An anthropologist explains the disruptive politics of immigration

Summary: Immigration is one of the central political issues of our time, challenging the current ideologies and parties. It meets several needs of western elites, and so has bipartisan support. But its destabilizing effects have become obvious as the list of losers from immigration grows. Opposition to it brought Trump the nomination (before he abandoned it for sideshow comedy), and that opposition will survive his defeat. To understand why, read this brilliant essay by Professor Maximilian Forte. It’s essential reading to understand social, political, and economic developments shaping western nations.

Immigration

Immigration and Capital

By Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology. Reposted with his generous permission.

Immigration, rightly or wrongly, has been marched to the frontline of current political struggles in Europe and North America. Whether exaggerated or accurate, the role of immigration is situated as a central factor in the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the rise of the “America First” Trump movement in the US. It seems impossible that one can have a calm discussion about immigration today, without all sorts of agendas, assumptions, insinuations and recriminations coming into play.

Staking a claim in immigration debates are a wide range of actors and interests, with everything from national identity and national security to multiculturalism, human rights, and cosmopolitan globalism. However, what is relatively neglected in the public debates is discussion of the political economy of immigration, and especially a critique of the role of immigration in sustaining capitalism.

Before going forward, we have to first dismiss certain diversionary tactics commonly used in public debate, that unfortunately misdirect too many people. First, being “anti-immigration” does not make one a “racist”. One does not follow from the other. Being a racist means adopting a racial view of humanity as being ordered according to what are imagined to be superior and inferior, biologically-rooted differences. Preferring “one’s own kind” (whatever that means) might be the basis for ethnocentrism, but not necessarily racism as such.

It’s important not to always lunge hysterically for the most inflammatory-sounding terms, just because your rhetorical polemics demand an instant “win” (because you don’t win anything; you just sound like someone who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about). Also, xenophobia neither implies racism nor ethnocentrism, because it can exceed both by being a fear or dislike of anyone who is “foreign” or “strange”.

Conversely, one can be entirely racist, and quite pro­-immigration at the same time, as long as immigration is restricted to members of one’s own race. Other forms of racist pro-immigration policies would include slavery itself, indentured labour, down to the casual racism of “let’s have Mexicans, they make such wonderful gardeners”. Furthermore, the available survey data in the US suggests that, “far from being rooted in racism, opposition to immigration in the U.S. seems to be rooted in concerns about the ability of less-skilled immigrants to support themselves without Medicaid, SNAP, the earned-income tax credit, and various other supports” (Salam, 2016b). Salam adds this point: “My guess is that if immigration policy were not viewed through a racial lens, opposition to immigration would in fact increase substantially”.

Also, there is a distinction to be drawn between opinions that are anti-immigrant and policies that are anti-immigration, even if there can be overlap between the two.

Finally, all of this obscures the basic questions that are seemingly never asked today in most public debates: 1) Are questions about racism, identity, and openness the most important ones to be asked about immigration? And, 2) Why must workers be pro-immigration?

When we turn our attention to the current political economy of immigration in Europe and North America, and the relationship between immigration and capital, we might discover two odd absences. One is that those on the left who in past years were vocal critics of mass immigration, especially of the illegal kind, have either been silent on the topic in current debates, or have reversed positions without any explanation.

Second, you may find Marxist writers who, armed with all of the necessary conceptual and empirical tools, avoid drawing explicit connections in their own work that could be the basis for a critique of immigration. My guess is that what explains both absences is this fear of being stigmatized as xenophobic, or worse yet, racist — but as shown above, such fear is illogical and should be pushed aside.

From the Left: Past Public Criticism of Immigration

In the not-too-distant past, leftist activists and politicians, such as Naomi Klein and Bernie Sanders, have both gone public in criticizing immigration for its role in depressing wages, increasing unemployment, deepening proletarian dependency and despair, and fostering an elitist form of cosmopolitan detachment from place. For the record, let’s review the two.

