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Preying on Movement: Global Capitalism and Migration Patterns in Mongolia and Eritrea

By Felix Mantz


In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, European social and political discourses have increasingly focused on issues including border securitization, national versus European identities, Islam in Europe and international terrorism. Linking these topics together is the increase in migration of displaced people towards European nation-states. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the European Refugee Crisis and must be situated within the wider context of the world system, which continues to be significantly characterized by global capitalism. A Marxist analysis of the capitalist system and its structural interconnectedness with internal and external displacement highlights the destructive power and global reach of said system. While the Mongolian capitalist transformation highlights this destruction with regards to rural communities, regional ecosystems, and the associated internal displacement, Eritrean refugees migrating to Germany illustrate external displacement and its connection to global capitalism. This case study points out how global capitalism depends on the superstructural functions of the nation-state system. The complex processes of global capitalism and the nation-state system which lead to both internal and external forced displacement highlight the nation-state – capitalism nexus and its systemic power relations. Thus, we can see how capitalism thrives upon other hegemonic systems in the name of primitive accumulation and how it globally displaces populations to then appropriate them as highly flexible, cheap and disposable labor. 

Keywords: Displacement, Migration, Nation-State – Capitalism Nexus, Eritrea, Mongolia


In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, European social and political discourses have increasingly focused on issues including border securitization, national versus European identities, Islam in Europe and international terrorism. Linking these topics together and often serving as a starting point for discussions on these issues is the increase in migration of displaced people towards European nation-states. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the European Refugee Crisis. This phenomenon has coincided with the rise of nationalism, xenophobia and securitization by nation-states in the Global North. These global developments manifest structural injustices between the global core and the global periphery, which resulted from 500 years of colonial and imperial exploitation, subalternation, oppression, discrimination and genocide. The world system operating upon this history is to a significant part characterized by global capitalism. By constantly expanding its penetration of the global periphery, global capitalism is therefore a central element in internal and external displacement. In the first section of this paper, I will highlight the complex dynamics of capitalism in penetrating Mongolian rural and indigenous communities as well as the fragile ecosystems they rely on. Transitioning from local to global, I will then move on discussing the emergence of the nation-sate system to reveal its superstructural functions to the advancement of global capitalism through external displacement and cross-border migration. This will be illustrated with the migration of Eritrean refugees to Germany, which highlights basic dynamics of the nation-state – capitalism nexus. Analyzing both Mongolia’s internal displacement as well as external displacement in Eritrea illustrates the global presence of capitalism; more specifically, it highlights the predatory adaptability and flexibility of the current capitalist system, which is able to adjust to space/time specific social and cultural contexts. In other words, its multiple shapes and forms prey upon the subalterned of this world in order to secure its own expansion. Providing historical accounts of Mongolia and Eritrea with a theoretical account of global capitalism in mind, I seek to point out some aspects of how this violent structure intersects and converges with other global hegemonic structures, especially that of the nation-state system. As this hold true with regards to both internal (local) displacement as well as cross-border migration, I will cover the former using the case of Mongolia before moving on to the latter and its specific dimensions with regards to Eritrea.

Global Capitalism

When Marx developed the concept of historical materialism and the base/superstructure model, he revealed the foundational dynamics and mechanisms of the capitalist system, which continues to dominate actions by global and local societies and interest groups. According to Marx, the base is the mode of production of a certain region, characterized by capitalism. He claimed the base to be at the center of every society and the central component determining social organization. The superstructure is a complex web of social elements with the main purpose of protecting the respective mode of production. These social elements include religion, politics, laws, morals, ideologies, language, etc. (Sutton, 2001).

Although this system did not acquire its global reach at the point of Marx’s analysis, it has been shown to function and develop according to the predictions and critiques of Marx and Engels across larger spaces, as well. The general base/superstructure model can be applied to a global scale, transcending nation-state borders, cultures, generations and nature while creating a global superstructure characterized by colonial and imperialist divides, patriarchy, international law, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, classism, elitism and nepotism as well as other isms and obias.

How Capitalism conquered Mongolia

The example of Mongolia illustrates the destructive transformational power of capitalism in its global manifestation, especially with regards to its penetration of nature and indigenous societies. Castles (2011) eloquently expresses this power by referring to Polanyi in stating that “[b]y treating human beings and nature as commodities subject to the laws of the market, capitalism would inevitably destroy society and nature—and thus the conditions for its own existence” (p. 316). Other authors elaborate on this assertion, describing how capitalism and its destructive impact on nature lead to the exhaustion of natural resources and the collapse of global and regional ecosystems (Ahmed, 2010; Foster, Clark & York, 2010). They also analyze how mass displacement, climate change and other ecological crises are inherently connected to the underlying structures and values of capitalism (ibid). This process can be pointed out when studying Mongolia’s economic transformation.

