Q&A with Catherine Besteman, author of “Miltarized Global Apartheid”

Besteman shotCatherine Besteman is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. She is the author or editor of many books, including Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine (2016). Her latest book is Militarized Global Apartheid, which is part of the Global Insecurities series, which she co-edits.

As your title makes clear, your book argues that we are living under militarized global apartheid. You explain in your Introduction that your concept is (as might be suspected) modeled after South Africa’s apartheid, which extended officially from 1948 to 1994. How might the term apartheid, and the South African paradigm it references, contribute to an understanding of current global networks? And why might it be preferable to other words like imperialism, globalization, and transnationalism, which, as you mention, have been formerly utilized in your field?

Militarized Global ApartheidThe reason for defining the system I analyze as militarized global apartheid is to highlight the ways in which imperialism, globalization, and transnationalism are race-based projects. Imperialist projects over the past 500 years are projects of racial differentiation and racist domination; projects of capital accumulation enabled by globalization use hierarchies created by racial differentiation as a tool of extraction and domination; and transnationalism presumes nationalism, which, as I show, has become a racially coded identity in most parts of the world. As scholars such as Cedric Robinson, Charles Mills, Deborah Thomas, and Kamari Clarke have shown brilliantly in various ways, globalization has proceeded over the past 500 years through the creation and imposition of race-based hierarchies in ways that reinforce white supremacy and benefit the global north rather than the global south through the control of mobility and labor. Using the term ‘apartheid’ places race at the center of analysis of how power and capitalism work in our contemporary world.

Your project is built around a conceptual division of the world between the global north and the global south. As you yourself remark, the global south is a contested geographical category and not at all homogenous. Why is it important for you, nevertheless, to utilize this concept? What does the category miss, and what does it get right? 

Global north and global south are obviously roughly drawn terms that nevertheless I find useful for making my theoretical argument. I draw on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s definition of the global north and Jean and John Comaroff’s definition of the global south in recognition of the historical fact that the forces of capital extraction and finance emanate primarily from the global north and that most of the global south experienced colonization and neocolonization of one kind or another by countries in the global north. Of course, these terms carry the danger of reductionism and overgeneralization. Categories like these miss the class interests shared by elites across these divides, which is a critically important component of the contemporary world. These categories also run the risk of reinforcing dangerous assumptions about global north supremacy and global south impoverishment, which the book seeks to deconstruct. But I hope my use of these broad categories to describe the global patterns of militarized structures of control over mobility and labor clarify whose interests are being served and which parts of the world are being harmed.

You argue that our current framework of militarized global apartheid rests heavily on racialization, which is increasingly tied to nationality; long-standing systems of white supremacy, then, encourage heightened policing and militarization to contain people of the global south within geographical borders according to their perceived national belonging. Would you say that mobility, in the face of containment, is a human right? And how can we imagine “belonging,” as you title your first chapter, outside of the boundaries of national borders?

Yes, absolutely, I consider mobility to be a human right. Everyone should have the right to move. As for how to imagine belonging outside the boundaries of national borders, all we have to do is look at how much work has gone into constructing nationalism and national identities over the past century and a half alone. The monumental effort expended to cohere groups of people into accepting national identities as not only legitimate but primary suggests the power of alternative—and competing—sensibilities of mutuality, belonging, and commonality, often rooted in kinship, locality, language, religious affiliation, or other things. The notion of belonging carries a commitment to mutual responsibility, care, and social recognition; a sense of shared basic values; and a willingness to co-participate in problem-solving. We don’t need nation-states to create these things.  

In your introduction, you draw a connection between “security fears about immigrants, and the disproportionate incarceration of Black men in the United States.” Can you say more about this link? How can your concept of militarized global apartheid inform ongoing critiques of policing and incarceration within the US that systemically target Black people, despite their national citizenship?

This issue—the connection between the racialized policing and control of mobile populations and the racialized policing and control of internal populations—is really the crux of the book. Security imperialism—in the form of mobility controls wielded against mobile and potentially mobile populations from the global south by countries of the global north—is tightly and intricately connected to carcerality within nation-states of the global north. Racialized language and militarized security innovations characterize both arenas. The use of mass incarceration as a tool of social control in some parts of the global north, most particularly the US, is reproduced in the carceral forms spreading across the global south as imprisonment and containment become the norm for disciplining political dissent, removing populations whose presence is threatening to capitalist interests, and meeting the demands of the global north for constraining mobility. I call this security carcerality, and argue it is the new form of imperialism of our era.

You acknowledge early on that migrants resist militarized apartheid in diverse and creative ways, but that this resistance is not the focus of your current project. What brought you to the decision to aim your attention at global systems of containment, rather than on sites of contestation? 

There have been so many studies of migrant resistance, strategies, experiences, and tragedies, including by me. Migrants have been in the spotlight for decades, but especially since the so-called migrant ‘crisis’ of 2015 in Europe, and some scholars, like Shahram Khosravi, are calling for scholars to recognize a migrant ‘right to opacity’. The focus on the migrant can be seen as reproducing the perception that migrants are the problem, when in fact they are not. The problem is a global system which unequally apportions capital and the power of some over the livelihoods of others, controls mobility, and determines who has the right to move and whose mobility is blocked. The problem is a global system in which the lives of people in the global south are seen as sacrificable for the benefit of people in the global north. My choice in this book is to focus on the real problem, the global system of militarized apartheid.

Who do you hope reads your book? 

I hope the book will be useful for teaching, which is why it is short. Chapters can be excerpted and taught separately. I hope the book reaches a cross disciplinary audience, speaking to geographers, critical race and globalization theorists, migration scholars and advocates, journalists, and people working in critical security studies. I hope the book stimulates a range of new studies, and especially studies that push forward the discussion about alternative futures opened in the book’s final chapter. My 90-year old stepfather was the first family member to read this book, and he read it in two days and then phoned with a long list of questions. I hope people of all ages read this book and then get in touch with their list of questions.

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