Mass migration is a symptom of a Global South in turmoil, caused by the West
There is much the ancient world can teach us. One of its key lessons is that mass migration — motivated by war, societal collapse, and/or extreme poverty — is capable of destroying even the most powerful of empires.
At its height the Roman Empire was so vast and powerful it was run on the same basis of St Augustine’s later dictum in support of Papal infallibility: “Roma locuta est, causa finita est” (Rome has spoken, the matter is finished).
The names of its most powerful figures, despite the passage of millenia, remain entrenched in our culture: Pompey, Caesar, Augustus, Nero, Hadrian, Vespasian, Constantine — men whose rule over the ancient world was so dominant that the only threat they faced came from within Rome itself. Indeed, it would have been the very definition of insanity to claim that an empire which stretched from the Italian peninsula all the way across Western Europe and down into North Africa and the Middle East, enforced by legions whose very presence in the field of battle induced terror in any army unwise enough to challenge its writ, was anything less than invincible, its existence perpetual.
Yet in 476 CE the Western Roman Empire came to an end after a century of successive barbarian invasions succeeded in bringing it to its knees. The symbols of its power — in the form of the emperor’s imperial vestments, diadem, and purple cloak — were sent to Constantinople (present day Istanbul), the seat of power of the eastern half of the empire, to bring the curtain down on its 1000-year history. It came as proof that no empire, no matter its economic and military strength, lasts forever.
Rome’s demise had been a long time coming. The contradictions of an empire run on the basis of slavery, tribute, and plunder were so great it was inevitable they would become insurmountable in time. Under Rome’s rule millions lived in poverty and squalor, supporting an elite whose wealth and ostentation was obscene and increasingly untenable.
Any economic system that operates on the basis of coercion, domination, and super exploitation gives rise to resistance. This in turn leads to more force, more military power having to be deployed to maintain the status quo. However this can only succeed in fomenting further resistance and with it destabilisation, which in turn acts as a catalyst for the mass movement of people seeking sanctuary from the chaos and mayhem that results.
This, in sum, is what brought down the Roman Empire, in a process the early stages of which are evident today with a growing migration crisis that is starting to chip away at the foundations of Western hegemony.
Both in Europe and the United States the issue of immigration and migration has already succeeded in producing a sense of panic within governments and the political classes, to the point where political formations, parties, and movements have come to the fore in direct response to it.
In the US Trump’s election to the White House in 2016 was fuelled by the moral panic whipped up over immigration, which he utilised to full advantage in vowing to build a wall “greater than the Chinese Wall” along the US-Mexico border if elected, while citing ‘illegal immigration’ as the most important issue facing America.
You would think the dehumanising language he employed so liberally when it came to migrants from south of the border — depicting them as rapists, criminals, murderers, etc. — would have been so unpalatable and objectionable he would have seen his chances of winning the nomination for any political office, much less that of US president, end before they began. On the contrary, with every speech and interview Trump streaked further ahead of his rival candidates for the Republican nomination, before going on to defeat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election which followed.
It confirmed that the false consciousness sown by the country’s ruling class and mainstream media when it comes to proclaiming the innate goodness of America and its promise of opportunity for all, despite stark evidence to the contrary in the wake of the 2008 financial and economic crash, had succeeded in its objective of confusing the public mind.
In Europe, meanwhile, migration from Africa and the Middle East has likewise resulted in an increasingly irrational and militant response on the part of the political mainstream, to the point where it spawned a recrudescence of the far right — dripping with xenophobia and blood and soil nationalism — last witnessed in the 1930s in similar conditions of economic dislocation.
The desperation of people suffering under the juggernaut of Western hegemony to reach Europe is no surprise. It brings into sharp relief the fact that the development and wealth of the northern hemisphere is rooted in the under-development and crippling poverty of the southern hemisphere.
All of the conflict and seemingly unconnected crises we are living through is connected to this one indisputable fact.
Unsurprisingly, of course, the political classes sitting at the apex of this unsustainable reality are in denial, refusing to countenance for a moment their role as authors and architects of a world that creeps every closer to the abyss. It is a congenital disorder they share with their Roman antecedents. Like them they are increasingly attached to the deployment of force and hard power to deal with the symptoms of the gross inequality and inequity that underpins the global economic and political system they preside over. Yet in so doing they continue to deepen rather than alleviate the problem.
As the Roman philosopher Seneca reminds us: “For greed all nature is too little.”
The scenes of desperate humanity we continue to witness making perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean and the Channel are symptomatic of a world underpinned by greed and might is right.
Such a world cannot last. What is more, such a world does not deserve to.