Kicking down

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When it comes to immigration, you may be surprised to know that I actually agree that it isn’t an untrammeled good. I also don’t entirely buy arguments that border controls are prima facie illegitimate: in the “bigger picture”, they are indeed barbaric, but at the moment, the nation-state is the only level at which popular sovereignty holds even theoretically, and then only in some parts of the Earth.

But that doesn’t mean that punitive immigration regimes, for the most part, even accomplish what they’re advertised to accomplish. We hear a lot from right-wing populists in certain countries about the evil of immigrants taking more than they are giving. In the UK, this has taken the form of right-wing populists complaining about immigration from new, poorer EU members, who can take advantage of the non-negotiable EU free labour movement provisions — which are supposed to be an essential element of the treaties, quite apart from the Schengen visa regime for the continent, and the people-friendly counterpart of European free trade. It is of course ironic that the UK was one of the backers of said expansion, precisely as part of a ploy to hobble Brussels, and, as an aside, ended up playing directly into the hands of Germany et al.

But now we find that some economists (I know, I know) have calculated that the complaints about illegal immigrant sponges are, on the whole, way off the mark, at least in the UK. I won’t quibble with the calculations because, well, economism, and it is probably a different number every Thursday afternoon. But I can well believe that immigrants are typically a net plus when observed over the whole economy, particularly for the UK.

However, it is the net part of net plus that is the problem here. We live in a society where economic gains are distributed increasingly unequally. So even if immigrants are a net plus to the whole economy, it is more than likely that they are a visible minus to large portions of the population, largely because they are deprived of the gains therefrom just as they have been almost wholly robbed of the labour-liberating fruits of technology.

Hence UKIP and the Tory right. The correct response to the unequal distribution of gains from immigration (where unequal means: some people lose…) is to return to a more equitable distribution. That being now a near-unbreakable taboo in practice, the economic elite have decided to encourage a certain amount of kicking down to discharge the discontent and negative energy. This is in keeping, in general, with the practice of using right-wing populism in order to keep left-wing populists off their backs. It requires a certain amount of confidence in their ability to ride the tiger, because, of course, they don’t actually intend to stop reaping the benefits of immigration.

Quite the contrary. Where the economic elite can get away with it, punitive immigration policy usually leads to an underclass of desperate un(der)documented people, and when this is too difficult to obtain, a “Temporary Foreign Worker” programme to explicity generate this, as in Canada. And the only solution is organized labour and worker solidarity, not the divisive politics of resentment of the foreigner.

But this situation can only last insofar as the elite can “ride the tiger” of right-wing populism. We all know how dangerous a gambit this is. It’s rarely a good idea to encourage a mob of people to kick down, if your goal is overall human enlightenment and advancement. If your goal is barbarism and chaos, well, I suppose, go wild.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on November 9, 2014 12:34 PM.

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