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"Undocumented Citizens" and the new Newspeak
Some Aspects of the Successor Ideology
Back in 2016, San Francisco voters approved a measure allowing non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants, to vote in local school board elections. It was a practical step undertaken at a local level in an ongoing project to erase the distinction between citizen and non-citizen driven by an unusual coalition of left activists and economic libertarians. The former proceeded from an ever-expanding commitment to human rights impinging upon territorial sovereignty in pursuit of the evacuation of the category of the nation-state itself at work within certain precincts of academia and the activist NGO-sphere; the latter had at their disposal economic projections that the free movement of labor, once a slogan of the internationalist Left, would yield enormous gains to global economic efficiency supported by and serving the interests of globalized corporations.
Open borders was the place where anarcho-capitalism, traditional Left utopian ("no Gods of Masters") anarchism, and the bureaucratic organs of institutional governance -- where the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the crusty punks of Portland antifa, and the international lawyers -- converged in a common pursuit of a shared end. From each of its component parts, the movement derived a distinctly-valenced claim to stand at the vanguard of moral and material improvement.
The contradictory impetus behind each faction's commitment mattered less than the ensuing output -- the collective pursuit of open borders through a series of incremental advances that would over time drain away the support for the maintenance of the citizen/non-citizen distinction and its replacement by a new moral consensus that it was the role of these movements to conjure into existence in the act of achieving its ends in fact. Papering over the contradictions while conjoining the postively-valenced aspects of the movement would have the polemical benefit of making anyone opposed to their goals at once intellectually benighted, morally backward, and dedicated to economic enfeeblement -- stupid, immoral, and poor.
The act by the San Francisco electorate was small in its practical consequences (around 50 non-citizens voted in the 2018 election) but large in its implications. It came a few years after aggressive executive action by the President of the United States to take the question of granting a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as young children out of the hands of a deadlocked Congress. It therefore signaled at once 1.) the will of a vanguard movement to push beyond the ostensibly modest aims of DACA (which merely sought to give a path to citizenship to those who did not have a choice over whether to accompany their parents here, many of whom had never known another home,) to more ambitious projects that annul in practice the distinction between citizen and non-citizen as such -- and 2.) the readiness of a progressive voting public to enact such projects.
What remained to be done was to ensure that the rest of the country, much of which still believed ("clung to the belief" -- the sole way the benighted relate to the beliefs deemed to belong to the past by those who have arrogated to themselves the authority to decide which direction the arc of history bends) that the ability to discriminate between and assign differential rights to citizens and non-citizens was constitutive of the nation-state itself and therefore a fundamental aspect of sovereignty that the people have a right to enforce by virtue of their existence as as a nation, would be brought on board. At minimum, those continuing to cling would be made to understand that resistance is presumptively out of bounds, and would therefore not be represented by legitimate actors within the political system — exiled to a placeoutside the bounds of the respectable and thus, eventually, the sayable and the thinkable.
DACA was accompanied on the cultural front by the publication of the tech journalist Jose Antonio Vargas's New York Times Magazine's piece, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," a plangent personal testimonial that framed immigration and border control as what it in fact is: an instrument of inequality. It is of course in pursuit of the inequality obtaining between residents and non-residents of the United States that brings millions to live in the United States while bypassing legal process that few have the resources to satisfy. But the equality of the resident is not the equality of the citizen; in addition to many of the other disadvantages (none serving as an bar to graduating from a first-rate US public university or becoming a successful journalist published in leading magazines) that Vargas outlines in his essay, the latter do not have a voice in the politics of the United States, despite comprising a large share of its agricultural and construction workforces.
Undocumented immigrants are thus, in the rendering of the issue then in the process of being constructed, the people building this nation who are denied political representation (though their children born on US soil are already citizens.) The logical next demand, of course, was the one that the San Francisco electorate wound up satisfying. The logical conundrum thereby evaded is that the inequality is the point: just as those seeking residency in the United States seek to possess a share in the inequality obtaining between themselves and those they left behind, those seeking the benefits of US citizenship by evacuating the distinction between citizen and non-citizen seek to universalize in principle an inequality (between American citizens and non-citizens) that exists by virtue of being delimited by a border. We will return to this paradox in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say for now, the Mexican immigrant communities on the Texas border ran up against this paradox and found the conundrum was not lost on them.