Naomi Klein argued that “rooted people” are “the biggest threat” to neoliberal capitalism because they have “roots and stories,” so the global capitalists prefer to “hire mobile people”. Klein also recognized that this “economic model creates armies of surplus labour,” and migrant labourers are useful in “keeping wages very, very low”. Naomi Klein also spoke of the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where those who lost their homes, mostly African-Americans, did not get the jobs — instead, “a migrant workforce” was used.

Second, Bernie Sanders, who would later denounce “open borders” as a plot by the right-wing oligarchs, the Koch brothers, told Lou Dobbs the following on 21 June 2007 (see the interview or read the transcript):

“If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down, even lower than they are right now.”

Dobbs added…

“And as we know, the principle industries which hire the bulk of illegal aliens — that is construction, landscaping, leisure, hospitality — those are all industries in which wages are declining… .I don’t hear that discussed on the Senate floor by the proponents of this amnesty legislation.”

To which Sanders responded: “That’s right. They have no good response.”

I am not playing this out here to rub salt into the wounds of Sanders supporters. Instead, it is simply to point how far back the left has retreated when it comes to a critique of the political economy of immigration, such that they can hardly have any legitimate complaint that the ground they vacated has been taken up by the Trump movement in the US, or by right-wing advocates of Brexit in the UK. As the Bloomberg article pointed out, “it’s Sanders’s rhetoric against guest-worker programs for legal immigrants that has brought him trouble with the left”. Should it have? Should Sanders have gone back on his record, and adopted his enthusiastically pro-immigrant stance (embracing even those who entered illegally)?

Yet Sanders is not the focus of this article; instead my broad purpose here is to argue for the negative in answering these questions. I will do so first by revisiting the work of a Marxist writer, David Harvey, even though he seems to evade the critique of immigration in his 2014 book on the contradictions of capitalism. While the writings of Marxist scholars can be useful for understanding how immigration works to uphold capitalism, and especially its neoliberal form, the writers themselves seem reluctant to draw out those connections too clearly, creating an eerie silence around what should be obvious.

Immigration: Serving the Owners of Capital

Those who consider themselves leftist and anti-capitalist while being pro-immigration with few if any restrictions, might be on the wrong side of the argument in one way or another. In David Harvey’s 2014 book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, there are some useful insights about immigration’s role in propping up capital. However, the material is scattered throughout the book (I gathered the relevant elements below), and one might wonder if Harvey thus missed the eighteenth contradiction — the contradiction between unrestricted capitalism and the anti-immigration politics of working class movements. At least capitalists would think of the contradiction as an important one, given their now extreme public panic over the working class gaining the political upper hand, under the leadership of populist nationalists.

In Seventeen Contradictions Harvey notes that for many Marxists the contradiction between capital and labour is the primary contradiction of capitalism, not that Harvey (himself a Marxist) agrees that this contradiction can stand alone as an explanation for all capitalist crises (p. 65). Harvey’s own definitions of capital, and the way he distinguishes it from capitalism, leave much to be desired (see pps. 7, 73).1

Having fixed the place of labour in the unfolding history of capitalism — whether paramount or not it remains central — Harvey in his usual anthropomorphosis of capital says that “capital strives to produce a geographical landscape favourable to its own reproduction and subsequent evolution” (p. 146) — although it’s actual capitalists who do that, and not capital as such. What he could have added is that reworking the geographical landscape means how humans fit into landscapes, and moving workers around the planet is a definite reworking of “geography”. Having established the centrality of the capital-labour contradiction, and having introduced the significance of geographic changes, Harvey adds the third key component of his analysis: “that an economy based on dispossession lies at the heart of what capital is foundationally about” (p. 54). How are workers dispossessed?

The usefulness of immigration in the capitalist system lies in the ability of capitalists to use immigration to break the monopoly power of labour (p. 120). Simply put, labourers can assert a virtual monopoly over their work, especially when such work is specialized and the number of labourers is contained. The inflow of immigrants can thus help to break the labourers’ monopoly, by creating competition among the ranks of workers. Harvey explains this in detail — but without speaking of immigration — using an example which ends up being very relevant to the present in the US:

“What is on capital’s agenda is not the eradication of skills per se but the abolition of monopolisable skills. When new skills become important, such as computer programming, then the issue for capital is not necessarily the abolition of those skills (which it may ultimately achieve through artificial intelligence) but the undermining of their potential monopoly character by opening up abundant avenues for training in them.

