Skip to main content

Migrant Labor and Global Commons: Transnational Subjects, Visions, and Methods

  • Gunther Peck (a1)

Despite the prominence of both migrant workers and “global commons” as protagonists in recent meetings of the World Social Forum, few activists or scholars have successfully linked their historical agency or significance. In the following essay, I locate conceptual starting points for linking migrant workers and global commons by analyzing the work of the transnational and the commons in political conversation at the WSF and in the historiographies of immigration and the environment in North America. I argue that the transnational and global commons are best understood as analytical vantages rather than as utopian visions of nation-state transcendence. Using research into the history of human trafficking, I explore the analytical advantages of linking migrant workers to global commons. As inevitable trespassers of both national sovereignty and property claims, migrant workers' journeys help reveal a global commons that is, like them, migratory, fleeting, and often illegible to the state authorities. Such commons are not pristine wildernesses, but polyglots of weedy hybrids. Migrant workers' transnational vantages illuminate the limits of enclosure and the enduring adaptability of nonhuman nature across national boundaries.

Hide All


2. Since its inception in 2001, the World Social Forum has inspired political aspirations among a diverse cohort of left-leaning intellectuals and activists. See, for example, Fisher, William F. and Ponniah, Thomas, Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (London, 2003). Many of the ideas of political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri about emerging anti-imperial and anticapitalistic social movements—groups they deem a “multitude” in the second of their trilogy of political theory and critique—seemed to have been realized in the diverse cohorts creating the World Social Forum. See Hardt and Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA, 2000); Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York, 2004); Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA, 2009). Much of the public discussion of the Belém WSF meeting sought to locate it within movement literatures that compared it to earlier meetings or that heralded its particular capacity to make visible connections between labor and environmental issues. See Nate Cull, “The World Social Forum in Belém: Better than Porto Alegre?”at (accessed November 11, 2012). Conway, Janet, “Belém 2009: Indigenizing the Global at the World Social Forum,” Canadian Dimension 43 (2009): 13; Becker, Marc, “Snubbing Davos: The Presidents at the World Social Forum,” NACLA Report on the Americas 42 (2009): 4; Rory Carroll, “World Forum Message to Davos: We Told You So,” The Guardian (Manchester, England), January 30, 2009.

3. Assembly of Social Movements, February 5, 2009, Belém, Brazil; “Declaration of the Assembly,” republished by the Transnational Institute, available at (accessed November 11, 2013).

4. Identifying a platform for the World Social Forum is challenging because by design it has eschewed making or formulating unitary manifestoes, preferring instead to encourage broad grassroots participation, a key feature of the “open space” that characterizes the WSF. How well the WSF balanced the need for participation and grass-roots innovation with the need to create unified collective action has been the subject of considerable debate. On the success of Belém's meeting in balancing those imperatives, see Velitchkova, Ana, Smith, Jackie, and Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin, “Windows on the Ninth World Social Forum in Belém,” Societies Without Borders 4 (2009): 193208 ; and Smythe, Elizabeth and Byrd, Scott, “World Social Forum Activism in Belém and Beyond,” Journal of World Systems Research 16, 94105 . For a critique, see Almeida, Paulo Roberto de, “World Surreal Forum: A Brief Visit to the Antiglobalizers' Deliriums,” Meridiano 47 (2009): 17.

5. On seeing the transnational as an analytical vantage that “denatures” the nation, see Briggs, Laura, McCormick, Gladys, and Way, J.T., “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis,” American Quarterly 60 (2008): 625–48.

6. By arguing that the transnational should be thought of as a method of seeing the work of nations, I do not claim that there is necessarily a“truer” politics that exists outside the nation-state, or for that matter outside capitalism and modernity. Rather, I begin with the assumption that the nation and the transnational are relational categories, much like Michael Hardt and Antioni Negri suggest modernity and antimodernity are part of a single relationship of power. “To understand modernity,” they write, “we have to stop assuming domination and resistance are external to each other … and recognize that resistance marks differences that are within.” Similarly, I argue that employing the term transnational should imply no transcendence or even separation from nations. Rather it should demarcate a vantage or method for seeing the political and ideological work that nations—and citizens—perform and frequently naturalize within humanitarian frames. See Hardt and Negri, Common Wealth, 70.

