The Global North Always Wins: Review of Militarized Global Apartheid by Catherine Besteman


The Global North Always Wins: Review of Militarized Global Apartheid by Catherine Besteman

Joseph Hurtgen


Under Review:

Militarized Global Apartheid. Catherine Besteman. Duke University Press, 2020.


Shahram: Why are there refugees?

Amir: It is simple. The rich world plunders the poor world…. This is our situation. As long as there are plunderers, the plundered ones will want to come and see where their wealth has ended up.

— Shahram Khosravi,“Illegal” Traveler: An Autoethnography of Borders

Here’s a basic truth: anywhere you find lots of capital, somewhere, whether close or half way around the globe, you will find exploited people that helped create that wealth. Consider how much money the minimum wage worker  that salts fries at McDonald’s makes as compared to the ever-rising MCD ticker. Corporate wealth rarely benefits those at the bottom..

But Catherine Besteman’s Militarized Global Apartheid (MGA) isn’t about the inequality between big corporations and their poorly paid employees. No, this book is about an even greater inequality: the disadvantage of those living in the Global South as a result of a systematized set of practices undertaken by the Global North to exploit the poorest of the poor.

MGA isn’t light reading—good reading, yes; important reading, surely; light reading—no. I benefited from reading it alongside Eric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato’s Wars and Capital (2016), which explains the long relationship between capitalism and war. Many centuries ago, Europe discovered that war was profitable, especially war fought somewhere else. Somebody has to make all those war implements and then, once lands are controlled, you get to exploit, exploit, exploit.

What Besteman adds to this conversation about capital’s exploitative power is a piecemeal categorization of the varied techniques the Global North uses to exploit the Global South. For instance, China extends a line of credit to Malaysia to construct a massive airport that is almost completely unused, and then Malaysia is left with equally massive debt servicing. Or consider Israel’s exploitation of Palestinian workers.

Or, worse, the privatized, carceral detention center system that the United States uses to detain migrants, who are often fleeing broken economic and political situations engineered by the United States itself: the 1951 removal of Árbenz in Guatemala; the 1964 removal of Goulart in Brazil; the 1973 removal of Allende in Chile; the 1976 overthrow of Perón in Argentina; the 1983 invasion of Grenada; the Iran-Contra affair in Nicaragua. America has long wielded a big stick in affairs with its southern neighbors. The aforementioned migrants have nowhere to go, so they go nowhere. Migrants  are forcibly separated from their children at the border and then made to work jobs at bizarre wages ranging from little more than a dime to a dollar an hour. Migrants work for a few months until their mass trial comes up and then are summarily deported. A new batch of migrants take the old batch’s place. The New York Times estimated that, in 2013, between 60,000 and 135,000 immigrants worked in the United States’ patchwork of detention centers. And yes, before Donald Trump, 2014 was Obama’s America. 

But Besteman does more than consider labor practices. Her starting point is to consider South African apartheid—the practice of keeping Black South Africans apart from white South Africans—as the Global North’s new system for controlling and profiting from the global South. During apartheid, South Africa established zones for Black people to live. These zones were essentially ghettoes, separate from the desirable areas where whites lived. But, since Black people were used for cheap labor, they were allowed to leave their ghettos to work. South Africa created a system for surveilling their lower class population, including issuing work permits, ensuring that black workers made their way to their designated workplaces and then returned to their squalid “tribal homelands.”

Militarized Global Apartheid examines how the Global North’s system of extracting work from the poor while keeping them apart is a more complex version of South African apartheid, taking place on a global scale and involving multiple nations. Besteman explores twenty-first century strategies of containing poor populations, provides details on the system of extracting labor from the poor of the world, and describes the technologies and paramilitary forces that wealthy countries employ to ensure that the poor are denied entry. From multibillion-dollar walls, to killer drones, to patrols that force refugees through dangerous deserts and deadly sea routes, the odds are ever stacked against the world’s poor.

