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Reconceiving Immigration Politics: Walter Benjamin, Violence, and Labor

  • INÉS VALDEZ (a1)


This article theorizes the circulation of violence in the realms of immigration and labor. Through Walter Benjamin, I conceptualize the relationship between racial violence and law, and note that although violence can support the authority of law, excessive violence makes law vulnerable to decay. This tension between authority and excess is eased by humanitarianism. I find clues for disrupting this circulation in Benjamin’s twin notions of the real state of exception and the general strike, introduced two decades apart and invested in theorizing how labor and other marginalized groups threaten the stability of law supported by violence. This reconstruction proceeds alongside an examination of the contemporary US regime of immigration enforcement, which combines the excessive violence of detention and deportation with marginal humanitarian adjustments, which ultimately legitimate violence. On the disruptive side, a Benjaminian reading of labor activism by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers offers three dimensions of emancipatory politics: (a) practices of refusal (to engage on the terms of the immigration debate), (b) the establishment of historical constellations (of racial regulation of labor constitutive of law), and (c) divine violence (through exposure of lawful violence in the food production chain).


Corresponding author

*Inés Valdez, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Ohio State University,


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I am indebted to Tatiana Hernandez’s excellent research assistance and, for feedback, to Amna Akbar, Lawrie Balfour, Javier Burdman, Shuk Ying Chan, Julian Culp, Madeleine Elfenbein, Katrin Flikschuh, Michael Goodhart, Lori Gruen, Daniel Henry, Murad Idris, Melissa Lane, Michael MacKenzie, Tamar Malloy, Peter Niesen, Alasia Nuti, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, Anne Phillips, Alyson Price, Lucia Rafanelli, Philipp Rehm, Sara Riva, Jennifer Rubenstein, Elvis Saldias Villarroel, Lea Ypi, APSR editor Leigh Jenco and referees, and the audiences at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg, the London School of Economics, Princeton University, Universität Hamburg, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Virginia, and the Association for Political Theory. Three subsequent drafts of this article were written at the Princeton University Center for Human Values (as a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow), the “Writing in Depth” retreat at Hope Springs Institute, and the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg (as a Humboldt Stiftung Fellow). I am thankful for their support.



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Reconceiving Immigration Politics: Walter Benjamin, Violence, and Labor

  • INÉS VALDEZ (a1)


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