The Right to Move: On Mimi Sheller’s “Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes”

The Right to Move: On Mimi Sheller’s “Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes”

Mimi Sheller | Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes | Verso Books | September 25, 2018 | 240 Pages


For centuries, much of society was purposefully static. People largely remained in the same place for protection or communal resources, and assumed their role in life as either product of a godly design, or in keeping with the traditional power structure. Over time, of course, this didn’t hold up. The necessity and desire to be mobile prevailed, and the world continues to level up its hyper-connectedness.   

At the same time, however, the ability to move away from one overarching societal challenge doesn’t induce positive change across all scales. Mobility for some causes immobility for others, growth on one side means taking from another, and the ability to profit is the ability to exploit. The overriding thesis of Mimi Sheller’s Mobility Justice is aimed at gathering a deeper understanding of how progress and mobility have become detrimentally linked.

Sheller is one of the leading scholars of mobilities research, a branch of thinking she defines as not only focused on movement, but “the power of discourses, practices and infrastructure mobility in creating the effects of both movement and stasis.” While a great deal of her previous writing examples these effects, the focus of Mobility Justice is to demonstrate the way mobilities are “channeled, tracked, controlled, governed, under surveillance and always unequal—striated by gender, race, ethnicity, class, caste, color nationality, age, sexuality, disability, etc.” More plainly, those with power determine mobility, and mobility justice is the want for freedom of mobility without conditions.

At its outset, the book seeks to address what Sheller terms the “parallel crises of climate, urbanization, and migration,” or, The Triple Mobility Crisis. On premise alone, these are a lot of overlapping pieces to hold in your arms at once, but Sheller approaches this challenge by organizing the chapters of Mobility Justice as a set of building blocks, moving through issues at the individual, transnational, and eventually planetary level, reaching down along the way with more explicit cases of how power influences “im/mobility.”

One of the most compelling sections of this dynamic is “Mobile Borders and Migrant Justice.” In the triple helix of her crisis, migrant justice is most lucidly displayed:

 “Barriers to access and controls over mobility are implemented…to serve elite interests…via formal and informal policing, gates, passes, clothing, regulation of public space, and surveillance systems that limit the right to move, filter entry and exit, and selectively apply protection of the state…At its extreme, lacking the capability of mobility can lead to death.”

Sheller establishes how border narratives always suggest a need of protecting or securing, when, in fact, borders are locales for point-source violence that is the result of elite mobilities looking to suppress the mobilities of others.

Understanding how this discussion point intersects the other strands of the helix, however, does require a closer read. For Sheller, the case of securing borders also gets represented as an economic and climate issue. She identifies the way the most privileged classes, including elite mobility regimes (governments, big business) contribute more significantly to global warming through carbon-intensive travel, impromptu and under-resourced detention centers pushing impact onto lower-income regions that might cause displacement or climate refugees. In turn the necessity for such infrastructure allows contractors to profit from this suppression of mobility, use their financial earnings to contribute to the mobility regimes that embrace militarized borders, and so ultimately support the protraction of denied human rights.

Although, not all arguments are as clearly devised. Sheller can’t resist the ways in which im/mobilities regenerate, and her focus on the Triple Crisis becomes exponential crises that, at times, dislocate her original direction. Sheller is sometimes to intent on filing every action and inaction as a subset within the arguments of mobility justice, which often makes for arduous reading.

In the preface, Sheller highlights the group The Untokening, “a multiracial collective that centers the lived experiences of marginalized communities to address mobility justice and equity.” She notes the importance of such collectives working to spread their own principles around mobility justice, so as to not diminish its scope or overlook both local and historical contexts.

However, in its own right, the collective, originating in Los Angeles in 2016, provides a description of their goals that proves not only more approachable, but more applicable than Sheller’s:

“Mobility Justice demands that “safety” and equitable mobility address not only the construction of our streets but the socioeconomic, cultural, and discriminatory barriers to access and comfort different communities experiences within public spaces. We must shift focus from the modes of transit people use to the bodies and identities of the people using those modes by centering the experiences of marginalized individuals and the vulnerable communities. It acknowledges that safety is different for different people, and should be defined by those most economically and legally vulnerable.” 

The occasional authorial intrusion aside, Sheller writes from a place of radicalism, where she makes evident that no injustice today is a blank page; it’s not standalone or original. This appears to be what Sheller wants us to revisit when considering how to dismantle injustice, not a reverse engineering of modern issues, but rebuilding from a new consciousness.

Sheller is a distinguished theorist in the topics of mobility justice, and in her realm a giant. In many cases Mobility Justice cannot be approached as introductory, but should be ripe material for similarly focused scholars. This isn’t to suggest, of course, to not bite in, if the material calls out to you. Yet, it’s necessary to understand that the book is making the case for how to go about reinventing society, not a single appendage. Mobility is synonymous with power, and power is systemic and institutionalized. Creating true justice in any one realm, be it climate, housing, education, requires the decentralization of power, and Sheller is extensively cataloging the missteps.

In 2009, Sheller published an article, “The New Caribbean Complexity: Mobility Systems, Tourism and Spatial Rescaling,” in The Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. On the whole, the piece is angled around the deafening impacts of neoliberalism in the Caribbean, but at one of the article’s crucial points, with regard to overlapping mobilities, Sheller paraphrases the argument that “the historicity of such entanglements is the often silenced underpinning to all narratives of progress…” In many ways, this is the way to think of Mobility Justice, as an effort to dig further into the sordid vines of history and try to assess which root to cut first.

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