“When the labour force equipped with programming skills grows from relatively small to super-abundant, then this breaks monopoly power and brings down the cost of that labour to a much lower level than was formerly the case. When computer programmers are ten-a-penny, then capital is perfectly happy to identify this as one form of skilled labour in its employ…” (pp. 119-120).

Now we can update that explanation by factoring in immigration. Harvey highlights increased access to training as means of increasing the numbers of skilled workers, but he misses — and this is odd, because he has worked in universities for most of his life — the fact that another key way to increase the numbers is by bringing in foreign students to undergo such training, and then retaining those foreign students, or otherwise importing specialists from abroad through formal immigration.

This is in fact a central plank in the platform of Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential run — around which silence generally prevails thanks to the diversionary tactics of political correctness that I mentioned above. Thus in Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation, we can read the following:

“Attract and Retain the Top Talent from Around the World:

“Our immigration system is plagued by visa backlogs and other barriers that prevent high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs from coming to, staying in, and creating jobs in America. Far too often, we require talented persons from other countries who are trained in U.S. universities to return home, rather than stay in here and continue to contribute to our economy. As part of a comprehensive immigration solution, Hillary would ‘staple’ a green card to STEM masters and PhDs from accredited institutions — enabling international students who complete degrees in these fields to move to green card status.

“Hillary will also support ‘start-up’ visas that allow top entrepreneurs from abroad to come to the United States, build companies in technology-oriented globally traded sectors, and create more jobs and opportunities for American workers. Immigrant entrepreneurs would have to obtain a commitment of financial support from U.S. investors before obtaining the visa, and would have to create a certain number of jobs and reach performance benchmarks in order to pursue a green card”.

Thus US students who acquired massive debts to gain degrees in STEM disciplines, will find it increasingly harder to get their heads above water when they have to compete with immigrants for a finite number of positions, or when their salaries drop as the availability of replacement workers increases. What Clinton is proposing is nothing very new: she would be formalizing and making more efficient the already existing realities of competition from foreign white-collar workers (see Munro, 2016).

At the root of capitalists’ power to depress wage levels, is the depression of employment opportunities. In the US case, it is not just the fact that immigrant workers are competing for jobs, it’s that they are also getting a disproportionate share of the available employment opportunities. Thus while foreign-born workers make up only 15% of all workers, they gained 31% of new jobs (see Kummer, 2015).

In Marx’s analysis, the interest of capitalists is in possessing a vast “industrial reserve army” in order to contain the ambitions of the employed (Harvey, 2014, pp. 79-80). And, as Harvey adds, “if such a labour surplus did not exist, then capital would need to create one” (p. 80). How would it do that? Harvey identifies two ways to create a labour surplus: technologically induced unemployment (automation), and opening access to new labour supplies (such as outsourcing to China) (p. 80). It is again peculiar that Harvey does not list another obvious option: expand the “domestic” supply of labour by importing labourers (immigration). Since immigration can play an important role in creating a labour surplus, then why not mention it?

So far we have talked about how immigration is used to break the monopoly power of labour, by expanding the domestic supply of labour, or by outsourcing. Harvey does mention in passing that immigration can serve as a spatial fix for the capitalist system, by redistributing surplus labour where it is needed most (p. 152). But spatial fixes of a contemporary kind appear in two forms — one of them is what we call outsourcing or offshoring (p. 148). Offshoring essentially makes workers subsidize capital — it is one of the absurdities of contemporary “free trade” that all sorts of government subsidies to workers are banned, but workers can be super-exploited at atrociously low wage levels that account for the competitive global cheapness of their products. That is a subsidy, just not a voluntary one, and not a state subsidy.

However, offshoring, where jobs go overseas, is just one way to increase competition among workers. A second method is what we might call onshoring: it’s not the jobs that go to meet workers overseas, it’s workers overseas who migrate to meet the jobs — immigration. Unfortunately, Harvey does not mention onshoring as part of a pair of options along with offshoring.

