Berger’s A Seventh Man seems more relevant today as the issue of migration has taken centre stage in present-day politics - from Trump to Brexit to the differential treatment of Hindu and Muslim migrants into India. Thomas Crowley reflects on how the book can help us make sense of (and humanise) the present context.
In 2010, Verso published a new edition of John Berger’s 1975 book A Seventh Man. Here’s the first sentence of Berger’s introduction to the re-issue: “It can happen that a book, unlike its authors, grows younger as the years pass.” A Seventh Man is, as its subtitle explains, “A book of images and words about the experience of migrant workers in Europe,” produced in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, the painter Sven Blomberg, and the designer Richard Hollis. With his new introduction, Berger is suggesting that the subject matter of the book – the lives of migrant workers, and their dehumanising place in the global political economy – is even more relevant in 2010 than when it was first published. This, mind you, is before the rise of Trump, before Brexit, before Modi’s ascension to the post of Prime Minister – before, in short, the world saw the full force of a right-wing, anti-migrant, nationalistic backlash that has spread across several continents.
Which is to say, A Seventh Man remains as timely as ever. For a book that is now forty-two years young, it is remarkably vital and vibrant, both in content and in form. The book intentionally limits its scope to male migrant workers coming to the metropoles of Europe from the peripheries of the same continent (Berger acknowledges that female migrants and migrants from former colonies deserve their own books), and yet this focus allows for a kind of universality. Through the plight of the specific migrants the book portrays, it evokes the world of migrant labour writ large.
With these mixed methods, it attempts not just to humanise migrants, but also to show that they are utterly necessary to the capitalist system that so ruthlessly exploits them. They are essential parts of a larger economic machine – or, to use Berger’s evocative metaphor, they are key actors in a dream that someone else is dreaming.
It does this in various ways – through descriptive vignettes, through parables, through political analysis, through sharp rhetorical barbs, through poetry and photographs and diagrams. With these mixed methods, it attempts not just to humanise migrants, but also to show that they are utterly necessary to the capitalist system that so ruthlessly exploits them. They are essential parts of a larger economic machine – or, to use Berger’s evocative metaphor, they are key actors in a dream that someone else is dreaming. The intention of his book, Berger says, is to interrupt the dream. “Metaphor is needed,” Berger writes. But, he continues, “Metaphor is temporary. It does not replace theory.” So the book provides theory as well, quoting Marx and later Marxist theorists like Raymond Williams, Ernest Mandel and Paul Baran to show how capitalists, with the implicit and sometimes explicit backing of the state, use migrant labour to divide the working class, depress wages and keep the global South in a state of continued underdevelopment.
The “enlightened” capitalists of the present day, of course, already know full well the benefits of migrant labour. Take, for instance, Silicon Valley’s reaction to Trump’s recent (and, for now, overturned) travel ban. Business leaders are spooked. A headline in Forbes proclaims “Facebook, Google, Apple Lead U.S. Business Charge against Trump Travel Plan.” The article quotes the chief legal officer of Microsoft, who says that Trump’s order has caused “substantial disruption for companies” and that “the aggregate economic consequence of that disruption is high.”
It’s not just the highly skilled migrants of high-tech sectors (and their employers) who are affected by Trump’s nativist policies. Here’s another headline, this one from the New York Times: “California Farmers Backed Trump, but Now Fear Losing Field Workers.” It appears that the hyper-nationalist farm owners who voted for Trump did not take seriously his threat to crack down on illegal immigration. Now that Trump is starting to make good on his promises, farm owners are changing their tune. One bluntly notes “If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster.”
Migration has been a key issue for Trump because it allows him to fuse his talking points of white nationalism and ersatz economic populism. The business class as a whole has been ambivalent about Trump.
Migration has been a key issue for Trump because it allows him to fuse his talking points of white nationalism and ersatz economic populism. The business class as a whole has been ambivalent about Trump. Simmering resentment against migrants can be good for business, as it keeps workers divided; but when these hatreds bubble over in a figure like Trump, it becomes evident that the anti-migrant blowback has costs, even for business. Yet as Berger argued decades ago, the economic and political convenience of migrant labour outweighs the costs of the social turmoil it can cause, at least in the view of the ruling class. He writes “urban frustration can spark off riots or systematic racial persecution. When this happens it is not particularly convenient for the ruling class. They will call it regrettable excess. The convenience for them is less dramatic and more lasting.”
An updated version of A Seventh Man might point out that, for some sections of the ruling class, such “excesses” are actually very convenient – indeed, they are encouraged by right-wing leaders. The recent history of anti-Muslim pogroms in India is a case in point. True, these pogroms are not always directed at migrants, but they use the same rhetoric: the Muslim as Other, as outsider, as not truly belonging to the ‘nation.’ And the spectre of the Muslim Bangladeshi migrant is often used to roll economic anxiety into religious prejudice – a move that neatly mirrors Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the other side of the world.
The recent history of anti-Muslim pogroms in India is a case in point. True, these pogroms are not always directed at migrants, but they use the same rhetoric: the Muslim as Other, as outsider, as not truly belonging to the ‘nation.’
The demonisation of Bangladeshis has wide-ranging consequences, and can be felt across the country – not just in the borderlands of Assam and West Bengal, but in the heart of the capital as well. A case from 2014 illustrates the devastating impact of this rhetoric. Smarting from their poor performance in the December 2013 Delhi elections, the BJP used the collapse of the Aam Aadmi Party’s minority government – and the rule of the Lieutenant Governor that stretched on until February 2015 – to lash out at neighbourhoods that had voted against BJP candidates.
One of these was Israil Camp, a working-class settlement near the upscale colony of Vasant Kunj. An RSS leader in the area, Nagendra Upadhyay, wrote a letter to the area’s former MLA (a BJP politician), as well as the Lieutenant Governor. It read, “Jhuggis are being sold illegally at a large scale. This is carried out by people from the Bangladeshi and Muslim community… If this is not stopped immediately, a large Bangladeshi community will settle here. Since the area is close to the airport and the aeroplanes are really low while landing, there is a threat of a terror activity on the planes [sic].” This might seem like the stuff of paranoid fantasy, but it had the effect that Upadhyay intended. The entire settlement was demolished in November 2014.
The migrants of Israil Camp were hardly terrorists. Rather, the settlement housed those who catered to the needs of nearby Vasant Kunj residents: cooks, maids, vendors, security guards, construction workers and drivers – the invisibilised presence that, as Berger notes, is absolutely central to the modern experience.
A Seventh Man, sadly, continues to grow younger.
Image via www.newstatesman.com