7. Imagined as an “open space” for political conversation, WSF organizers have worked to protect that openness by forbidding politicians or representatives of national governments from speaking directly at WSF events. Nor have WSF organizers allowed the Forum to endorse particular political candidates or leaders, despite obvious sympathies between the WSF and several left-leaning Latin American political leaders like Brazil's own Lula or the late Hugo Chávez.

8. Details about the transnational protest movement to block multinational banks from seizing indigenous land in the Amazon and building a dam were gleaned from the Transnational Institute's day-long forum entitled “Rolling Back the Power of Transnationals: Experiences and Strategies from the Peoples of Latin America and Europe, I & II,” January 29, 2009, Belém, Brazil. For a brief description of the Transnational Institute's panel, see Smythe and Byrd, “World Social Forum Activism in Belém and Beyond,” 99.

9. As Smythe and Byrd stated regarding the Transnational Institute's panels, “There was broad agreement that while this crisis may pose an opportunity there is a real need both to articulate alternatives and mobilize trans-nationally.”

10. Ulrich Brand and Nicola Sekler estimate that 1,400 of 2,000 panels at Belém were in Portuguese only, despite the promise or hope by WSF organizers that all panels would have some translation available. See Brand and Sekler, “There are Many World Social Forums,” distributed at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, February 17, 2009, New York City, cited in Smythe and Byrd, 103.

11. English might have functioned as an imperfect kind of global commons for the many international visitors to Belém. But at the mouth of the Amazon River, where eight in ten participants were native Portuguese speakers, it seemed obvious that Portuguese should and would dominate. At one panel, Greek and Chinese attendees demanded translators, expecting someone who could speak English, but were befuddled when the tardy translator arrived and offered Spanish translations of the Portuguese presenters.

12. While most observers of Belém's “open space” acknowledged the lack of translators and translation, many also defended the lack of coordination as a dimension of the WSF's “grass-roots” character, describing the WSF's “chaotic nature” as an expression of the event's dynamism and, ironically, its globalness. See Velitchkova, Jackie Smith, and Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, “Windows,” 195. Author's notes, Belém, Brazil, January 29, 2009.

13. Jacobson, Matthew Frye, “More ‘Trans-,’ Less National,” Journal of American Ethnic History 25 (2006): 75. Also cited in Ngai, Mae and Gjerde, Jon, eds., Major Problems in American Immigration History (Boston, MA, 2013), 25.

14. Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People (Boston, MA, 1951), 3.

15. Gabaccia, Donna, “Is Everywhere Nowhere? Nomads, Nation, and the Immigrant Paradigm of United States History,” Journal of American History 86 (1999): 1115–34.

16. Kenny, Kevin, “Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study,” Journal of American History 90 (2003): 134–62.

17. Kenny, Kevin, Making Sense of the Moly Maguires (New York, 1998).

18. Jacobson, “More ‘Trans-,’ Less National,” 28.

19. Ibid., 30.

20. On histories of sovereignty that focus on the importance of traffic and piracy, see Stern, Phil, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Origins of the British Empire in India (New York, 2011), and Andreas, Peter, Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (New York, 2013).

21. Fink, Leon, The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2003), 45, 55.

22. Ibid., 151.

23. Ibid., 144.

24. Ibid., 146. Tomlinson, John, Globalization and Culture (Chicago, 1999), 30. On “transnational” formations among Guatemala and El Salvadoran immigrants in North America, see Hamilton, Nora and Chincilla, Norma Stolz, Seeking Community in a Global City (Philadelphia, PA, 2001).

25. Piore, Michael, Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies (Cambridge, 1979). That frame informs Fink's analysis of global migrant communities in chapter six of The Maya of Morganton, 5.

