Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Wall of Crosses in Nogales, 2009. Flickr Creative Commons
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Planet of Exiles

    1. To expel is to drive, push, or force out someone or something. A violent physical process that moves people or things from one locus to another, expulsion also has the effect of partitioning, purifying, or expurgating unstable categories. It is necessary to keep one’s eye on both sides of the equation: movement across physical space on the one side, maintenance of conceptual place on the other.

    2. What is most modern about today’s expulsions—which are often facilitated by complex biometrics, digital tracking technologies, and algorithms of risk—is also what is most archaic about them. Expulsion is essentially the destruction of the person, his removal from the webs of connections that give him a place and make him a person. Socrates thus chose death over banishment: better to die a physical death than a social one.

    3. In her analysis of ritual uncleanliness, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously showed that “dirt” has no intrinsic properties; it is only “matter out of place.” Dirt is what we classify as dirty, no more, no less (Douglas 2003 [1966], 36). What counts is the logic (or illogic) of the classificatory system. What counts is the systemic imperative to contain and confine the element defined as being out-of-place or to sweep it away to another space, thus maintaining the purity or homogeneity of the place. Douglas, a functionalist, describes maintenance of the social order as an obsessive-compulsive practice of tidying up.

    4. Feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva works off Douglas’s schema but with a different emphasis: she describes the visceral reaction that happens when the classificatory system’s categories become blurred or indistinct. Involuntary revulsion, gagging, vomiting, expulsion, casting-off, etc., are moments of a process (not a state) that she calls abject. Associated with the ecstasies of religious fervor, abjection is a process of debasement, but on Kristeva’s version it also serves as a font of the holy and is the perpetual source of identity (Kristeva 1982). It is useful to keep one’s eye on both sides of Kristeva’s ledger: debasement, sanctification.

    5. On the streets of Mexico, one occasionally meets young men with tattoos on their heads and faces. Arriving in the US when they were toddlers, they grew up in tough barrios, joined gangs, and when they found themselves in trouble with the law they were swiftly deported back to Mexico, a homeland they had never known, to live—if they were lucky—with grandparents or aunts and uncles…. At first, in the early years of such deportations, one encountered them working as viene-vienes, that is, hustling for tips by assisting with the parking of cars on the streets, a form of casual labor that abuts nuisance or extortion and is usually performed by old men, illiterates, alcoholics, drug-addicts, or others who have lost contact with the formal economy (or even respectable parts of the informal economy). But wily are the ways of the young, and capitalism knows of nothing if not of scheming and calculating. As luck would have it, some of these young men eventually put their bilingualism to productive work in Mexico’s burgeoning call centers. (On the local economy, this is considered to be good work, especially for young people or recent graduates new to the job market. But of course such evaluations are relative.)

    6. Even in the call centers, erstwhile gangbangers from Gringolandia are treated with a certain guardedness, or so I am told. The stigmata of past crimes and associations are marked on their faces, after all. Credit card numbers never cross their desks, and they are expressly warned of zero tolerance for conflict at work. Actually, the will to brawl seems to have abandoned most of them. One, a gangly, doe-eyed youth who conceals tattoos underneath his baseball cap, tells me his sad story: he was separated from his wife and son after a drug arrest. They stayed in Los Angeles. He is stuck here in Mexico, a strange and alien land. Do I think he’ll ever be reunited with his family? I demur, for fear of crushing his one last hope. Anything is possible, isn’t it?

    7. A few weeks ago, I chatted with another deportee, a not altogether sound young man who had stalked me for several blocks then asked if it would be okay if we talked. I take it he wanted to connect with a fellow American. He tells me that he had been a gang member on LA’s south side. Among other things he said that he was a very bad man who had done very bad things: that he was a demon—but that he still believed in god. And he, too, misses the family he was forced to leave behind. We chatted for a while, then parted, he on one side the law, I on the other.

    8. Can expulsion also achieve something else, in addition to tidying-up? I am struck by this: The evil genius of the system lies in its ability to repurpose human refuse, to find something there in the dirt to pick over and extract. Consider the mechanisms of the aforementioned call centers: they export work from the metropole to the semi-periphery, where they then recapture and recycle the labor of expelled persons at degraded wages and downscaled costs. They also capture the broken dreams of young Mexicans who once aspired to life and work in the US—and studied English to that very end—but now find themselves shut out and excluded by tightened immigration policies and ramped-up border controls.