Historically, immigration has been used to depress the wages of workers in the receiving nation. This is especially true in the US case. As Paul Street recently explained,

“The ever-shifting supply and demand for labor power is a factor that holds no small relevance to the triumphs, trials and tribulations of the American working class past and present. As the leading left U.S. economist Richard Wolff explains, the long historical rise in real wages in the United States ended more than thirty years ago thanks to ‘the combination of computerization, exported jobs, women surging into the labor market, and a new wave of immigration…this time mainly from Latin America, especially Mexico and Central America….Capitalists from Main Street to Wall Street quickly realized that employers could slow or stop wage increases, given that supply now exceeded demand in the labor market…’

“If you don’t believe immigration is used by employers to depress living and working standards in the U.S., then take a job in any U.S. factory that has a significant number of unpleasant low-skill tasks. You will see your capitalist bosses keeping wages down and workers cowed and oppressed by (among other things) hiring immigrants whose experience of extreme poverty, violence, and other forms of misery in their lands of origin make them more than ready to work obediently and without outward complaint for $10 an hour or less in ‘modern manufacturing’”.

Nonetheless, “expert opinion” persists in creating the myth that immigration has no negative impact on workers.

Another key way that immigration can sustain capital has to do with the purchasing power of wages. As we have seen, it’s in the interest of capitalists to keep wages as low as possible. However, the contradiction that arises — and Harvey devotes considerable attention to this — is that lower wages means less money available to purchase goods, which shrinks market size, and reduces the profit gained by capitalists. So if workers all have less money, what to do to sustain demand? One option is to increase wages — bad. Another option is to increase credit, as is being done. A third option is to increase the total mass of workers — as is also being done. Workers may all have less money to spend, but by importing more workers, you have a greater number of people spending (however little). Thus immigration can help to sustain or even increase demand, without increasing wages (see p. 82).

“A phenomenal rate of growth in the total labour force,” Harvey writes, “would augment the mass of capital being produced even though the individual rate of return was falling” (p. 107). However, Harvey does not mention that one way to engineer a phenomenal growth in the total labour force is by fostering mass immigration, or tacitly allowing for large numbers of people to enter illegally. What Harvey does say is that immigration can help to support future economic growth, but it’s not clear how as soon after he says that, in the US case, “job creation since 2008 has not kept pace with the expansion of the labour force” and that the seeming decline in the unemployment rate instead reflects “a shrinkage in the proportion of working-age population seeking to participate in the labour force” (pp. 230-231). Again, he fails to consider the impact of millions entering the work force from abroad.

Why David Harvey would appear reticent about producing a focused critique of immigration, might be explained by one very peculiar line in his book, where he seems to blame the working class itself, and its attitudes toward others, for its own unemployment through offshoring:

“When a rising anti-immigrant fervour among the working classes grabbed hold, capital migrated to the Mexican maquilas, the Chinese and Bangladeshi factories, in a mass movement to wherever surplus labour was to be had”. (Harvey, 2014, p. 174)

What a disappointing statement. Suddenly, capital is no longer in charge, in this abrupt deviation from Harvey’s central narrative. It is the working classes that have somehow “grabbed hold”. How did they achieve such power as to grab hold of the very production processes that they never owned? And if the working classes had a cheerier view of competition from immigrant labour, would those jobs not have still gone overseas? Do capitalists make their decisions on where to gain the most profit, by first consulting workers on what they feel about others? I don’t know that there is any evidence at all that can remotely validate such an absurd conclusion.

Where Harvey might have found a more fruitful point of entry, in his own discussion, is where he wrote that “three of the most lucrative businesses in contemporary capitalism” are “trafficking women, peddling drugs or clandestinely selling arms” (p. 32). Trafficking “women”? Why not trafficking workers — as is the case with illegal immigration, which is exploited by human traffickers in far greater numbers than the trade in women alone? Either way, “open” or weak borders are a boon to the “three most lucrative businesses” of contemporary capitalism. The best way to maximize the growth in the total labour force is precisely by illegal means, because as should be obvious “illegal” means that the movement is:

  • unregulated by the state, and not subject to political debate;
  • unrestricted in volume; and,
  • the situation where workers cannot avail themselves of rights under labour laws.