During pre-colonial periods, the territory now known as Mongolia has been used by different nomadic groups. These nomads entered a loose confederation under Xiongnu in 209 BC before Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire in 1206. This Eurasian empire fragmented into four kingdoms after the death of Genghis Khan in 1227. Establishing the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan ruled the southern kingdom and managed to conquer all of China’s current territory. Due to internal conflict among the four kingdoms, the Chinese Ming Dynasty managed to overthrow Kublai Kahn in 1368, which led to the retreat of Mongols to their original territories. Thereafter, Mongols have been under the rule of Chinese dynasties until 1921, when Mongolia gained formal independence from the Qing Dynasty. Despite this successful secession, the territory called “Inner Mongolia” is still considered Chinese sovereign. Due to the fact that this revolution was significantly influenced and militarily supported by the Soviets, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) established the second communist country: The Mongolian People’s Republic. After almost 70 years as a Soviet satellite state, Mongolia “successfully” exercised a peaceful “revolution” in 1990. This led to the implementation of neoliberal reforms and the transformation of Mongolia to a capitalist country. Nevertheless, the formerly communist MPRP remained in power ever since. In December of 2014, Mongolia was governed by a five-party coalition under Prime Minister Saikhanbileg, but this political alliance was dissolved in August 2015 (Embassy of Mongolia, n.d.).

Since the 20th century, Mongolia has been dependent on global markets and powerful economic actors. After the transformation from an aristocracy to a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Mongolia was integrated into the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CEMA), a transnational trade alliance between Soviet nations. Along with this process, Mongolia’s industrial sector evolved to be the main base of production, leaving agriculture as an almost insignificant part of its domestic economy. An example of this established dependency is the fact that by 1989, 52% of Mongolia’s GDP was generated through its import-dependency on the Soviet Union (Lee, 1993). In the same year, 90% of total imports and 93% of total exports were produced by trade with either the Soviet Union or the CMEA (ibid.).

The economic and political developments in Eastern and Central Europe led to the collapse of both the CMEA and the Soviet bloc. This presented an external shock to the Mongolian economy and thus dramatically revealed the destructive consequences of dependency on non-domestic markets. Drastic import reduction, recession, extreme fall of economic output, domestic commodity shortages (most significantly fuel and food), inflation, unemployment and decreasing living standards are only the most visible results of economic dependency (ibid.).

This situation was immediately exploited by neoliberal interests: A comprehensive range of economic and political reforms were adopted and Mongolia became a full member of the WTO in 1997 (Davaakhuu et al., 2014). These reforms were SAP packages suggested by the IMF and the World Bank. They led to the privatization of public industries and assets, the inclusion into global trade structures and the implementation of new regimes of property and citizenship. In other words, Mongolia witnessed the effective integration of all its economic and social realms into global capitalist market systems. Consequentially, the country was now even more vulnerable and dependent on non-domestic demands than under the Soviet Union (ibid).

Today, this dependency is illustrated by Mongolia’s trading regime. As of 2013, 85% of all exports went to China (OEC, n.d.), with other sources reporting numbers as high as 95.3% in 2014 (CIA, n.d.). In addition, 41.4% of total imports in 2014 originated from China (ibid.). The heavy reliance on economic processes in China is further accelerated by the high influx of FDIs: Over 50% of total FDIs between 1990 and 2010 came from Chinese investors (Davaakhuu et al., 2014). The exported commodities are equally as concentrated: 81.7% of total exports in 2014 were mineral products. The global significance of this economic sector is exemplified by the distribution of FDIs, where 60-65% go towards the mining industry (ibid.)

Thus, Mongolia’s economy is highly specialized and export-oriented, which makes it extremely vulnerable to non-domestic market forces and severely dependent on the demand of minerals. Their integration into the global economic power-matrix explains why internal capitalist processes are rapidly accelerating and ultimately destroying marginalized populations, such as nomadic communities. This process is expressed by Mongolia’s rapid urbanization, where almost half of its population (approximately 1.5 million) is now living in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

The Altai region in the west of Mongolia illustrates the capitalist destruction of rural and indigenous communities, which depend on nature’s ecosystems. Since recent years, this area has experienced multiple ecological changes ranging from the extinction of species, the destruction of soil for gazing purposes, the pollution of decreasing water reserves, the reduction of forest area and the introduction of so-called “development projects.” These transitions can be explained with various economic transformations that originate from a single, globally hegemonic ideology: neoliberal, global capitalism (Laurie, Jamsranjav, van den Heuvel & Nyamjav, 2010).

The extinction of species and the consequential threat to the survival of ecosystems can be traced back to several major occurrences. Firstly, the Altai region is experiencing a rapid increase in both legal and illegal hunting practices. Despite the presence of a license system, there is very poor enforcement of legal regulations regarding hunting. This presents a profitable situation for the black market demand for animal products, particularly between Mongolia and China. Most threatened by this are species such as snow leopards, argali, ibex and saker falcons. In addition, “sport” hunting puts existential pressure on the population of these species. This practice increasingly attracts wealthy tourists, especially from North America (ibid.).

