Walls on a Drowning World

The early 21st century will be remembered for three world-historic crises. The first is the most obvious, universal and immediately felt: the worst financial meltdown in nearly a century. But then, just as a discrete and easily identifiable class of perpetrators of that crisis walked away scot-free, American anxieties were channeled toward a rather different bogeyman: the so-called “immigration crisis.” If history is written by the victors, then one could say that much of modern politics is a struggle to determine just which one of these will be remembered as the cause of our millennial woes.

That is, would be remembered—if it weren’t for the almost-certain possibility that the third crisis may stop there being a future to remember anything at all. I’m referring here, of course, to societal collapse and planetary-scale extinction in the wake of climate-induced catastrophe.

Now that the waste is starting to settle, we can assess our situation. A money class swindles a tanking economy and makes off to cushy pensions and plush accounts in the Cayman Islands. A generation grows up to be worse off than their parents. Meanwhile, the world is wising up to the fact that our beloved captains of industry are waging chemical warfare on the globe to the point of speciocide. Each of these is, in its own way, a matter of “existential” crisis. Each would require bold, immediate and system-wide initiative to scratch even its surface. But here, at this critical point of national (and international) calamity, the U.S. government would rather spend $60 billion to build a wall between America and Mexico.

I have been to the existing wall along the southern U.S. border, a sprawling testament to Yankee ingenuity and cruelty. I have met with families waiting desperately in line outside the San Ysidro port of entry, seeking refuge from their tormentors back home. I have visited the giant Wal-Mart in Brownsville, Texas where 1,500 migrant children remain in custody (what better way to welcome them into the land of the free?). As a lawyer, I have helped immigrants to navigate a legal system trying to detain them and deport them, and seen how immigrants fare under the purview of a hypertrophied security state.

Today, with kids locked up in cages and seas encroaching on the shores, as a border wall’s erected like a futile barricade against a desert that will swallow up the cornfields, it’s easy to say the U.S. government is mismanaging its priorities. It’s easy to say the U.S. government is “doing nothing” to address the problems of extreme inequality and impending ecocide. It’s easy, but it’s wrong. In fact, the U.S. government is doing quite a lot. It is building up the infrastructure of mass expulsion and exclusion of “undesirables”—shoring up the bulwarks of class power—before the rest of the world is rendered uninhabitable.

This is what we know. Since the 19th century or so, the Earth has warmed its average temperature by 1° C. By 2 degrees’ increase—at the rate we’re going, within a few decades—the sea levels will rise by several meters and the coral reefs will bleach. A 3 degree increase will sink most coastal cities. Within a century, 4 degrees of warming will plunge Europe into drought and Asia into desert. Famine, plague and extreme weather will inherit the Earth, vast chunks of which will be unlivable, to say nothing of the scorching seas.

Our rulers know this, too; anyone with a bottom-line to consider would be a fool if they didn’t. A 2014 report by the Department of Defense calls the effects of global warming “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” That’s one way to put it. Another would be that climate change is its own threat and form of violence, a global-scale assault on the biosphere by mass-death profiteers.

The fallout of a weaponized climate won’t be distributed equally. Essential services will be apportioned by wealth, as we saw last year with private first-responders in the California fires. Those with means will scramble off to safer ground as entire regions are laid waste. The economy, needless to say, will collapse. Social strife will escalate as resources become scarce.  The Syrian civil war is just a glimpse of how these tensions will play out internationally. Cartels, juntas, militias and other unsavory groups will find a fertile ground in the arid wastelands.

As soon as 2050, an estimated 200 million people will be displaced by environmental conditions—a figure nearly matching recent estimates of migrant populations worldwide.

At its most respectable, the best thing you can say about the current anti-immigrant hysteria is that it’s based on a Malthusian logic. If it’s not their alleged burden on taxpayers and welfare programs, then it’s their drain on jobs and driving down of wages: there’s simply not enough to go around. For a domestic working class already fighting over crumbs, it’s an appealing and intuitive idea. For those who own the pie, it’s a way to eat it too. Restrictive immigration policies create a docile and obedient pool of low-wage migrant labor, too afraid to make a fuss about their serf-like existence, lest they be deported. At the same time, they provide an easy scapegoat. I do not think it’s a coincidence that zealous xenophobia would proliferate fresh on the heels of the Great Recession, just when Americans came dangerously close to turning on our ruling class. How convenient, too, that it should flourish on the eve of the greatest economic collapse and refugee crisis in history.

