Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, significant migrations were stimulated by the geographical and commercial expansion of the world-system. The forced migration of Africans to the Americas functioned to provide labor for sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco and rice plantations. The voluntary migration of Europeans to the Americas was stimulated by the need for settlers in the newly-conquered regions, who became proprietors and workers in expanding industry and agriculture. Although the scope and ethnic origin of the immigrants provoked political division in the American republics, migration was functional for the world-system.
But migration today is a sign of the terminal crisis of the world-system, an indication of the increasingly downward spiral of the world-system toward chaos. Migration today is principally from the periphery and semi-periphery to the core, provoked by declining social and economic conditions in peripheral and semi-peripheral zones, and occurring in the context of limited need for new labor in the core.
The problem is rooted in the historical development of the structures of the world-system. From the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, seven European powers conquered, colonized and peripheralized vast regions of the planet, converting them into suppliers of cheap raw materials and cheap labor, and establishing markets for the surplus goods that were beyond the capacity of core domestic markets to consume. The result was a world-system characterized by extreme inequality, with high levels of industry and a high standard of living in the core, and with underdevelopment and high levels of poverty in the colonized regions. As is logical, such inequality created a tendency of migration from the periphery and semi-periphery to the core, as migrants sought to improve their economic situation.
The colonized peoples were everywhere tenacious and persistent in their resistance to the structures of the world-system. Slave rebellions provoked a fear of a generalized violent retribution among white settlers in the Americas. The conquered nations and peoples as a whole, once their initial armed self-defense was overcome, turned to the organization of nationalist movements, seeking to form independent nations and a more just and democratic world-system composed of equal and sovereign nations. But the movements could accomplish no more than the protection of formal political and civil rights and the establishment of new nations that were only nominally independent. They did not attain the necessary transformation of the economic structures that had been imposed through conquest and peripheralization. And thus, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the world-system underwent a transition from colonialism to neocolonialism, with increasingly expanding economic and social inequality.
In spite of its successful containment of the nationalist movements of the colonized regions, the world-system faced a contradiction that it could not resolve within its logic and assumptions. Namely, the contradiction between a system that expands through conquering new lands and peoples, and the fact that the earth has finite limits with respect to land and peoples. These ecological and geographical limits were reached around the middle of the twentieth century, when the world-system ran out of lands and peoples to conquer, thus eliminating its most important engine for expansion.
The necessary direction to resolve the problem was being indicated by the most radical of the nationalist leaders: Ho Chi Minh, Fidel, Nasser, Nyerere, Nkrumah, and Martin Luther King. They were pointing to a more just world-system, in which future world commercial expansion would be based on the increasing capacity of the colonized regions to purchase goods and services. But the visionary charismatic leaders, the prophets of their time, were ignored and often demonized by global elites. The super-exploitation inherent in the core-peripheral relation was preserved as an essential component of the neocolonial world-system.
As a result of the fact that the fundamental geographical contradiction remained unattended, the system began to experience symptoms of structural crisis, the first signs of which began to emerge in the 1970s. At this juncture, global elites began to demonstrate their unrestrained commitment to their particular interests, placing them above the requirements of the world-system and the needs of an increasingly suffering humanity. They launched a global economic war against the poor in the form of a neoliberal project that reduced state regulation, placing profits over people and financial speculation over economic development.
The neoliberal project increased the extreme global inequality and high-levels of poverty that were the historic legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism, and it undermined the already limited sovereignty of nominally independent nations in the neocolonial world-system. An important political consequence of the neoliberal project was that it gave rise to a renewal of the nationalist movements, which attacked the legitimacy of national political elites in semi-peripheral and peripheral zones for their cooperation with the core powers in the imposition of the neoliberal project. The renewal is particularly advanced in Latin America, where Leftist/progressive alternative political parties have taken political power from the national elites who “were on their knees before the colonial power,” as Hugo Chávez expressed it.
By creating an increasingly desperate economic and social situation in semi-peripheral and peripheral regions, the neoliberal project also gave further stimulation to the tendency of migration to the core. And this has occurred in an historic moment in which the nations of the core are not in an economic or political position to receive migrants. To some extent, the migration to the core is functional, for many migrants become laborers in low-income sectors, where there is a short labor supply. But not entirely so. Migration today is not like the great migrations in earlier moments of the world-system, when labor and settlers were needed in the Americas in the midst of economic expansion. Migration today occurs in a context of limited economic growth, where unemployment in the core is a stronger dynamic than labor shortage. And it occurs in a political context in which the Keynesian welfare state, having been overextended, has been dismantled, creating a situation in which the social and economic needs of core citizens and residents are not being attended by core states. In this economic and political context, the pretended arrival of tens of thousands persons, without authorization by any government, creates an explosive situation that can be utilized by political parties and actors with fascist inclinations. Rather than being functional, migration today is a symptom of a world-system spiraling toward chaos.
Along with migrants who seek to enter the core for economic reasons, migration today includes refugees, who find that their lives are threatened in their native countries as a result of war, terrorism, or political repression. The increasing number of refugees also has been provoked by core policies. Since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of Islamic radicalism, core elites have unleased wars and provided support for terrorist opposition groups in various countries, including Iraq, Syria, and Libya, in an effort to maintain control over natural resources. The political and military interventions have destroyed the social fabric of nations, creating conditions of life-threatening insecurity, and stimulating a wave of refugees in Europe.
Thus, the global migratory crisis is a consequence of five centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism, creating a fundamental global inequality; three decades and a half of neoliberalism, exacerbating the inequality and creating a desperate economic and social situation in vast regions of the planet; and two decades and a half of military and political interventions, creating refugees on a large scale. The migratory crisis is one of several signs that the world-system is spiraling toward chaos, a consequence of the blindness of global elites to the fact that the system has reached the geographical limits of the earth, and it can no longer expand by conquest and domination. Experiencing stagnating profits, and not grasping its source, and lacking sufficient patriotism and social responsibility, global elites has waged war on the weakest and the poorest.
The historic context of the migratory crisis, and the social irresponsibility of the governments of the North, was expressed well by Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Minister of Foreign Relations of Cuba, in a press conference on September 16, 2015:
We are witnessing extraordinarily complicated international conditions. What is occurring with the migratory waves in Europe is a call to human consciousness. Persons are fleeing from conflicts, from unconventional wars, from the consequences of actions that violate international law and that have led to the destruction of states and of the social fabric of various nations; they are fleeing from poverty and underdevelopment. And it concerns us profoundly that the European Union is not advancing toward a solution of the profound causes of these migratory waves; instead, the use of military or repressive methods against the migrants is being proposed.
We are dismayed by the image of a small child drowned on the beach, a symbol that moves all humanity. We hope that there will be political will among the governments of the industrialized countries, which are historically responsible for the conditions of underdevelopment and poverty that exist in the countries of the South, particularly those that are responsible for the recent conflicts that have led to the present situation.
“El bloqueo es una violación masiva, flagrante y sistemática de los derechos humanos de todos los cubanos.” Press conference offered by Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Minister of Foreign Relations of Cuba, September 16, 2015. Published in full in Granma: Organo official del Comité Central del Partido Coumnista de Cuba, September 17, 2015, Pp. 3-6. Cited text was translated by Charles McKelvey.
Key words: global migratory crisis, migration, illegal immigration, refugees, fascism