Hunting is part of another phenomenon, facilitated and obedient to global capitalism: tourism. Although absolute numbers are still relatively low, the amount of international and domestic tourists penetrating the Altai region has increased by 50% from 2005 to 2008. This not only threatens the extremely sensitive ecosystems of the regions, but also results in the fragmentation and isolation of non-human species. This is due to the increase of construction and “development” projects, which are partly due to the rising tourism industry. In addition to tourism, there are other economic sectors such as mining and the connection of Asian markets through transportation infrastructures. An example for the latter is the construction of the Highway 4 in 2011 that connects Xinjiang (China) and Olgii (Russia) while crossing through Mongolian territory. Mining also attracts infrastructural investment in the region. Considering that mineral product constituted 81.7% of Mongolia’s exports in 2013 (OEC, n.d.) and that 60 % of FDIs go towards the mining sector (Davaakhuu, Sharma & Bandara, 2014), it is not surprising that this industry is rapidly expanding the mineral-rich Altai region. This economic development destroys natural ecosystems through pollution and the fragmentation of natural habitats of non-human animals. For example, the use of cyanide and mercury for gold mining has already contaminated vast areas in Bayankhongor, Yuzhnogobiisk, East, Selengiisk, Bulgansk, Darkhan-Ul’sk and Central aimaks (Regdel, Gunin, & Dugarzhav, 2012). Despite the heavy investment in this sector and its establishment as the major mode of production for in the Altai region and Mongolia in general, leading to massive ecological damage, the Mongolian population is not reaping any benefits. While the mining sector only provides employment for 3.3% of the Mongolian population (despite its economic significance), mines in the Altai often employ foreign workers instead of Mongolians. These workers come mainly from China and rob the local population of even the smallest forms of compensation (Laurie et al., 2010).

The establishment of neoliberal, open-market policies penetrated not only the urban but also the rural populations of Mongolia. These rural communities have traditionally based their economic structure on “livestock-based agriculture [which] provides rural households with sufficient quantities of meat and dairy products, and informal safety nets…” (Laurie et al., 2010, p. 324). This practice remains crucial for indigenous nomads who desperately attempt to conserve their traditional way of life. This is exemplified by the fact that 33.5% of total employment can be attributed to the agriculture, crop, and livestock sector (Davaakhuu et al., 2014). However, with the destructive forces of capitalism, these populations have been integrated into its vicious cycle through new regimes of citizenship and property (Sneath, 2012).

In the past decade, widespread in almost all of Mongolia were mining companies, which led, on one hand, to the increase in the share of national income of the mining industry and, on the other hand, to the decrease in agricultural and, hence, cattle-breeding population and, consequently, to the increase in urban population (Regdel et al., 2012, p. 2).

This means that the nature of pastoral economic activities has been changed fundamentally: Nomads no longer produce for their personal and communal survival, but rather for a wage from a global economic system. Consequentially, they are required to obey this system’s underlying forces, which include what Marx termed constant, primitive accumulation. Thus, they are obliged to produce ever increasing amounts of outputs, mainly cashmere. This requires high amounts of cattle, which dramatically exceeds the amounts necessary for self-sufficiency and thus heavily disrupts the balance of ecosystems.

Livestock in the three western aimags increased to 6.8 million heads in 2007 (NSO 2008) from 4.7 million in 1990 and 5.08 million in 2004. In comparison, until the early 1990s the national herd fluctuated between about 22 million and 28 million and rose to 43.2 million in 2008 (NSO 2008). Many experts think that the actual population was already around 53 million in 2009 before high mortality over the severe 2009–10 winter (Laurie et al., 2010, p 326).

In addition to the numerical increase of herds, the rotation periods for nomads and their herds decreased significantly due to the decreasing ability to migrate within Mongolia. Both of these factors lead to the overgrazing of certain areas. A UNDP-led study in 2008 estimated that approximately 70% of all pasture has been degraded in the Altai (ibid.). This significantly threatens the biodiversity and the ecological well-being of the Altai region. Due to resulting imbalances of soil structures, for example, the land is unable to hold necessary water reserves, which leads to the inability of grazing plants to regenerate and feed the large herds of cattle. These various critical hot spots mutually influence each other within the context of the ecosystems they belong to. Since the herders depend on the well-being of the cattle just as much as the cattle depends on the availability of grassland, which necessitates water, nutrients and regeneration, rural communities suffer from this ecological degradation, as well. Nevertheless, as Regdel et al. (2010) point out, “[at] present, natural regeneration of dry steppe pastures either is not occurring or is stretching for many years” (p. 6). They also note that,

[i]n general, throughout [Mongolia], the damage to land resources amounted to an area of 14076600 ha. To date, the total disturbed area is 43232.0 ha, including 1721.9 ha disturbed in the process of geological exploration and 14565.0 ha in the extraction of minerals (p. 4).

