More thoughts on immigration and the left
After a number of comments and conversations since my last post on the so-called “nationalist” left in Europe, I have two quick thoughts I want to add. First, some people have taken issue with my characterization of Sahra Wagenknecht and Aufstehen, her movement within the German left party Die Linke, as “anti-migrant.” I should clarify what I meant here. I don’t think Wagenknecht and her allies are “anti-migrant” in the way right-wing “anti-migrant” politicians are—that is, explicitly racist and/or xenophobic. Wagenknecht has disavowed “nationalism,” in her words, “declar[ing] yourself superior on the basis of your background … and denigrat[ing] other nations and cultures.” She has expressed support for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees within Germany. The only sense in which I want to suggest she can be accurately described as representing an “anti-migrant” left, are two beliefs that appear central to her existence as a relevant political figure:
Im Interesse eines globalen Raubtierkapitalismus billige Arbeitskräfte nach Europa zu holen, ist sicher keine linke Position. [Bringing cheap labor to Europe in the interests of predatory capitalism is no leftist position]. (From an interview with Die Berliner Zeitung)
[Preventing the rightward drift of European politics] includes addressing problems associated with immigration. I think it was a bad strategy for the Left to try and talk these problems out of existence or simply ignore them, thereby leaving them to the Right. (From an interview with Jacobin)
In essence, Wagenknecht believes immigration is bad for the left in political terms, since the right can easily whip up nativist frenzy that can’t be diffused by explaining rationally to people, for example, how immigrants are a boon to local economies. But Wagenknecht doesn’t appear to be interested in such explanations at all, since she also believes that immigration is bad, from a left perspective, in real socioeconomic terms, serving the interests of global capital at the expense of the European working classes. In this sense, she represents an “anti-migrant” left that is nonetheless not racist and sensitive to the human rights of asylum seekers.
This left critique of migration, of course, is not Wagenknecht’s alone, and David Adler is 100% correct to observe that both Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Jeremy Corbyn have at various points in their recent careers adopted very similar positions. The main reason I think it’s worth distinguishing her from her French and British counterparts is that Aufstehen is a movement within Die Linke that is at this point seen as more or less synonymous with left “anti-migrant” politics. Though Mélenchon’s La France insoumise and Corbyn’s Labour Party include many people who think along these lines, both institutions have been very publicly divided over what stance the left should take on immigration. For this reason, I am comfortable referring to Wagenknecht as an “anti-immigrant” left figure, while I find it more accurate to point to LFI and Labour’s incoherence, inconsistency, or uncertainty on these questions.
This whole discussion has assumed that Wagenknecht’s anti-migrant leftism is wrong. But if it’s not a racist position, and if it leaves room for human rights, it is perhaps not so obvious why it should be rejected. One answer would be to demonstrate empirically, for example, that these sorts of leftists are simply wrong that immigration from outside Europe or the United States depresses wages for “native” workers. But in the context of current politics, the more important assumption of what Adler calls “left nationalism” is that right-populists have successfully integrated their hostility to foreigners into the basic common sense. If this is true, it doesn’t matter what the economists say. The left has little choice but to accept restrictions on immigration, or at the very least, to refrain from pro-immigration rhetoric that might turn off independent voters turned susceptible to nativism. In this scenario, the “anti-migrant” or “nationalist” position is the “pragmatic” choice for leftists who might be more or less sympathetic to the plight of migrants, but who are afraid of being tarred as advocates of “open borders.” In the post-Brexit, post-Trump context, it is at least plausible that a pro-immigrant political program may be politically dangerous for the European and American left alike. In the US, this view has found adherents among American liberals and leftists, from Hillary Clinton to John Judis to Angela Nagle (who, though Irish, was clearly writing in the context of US politics).
But as I hinted before, the question of immigration should make us pause before concluding that the political conditions in America are identical to those in Europe, and for a very obvious reason: Donald Trump. If Trump was able to rise to the presidency largely by whipping up anti-immigrant furor among Republican primary voters, his attempts to do the same before last year’s Congressional elections (remember “the Caravan”?) were a visible failure. Whereas parties like the Rassemblement National and the Alternativ für Deutschland remain serious threats to center-right governments, Trump’s xenophobia appears to be a spent force—at least until some other Republican politician learns how to better organize it. Meanwhile, though the Democrats have long believed more or less unanimously that it is dangerous to depart from the rhetoric of “border security,” Trumpism has given them permission to take a more radical position. As the Trump Administration separates families, puts children in cages, and leaves federal workers without a paycheck in the attempt to build “The Wall,” even the moderate 2020 contenders will have a hard time calling for “pragmatic” bipartisan solutions to “secure the border.” Citizenship for “Dreamers,” rather than simply “deferred action,” is now a Democratic sine qua non. And now that the Democrats have an energized left wing, questions that once seemed utterly crazy, like supporting “open borders” in all earnestness, have entered public discussion.
The political conditions in the United States, in other words, have produced the beginnings of a serious reflection how Western democracies should think about borders and citizenship in the twenty-first century. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote recently in the New York Times, not only will “global migration … almost certainly increase in the coming years as climate change makes parts of the planet uninhabitable,” but also, “technology and globalization are complicating the idea of what a border is and where it stands.” Donald Trump is the perfect symbol of the irrationality of thinking in this context that mass migration is a “problem” that can be “solved” by crude solutions, whether a wall at the Rio Grande or “rescue” arrangements with the Libyan Coast Guard. With no Trump to fill that role, Europe’s politics have not produced the same discussion. Strange as it may sound, the American conversation on immigration may in fact have something to teach Europe.