In the frame of current political debates in the US, Harvey reminds us of some important points. One is that it was under the administration of President Bill Clinton that the US saw a vast increase in the number of poverty-ridden unemployed workers. In return, Harvey points out, “Clinton has been handsomely rewarded since by business organisations, earning some $17 million in 2012 from speaker’s fees mainly from business groups” (p. 176).

One of the many things shared in common between Bill and Hillary Clinton is therefore a consistent set of policy-making designed to ensure the growth of the “reserve army” of workers. Otherwise, with current debates in mind, there is little in the book to explain how Mexico, as an example, gains from the outflow of migrants to the US (producing remittances) along with the production of cheap goods for export. One would think this was important, because it disturbs established neo-Marxist models of the one-way flow of capital from the periphery to the centre — or maybe it doesn’t, but that is why further discussion would be useful.

Otherwise, Harvey does have some useful insights into how we are witnessing a conflict between “politics” and “economics” over migration policies (p. 156). By politics, he means the state, and the territoriality of state power, and by economics he means the interests of capital. As Harvey observes, “the constructed loyalty of citizens to their states conflicts in principle with capital’s singular loyalty to making money and nothing else” (p. 157). In what again should have been an opening for Harvey to reflect on immigration, he writes that, “affections and loyalties to particular places and cultural forms are viewed as anachronisms” which he follows by asking: “Is this not what the spread of the neoliberal ethic proposed and eventually accomplished?” (p. 277). Here we might revisit Naomi Klein’s comments above.

A less charitable argument about Seventeen Contradictions would be that the persistent reluctance of David Harvey in allowing his critiques to incorporate the realities of immigration is troubling, in part because it suggests a weakness not just in the analytical frame, but also in the ability or willingness to analyze. A more charitable argument would say that Harvey explicitly admits to leaving out race and gender among the contradictions he studies (p. 7), and therefore immigration might just be another of the contradictions he did not address. His reasoning is that race and gender conflicts are not specific to capitalism — and one might say that mass migrations of human populations long preceded capitalism too.

However, contemporary inter-state migration definitely is a phenomenon of the modern capitalist system, and thus his logic of exclusion would not apply, and I might add that his argument is also on particularly shaky grounds when it comes to racism (which is not a prehistoric form of labour discipline and discrimination).

Immigration: Serving the Owners of Votes

If you agree with Marx, that it’s in the interest of capitalists to possess a large reserve army of unemployed workers to keep wage levels down and to possibly break the back of collective labour organization, then you would not think that the creation of disposable workers was in any way new. (You also do not need to be a Marxist to agree with what is in fact an observation of reality.)

However, it should also be clear that in the US, Canada, and parts of Europe, deindustrialization that stems from free-trade deals has left many more unemployed than previously. The phenomenon of increased job loss due to globalized free trade is particular to neoliberal capitalism. Clearly for those benefiting from this state of affairs — the political and economic elites who rule this system to their own advantage — a crisis has set it in for them now that they experience a backlash from those they dispossessed.

Liberal democracy, a system of power, was only permitted once politics were divorced from economics, and voting did not appear to threaten the economic system (The Real World of Democracy by C.B. Macpherson, 1965, pp. 12, 13, 51). However, once dispossessed workers find a way to register their protests through elections, then that boundary begins to break down.

No wonder then that liberal democratic elites now routinely proclaim that we are witnessing today is the “suicide of democracy,” writing even in apocalyptic terms that “the end is nigh” and that “tyranny” is coming. What is at an end — because it had to be, it was so obviously irrational and unsustainable — is the “democratic elitist” system the rulers created that they hoped would preserve the economic system by removing popular politics (The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique by Peter Bachrach, 1980). Instead, voters now realize that in exceptional cases they can, in effect, cast a vote on globalization, free trade, and neoliberalism — as in the case of the UK’s Brexit vote and in the case of the Trump movement in the US.

