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What the anti-immigration Left gets wrong

Credit: by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Credit: by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

December 6, 2018   4 mins

You either like or loathe Angela Nagle, the controversial author of Kill All Normies. Once again she’s stirred up a storm on the Left, this time with an article for the American Affairs Journal, entitled ‘The Left case against Open Borders’.

In it she argues that left-wingers who advocate for ‘open borders’ are “useful idiots” for big business and neoliberalism. She says they are blinded by their bleeding-heart liberalism and do not understand how elites use mass immigration to hold down wages, and as a battering ram against the power of organised labour. She claims that in “acting on the correct moral impulse to defend the human dignity of migrants” the Left has ended up, intentionally or not, “effectively defending the exploitative system of migration itself.”

Unsurprisingly, the piece has provoked a fierce backlash, mainly, but not exclusively, from anarchists and libertarian socialists. Some have labelled Nagle a “crypto Strasserite” (named after the Strasser brothers who tried to give a pseudo ‘Left wing’ bent to Nazism in its infancy), others think she is a barely concealed white nationalist.

Nagle’s allies say that this reaction vindicates her point that the Left is incapable of having a reasoned and nuanced discussion on difficult questions like migration. Anyone who deviates, even slightly, from the utopian and absolutist orthodoxy of open borders is drowned out by a chorus of ‘racist’, ‘fascist’, ‘xenophobe’. Such a response is based on empty moralistic sloganeering, not rational argument. Let me offer some of the latter.

In my view, Nagle’s argument is indeed flawed, because she conflates the historical process of globalisation with the set of economic policies and orthodoxies that we call ‘neoliberalism’.  She is not alone in making this mistake, many on the Left (including some of Nagle’s critics) also see globalisation and neoliberalism as synonymous. But they are not.

Nagle is also wrong in claiming that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, “barriers to labor and capital came down all over the world.” Borders may have become more open for capital to expand globally, but the same can’t be said for labour. The number of border walls around the world has increased from 15 in 1990 to 77 now.  “We may live in an era of globalisation”, Reece Jones notes in his book, Violent Borders, “but much of the world is focused on limiting the free movement of labour”.

I do concede, however, that many Leftists who argue for freedom of movement do a dreadful job of it. There is a tendency to reduce the issue to a simplistic humanitarianism, in which emotion substitutes for serious consideration of the political and economic dimensions. I also dislike the way of thinking that denies migrants agency and treats them as objects of pity for self-righteous, privileged Westerners.

In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde explained why sympathy is not enough:

“[People] find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this… Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

“They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

“But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”

Likewise the ‘migration crisis’: our aim should not be to simply keep migrants alive and amuse them, but to reconstruct the global order so that desperate migrants are not trying to smuggle themselves into Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere.

So long as migrants are seen as poor victims, we will be addressing the symptoms, not the economic and geopolitical causes of their predicament. What is required is not a politics of pity and charity for the wretched of the earth, but a politics of solidarity and justice.

A serious discussion about freedom of movement must acknowledge that some people in this world, relatively speaking, already have free movement, while others don’t. I understood for the first time what ‘passport privilege’ meant when I found that I could travel more freely across Africa with my British passport than with my Nigerian one. Think about that, a European has more freedom of movement in Africa than a native-born African does.

Angela Nagle is by no means the only Leftist to entertain the idea of immigration restrictions. The established social democratic parties across Europe and America, panicked by the rise of national populism, have lurched to the Right on immigration to win back support from working class voters.

The key flaw in this approach is that it conflates the problems facing the working class with immigration, which only bolsters the national populists. Austerity, stagnating and declining wages, unemployment and political voicelessness have nothing to do with immigration – acting as if they do will only deepen the sense of grievance and pour fuel on the populist fire. The Left will lose if it chooses to play the national populists at their own game. What is needed is a new strategy.

I am very well aware, under the current circumstances, that freedom of movement is a minority position, and is not going to be instituted unless it has a democratic mandate. Unilaterally declaring ‘open borders’ is not viable option. But it is possible to push for a reformist immigration policy where immigration is liberalised, amnesties are rolled out and the ‘hostile environment’ rolled back. The argument for this can be won, and it is a policy but that can make a real difference.

The Left has to rethink its whole strategy if it is serious about reasserting itself politically. Mimicking anti-immigration populist sentiments and putting a pseudo-Left spin on them is not the answer. Rather, the way forward is to combine a liberal immigration policy with progressive social and economic reforms and a radical vision for a just global order. The false choice between the disintegrating liberal consensus and national populism has to be broken. A ‘third way’ is possible. The question is whether the Left is ready to rise to this challenge. I hope, for the sake of the working class – both native born and migrant, that it is.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.


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