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New Left Review 45, May-June 2007

Against celebrations of the messianic potential of migrant labour, John Chalcraft presents the case of Syrian workers in Lebanon, where porous borders and hybrid identities serve to reproduce exploitative conditions. What motivations and aspirations underpin migration—and what routes might lead out of commodification’s web?



Syrian migrants in Lebanon

What am I, a man or a resource?
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Visions of international migration have, on the Left, been divided into two broad political and historiographical currents. [1] I am indebted to As’ad Abu Khalil, Sharad Chari, Alex Colas, Jens Hanssen, Laleh Khalili, Zachary Lockman, Martha Mundy and Yaseen Noorani for their invaluable feedback on earlier versions of this paper. I would also like to thank Kifah Hanna, Ghassan Maasri and Khaled Malas for their assistance with research and translation. On the one hand, an anti-colonial Marxist and feminist tradition has long seen labour migration as a means for capitalism and imperialism to exploit menial, cheap and quiescent labour, the ‘new helots’ of the post-colonial world. [2] Robin Cohen, The New Helots: Migrants in the International Division of Labour, Aldershot, uk 1987. On the other, scholars in cultural and post-colonial studies have generally told a more upbeat story, in which border-crossing, hybridity and migrant agency work to destabilize foundationalist metanarratives, complicate simple binaries of Self and Other, and raise hopes for a ‘cosmopolitan dawn’.

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John Chalcraft, ‘Labour in the Levant’, NLR 45: £3

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