(But who knew that the elites could be so delicate, and hysterical, that now when they are richer than ever before in human history any talk of a reduction in their ability to take more is conceived in terms of suicide and apocalypse?)

Otherwise liberal democracy never makes such questions about free-trade or immigration available for popular decision-making. It never meant to, as workers are held in deep disdain (see Krugman, 2016; Confessore, 2016). In the case of Brexit, there has been open disregard for democracy by those who voted for Remain — everything from calling on parliament to simply ignore the result of the referendum, to calling for a second referendum with a higher threshold for victory for Brexit to be possible, and both efforts have failed. Members of the metropolitan left have turned on the working class. That some of the advocates of Remain were motivated by the prospects of new quantities of cheap labour, is something that did not escape attention. The oligarchs are in deep trouble, and they would like the rest of us to save them.

An oligarchic system that is in trouble, looks for solutions of course. Having rendered the majority of existing workers disposable, the key lies in finding ways to also make them disposable as voters. Fortunately for the oligarchs, history offers them solutions. On the US State Department’s own website, there are lessons for regime survival from politicians who imported grateful immigrants as a new supply of voters. One of these cases concerns Guyana under the rule of Forbes Burnham and the People’s National Congress (PNC). With a working class divided between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese, with the latter supporting the opposition party and having greater numbers, what Burnham did was to import black immigrants from some of the nearby smaller islands of the Caribbean, who would vote PNC in thanks for Burnham’s patronage.

Similar things happened in Trinidad & Tobago, under the US-allied government of Eric Williams and the People’s National Movement (PNM). In this it was widely suspected that the large growth in the immigrant population from Grenada and St. Vincent boosted the PNM voter base.

In the US, there seems to be relief bordering on glee when Democrats can pronounce the decline in the number of white working class voters, and the rise in number of Hispanic voters — thanks to both immigration, both legal and illegal, which their policies helped to support. I would not argue that the current rulers of the US directly took hints on regime survival from states that used immigration to engineer new demographic bases of support — nor do I think that the logic is so exotic that it needs to be imported. Instead, the point is to understand how immigration is used as a tool for regime survival in an ethnically-divided nation.

An unusually wise insight came from one of the right-wing talk radio hosts in the US who, in mocking the political correctness of calling illegal immigrants “undocumented workers,” he instead called them “undocumented Democrats”.

“Open borders” provide the opportunity for extending the lifespan of an unpopular regime. The ruling elites realize that: (a) disposable workers are disposable voters, and, (b) that they can always import a new voter base, grateful for their patronage — as long as they can make their pro-immigration talk stick. This is where they turn to identity politics, the neo-tribal lobby, and righteous moral narcissism that exploits calculated expressions of outrage.

As the oligarchs turn to the rest of us to save them, many have fallen for the seductive, exploitative politics of identity and moral outrage. Some do so under the illusion that they are in some age-old fight against “fascism,” and they come to the fight appropriately armed with photos posted to social media of the classic Marxist texts from the 1800s and early 1900s that they are proudly reading. Others do so because once again they let instant emotional reactions guide them toward aims they barely perceive.

What is instructive is that the real Fascism did not take root in a nation that was experiencing high levels of immigration. Instead, it emerged in one of the world’s leading producers of emigrants: Italy, where the very concept of fascism was invented. Indeed, actually existing historical Fascism included a plan for colonization in order to settle and employ a burgeoning population at home — none of which describes Trump’s positions.

While immigration can sustain regime survival at home, it can also be a destabilizing factor when it stems from regime change abroad. Immigration was a leading factor motivating the recent Brexit victory in the UK (see Kummer, 2016a, for details). As some have explained, “British society has been transformed by a wave of immigration unprecedented in its history”: since the advent of Tony Blair’s government, “roughly twice as many immigrants arrived in the United Kingdom as had arrived in the previous half-century” (Salam, 2016a). As a result, some have argued that Brexit is a victory for Britain’s working class.

EU Poll - Immigration as top concern

Poll: most important issue facing the EU

In the European case, the aftermath of the massive inflow of refugees and migrants during the past two years, traveling via Turkey, Greece, and Libya, has not promoted stability for the dominant political class. Here we see European governments, some of which actively supported/support US regime change campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, reaping the blowback of a refugee influx.