    9. Think of these call centers and similar entities as relays, recharging stations, or perhaps recycling centers, in the circuits of international capital. Today, we see more and more sites dedicated to mechanisms of extraction like this—mechanisms for which the term “primitive accumulation” goes a certain distance but ultimately seems inadequate. After all, it might well have been more productive and more profitable to invest in human capital—which is what Marx called labor power—in the metropole, locating call centers in coastal cities where well-remunerated bilingual staff would spend their wages and buoy the local tax base. But capitalism no longer sees a stable, healthy, well-educated work force as a good thing. That much is abundantly clear. Capital today churns the workforce precisely to leave labor in an exposed and precarious condition, even if this degrades and depletes the conditions under which it might reproduce the workforce and realize profits in the future. The “deportation regime” is only one part of this larger process, which in one way or another requires the destruction of the person. “Globalization”—the free play of capital, putting laborers everywhere in direct competition with each other—is another.

    10. Max Weber quipped that in its ascent, capitalism “made tallow out of cattle and money out of men” (Weber 2003 [1958], 51). A not-very-subtle religious and legal apparatus supported this progressive mode of accumulation. Today, an elaborate juridico-political system marks certain men and women as refuse, strips them of such bourgeois gains as citizenship, freedom, bargaining power, etc., and then breaks them down. We might say that in its regressive mode, capitalism first renders men into tallow before extracting from them such dim candlelight as it may.

    11. We must remember that the ramping-up of deportations happened not under Trump—whose demagogic rants about Mexican rapists and murderers scandalized the world—but under silver-tongued Obama. Under the guise of removing the criminal element—“felons, not families”—the Obama administration also deported masses of law-abiding immigrants. An overwhelming majority of the deportees who were removed from the US under Obama-era policies had no criminal convictions or had committed only minor infractions, such as traffic violations or immigration offenses. Less than a fifth had convictions for violent or potentially violent offenses, even under ICE’s broad definitions (Young 2017).

    12. Not every variation of this process of dispossession and reutilization is as elegant or even as profitable as the call centers, which attest to the wily adaptability of capital, its ability to adjust to new conditions and opportunities. Consider those other refugees, making their way north, as against the flow of deportees heading south. On their long forced march across Mexico, the Central American refugees who try to make their way to the US are set upon by swarms of petty thieves, robbers, impromptu extortionists, crooked cops, sadists, rip-off artists, and gangs, all intent on capitalizing off the misery of the miserable. Penny capitalism? Better to think of this as dispossession by the dispossessed: a long string of micro-predations and opportunistic takings that mirrors the predatory logic of capitalism under the dispensation of expulsion and exile.

    13. art by Artemio Rodríguez
      Going to where globalization takes jobs, art by Artemio Rodríguez, 2008
    14. And here, too, we must remember: It was the Obama administration that shut the gate against Salvadoran refugees, who were fleeing the violent sequela of a long civil war that was financed and supported by the US. It was Obama who turned back the Honduran refugees, whose feet were put in flight by the grim repressive violence of a coup d’état that was countenanced from the start by a State Department headed by Hillary Clinton.

    15. What has gone missing from our dispensation is the beatification of the abject, his or her connection with holiness. Abject suffering can no longer stand for something else, point to something beyond itself, or give itself over to mystical transports: It is utterly barren and demystified, trapped in a cycle of recursive regression. As a result, it can only give rise to faint and reduced forms of politics. Only a few years ago, the theology of hope was painting halos around the heads of peasant guerrilleros and martyred workers. Today, radical priests, socially-engaged nuns, and people of good will feed hungry migrants or minister to the crushed bodies of adolescent vagabonds, train-hoppers who lost limbs to La Bestia. But the political prayer that goes up from congregations of decent people amounts to little more than a plea for human rights, the right to seek refuge from intolerable conditions, and appeals to bourgeois conscience (such as it is). A scaled-back politics of human rights thus rises in direct proportion to the decline of robust politics of social equality. Sainted beggars, holy pariahs, and revolutionary witnesses to the faith all belong to archaic forms of religious life. Redemption, grace, productive ambiguity—and with them, hope—have been expurgated from the new pitiless system.

