Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders

Adam M. McKeown’s Melancholy Order pushes back against recent work on globalization. For McKeown, recent work on this trend neglects the historical dynamic of border creation, “migration and the consolidation of an international system of nation states have emerged symbiotically over the past two hundred years.” The lack of nuance in such debates irks McKeown who notes that globalization follows neither a linear path of progression nor a more negative decline into chaos rather, “Contact generates not only assimilation and convergence, but also new ways for people to distinguish themselves from each other and from what they perceive to be a homogenizing universalism.” Along the way, McKeown invokes theoretical approaches by Foucault and Jurgen Habermas (including recent works by Fraser and others that tweak Habermas reformulating the public sphere into numerous counterpublics, Thomas Holt has also completed work in this area) while paying close attention to the transnational nature of migration policy (McKeown examines the migration policies of numerous empires and nation states, comparing and contrasting them while noting how the interplay influenced international migration policy overall). American migration policy develops in relation to international events/perceptions and interaction with nation states such as China and Japan. Like Paul Kramer and others, McKeown also notes that the counter flow of imperialized subjects to American shores (Filipinoes, Chinese and so forth) which upset American racial hierarchies contributing to the future independence of the Philippines as anti-imperialists and local labor antigonisms conspired to eliminate future Asian migration by endorsing independence.

Melancholy Order illustrates the influence of new cultural approaches to history. Though it examines juridical examples, government policy, and interaction between government and societal elites, McKeown also explores the discourse around migration and those engaging in such movement. Before 1870, governments explored various migration policies. According to McKeown, a key shift in migration policy occurred in the 1870s when the language of commerce began to overpower the previous language of intercourse, “At the turn of the nineteenth century, intercourse was generally conceived as the entwined relationships of trade and diplomacy between nations. By the middle of the century, commerce and migration had become the heart of intercourse.” This occurred concurrently with the rise of the nation-state which became both the arbiter and giver of rights, “the ideal of free migration replaced that of migration as commerce and the nation became the sole legitimate source of identification and control.” Asian governments established institutions to “enforce free migration” from abuses by “despotic regimes” or “brokers”. In contrast, American policy makers declared private “organization of migration” illegitimate unless it adhered to government surveillance, thus establishing a pattern of demonization regarding local migration actors and organizations.

Asian migrants found themselves caught in a discourse of slavery, corruption, and immorality. Chinese laborers, sometimes referred to as “coolies”, endured conflations with forced labor while many Chinese women were assumed to be licentious and disease ridden. Similarly, Chinese men (followed by Japanese and Filipinoes) were portrayed as opium smoking corrupt womanizers who might sell white women into sexual slavery. If this lacked cultural force, the combination of egalitarian tropes of self government and the distrust of “big capital” further undermined the social and economic position of Asian laborers, “”Anti Asian racism around the Pacific was charged with a spirit of egalitarian self government and a mistrust of big capital and elite institutions … this racism was given concrete political shape through the conviction that self governing societies should determine their own membership and a fear that unconstrained capital would degrade the status of the working man.”

The rise of the nation-state, racism, and economic interest, all influenced conceptions of global movement. However, extraterrioriality and the idea of “civilized states” also contributed significantly to migration policy. “Civilized nations” were accorded greater respect and rights internationally, the presence of extraterritorial rights in one’s nations served as an indicator of a country’s civilizing deficiencies. Here, one might note the late nineteenth century ideals of self control and independence that many equated with civilization (influenced significantly by the rapid industrialization of the day). Additionally, American mobs attacking Chinese subjects in the U.S. weakened Chinese views of their own government’s efficacy. The failure of China’s government to protect its subjects in some ways undermined its authority, thus officials engaged in self-restriction in an effort to address this issue despite its lack of political strength.