Having created weakened states or virtual non-states in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, while severely undermining the Syrian state, the unprecedented levels of violence in those nations have generated massive refugee populations. For a while, it was possible to transfer the burden to nations little or least able to afford hosting refugees, such as Jordan, Turkey, and even a badly crippled Greece. Syria itself hosted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the US invasion.

Once a portion of the region’s refugee populations began to move northward, into the European Union, the ruling political elites effectively transferred the costs to the working class, by crowding them out of already reduced social services that have shrunk under austerity, and expecting them to be accommodating. Protests from the working class were then labelled “racist” and “xenophobic,” especially by supposed “progressives”. The point here ought not to have been whether those who can least afford making room for refugees and migrants should be welcoming or hostile — the point is that Western nations should not have created those refugee populations in the first place, as they did with their invasions, occupations, and bombing campaigns.

Conclusion: The Vanishing Left?

Thus far we have witnessed a number of cases where the left, broadly speaking, has abandoned any effort to articulate a critical perspective on immigration. We see it in cases such as,

  • the retreat of leftist politicians and activists from critiques of immigration, as with Naomi Klein and Bernie Sanders, who have either gone silent or reversed themselves;
  • the clear reluctance of Marxist academics like David Harvey in drawing obvious connections within their own work;
  • leftists denouncing working classes resisting the added austerity of losing access to health, education, and social services to make room for migrants; and,
  • political elites who try to appeal to the left, claiming to be progressives who support migrants from Mexico and Central America.

However, given the way immigration has been enmeshed in sustaining neoliberal capitalism, and given the current collapse of neoliberal rule, the left is threatening itself with extinction by following along the tracks of neoliberal politicians. “I won’t vote for a racist or bigot” can easily be translated as “I am saving the oligarchy”. What we may be witnessing in the West then is an even bigger historical turning point than some of us might have previously imagined—where the future will be shaped by the left’s absence from the future. Even if one is less pessimistic, the left could amount to little more than a residue, a legacy, that occasionally appears in the form of various surface appearances or a series of phrases and motifs, rather than a substantial social force.

Without a left, current left-right distinctions (which are already blurred and evaporating, on all sides) will become increasingly meaningless, especially as the right begins to take over key issues and concerns that were once the domain of the left. Taken a few steps further, in the US case what could happen is a new reversal: the Democrats will be more clearly positioned as the Party of Big Business, while the Republicans will become the Party of Workers, but in no absolute fashion as both parties are essentially multi-class alliances. Whatever left there may be, whatever left may mean, it will have to rework its alignments accordingly and write new core texts for itself.

The most important thing we should do now, in broad political terms, is to subject immigration to democratic decision-making. It needs to be debated thoroughly, and there should be broad public consultation. Simply shaming people into silence, with the aid of facile and sometimes hypocritical charges of “racism,” will not do as a substitute for democracy. The public needs to know how immigration can impact wages, prices, employment opportunities, social services, and union organizing — given that the subject is so deeply tied to economic, welfare, and trade policy.

At present in the US I suspect that, for too many on the left, the US should be held more answerable to non-US citizens for its immigration policy than to US citizens, and this is a harmful and irrational approach. In addition, too often immigration policy-making has been sequestered behind the closed doors of committees that are laced with influence from private interests, producing twisted and shady immigration programs, and deflecting debate until momentous turning points — by which time the political field has become so polarized, that debate proceeds only in the most absolute terms.

Finally, in terms of US foreign policy, what needs to be reversed is the decades-long practice of promoting the US internationally as a beacon, a model, the highest point of human achievement in wealth and development, that makes it the automatic choice of destination for so many, who choose it with little question and without knowing better.