The terminological change from "illegal alien" to "undocumented immigrant" was still fairly recent when Vargas' piece came out. It was right around that time that a friend first gently corrected me in an email on the usage, breezily conceding that she herself had only recently been apprised of the new usage. "No human being is illegal" portrayed itself as merely etiquette and sensitivity while subtly smuggling in other implications: documentation was a mere formality, a matter of positive law that did not and could not speak to the underlying moral right. What remained to do was to complete the circuit taking us from "rights conferred on on us by virtue of our being human" to "rights conferred on us by virtue of being a citizen of the United States of the America."
This is to say that "undocumented immigrant" was merely a waystation on the path to what the University of Maryland Multicultural Involvement and University Advocacy office would declare in 2015 was the proper usage: "undocumented citizen." The oxymoronic coinage, issuing from a student life bureaucracy of a second tier state college, might easily be seen as merely the latest in a cascade of amusing "P.C. follies" issuing from academia. But in the context of the longer running cultural and legal projects that surrounded and accompanied it, it is an exemplary instance of a politics in a new key that came to influence American institutions and values across a range of different domains: the politics of what I have termed ideological succession.
The intervention fully enacted in the medium of language what NGOs and international lawyer were still busily trying to litigate into existence: recognition of the non-citizen as a citizen. It arrogated to itself through the humble medium of the student life bureaucracy a form of implied disciplinary power. While the campaign by the student life office merely sought to encourage rather than mandate the use of an oxymoron as a form of sensitive speech, it emerged accompanied by the promulgation of the micro-aggression as a subject of disciplinary action across universities.
A few years prior, the University of Berkeley office of student life issued a series of racial micro-aggressions that professors should avoid. They included "America is a melting pot," and "I think the best person should get the job." Under the guise of protecting student health and safety, the student life office resolved an ongoing debate about whether we should be a "salad bowl" that preserves cultural differences of sub-national units, or a "melting pot" where a process of amalgamation in pursuit of a single unified national identity by declaring one of the two competing propositions presumptively illegitimate -- an act of harm, if not hate and harassment, to be policed out of existence. Under the guise of protecting student health and safety it declared meritocracy as presumptively illegitimate as an institution. And though it did not formally declare these "racial micro-aggressions" to be subject to disciplinary action, it was did declare that taking certain positions on contested debates was not merely wrong substantively, (the purpose of open debate and free speech being thus to discover what is wrong or right through an exchange of ideas) but an offense against the community itself existing beyond the bounds of decency and subject to disciplinary action by the entity (themselves) with the authority to protect the community from harm.
The theory of the microaggression holds that seemingly benign statements contain latent within them the capacity to inflict psychological injury on marginalized people.
“Although they may appear like insignificant slights, or banal and trivial in nature,” writes Derald Wing-Sue, the Columbia University educational psychology professor, who wrote the book Micro-Aggressions in Everyday Life, “studies reveal that racial microaggressions have powerful detrimental consequences to people of color.”
Sue goes on to claim that microaggressions:
(a) assail the mental health of recipients, (b) create a hostile and invalidating work or campus climate, (c) perpetuate stereotype threat, (d) create physical health problems, (e) saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities, (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.
The invocation of the juridical term “hostile climate” both justifies the quasi-legal basis of the new student life bureaucracies in policing dissent out of existence on an ever-proliferating range of questions and points toward the eventual goal of the movement to embed these concepts into the legal system itself.
We can therefore see here what the Successor Regime aims for and how it goes about obtaining its ends, which in turn tells us about the sociology of the movement of which it is a part: the manufacture of consensus around a range of issues through the capture of disciplinary power by adherents sharing a common set of values and goals that seeks to rule out various aspects of political action as presumptively illegitimate (border control, policing, prisons, standardized testing) by policing any debate out of them out of existence. It is a vision of a radically less disciplinary society of the street obtained through a radically more disciplinary society of the seminar room, workplace, board room, and bedroom -- an ongoing distributed process of moral revolution without central direction but converging relentlessly around the same handful of goals — a politics of persuasion without persuasion that eventually crosses the boundary into softer, and then harder, forms of coercion.
The process evades electoral politics entirely, simply erupting occasionally in enactments and pronouncements that appear to us in the guise of fait d'accompli, as the newspeak moves seamlessly from student life offices to the language of offices of the US federal government. On August 12, the Twitter account of the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas tweeted out a press release announcing that "Young soldiers admit to transporting undocumented citizens."