Ironically enough, the most impassioned true-believers of Yankee nativism tend to be the most incredulous deniers of global warming. One gang of true-believers, the “United Constitutional Patriots” militia, made headlines this past month for rounding up asylees at gunpoint. (These goons adhere, incidentally, to the crackpot QAnon conspiracy theory. The far-right’s disbelief, against all proof, in the existence of global warming is surpassed only by their gullibility, without proof, for absolute bullshit.) Whether they believe in climate change or not, these far-right vigilantes are putting in the prep work for it. Border security, in both its paramilitary and statist forms, will be the shock troops of power and privilege, the front-line defense of the wealthy while the rest of humanity burns. They train their guns on the weak and helpless as their masters sleep in mansions.

At the moment of this writing, a shooting left 1 dead and 3 injured in a synagogue in Poway, California, just 40 miles north of the San Ysidro border. The suspect fits a familiar profile—alienated white male, often young, and deeply embedded in fringe political subcultures—seen in recent acts of right-wing terror, most notably at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and the synagogue in Pittsburgh. His “manifesto,” such as it is, reveals the usual obsessions: a Jewish plot to spoil culture with degeneracy; to fleece the world with usury and lies; to spread feminism, race-mixing and communism; to “use mass immigration to displace the European race.” His counterpart in Pittsburgh was more explicit: “[Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”

I have written before that contemporary fascism is all surplus. We’re not likely to see explicit white nationalism adopted as state policy soon. But racist views, and the assumptions that undergird them, do not exist in a vacuum; they’re not simply the products of individual moral defect. They are disseminated by official and private organs of state propaganda. They are relied upon by politicians and electioneers. They are backed by think tanks, lobbies and corporate interests that stand to profit from the security state. Like climate change denial, they’re not simply the fruits of ignorance and unreason, but of widespread projects of ruling class disinformation.

None of this is new. In 19th century Ireland, still reeling from the effects of famine and English dominance of land, the working class was displaced in great numbers. At this influx of migrant workers, the English labor market found itself “divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians”:

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation…. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.

Marx called this division “the secret of the impotence of the English working class…the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

That’s not to say our rulers all are single-mindedly possessed by a racial siege mentality. In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman has given voice to what may pass for a “moderate” position: “a high wall with a big gate—but a smart gate.” He is quick to brandish his “pro-immigration” credentials. He knows that climate change and economic instability will keep migration on the rise. Never the less, he insists that many immigrants are “gaming the process,” that social welfare is unsustainable with existing migrant levels, that one should commiserate and compromise with white Americans who “feel like a stranger in my own country.” His solution, then, on top of better keeping people out, is to ensure “a steady flow of legal, high-energy and high-I.Q. immigrants.” What’s left unsaid is what will happen to the rest—presumably, the low-energy and low-I.Q.—left to perish in the cataclysm.

It is fascinating to see a newspaper of record make the case so succinctly. (And to invoke, in one fell clause, both a Trumpist gag and an alt-right fixation.) But this is exactly what follows when you accept that the problem of resource scarcity is one of population, not production or distribution. It’s what happens when you take class rule as a given.

Those who contemplate a global decimation as a practical solution, while our rulers bask in luxury behind the walls they’re already erecting, have nothing to teach us about lifeboat ethics. The shrinking shores and yawning deserts of this century will bring their barbarism more starkly into view. The walls and camps will stretch across the blighted soil patrolled by roving death squads, with gleeful names like “Patriot Putsch” and “C.B.P.,” while the Thomas Friedmans and Richard Spencers join hand in stingy hand to recite the incantation—we simply cannot take everyone who shows up at our border—until America is not a country with a border, but a border with a country. They will do so then, as they do now, because a working class divided on itself by walls and statuses can’t scale the higher grounds of power, the same power that induced this horror to begin with.

It seems that every week or so a new report comes out that reconfirms what we already know—that only a drastic, total and global overhaul of industry can mitigate this calamity. (Stopping it is already out of the question.) It will take the sort of concerted and collective action that national borders impede. And still the only harm control on the foreseeable horizon is to fortify the walls of power, walls that won’t do much in the end to stop a climate that’s indifferent to our territorial pissing lines, concrete or not. Perhaps there is truth after all to that old saying, the one that goes: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”


Ithaca, 2019.

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