    16. There is another kind of displaced person who epitomizes something of the present order: the internal refugee, who is banished from conceptual place and is consigned to social but not yet physical death. This is the predicament of the sex offender, about which I have written over the past several years (Lancaster 2011; 2017). Perpetually exposed to the public gaze via online registries, he is rendered all but unemployable and unhousable. Although he is not actually translated to an alien land, his occupation of physical space is ringed with prohibitions and interdictions: “child safety zones” drawn wide around schools, parks, and bus stops relegate him to discontinuous colonies at the interstices of social life. He is manacled to electronic ankle bracelets, his movements tracked and hounded by GPS. His exposure to ex post facto laws and indefinite detention via civil confinement show how few are his legal rights and protections. The measures applied against him are becoming harsher and more exacting, despite scores of scholarly studies showing them to be ineffective or counterproductive. It is worth noting that the typical person caught up in this draconian system is a one-time nonviolent offender. It is worth thinking about his lot in relation to that of other kinds of exiles and expelled or degraded persons.

    17. The sex offender is subject to coercion but not discipline, and the laws that calibrate his internal exile provide a laboratory for the devising of new forms of social control. Every one of the techniques devised for the labeling and management of sex offenders has also been applied to others: terror suspects (indefinite detention under specious legalisms), Muslim immigrants (compelled to register with federal authorities in the wake of 9/11), undocumented immigrants (electronic tethering to await processing), and garden-variety criminals of various sorts (new forms of registries, the spread of electronic manacles). In all these cases, we see ever greater numbers of people being stripped of rights, denuded of protections, and exposed to outpourings of communal wrath. Everywhere, we see criminalization without restoration, debasement without redemption.

    18. Some try to escape these impossible conditions to take up new lives as exiles in foreign lands, only to find the borders closed to them, the escape hatches blocked. The US shares information on sex offenses with foreign governments—and a new provision, passed by congress and signed into law by Obama in 2016, requires the placement of a visual “unique identifier” on the passports of registrants convicted of sex offenses involving minors.

    19. Our existing theoretical apparatus is ill matched to this dispensation of expulsion and exile. For example, one frequently encounters the phrase, “prison-industrial complex,” as though mass incarceration could be explained by simple profit motives. No doubt a plague of scurvy enterprises does find ways to derive profits from the bloated prison system after the fact. No doubt such businesses lobby for tougher laws and favored treatment. But mass incarceration in the aggregate only looks profitable if you think that millions of dollars in income is a lot of money as against billions in expenses.

    20. One also sometimes reads scholarly works about the “disciplinary” logic of mass incarceration, as though punishment still leaned on some rational function (rehabilitation). But precisely what is missing from the picture today is the disciplinary regime’s secularized version of Salvationist religion: the rehabilitation and recuperation of the miscreant subject, his reincorporation into society as a productive citizen.

    21. To state matters another way: The kinds of discipline described by Foucault applied pains and deprivations selectively, productively; they broke men down in order to build them back up. They “normalized” (Foucault 1995 [1975]). Or later, under social democracy, biopolitical techniques invested in life, which is tantamount to investing in labor power. Today’s post-disciplinary regime does nothing of the sort. It breaks men down only in order to break them yet further down. It cares not one whit for the “souls” of transgressors, much less for their physical or social wellbeing, nor for any other kind of redemptive project. The new classificatory system defines such men not so much as dirt but as toxic waste. It demands containment and control, not discipline or redemption. Its tools are expulsion or banishment, not rehabilitation or moral repair. This is not your father’s Subject of Discipline, heir to the project of Enlightenment.

    22. The new digital technologies reinforce these trends and equip them with a durable platform. Algorithms take no notice of the unique person; they see the world only as data points, as swarms of activities, or e-trails. One might thus say, following Deleuze, that the new technologies and techniques of power render human subjects as “dividuals,” not individuals (Deleuze 1992). But describing the emergent system of social control and economic extraction this way almost seems too anodyne, too involved in the same destruction of the person that the dismemberment of the term conveys.

    23. Scholars also continue to write about the neoliberal stage of capitalism as though it were a proper regime of accumulation, a compendium of harsh but necessary measures that might at least set in motion the process described in Marx’s famous formula, M-C-M', whereby capital renews itself and develops the forces of production. What Marx indicates here is that capitalists are good for one thing and one thing only: they risk their money (M) by investing it in improved forms of production; they sell the resulting commodities (C) with the aim of converting their outlay into more money (M'), thereby enlarging the forces of production, expanding the store of wealth, and replenishing the cycle of production for exchange. But what seems increasingly apparent today is the utter failure of the decades-long experiment in neoliberalism, with its risk-adverse approach to investment, its sluggish growth rates, its tendency toward financialization and monopolization, its reliance on “bubbles,” its downward pressure on wages, its depletion of labor power, its inability to deliver the goods. In large parts of the world, one sees the predatory forms of dispossession at work but without the dynamic results of accumulation. This is non-creative destruction, anthropophagy. David Harvey signaled this possibility in his discussion of primitive accumulation: “The implication is that primitive accumulation that opens up a path to expanded reproduction is one thing, and accumulation by dispossession that disrupts and destroys a path already opened up is quite another” (Harvey 2003, 164).