As a result, herders are at risk of losing their livestock to climate disasters. An example of this are the zud, which describe the death of more than 10% of the total livestock as a result of a whether event. These occur primarily during the increasingly harsh and cold winters. Since the full implementation of the free market policies in the 1990s, the appearance of zud have been increasing in frequency. The zud of 2010 has been especially devastating, with approximately 9 million out of 45 million dead animals. The social effect of this zud included that 8700 families lost their means of production (ibid.). This can be directly tied back to the ecological instability described in the above analysis. Due to the increased number of individual animals and the decrease in available food, the livestock is unable to endure the increasingly harsh winters. In fact, Mongolia is particularly vulnerable to climate change processes regarding that “over the past 70 years, the average temperature has increased by 2.17 degrees, which is about three times the world average” (Sudo, 2014). Zudfueled by extreme weather conditions during winters, climate change, and disrupted ecosystems have a similar effect on pastoral families as market fluctuations.

[I]ndependent pastoral producers that have been created by the privatisation of pastoralism now face destitution if their livestock die. Half the Mongolian population had become directly dependent on their own herds for subsistence in a massive distribution of risk. In retrospect we might say that the centralisation of the planned economy exposed pastoralists to another sort of risk – the possibility that the system itself might collapse (Sneath, 2012, p. 466).

Unfortunately, the Mongolian government fails to counteract this process effectively. Despite charges for grazing in permitted zones, there is no strict enforcement of these legal policies, which leads to illegal grazing in these areas. Even in theory, the regulations regarding these protected areas are ineffective. As Laurie et al. (2010) state, “the permitted zones…are extremely small, are applied per herder rather than per head of livestock, and there is no legal limit on the numbers of livestock (or vehicles) brought in” (p. 328).

Another example illustrating the dismantling of traditional security network through neoliberal and capitalist forces is the debt regime established in Mongolia. This regime has forced rural and pastoral families to be subjugated by global financial markets. In contrast to pre-Soviet and pre-capitalist periods, rural families are no longer able to maintain their vertical social safety networks. These were characterized by mutual assistance and support from relatives and friends according to current need. The terminology used to describe this socio-economic system was tanil tal, which literally means “friend/acquaintance side” (Sneath, 2012, p. 459). Therefore, cross- and intra-communal relationships were built upon trust. Sneath refers to Gell’s descriptive terms “’economy of favours’ [and] ‘indigenous service economy’” (ibid., p. 459) in order to characterize this system (ibid.).

Nevertheless, these sustainable structures were dismantled with the conquest of neoliberal policies and families were increasingly sucked into a capitalist system of credit and debt. This new system is characterized by the monetarization of economic transactions and requires the total obedience to financial regimes. This transition was made possible by the implementation of privatization policies and new citizenship systems. Whereas the former was facilitated through federal policies with the “support” of neoliberal organizations – the IMF and the World Bank particularly–, the latter registered every individual  and subjugates them to these federal regulations. Here we can see the superstructural function of the nation-state system in aiding capitalist penetration. By obeying this hegemonic system, pastoral families are now vulnerable to external shocks and the vicious credit-debt cycle. Contrary to the hegemonic discourse, these loans and credits do not lead to recovery and increased productivity, since they are used for the consumption of basic necessities. This dismantles the idea that progress and economic security can be achieved through capitalist “fixes” (Sneath, 2012).

Therefore, the example of the debt regime exemplifies the destructive consequences on indigenous socio-economic systems through the forceful integration of pastoral families into the global capitalist system, where basic human needs must be obtained with money. If this money is not possessed by Mongolian nomads, they officially and legally become ‘rightless’ slaves to international financial markets and global capitalism through the acceptance of loans and credits.

As highlighted, the economic transformation of Mongolia towards neoliberal, global capitalism and its destructive consequences for the country’s sensitive ecosystems destroy indigenous and rural communities. As a result, these populations are forced to migrate towards urban centers, primarily Ulaanbaatar. Thus, capitalism as well as its effects on nature are responsible for the internal displacement and increasing urbanization of Mongolian societies. As the above analysis points out, neoliberal capital investment and FDIs are heavily focused on urban areas and neglect rural communities (Lee, 1993; Davaakhuu et al., 2014). Consequentially, as Davaakhuu et al. (2014) conclude, rural economic instability and poverty forcefully displace Mongolian communities. They then migrate to Ulaanbaatar’s urban peripheries where they are no longer self-sufficient (Sneath, 2012). The urban bias of capital investment, its focus on the mining sector at the expense of agriculture and herding, as well as the resulting rapid urbanization lead to feedback reactions characterized by further destruction of Mongolia’s ecosystems, which decreases the ability to sustain rural self-sufficiency and food security (Regdel et al., 2012). Summed up by Myadar (2009),

Mongolia has thus been experiencing what Deane Neubauer has referred to as “hyper urbanization.” He writes, “[h]yper urbanization is clearly related to population growth, and to the ‘urban pull’ within countries and between countries which draws people out of rural areas (and subsistence economies) and into the job-oriented cash economies of the cities and the world of goods (p. 178).

The ability of global capitalism to forcefully displace populations is not only limited to internal displacement such as in the case of Mongolia. It is also a fundamental force in cross-border migration, particularly from the Global South to the Global North. Here, global capitalism crucially depends on the superstructural system of the international order of nation-states. In their ideological as well as material manifestations, these two systems interact in complex dynamics. These are the results of their historic evolutions and developments.

