I hope I’m not over-labouring the issue of immigration, it’s a perennial interest of mine, but I saw a few recent posts about and felt moved to comment.
Firstly, I found, via. Womanist Musings, the story that volunteers leaving sealed jugs of water in the Arizona desert to be found be illegal immigrants trying to cross the desert (the idea being that they not, you know, die) have been arrested. For littering.
What this reminded me of is the way we formulate “we need to-“. Such as in “we need to have limits on immigration”. When the necessity is not literal (as in, it’s quite possible not to do this, there’s no physical force that compels the state against their will), what this relies on is “not doing so will produce unacceptable consequences”. So in this case, it’s that “not putting limits on immigration will have unacceptable consequences”. Not just bad ones (which would imply “we should X”, not “we need to X”) but unacceptable ones.
Which poses the question – how do ‘we’ decide what’s acceptable? Let’s set aside the fact that most anti-immigration narratives of these consequences are factually implausible (and in a racist way) – such as the idea that the entire global south will up sticks and travel to some first world country if they think they can get in, or that any larger flows of immigrants will in some sense ‘destroy’ the natives because people of different races and cultures can’t live together in peace.
Let’s set that aside and ask what qualifies as unacceptable? Would it be, say, hundreds of deaths? Thousands of deaths? Hundreds of thousands? Because there are that many people dying already because of controls on migration. Is that ‘unacceptable’? Of course not. And as this news story shows, the state, and many of its citizens, not only accept those deaths, they go out of their way to prevent their prevention.
So some hypothetical fiscal disorder or economic disruption is unacceptable; daily deaths are acceptable. Why might that be? Could it be that some people’s deaths are more unacceptable than others? That some people’s lives are treated as worth less? Surely not!
The other articles were here, here, and here. The first two articles are much broader than simply immigration, talking about leftwing organisation, the British National Party, and such like things. But the theme that comes out of both, and is responded to in the third, is that a lot of people are unhappy about immigration and that the left needs to respond to this by dropping its ‘politically correct’ stance on the issue – with the implication that this may mean, among other things, supporting tighter limits on migrants’ rights.
Now I think there’s something true here and something false here. What’s true is that the left’s attitude to immigration-related issues, and to issues of communal identity, is often quite weak, and that it often has more resonance among idealistic cosmopolitan students like me than among anyone else.
But I don’t think socialists should ditch a liberal approach and then take up a conservative one, that would involve ‘occasionally wrapping ourselves in the flag’ and supporting deportations and imprisonment without trial. Partly this is about confidence – does socialism offer a more convincing solution to the problems that are currently being ignored? If not, then we might as well go join the libdems. If so, then why do we need to ape the tories?
Public services, for example, are something that native workers and immigrants have a lot of shared interests in, both as consumers and as providers. On the key issue of employment, it’s definitely true that the way immigration is happening at the moment is fulfilling capitalist hopes that it weaken the working class – but united actions by both natives and immigrants (ideally in multiple countries), refusing to accept either their own exploitation or those of their competitors, is a more viable long-term answer than the Quixotic and, to be frank, incipiently fascist goal of exerting state control over mass movements of ordinary people responding to shared economic necessity.
On the more nebulous issues of identiy and cohesion, there’s no reason to accept that patriotism and anomie are the only alternatives. Socialism itself has a tradition and an identity, one that can appeal to people from all countries and look back on centuries, if not millenia, of ‘heritage’, from Spartacus to the German Spartacists. It has a history of providing the material content for this, clubs, buildings, mutual support – not to mention songs and words and symbols. Of course that heritage requires critical engagement, debate over what it does and doesn’t include, and openness to the future and to new movements, but so does every other.
The real issue is that this sort of response is so weak, the necessary sense of possibilities and confidence so comprehensively demolished. Without it, atomised people can only direct their resentment onto either the irrational, and malevolent, symbols of ‘the Nation’, or onto the strictly rational but unsatisfying cosmopolitanism of ‘diversity’ without community.
How to restore it is the trillion-dollar question, and I don’t have much in the way of answers. But I can at least say that dissatifaction with one set of inadequate responses shouldn’t push us towards another.