    24. We must wonder at the logic (or, what is the same thing, the illogic) of a dysfunctional political-economic system that sets so many dislocations and peregrinations in motion. Here in a nutshell is its double-pincer movement: Punitive laws relegate ever-greater numbers to the degraded status of pariahs, deportees, exiles, or refugees. At the same time, predatory economic practices leave ever-wider legions of discarded laborers to fend for themselves in vast zones of social abandonment such as the Oxycodone Belt and the European periphery.

    25. The dark poststructuralists glimpsed this grim, twilight version of capitalism early on. Baudrillard thus chided Bourdieu, whom he accused of “reproaching capital for not following the rules of the game” and naively believing that capital can be linked by contract to the society it rules. “Capital,” he says, “doesn’t give a damn about the idea of the contract which is imputed to it: it is a monstrous unprincipled undertaking, nothing more” (Baudrillard 2001 [1988], 173).

    26. Taking in the longue durée of the world system, Immanuel Wallerstein perhaps gives better guidance concerning our present troubles. During periods of relative stability, he explains, technologies, institutional forms, and economic practices equilibrate the system and allow for its reproduction and expansion. These periods of relative stability are punctuated by interregnums of instability, breakdown, and crisis—that is, periodswhen the institutional nexus fails to harmonize the system and new arrangements are not readily forthcoming. Historically, these periods of instability have lasted for decades, until new political-economic articulations could be cobbled together, paving the way for renewed rounds of accumulation. But today’s instabilities, Wallerstein argues, are different: the world capitalist system has reached the limits of expansion and is on the brink of disintegration. (He adduces a number of such limits, among them, environmental factors.) Wallerstein counsels us not to be surprised by the horrors and shockwaves of a system in its death spiral. No doubt the varied forms of immoral money-grabbing on prominent display since the 2008 financial meltdown are symptomatic of this extended crisis. So, too, the development of forms of coercion that upend time-honored understandings of human rights and seem to set civilization running in reverse. We should not be shocked that in its convulsions, the discombobulating system struggles to purge what it can never be rid of, and that it degrades the very labor-power on which it ultimately depends. Instead, we should stand ready to engage these conditions—not with off-the-shelf utopias (“dreams of heaven that could never exist on earth”), but with utopistics, by which Wallerstein means an exercise in the “serious assessment of historical alternatives” (including a sober anticipation of the difficulties in constructing alternative institutions and new arrangements). Ongoing struggles will determine whether the system that replaces the present disorder is better—freer, more egalitarian, more democratic—or (and this is a distinct possibility) much worse than capitalism (Wallerstein 1998).

    27. By the border, I sat down and wept. I mourned the violence of the border itself, a long gash drawn across doubly-stolen territories. I kissed the dusty feet of pilgrims who were expelled or turned away. With drones passing overhead, I left votive offerings for saints who died wanderingin the desert, forsaken by all save the vultures who picked their bones clean. I did not forget to say a prayer for the souls of itinerant criminal outcasts, who have no place to rest their heads. And grieving for the precarious, strung-out condition of the working class, I raised my eyes to the not-so-distant horizon and descried what must always remain fixed in our sight: It is within our grasp to build a better world.


    Roger Lancaster is Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies at George Mason University. His books include Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua, which won both the C. Wright Mills Award and the Ruth Benedict Prize, and of Sex Panic and the Punitive State, which also received the Ruth Benedict Prize. It examines America's draconian sex offender laws and their production of ever-larger ranks of people who are subject to permanent social exclusion.


    Works cited

    Baudrillard, Jean. 2001 [1988]. Selected Writings. Edited and Introduced by Mark Poster. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59: 3-7.

    Douglas, Mary. 2003 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Mary Douglas, Collected Works, Vol. II). New York: Routledge.

    Foucault, Michel. 1995 [1975]. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

    Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Lancaster, Roger N. 2011. Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    –––. 2017. “The New Pariahs: Sex, Crime, and Punishment in America.” In The War on Sex, edited by David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe, 65-125. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1998. Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century. New York: New Press.

    Weber, Max. 2003 [1958]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

    Young, Elliott. “The Hard Truths About Obama’s Deportation Priorities. HuffPost. February 27, 2015. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hard-truths-about-obamas-deportation-priorities_us_58b3c9e7e4b0658fc20f979e.