The Nation-State System under Global Capitalism

With the attempt to establish more stable social structures within Europe, the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia gave birth to a territorial structure and categorization of spaces which is known as the nation-state order (Czajka, 2014, p. 152). Czajka (2014) analyzes the establishment of this global system and the hegemonic naturalization and realization of its own existence. In this context, a nation had to be defined along certain, distinguishable human traits and characteristics. The most significant one was the category of race. As Czajka (2014) states,

it is in the context of the growing authority of biological and demographic sciences, and their essentialization and legitimation of race that the meaning of nation is monopolized by the discourses of race. The racialized national, in turn, becomes the most authentic and natural ground of belonging, and the national order of things the most natural way of organizing and governing humanity (p. 155).

Therefore, the establishment and the naturalization of the concept of “nation” and the nation-state order as the only legitimate framework of globally organizing human populations, necessitated the simultaneous racialization of the human species (Czajka, 2014). In this context, migration was facilitated by multiple population exchanges after large-scale wars in the 20th century.

Before these exchanges, the nation-state project had another violent effect on pre-colonial indigenous societies. During the second wave of colonialism, nomadic groups in Africa have been divided as a result of the arbitrary drawing of borders by European imperialist countries. Yasin (2008) provides the example of the Afar people, a nomadic ethnic group living at the coastal regions of the Horn of Africa. Sharing the same fate as other African ethnic groups, the traditional territory of the Afar has been divided into different nation-state territories: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti. In addition to the inhibition, and often destruction, of indigenous migration patterns, which are vital to their cultural, economic, political and spiritual life, they were now subject to different state jurisdiction. This further divided the Afar people (Yasin, 2008). According to Scott (1998), one should perceive the process of the forceful destruction of indigenous migration patterns as an integral part of the state’s project in the settlement of otherwise mobile people. This enables the state to exercise its basic functions, including enforcing taxation, avoiding rebellion, monopolizing the means of violence, and securing obedience. Furthermore, he identifies four key elements of the establishment of a state that will eventually lead to its pre-determined failure. These are 1) the administrative ordering of human society and nature, and 2) the hegemony of a high-modernist ideology that is characterized by the blind worshiping of scientific advancement and economic growth. This requires 3) “[a]n authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being” (Scott, 1998, p. 5), which is most easily achievable in times of war, terror, and depression. Finally, 4) the establishment of the state can only happen if given “[a] prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans” (ibid.).

Scott’s analysis of the nation-state is only one part of the picture when studying cross-border migration. Nevertheless, it is crucial to view the function and underlying projects of the nation-state in relation to global capitalism.

Cross-Border Migration and the Nation-State – Capitalism Nexus

Once the racial nation-state was fully established, its existence and its reproduction had to be “naturalized.” This was achieved through imposing restrictions and regulations on human movement, intended to prevent any disruption to the “purity” of racially divided nations (Czajka, 2014). Thus, humans were now generally prohibited from permanent resettlement and permitted to move only within limited and regulated spaces. This form of control over movement to the end of maintaining the international order of nation-states requires additional violence regarding the emergence of global capitalism. In 1984, Michael Mann defined control over populations which includes the control over movement, as one of the principal functions of the state and termed it “the maintenance of internal order” (p. 120). Mann determines that “[this function’s] main benefit is to protect the existing property relations from the mass of the propertyless. This function probably best serves a dominant economic class constituency” (p.120). He further elaborates on how this function is exercised by distinguishing between despotic and infrastructural power. While despotic power describes the actions exercised by the state elite without negotiations or institutionalized processes, infrastructural power is “the capacity of the state to actually penetrate the civil society, and to implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm” (1984, p. 113). Mann reveals that today’s nation-states hold autonomous power mainly in the form of infrastructural power, which results in the increased territoriality of societies, which are now bound to a spatially defined social apparatus.

Strong infrastructural power by nation-states favors capitalism, which, as an inherently violent and predatory economic system, necessitates global injustices within and among nation-states. The establishment of the nation-state order as organizational structure for human beings therefore provided global capitalism with a physical framework to operate on, and to exploit the labor of particular national groups. Mann traces this development back to European capitalist expansion, which necessitated the use of military protection as well as the regulation of property relations and market transactions. Using states as physical power apparatus to these ends, capitalism spurred the development of strong infrastructural state power in the form of, among other, institutionalized taxation, monopolized violence (police and military) and bureaucratic administration systems (Mann, 1984). In combination with state territoriality, Mann (1984) determines that

[w]hen capitalism emerged as dominant, it took the form of a series of territorial segments – many systems of production and exchange, each to a large (though not total) extent bounded by a state and its overseas sphere of influence. The nation-state system…resulted from the way expansive, emergent, capitalist relations were given regulative boundaries by pre-existing states (p. 133).