26. Jacobson, “More Trans-, Less National,” 25.

27. On the critique of Marx's inattention to the ways capitalism has not “annihilated space by time,” see Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford, 1990). There are few studies of the full complexity of destinations and jobs among North Carolina's immigrant agricultural workers. For newspaper coverage of some of that complexity, see the Raleigh News and Observer, “Immigrants Sow New Idea: They're Also Here to Give Back,” June 15, 2013.

28. On how the freedom to quit was commodified and transformed into building blocks of coercive corporate power at the dawn of the twentieth century, see Peck, Gunther, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880–1930 (Cambridge, 2000).

29. Piore, Birds of Passage, 3.

30. Turner, Frederick Jackson, The Frontier in American History (New York, 1920).

31. Hardin, “The Tragedy,” 1245. Warren, Louis, The Hunter's Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth Century America (New Haven, CT, 1999); Jacoby, Karl, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Theives, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley, CA, 2003).

32. For an economist's critique of Hardin that focuses on the sustainability of local actors in sustaining commons' resources against extralocal actors, see Ostrom, Elinor, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge, 1990).

33. Thompson, Edward P., Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (London, 1971).

34. Warren, Hunter's Game, chap. 1.

35. Truett, Samuel, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands (New Haven, CT, 2006); Wadewitz, Lissa, The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea (Seattle, WA, 2012); Kristen Wintersteen, “Fishing for Food or Fodder: The Transnational Environmental History of the Humboldt Current Fisheries in Peru and Chile since 1945” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2011); Taylor, Joseph III, “Boundary Terminology,” Environmental History 13 (2008): 454–81; Douglas Sackman, “The Transnational Turn and Environmental History,” paper presented at the Organization of American Historians, San Francisco, CA, April 12, 2013, Environmental History State of the Field Panel. See also the outstanding history of the US-Mexican border by John, Rachel St., Line in the Sand: A History of the U.S.-Mexican Border (Princeton, NJ, 2010), which foregrounds cross-border environmental themes.

36. Global commons typically refer to the atmosphere or to water resources, parts of the earth that remain beyond any individual nation or company's capacity to capture or “own.” While some policy researchers employ the term, virtually no historians have attempted to write a history of such large and largely unbounded topics, leaving them to policy professionals and the occasional social scientist to discuss. See, for example, Warren, Lynda M., “Protecting the Global Commons,” Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy (2001): 613 ; Securing the Global Commons,” New Internationalist (2013): 2324 ; Johnson, Todd, “Protecting the Global Commons,” Environmental Matters at the world Bank 7 (2001): 1821 ; Buck, Susan, The Global Commons: An Introduction (Washington, DC, 1998).

37. Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, pp. viii, 153–156, 249–260.

38. On definitions of “first” and “second” nature, see Cronon, William, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991).

39. Crosby, Alfred, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (New York, 1986).

40. Histories of immigrant deportation have not yet been written, but the topic is covered within a variety of broader contexts. See, for example, Ngai's, Mae pathbreaking study of illegal migrants, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ, 2004); and Hahamovitch, Cindy, No Man's Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor (Princeton, NJ, 2011).

41. Conversation between author and Michael Hardt, Durham, NC, July 2, 2013.

42. Peck, Reinventing Free Labor, chap. 1.

43. The interview with “Juan” occurred on Sunday September 7, 2003 and is described by historian Cindy Hahamovitch, who accompanied me along with a dozen Duke undergraduates and two representatives from FLOC on a trip to an eastern North Carolina labor camp, in her book No Man's Land, 236–33. I have not used Juan's real name to protect his identity.

44. Blincoe, Robert, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe (London, 1832).

45. I discovered the blackberry patch outside the St. Pancras church on August 3, 2003, while performing research on the history of human trafficking and “white slavery” at the British Library in London.

1. I would like to thank the following individuals for providing comments on drafts of this essay. They improved the essay considerably and bear no responsibility for any enduring flaws: Faulkner Fox, Cindy Hahamovitch, Michael Hardt, Thomas Klubock, Jacob Remes, Douglas Sackman, and Robyn Weigman.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Labor and Working-Class History
  • ISSN: 0147-5479
  • EISSN: 1471-6445
  • URL: /core/journals/international-labor-and-working-class-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed