Anti-Assimilationist Manifesto: The Movers and the Stayers of Europe

1—Stayers and movers

In the media and politics, we hear constantly about the problem of assimilation. How will “migrants” assimilate to our culture? How do we encourage people who have moved here to adapt to our way of life? How do we encourage “refugees” to become part of the local culture?

One problem with these anxieties is that they presume there is a unified identity within certain borders. If we wonder how migrants will adapt to German culture, we presume that “German culture” is a real referent, that there is something that unifies the eighty-three million people in Germany.

But culture is the intersection of many different forms of social meaning, including religion, race, language or dialect, gender, sexuality, profession, class, life experience, trauma, sports interests, hobbies, skills, and addictions. These social codes create an overlapping network of meanings that cannot be reduced to a single “culture”. So which one should newcomers adapt to?

By presuming a single unifying culture, we also assume that something unifies everyone who moves to a particular place. The words “immigrant” and “native” or “local” help to produce this confusion, as they assign an absolute identity to movement.

But what do these words really say about people? “Immigrants” are people who move to a place where they were not before, and “emigrants” leave the place they have lived in, while the “native population” or “local citizens” stay in place. So, rather than these ideological and tainted words, we propose a much more neutral distinction: movers and stayers. Those who move are called movers, those who stay are called stayers.

In European languages other than English, this distinction also works. For example:

Spanish: instead of inmigrante and el pueblo, movedores and quedadores.

Italian: instead of immigrata/o and cittadina/o, spostatore/i and rimanetore/i

Swedish: instead of invandrare and lokalbefolkningen, flyttare and stännare.

2—Social life

The terms stayers and movers help us to understand that these are not permanent conditions of people’s identities, but things that people do, and have always done.

People have always moved, always packed up their things and tried to find a better life. In Europe, until the early twentieth century there was no such thing as immigration law or border restrictions. People moved wherever they could find work and a way to live, which was necessary to both the movers and the stayers, since the movers needed jobs and housing, and the stayers needed employees, colleagues, residents, and houses to be built.

Since then, however, we have begun to believe the fantasy that there is a pure population to protect and a completely different population arriving. Included in that fantasy are other fantasies: that the stayers have always been here and been unaffected by movement; that borders and cultural identities are permanent and unchanging; that a “local culture” is developed by the people already inside it rather than the people moving into it; that there are such things as “bad” and “good” movers and that the stayers have to discern between these two groups.

Many of the movers to Europe, moreover, are not moving away from conditions that they created. Their need to move away was created by European movers. Since the fifteenth century, Europeans have moved through colonization, extracting value from other places, and leaving them not only without the value they produce, but also dependent on the system of value-production which is called capitalism.

In one sense, the terms stayers and movers take away the different types of agency involved in moving between places. People going on holiday, people fleeing war and persecution, people seeking what they consider a better life, people taking a temporary job position, people travelling for travelling’s sake—all of them are movers in various ways.

Having a single term for all the people who move in these different ways risks simplifying the different ways that stayers have to adapt to each of these situations. Of course, backpackers and refugees are not the same kind of mover. However, having different terms for each kind of movement creates different legal frameworks for each, and once someone (and their particular form of movement) is recognized in the law, their movement becomes a condition that defines them. “Refugee” becomes the ontological ground of the person in movement.

Denise Ferreira da Silva speaks about the law as the collective agency given the specific task of reducing complexity. The law necessarily universalizes, creating a simple symbolic order in which one stimulus always equals one decision. In the history of European colonialism, for example, the social wound of enslavement is imposed on African people, and that wound becomes a symbol of enslavement: being black means being exchangeable as a commodity. The wound appears as skin colour, and by the law it is assigned the symbolic order of race. The law then responds to racial difference, repeating the scene of enslavement constantly by affirming the symbolic code of black equals slave.

Developing the thinking of Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman, Ferreira da Silva maintains that what happens simultaneously, alongside this legal reduction, is the social life of those people who are reduced to simplified symbols by the law. Those people sustain ways of surviving despite the law.

It is this capacity to produce social ways of being despite the appropriation of social meaning by the law that makes the lives of movers so important to everyone, whether stayers or movers. It is also what makes legal recognition undesirable, since legal recognition only means that movers can represent themselves within the reductive framework of the law.

That is why, despite its problems and its own reductionism, we propose only two terms to encapsulate every form of movement: movers and stayers. With these terms, the law will not be able to distinguish forms of movement, and so the regulating power of the state will not be able to reduce the complexity of movement’s meaning and the survival of ways of life that it maintains.


In liberal politics, what is pursued is not usually assimilation but rather integration. Integration allows the private maintenance of a mover-culture, while publicly becoming part of the stayer-culture, whereas assimilation assumes a loss of mover-culture.

Integrated Muslims in Europe are those who go to the pub but drink a soft drink. Integrated refugees are those who never mention their new country’s historical, economic, and political involvement in the war they fled. To be an integrated mover is to exist on the borderline between performances of home: allowing enough remnants of a mover-culture that stayers remember they are different, but not so many remnants that stayers have to change.

One of us set up a Bangladeshi restaurant, but no one came for dinner. They changed the sign to “Indian” restaurant, and it was full. The performance of movers’ home is allowed as long as it is the expected performance prescribed by the stayers.

In this example, two problems occur simultaneously in the minds of stayers: they presume that all movers are absolutely different to the stayers, and that all movers are absolutely alike.

Firstly, the logic of integration believes in the same definition of culture as assimilation: that there are coherent unifying identities among groups of people which are exclusive to that group, distinguishing all its members from the members of another group. It presumes that a neat separation exists between Muslim and Christian cultures, and that this separation can be maintained.

Secondly, it similarly assumes that cultures are not formed necessarily through the nonexistence of the boundaries between them. The many ways of being Muslim are constructed in response and interplay with the many ways of being Christian, and vice versa.

What is misunderstood by integrationist stayers is that “home” is not the demarcation of a boundary. Home is not the walls and closures of the architecture that surrounds you. That is the definition of the house, of the nation, or archetypally in Ancient Roman law—of the city as distinct from the forest.

“Home” is quite the opposite. It is the relations that form on the boundary between “mine” and “yours”. It is the place that is always given meaning by the presence of an other. It is the site that is always given away, so given away that all it reveals is the impossibility of giving it away: there was never anything to give away, because all it ever meant was this shared moment at the boundary of possession.

My home means my four siblings sharing a tiny space and passing food to each other. My home means the smell of burning oil before the eggs are fried. My home means the tears and laughter of my nieces and nephews. My home means the slight burn of the rug as we kneel for morning prayers. My home means the friends who always know where to find me, where the spare key is hidden, where to stay when they need a place to stay.

4—Fantasies of similitude

There is a profound illusion in European societies that stayers are unified in their similitude and movers are unified in their difference. This illusion produces the discourse of assimilation, setting up a whole national infrastructure to turn movers into convincing performers of the stayers’ identity. In Sweden, a huge amount of money and effort is put into the SFI school system, which stands for Svenskundervisning för invandrare, meaning Swedish language teaching for immigrants.

“Immigrants” (“invandrare” in Swedish), including refugees, have to attend these schools full-time in order to learn Swedish. The problem, however, is that speaking the language is not equivalent to being part of the culture. Swedes are infamously reserved. At the end of one of these year-long SFI language courses, one of us was told by the Swedish teacher (who was a mover, too): “Well done, you have now learnt a language that you will never be able to practice because Swedes will never speak to you.”

It does not matter if you learn the language because the fantasy that there is a unifying Swedishness and a unifying foreignness is stronger than the performance of words. Assimilation is a scam.

Even if there was such a thing as a meaningful cultural similarity that connected all the stayers of a particular place, and a meaningful cultural difference that connected all the movers arriving there, the notion that this divide could be transcended is illusory, since the very idea of that difference is rooted in the notion of independent cultures. If cultures develop independently of each other, and what produces a strong culture is its separation from the influence of movers, then adaption within a single generation is a fantasy. The idea of assimilation is impossible even from within the logic of assimilation.

5—Education programme

What if assimilation is all a misunderstanding? What if there was never any identity to protect? What if the fault lay with the stayers who presume that there is anything to adapt to?

Fred Moten says that sympathy is normally understood as the ability to see someone else reflected in ourselves. To feel sympathy, I have to see myself in the other and the other in me. Which means that to feel sympathy I first have to separate myself from the other. I have to establish an absolute difference between us, in order to then imagine a closing of that difference in our mutual reflection.

But this presumes that there is a border to suffering, that my pain is separated from the world, and that nothing connects my sadness with everyone else’s. It presumes that my suffering is fundamentally disconnected from yours.

What we should realize instead, Moten says, is that sympathy is the sharing of a general pain. Sympathy is the understanding that there is no unifying self to protect, that I am not a singular being who can be closed off from the general feeling of the world. I am the unique performance of a particular response to general conditions. I am one example of how to bear and live with a general pain.

When we feel sympathy, the boundary that we are crossing is this: from the fantasy of our individual separation to the awareness of our sharing of a general pain.

This general pain is displayed in the movers by the fact of having moved. That movement is their sharing of a general pain. In the place they move to, the sharing of a general pain must be opened by the stayers, since, by having stayed, they have not yet shared that general pain of movement.

How do the stayers share a general pain with the movers? What we propose is the inverse of the Swedish SFI system. Instead of Svenskundervisning för invandrare (Swedish language teaching for immigrants), we propose MO.LE.S: Mover Learning for Stayers.

These MOLES will be schools where stayers can learn about movers and exchange experiences. The teachers of these schools will be movers, and the students will be stayers. However, not all movers have to teach at these schools. It is open to those who want to take on the job, which will be paid at the rate of the national living wage. No mover is obliged to take on the responsibility of teaching the stayers about movement.

What will be taught and learnt in the MOLES is not the illusion of a permanent condition. The mover-teachers will not be mover-teachers forever, and if the stayers decide to move then they stop being stayers. What will be worked on, instead, is the possibility of performance. The movers and stayers will together develop an understanding of each other’s way of making social meaning.

Through this MOLES system, many social changes will result. 1. The stayers’ way of making meaning will change, constantly developing a new kind of stayer-society. 2. The movers will become stayers as they stay in that place, working as mover-teachers until they consider themselves stayers, or until they move again. 3. The legal framework that responds differently to different kinds of movers will be unable to keep certain movers in prisons (in the UK euphemistically called “detention centres”, making it sound more like a short stay during a school break), or force certain movers to the place they moved from, or reward certain movers with tax cuts or access to properties and passports.

6—Whose work is this?

This manifesto is written as a provocation to elicit questioning of received ideas around assimilation and integration. What we do not have—what is both not yet developed and not desirable—is a set of policies that proposes precise legal action. What we propose is the destruction of the logic of policy. We propose a mode of questioning that never ends, that is always pursuing contradiction and incommensurability, not looking for universalizable laws that withdraw people’s ability to plan and form meaningful social lives by asserting sovereign authority.

In order to achieve constant questioning, we have to also question ourselves. One question we ask ourselves in response to the Anti-Assimilationist Manifesto is: whose work is it to educate the stayers? The movers have already had to move, and then, rather than getting settled and making the conditions for a changed life, they are obliged to teach stayers about the numerous practices of movers. But is it the duty of the movers to undertake this work?


As anti-assimilationists, we call for the replacement of the discourse of “immigration” with the terms movers and stayers.

As anti-assimilationists, we call for the abolition of schools and learning centres that attempt to subsume the practices of movers into the illusory culture of the stayers.

As anti-assimilationists, we call for the creation of schools for Mover Learning for Stayers, where movers teach stayers how to adapt to the many ways of making social meaning that movers bring to the places where they move.

As anti-assimilationists, we call for the end to the legal distinction between forms of movement that reduce movers to permanent conditions, calculating their punishment or reward for moving based on these ideological presumptions.

General Waste is a European theory network for thinking against Europe, connected with Penny Drops Collective in the UK. Read other articles by General Waste.