Thus, by enforcing territorial restrictions on the movement of labor, human societies are subjects to exploitative policies imposed by global capitalism and executed through specific nation-state legislation. Applying Marx’s base/superstructure model to the relationship of capitalism and the nation-state order, one can say that all aspects of the superstructure are facilitated within a certain nation-state, which implements a general form of the superstructure, realized in detail on the regional, communal, and individual level. Different states thus designate controlled cells of human beings which are assigned to a specific mode of production within the larger international division of labor.

Thus, Marx’s base/ superstructure model, in concert with Mann’s concept of nation-state power, reveals that the capitalist system benefits from the nation-state structure and its ability to both control specific populations and expose them to the predatory hegemony of capitalism. Populations which increasingly suffer in the physical space they are allowed to exist in and are forced to migrate, do not impede the hegemonic expansion of global capitalism. In fact, and in contrast to the general perception, South-North migration has developed as a crucial process for the endless expansion of capitalism through the racialized power dynamics of the nation-state and its artificial colonial borders. This can be seen as an adaptive mechanism of the capitalist system, which produces displacement in the first place - illustrated by the case of Mongolia - and then exploits the self-inflicted migration crises. Thus, the capitalist system benefits twice from displacing populations and forcing them to migrate: First by appropriating and exploiting land and resources, and second by profiting from the precarity of displaced labor in urban centers and receiving nation-states.

Robinson and Santos (2014) support this argument by employing the concept of the reserve army of labor. They recognize that neoliberal and capitalist policies, including free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs, create “a virtually inexhaustible immigrant labor reserve for the global economy,” (ibid., p. 1) in cooperation with the structural violence captured and exercised by the nation-state. Repressive state control has thus several functions: 1) making “immigrants vulnerable and deportable, and therefore subject to conditions of super-exploitation, super-control and hyper-surveillance,” (ibid., p. 1); 2) creating additional sources of accumulation from increasing militarization, for-profit immigration, and additional surveillance and military equipment; and 3) refocusing public attention away from the (self-) destructiveness of global capitalism, while creating xenophobic discourses within a nation-state. Because capitalism requires the supply of labor to be increasingly flexible and ‘appropriate,’ the mass displacement of people and the subsequent integration into the capitalist system by movement towards urban settings and wage-labor, is a logical structural consequence of the interplay between capitalism and nation-state.

The colonial roots of these processes ultimately created a global labor market in which, according to the International Labor Organization, 232 million immigrant workers participated in 2014 (ibid.). During formal colonialism, European colonizers forcefully displaced about 20 million Africans, several million indigenous people, and reallocated “millions of ‘coolie’ labor from India and China” (ibid., p. 2). Similar examples of violent and organized human movement exist today, as well. The labor export of Filipino workers to approximately 200 different countries, organized by the Philippian government and private businesses, reveals almost identical characteristics of colonial slave trade (ibid.). Therefore, the intertwined history of forced labor and mass displacement during colonial slave trade have lasting legacies, deeply engrained in our global system. The main difference to contemporary structures is that in addition to actively and physically removing people (as it happens through, for example, land grabs, “development” projects such as mega-dams, proxy wars or intra-state conflicts), we also create certain situations that force marginalized and oppressed populations to migrate across nation-state borders. These structural forms of displacement (through, for instance, water and food scarcity, climate change, religious and ideological persecution, to name a few) are not only widely neglected, but also are still inherently violent and benefit the same demographic as during colonial periods. As a result, the indirect displacement through systemic mechanisms distracts from its root causes and allows elites to increase profits while, at the same time, reducing the amount of capital investment and resources required.

Castles (2011) outlines how the global labor market has distinct features that make it an effective agent of global capitalism and, simultaneously, so devastating for migrants. For the nation-state, the influx of labor, which pushes wages down, has a positive effect, as it can afford to neglect a domestic worker’s demands for reasonable wages. This means that unions increasingly loose leverage, and that the nation-state can further consolidate its power by building alliances with business elites instead (ibid.). The maintenance and flexibility of this global market force can only be realized by employing extreme mechanisms of oppression and dehumanization, which lead to the “division of the working class into immigrant and citizen,” (Robinson et al., 2014, p. 6) as well as to the “racialization and criminalization of the former” (ibid.). This creates a new social class, which can be hierarchically stratified beneath the domestic working class. Robinson et al. (2014) elaborate on how the intersectionality of the nation-state and global capitalism impact this immigrant-worker class:

[T]he denial of civil, political, and other citizenship rights to immigrant workers are intended not to prevent but to control the transnational movement of labor and to lock that labor into a situation of permanent insecurity and vulnerability (p. 6-7).

This constant state of insecurity and vulnerability can be illustrated by the example of Eritrean refugees in Germany. The precarity of migrants is extremely advantageous for global capitalism, since

[t]he immigrant labor force in [host] countries becomes responsible for its own maintenance and reproduction and also – through remittances – for their family members abroad. This makes immigrant labor low-cost and flexible for capital and also costless for the state compared to native born labor. Immigrant workers become the archetype of the new global class relations; the quintessential workforce of global capitalism (ibid., p. 8).