The world’s poor have become what Besteman describes as “nations of immigrants.” These immigrants are largely made up of Indigenous populations and people of color. Importantly, the subjugated and exploited populations of the world are non-white. Yes, the same racism that guided South African apartheid is at work in today’s global apartheid. The Global North’s domination of the world’s poor is similarly still configured around the impulse to maintain white supremacy.

Besteman reflects on the walls of our own carefully protected villages as confining rather than comforting. By building the walls, have the Global North  inadvertently created prisons for ourselves? Besteman’s question is supposed to be rhetorical, but, to answer the question: yes, the Global North has  walled itself in, believing that the only thing that matters is its own comfort—to the detriment of the rest of the world. Small thinking there. A world exists outside our prim, gated communities. In 2020, the Twitterverse laughed at Mark and Patricia McCloskey’s effete gun handling. Black Lives Matter protestors passed by the ridiculous couple on their way to the St. Louis mayor’s home.

But the McCloskey’s ridiculous image reflects the United States’ belonging to the Global North. The US has denied the world’s poor, and, worse, exploited and killed them strip-mined their land and pumped carbon into the atmosphere, resulting in environmental changes whose worst effects are being felt in the Global South. And through the scorn, the US claims racial superiority. And, all the while, the wealthy of the world  sit in front of mansions built on the backs of the broken, demanding that the gates stay locked.

One of the more common invectives against migrants is half true—“They’ve stolen our jobs!” Those jobs aren’t available to US citizens. The problem, of course, is that no one wants a job if it comes along with family separation and incarceration. And it goes without saying that no American could live off a wage that might as well have been set in 1910 (try making a budget based on a forty-hour work week that pays $40). But, all the same, the exploitation of a captive and invisible workforce does remove jobs from the economy. Our militarized global apartheid simultaneously pads the pockets of the wealthy, increases poverty for our own citizens, and destroys populations in the Global South.

As described in Militarized Global Apartheid, in the twenty-first century, citizens of the global South face mortal dangers and limitless exploitation. The Global North continues to develop its strategies for protecting hegemony and denying the citizens of the Global South. The prison industrial complex in the EU and the US have already systematized the oppression of the poorest humans, and the rise of facial recognition software and biometric tracking threaten to effectively turn the whole world into a prison. As understood by political philosophers from Foucault to Virilio, eventually, the techniques brought to bear on the poorest of the poor in the saddest pockets of the world find their way back to the metropole. The free citizens of our present and of our future are those with wealth, wealth that ensures the poverty of nations and people forever.

Besteman ends her book hopefully. She reminds us that South African apartheid ended, failing because of “the debilitating financial cost of its security apparatus, its inherent evil, and powerful local and international multiracial opposition movements.” Her project is to raise awareness of a new evil, the global rise of a security apparatus that subjects the Global South to worldwide apartheid. By doing so, she hopes that voices will join together and refuse to stand for the gross mistreatment of people. 

But, my reading is that Besteman is likely too hopeful. The danger is that this new global system of apartheid strikes a balance between the enormous cost of a security apparatus and the desire of largely white-peopled nations to keep the foreigner at bay. The Global North is far wealthier than 20th-century South Africa. Thus, it is not likely that any cost will be viewed as too high to maintain the security apparatus.

Likely, the only way to bring an end to the system of militarized apartheid is in widespread moral opposition. Is that possible? Besteman considers Ursula K Le Guin’s imagined Omelas, where citizens walk away from the outrage of subjecting children to a degrading life so that the rest of those in Omelas can live in luxury. Her hope is that many will walk away in disgust. But how many have you seen walk away?


Joseph Hurtgen (he/him) has a PhD in English Literature, a published book of SF criticism, two self-published SF novels, and writes SF analysis on his blog, Rapid Transmission. He is a writer and editor for New Rural, a website devoted to exploring the intersection of global culture with rural life. He lives in Campbellsville, Kentucky with his wife Rebecca and daughter Frances.


Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned via ARB’s Twitter account and edited by Sabrina Mittermeier who also requested the review copy on behalf of the author. There was no prior relationship to the author.

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