the trust and consent of the peasants and of some semiproletarian urban categories – to overcome certain prejudices and conquer certain forms of egoism which can and do subsist within the working class as such, even when craft particularism has disappeared. The metalworker, the joiner, the building-worker, etc., must not only think as proletarians, and no longer as metalworker, joiner, building-worker, etc.; they must also take a further step. They must think as workers who are members of a class which aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. (Gramsci 1978: 448)

The heterogeneity of the political actors has to be included in and reflected by categories such as 'multitude' (Hardt and Negri 2004; Virno 2004) or 'depolarised pluralities' (de Sousa Santos 2006). However, it is not easy to account for the composition of this complex heterogeneity. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) refer to the 'logic of difference and equivalence' to depict how a coalition of plural, quite diverse actors could lead to a new form of hegemony. The economic crisis has intensified the plurality of political subjectivities (Hardt and Negri 2012) and made the economic dimension of social inequalities, which are not necessarily linked only to the division of labour, more evident. All these elements must be taken into consideration to understand how the 'subaltern' becomes a subject of history in the constant shaping and reshaping of power relations (Capuzzo and Mezzadra 2012).

The plurality of subjectivities includes workers, the unemployed, different categories of immigrants (political and economic refugees, undocumented and documented immigrants, expatriates, etc.) and less obvious groups such as the indebted (Lazzarato 2012) or what has been labelled as the 'precariat' (Standing 2011) and reflects the new economic and social divisions caused by capitalism. The configuration of the plurality of subjectivities should be reflected in a moment of organic crisis and solidarity must be constituted based on such a diversity in which it is difficult to imagine the working class playing a leading role, although it must clearly be included and be an active part of it.


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Table of Contents

Series Preface
Preface and Acknowledgements
1. Solidarity without Borders: Gramscian Perspectives on Migration and Civil Society Alliances - Óscar Garcia Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen
Part I: The Heterogeneity of Political Actors
2. Gramsci’s 'Philosophy of Praxis' and the Topic of Migration - Ursula Apitzsch
3: Countering Hegemony through a Park - Nazl enses and K vanç Özcan
4. Gramsci in Slices: Race, Colonialism, Migration and the Postcolonial Gramsci - Miguel Mellino
Part II: Solidarity and Alliances
5. Political and Social Alliances: Gramsci and Today - Derek Boothman
6. Gramsci, Migrants and Trade Unions: An Irish Case Study - Mary Hyland and Ronald Munck
7. The Southern Question and the Irish Question: A Social Movement Perspective - Laurence Cox
Part III: Avoiding Misplaced Alliances
8. Hegemony, Migration and Misplaced Alliances: Lessons from Gramsci - Peter Mayo
9. For the Sake of Workers but Not Immigrants Workers? Social Dumping and Free Movement - Óscar García Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen
Part IV: Spaces of Resistance
10. Politicising the Crisis: The Southern Question, Uneven Geographies and the Construction of Solidarity - David Featherstone
11. Contesting Urban Management Regimes: The Rise of Urban Justice Movements in Sweden - Lisa Kings, Aleksandra Ålund and Nazem Tahvilzadeh
12. Spaces of Resistance and Re-Actuality of Gramsci in Refugees’ Struggles for Rights? The ‘Lampedusa In Hamburg’ between Exit and Voice - Susi Meret and Elisabetta Della Corte
13. Against Pessimism: A Time and Space for Solidarity - Óscar Garcia Agustín and Martin Bak Jørgensen

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