Castles (2011) further elaborates on the forced cross-border migration, with regards to the globalization of neoliberal capitalism. He explains displacement within Global South nation-states as a result of the Washington Consensus, the Bretton Woods system, and the ideological and as practical realization of the neoliberalism, in general. Castles (2011) points out that in the aftermath of the “green revolution” in the 1960s, farmers in rural areas were forced to move to urban settings where they work for wages instead of self-sufficiency. This explains the creation of massive slums in metropolitan areas within the Global South capturing millions of displaced people, as is the case in Mongolia. However, facing devastating living conditions and low chances for survival due to the constant growth of slums and urban peripheries, increasing numbers of displaced people start migrating to neighboring states. Since these are often equally poor within the Global South, eventually, they have no other option than to attempt to enter the Global North.

Moving across the border from a poor country…to a rich one…may allow a migrant to improve his or her income 10- or 20-fold. Similarly, access to education, medical care and welfare services, and even life expectancy may be dramatically improved (ibid., p. 314).

These dynamics of global capitalism and the nation-state system with regards to displacement and cross-border migration are illustrated by the forced movement of Eritreans to Germany and their subsequent integration into German’s domestic economy.

South-North Migration of Eritrean Refugees

Pre-colonial societies on the Horn of Africa were comprised of different groups fragmented into multiple interacting communities, creating a diversified amalgamation of cultures, languages, traditions and belief systems (Grottanelli, 1972; Kitchen et al., 2009). In the area now known as Eritrea, these communities usually belong to one of nine different ethnic groups. Namely, the Tigrinya, the Tigre, the Nara, the Saho, the Afar, the Kunama, the Hidareb, the Blin and the Rashaida (Kibreab, 2009; Bereketeab, 2010). After insignificant colonial encounters with the Ottoman Turks and the Egyptians, these communities struggled against colonial rule by the Italians, established March 1882 (Yasin, 2008; Zilio, 2012). Italian colonialism in Eritrea was motivated by several objectives, including the Italian emigration crisis, the establishment of additional export markets, nostalgic memories of the ancient Roman Empire, and aspirations for power and prestige (Bruner, 2009; Zilio, 2012). Despite their significant social and political impact on pre-colonial societies on the Horn of Africa, the Italians failed to reap profits from their colonial rule due to their lack of capital investment and economic penetration in Eritrea. Bellucci uses Gramsci’s statement to describe this process by stating that Italian colonialism was “passionate imperialism, oratory, without any economic or financial basis” (2014, p. 295). Despite the failure of Italian colonialism, the infliction of brutality, violence and suffering on their colonial subjects had lasting impacts with regards to social transformation in colonial Eritrea.

Italy was succeeded as the colonial force in Eritrea by the British in the aftermath of World War II. The British destroyed Eritrea’s existing economic infrastructure by stripping down industrial plants, hospitals, and other production equipment to later sell the gained machinery and utilities (Wrong, 2005; Kibreab, 2005). Their justification for this robbery was a claim for compensation for the high costs of World War II. In addition, they viewed the Horn of Africa as threat to their colonial empire and claimed to do Eritrea and Ethiopia a favor by ridding them from unwanted technology and reversing “overcapitalization” (Wrong, 2005). This pretext led to the removal over approximately 80% of Eritrea’s and Ethiopia’s assets by the British, who did not provide any form of compensation (ibid.).

The end of British domination was marked by an ambiguous ruling by the UN, which effectively transformed Eritrea into an Ethiopian province in 1952 (ibid.; Yasin, 2008). What followed was the exploitation of Eritrean land and labor by the Ethiopians, who perceived themselves as having a religious and historical claim on Eritrea (Wrong, 2005). Against the UN ruling and due to Western indifference and consent, Eritrea was officially annexed as Ethiopian’s 14th province in 1962. This process was supported through military training and military by both Western and Soviet forces, who sought alliance with the Ethiopian Emperor throughout the Cold War.

In response to this history of colonial domination, the revolutionary militia group Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) formed to gain independence and self-determination. Eventually, the ELF was dissolved due to internal conflict and gave birth to the Christian-dominated Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) as the primary and uniting revolutionary group. After 30 years of rebellion, the EPLF was able to conquer Asmara from the Ethiopian troops in 1991 and forced a referendum on independence, which almost unanimously led to the independence of Eritrea as an internationally recognized, sovereign nation-state (Wrong, 2005; Yasin, 2008; Makki, 2011; Zillo, 2012; Bellucci, 2014). After achieving independence, rebel leader and current president Afwerki let his political leadership be informed by Eritrea’s long history of colonial domination. Reinforced by the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war from 1998 to 2000, Afwerki distrusted any foreign intervention and was eager to prevent mistakes made by other former African colonies, which remained dependent on Western economic interests. As a result, he effectively isolated Eritrea politically and economically. In contrast to the struggle for independence, Eritreans were more critical of Afwerki’s regime, questioning the necessity of the latest border dispute and asking for the promised elections to be held, the drafted Constitution to be implemented, and a multi-party system to be installed.