Notes

  1. I confess that sometimes I find Harvey’s explanations and definitions to be murky — for example, at one point he defines capital in a manner that seems to include everything economic: capital is money, land, resources, factories, and labourers labouring (p. 73). If labour is capital, then how can there be a contradiction between capital and labour? At other moments, his distinction between capital and capitalism becomes cloudy, such that we may not know if he means a contradiction of capital, or a contradiction in capitalism — and the title of his book (“the end of capitalism”) does not help to make the case for the former. He says he is making a clear distinction between capital and capitalism, and where he says he does that he only offers his definition of capitalism (p. 7). So no distinction is actually offered, and nearly 70 pages later capital is defined basically as a thing or maybe as processes for making things — and since things do not make history, and processes are processes of something, it would seem that capitalism is what makes sense of capital. As I confessed, it was quite confusing. However, given the routine anthropomorphosis of capital in Harvey’s work, such that “capital” takes on human qualities of initiative, decision-making, and action, this suggests that he too might not be all that clear on when to write “capital” and when to write “capitalists”.

References

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  4. Forte, Maximilian C. (2016a). “The Wall: A Monument to the Nation-State”. Zero Anthropology, April 17.
  5. Forte, Maximilian C. (2016b). “Social Imperialism and New Victorian Identity Politics”. Zero Anthropology, July 30.
  6. Gilens, Martin, & Page, Benjamin I. (2014). “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”. Pre-publication draft, April 9.
  7. Greenfield, Jeff. (2016). “Doubts Start Creeping In for Democrats”. Politico Magazine, August 1.
  8. Guyana Times. (2015). “Letter to the Editor: Kamaluddin Mohamed did greater damage than good”. Guyana Times, December 14.
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  13. Kummer, Larry. (2016c). “A UK engineer explains: elites oppose Brexit because they import cheap workers”. Fabius Maximus, July 1.
  14. Limbaugh, Rush. (2015). “I’ve Been Properly Credited for Coining the Term ‘Undocumented Democrats’”. The Rush Limbaugh Show, December 22.
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  25. West, Patrick. (2016). “The post-Brexit ugliness of the left: Money-obsessed and anti-working class – the liberal left has revealed its ugly side”. Spiked, July 8.

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Maximilian ForteAbout the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numberous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading.

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

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4 thoughts on “An anthropologist explains the disruptive politics of immigration

  1. Big expose. No wonder it is so “quiet” lately in the political arena. Nice references to Kumer’s work. Open the Gates, “I’m saving the Oligarchy.”
    The Caravan is moving right along and even the dogs have given up barking.
    Goodness.

    Breton

    Like

  2. This is a wonderful critique of the Left’s contradictory position on immigration. One one hand, open borders are supplying them with vast numbers of “undocumented Democrats” who expect top-down government to provide them with social services (http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/hispanics-favor-bigger-role-for-government/ and who will reliably vote Democratic. On the other, foreign workers compete with the already stressed U.S. labor base. It is that latter factor that allowed the opening for Trump with the largely native-born constituency that now supports him.

    What really stands out is the disdain with which the elites hold the ordinary citizenry, immigrant and non-immigrant. They have a globalist perspective and are so out of touch that they don’t understand why everyone can’t see that it’s in their best interest to have a foreign-born gardener, maid, and nanny who will work for less than native-born.

    I also saw this attitude in action at an avionics factory that I previously worked at, where I was surprised at the low wages some of our foreign-born technicians were willing to work for. Of course, the donor class has the ear of both major parties, not only to keep immigration levels high, but to get special subsidies enacted into law as well.

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    1. Arms Merchant,

      “What really stands out is the disdain with which the elites hold the ordinary citizenry”

      I agree. Odd that it has taken so long for people to see this.

      “…are so out of touch that they don’t understand why everyone can’t see that it’s in their best interest”

      I disagree (we’re both just guessing, of course). They are winning, gaining power & wealth — while the rest of us have stagnating (or falling) real incomes, and lose political influence. Which group sounds “out of touch”, judging by results?

      This is a common perspective on the success of our elites, perhaps our compensation to our defeat (along with our passivity and alienation). Bankers who accumulated vast fortunes in the boom and bust are “stupid”. Our ruling elites — like the Clintons (now worth hundreds of millions) are fools, etc. Pitiful, but perhaps eventually we’ll do better in the future.

      Like

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