Open Up: The Refugees are Coming
I’ll stake my future on the solidarity of the people over the cynicism of the elite.

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 22 March 2022

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The displacement of over four million Ukrainians to other parts of the world has got me thinking about the relationship of people to places. Thanks to war, climate change, and economic pressures (which are all rapidly becoming one and the same) an increasing number of people are finding themselves dispossessed.

It’s not necessarily a new story. Here in America, for example, colonists displaced the indigenous populations, then turned the land from a living partner into claimed territory, owned property, and eventually speculative real estate. Land ownership became the new way of being able to claim the right to use or even occupy one place or another.

Until recently, I have been blaming the increasing tension around land and its use to capitalism. In my own lifetime, I’ve witnessed as Walmart and hundreds of other major corporate retail chains have taken over our world. Local restaurants, shops, and even services like appliance repair have been replaced by corporate chains. Former small business owners became employees of distant corporations, and the problem this created was more than the aesthetic difference between a mom and pop business and a Starbucks, Dicks, or Outback. The bigger problem is that money that used to circulate between businesses in a locality is now sucked out — at least in part — by the company and its shareholders.

Increasingly, the middle class become the renters, gig workers, and customers rather than the owners, stewards, or sovereigns (however much dislike that word) of their world. And while corporate capitalism may have created this scenario here, authoritarianism, cronyism, corruption, and colonialism have led to similar sorts of dispossession in other parts of the world.

I’m coming to see the acceleration of this dispossession less as a coincidence than a conspiracy. I’ve been reading Bruno Latour’s wonderful short book, Down to Earth, in which he frames the climate crisis in similar terms — with the environment as just one of the “climates” of dispossession in play. Like me, he wondered how the global elites could have seen the science on climate change put out by Club of Rome and other scientists since the 1960s, and chosen to spread climate denial.

He concluded that this wasn’t because they doubted the science, but because they believed it. On hearing what was coming, the global elite immediately concluded that the world could not get its act together in time. Like everything else in the elite’s world view, there would be winners and losers. The object of the game was to be among the winners. So, while making their own preparations for climate catastrophe (land purchases, resource hoarding, deregulation) the very same people were funding climate disinformation. Look at the Koch brothers for an easy example. They are perhaps the world’s biggest funder of climate science denial, targeting climate activists directly. Yet at their secret retreats (to which more than one of my friends have been invited) they discuss strategies for moving industries away from imperiled shorelines, and controlling the mass migrations of climate refugees.

I guess if I were an evil oligarch, or even just a selfish one, and knew that some seriously disruptive shit was coming down, I might do the same things we’re seeing implemented today: construct border walls to block the movement of refugees, exacerbate the division of wealth to separate land-owning elites from the masses of migrants, and increase people’s reliance on monopoly corporations and platforms for their employment and sustenance. And then aggrandize all this disempowerment as a return to some indigenous-style freedom or personal autonomy.

Of course, the problem with this strategy is that it won’t work. We people may be displaced or dispossessed, but the elites are disconnected from us and the rest of the human organism. When the externalities of all their domination make this way of life untenable — as we all know it will — I’ll stake my future on the solidarity of the people over the cynicism of the elite.