Instead of listening to Eritrean concerns, Afwerki ordered a public crackdown, on September 18, 2001 (Wrong, 2005), and rounded up opposition leaders, critics and journalists to arrest them. Furthermore, he closed all private newspapers, shut down the independent press and installed an educational system based on military recruitment. This not only forced foreign ambassadors to leave Eritrea, but also deterred the wealthy diaspora from return to their country (ibid.). Continuing Western hostilities and threats, especially from the USA, reinforced Afwerki’s defensive policies and is thus complicit in enacting violence and suffering upon the Eritrean people. This is due to the lasting geo-strategic value of Eritrea, most notably with regards to its coast line as well as the current conflict in Yemen. In fact, in a separate attempt to gain state revenue, Afwerki recently leased the port of Assab to UAE, which use this location as part of the US-backed Saudi-coalition to fight the popular uprising in Yemen (Zere, 2017).

The result of this complex colonial dynamics between foreign hegemonic powers and Afwerki’s political regime is manifested through the suffering of the Eritrean people, who increasingly decide to leave their homes and migrate towards Europe, especially Germany. From 2011 to 2015, the number of Eritrean asylum seekers to Europe has quadrupled to 46,000 in 2015 (Stevis & Parkinson, 2016). Worldwide, there have been more than 444,000 documented Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers as of June 2015 (The America Team for Displaced Eritreans, 2016). According to UN records, approximately 400,000 Eritreans, representing 9% of the state’s entire population, “have fled in recent years, not counting those who died or were stranded en route” (Stevis et al., 2016). Considering its small population, this emigration, which includes an average of 5,000 Eritreans leaving each month, as of June 2015, makes Eritrea one of the most rapidly emptying states (Frizzell, 2016). Most Eritreans are forced to transcend what has been characterized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as “the world’s most dangerous border crossing” (Laub, 2015): the route from Eritrea to the Libyan coast and from there to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea.

Having arrived in Germany, after being exposed to a brutal military state and surviving the life-threatening journey to Europe, Eritreans now face discrimination and economic exploitation, as well as social insecurity. In fact, according to Die Zeit, the average waiting period for Eritreans regarding feedback to asylum applications is 13.3 months (Daldrup, 2016). Nevertheless, these decisions rarely result in acceptances. According to the German Bundesamt fuer Migration und Fluechtlinge (2016), only 98 of the 17,396 asylum application from Eritrea to Germany were accepted. In contrast, 2,914 of those applications resulted in “subsidaerer Schutz” (subsidiary protection), which is a refugee status that usually requires re-application after one year (Anwalt.org, n.d.). Generally, refugees receiving this legal status are subject to submit to governmental resettlement decisions. The lack of asylum status does not prevent officials in regional and communal levels from putting migrants into apprenticeship positions. From a critical perspective, what might appear as a generous gesture is in fact an effective mechanism to employ and exploit cheap labor that can be disposed of at any time. Considering the EU’s current demographic trends, where the number of children between 0 and 14 decreased from 16.4 % to15.6% between 2004 and 2014, while the population between 50 and 64 years increase by almost 2% within the same time frame, cheap labor is imperative for domestic EU economies (Eurostat, 2016). In particular Germany, which has the world’s lowest birthrate with only 8.3 children per 1000 people in 2013 and which must expect its population to decrease from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, has an economic interest in accepting refugees (Kassam, Scammell, Connolly, Orange, Willsher & Ratcliffe, 2015). This illustrates the intersectionality of the nation-state order, forcing specific people to migrate, and capitalism, integrating refugees in to the migrant reserve army of labor (Robinson et al., 2014).


As characterized by Marx, the global capitalist system, with accumulation of profits and endless growth as defining logics, knows no limits to its own existence and constantly seeks to increase the penetration and exploitation of nature and human labor. The analysis of Mongolian rural and indigenous communities and their displacement as a result of neoliberal capitalism illustrates this analysis by Marx. Here, I highlighted the systemic connection between global capitalism and forced displacement. Adding to the internal displacement of Mongolian communities, I discussed cross-border migration of Eritrean migrants, who are compelled to flee towards Europe, especially Germany. The external displacement of Eritreans and the economic processes they are subject to after having arrived in Germany points out how capitalist forces are not only able to benefit from internal displacement, but also through cross-border migration. With regards to the latter, global capitalism depends on the superstructural functions of the nation-state system. The complex processes of global capitalism and the nation-state system which lead to both internal and external forced displacement highlight the nation-state – capitalism nexus and its systemic power relations. This highlights how capitalism thrives upon other hegemonic systems in the name of primitive accumulation and how it globally displaces populations to then appropriate them as highly flexible, cheap and disposable labor.


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Headshot of Felix Mantz

Critical Global Studies

Schelklingen, Germany

Global Studies, Critical Theories, Forced Displacement & Mass Migration, Speciesism, and Martial Arts.

I am friends with Eritrean refugees who migrated to Germany. In the context of a class with Professor Figueroa-Helland, I decided to do research on this issue. My work is also greatly influenced by Professor Giancarlo Panagia.