Migration never occurred freely. Regulation unfolded either from government officials and workers or previous to a secure nation state, local actors and organizations. This is not to say one was inherently more equitable than the other, however it does illustrate the reality of migration itself as a heavily mediated process. The rise of passports attempted to monitor migration but when its proliferation from numerous sources (i.e. not only the government produced passports, at the time numerous individuals/organizations did, blurring the legitimacy of the document) caused doubts, visas arose, “as the second guessing of passports grew increasingly awkward, the work of regulating entry was left to the visa.” Still, for many observers devices as visas and passports failed to regulate migration flows adequately. Therefore, several Anglo nations incorporated the “race neutral” “Natal Formula” to stem immigration. The importance of South Africa’s 1897 Natal formula lay in its connection to future regulations, in which “colonial legislatures and officials successively refined and promoted a series of laws that were non-discriminatory on the surface et allowed great leeway of interpretation by officials on the ground. By 1909 this had culminated in the so called Canadian principle that gave government officials the broad discretionary power to restrict immigration on the basis of perceived economic needs. “ Even Japan and India adopt their own passport controls over “potential emigrants” signaling that “the logic of discrete cultural nations and border control had superseded empire as the most relevant political form for a world of mass mobility.” Moreover by mid century, national economic interest served as both “a globally accepted justification of all forms of migration control, but a foundation for the very understanding of migration and regulation.” Yet, this economic focus obscured the fact that “race and the ideal of self government had worked together to make the national community more attractive than empire as a form of political membership in a modern world of free migration.”

Attending to theoretical issues, Foucault pervades much of McKeown’s framework. One detects aspects of Governmentality, Discipline and Punishment, and Power. Perhaps one of the clearer moments of Foucault’s presence emerges in the discussion of the “creation of migrant categories.” Where the proliferation of “cross referenced files created a government acknowledged migrant identity which forced “the migrant to constantly reproduce himself in the terms of those files. In the case of any discrepancy,the files were right and the migrants wrong.” “Proceduralization” “obscured the political and racial origins of Chinese exclusion and recast it as the impartial administration of law,” in a similar manner as South Africa’s Natal Formula before it. Individuals whom had earlier helped confirm Chinese identities for the U.S. government were now stigmatized as “unscrupulous smugglers, hustlers and commercially “interested parties.” Fraser’s counterpublics also appear numerous times, as McKeown notes the response of Chinese presses to U.S. policy providing a public expression of some Chinese interests. In terms of agency, Asian migrants illustrate repeated evasions of migration policy duplicating documents, memorizing interview answers, and bribing officials.

Ironically, as McKeown points out, even attempts to rethink citizenship and migration policy often wittingly or unwittingly reinforced the nonregenative aspects to immigration. For example, Chinese resentment against American exclusion acts predictably drew protests from Chinese citizens. However, several leading thinkers acknowledged China’s own restrictions on “foreigners” limiting their ability to traverse the country. Essayists admitted such a policy proved embarrassing, as it reflected China’s weakness. Even boycotts failed to improve policy, “the boycott had ended up reinforcing some of the basic principles of migration control. Free intercourse and guaranteed rights were reduced to spaces within borders, and critiques against borders were limited to complaints about discrimination.” McKeown goes further exploring Ghandi’s satyagraha movement, arguing that it too accepted various principles of migration policy of the time. His own movement expressed the need for more than just physical presence. It also required the proper deportment “as civilized people.” Though Gandhi established a level of integrity for the Indian people in the face of rank discrimination, his approach “retained the strong moral overtones of migration control by casting the technicalities and justifications of border control as spiritualized ideals of personal identity and political belonging. He transformed participation in the enforcement of migration laws from an issue [of] political necessity and national honor, as it was with the Japanese, into an individual moral perspective.”

Ultimately, McKeown’s work hopes to prevent a forgetting of past policies, which might very well lead to solutions o migration policy that repeat mistakes of the past while ignoring the nuanced reality of the issue. Anti-Asian migratory controls across empires reveals the seeds of today’s debates. Moreover, “forgetting can recast the mechanisms of regulation (and deregulation) as progressive solutions to our problems rather than as the same old techniques that have already created the problems we wanted to solve. Forgetting also obscures the effects of human regulation in creating the many aspects of social organization that we now accept unquestioningly as the basic order of things, transforming a world historically created by human institutions into a universal principle.” The tools of identification and border control emerged not recently but in the late nineteenth century, continuing to service today in debates over issues of self determination and rights Such language and frameworks developed not recently but last century, having only hardened over tine.

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