My stance on international migration has probably earned me more criticism in recent times than just about anything else. At one extreme, I was taken to task by a commentator on here a couple of years ago for not endorsing the ‘obvious’ point that Britain should deport people on a ‘last in, first out’ basis until the population more closely approximated a plausible long-term carrying capacity. At the other extreme, when I said in a talk I gave recently that international migration was ‘an issue’, I was taken to task by an audience member for implicitly accepting the framing of immigration by the political right – so in this view, immigration is only ‘an issue’ if one chooses to define it as such. And at the middle extreme, I was also taken to task here recently in the context of my criticisms of Jane O’Sullivan’s dubious take on population, poverty and immigration for failing to offer policy proposals for limiting immigration that matched O’Sullivan’s ‘pragmatism’ (not the word I’d choose…)
International migration, then, is controversial every which way you choose to look at it. So let me take a deep breath and try to define a pragmatism of my own around the issue (or the ‘issue’, if you prefer). Pressure of other work has prevented me from working this up quite as fully as I’d like – please accept my apologies.
My starting position is that I don’t particularly welcome large-scale global migration as a good thing in itself. I welcome small-scale migration, because a little bit of churn, some cross-fertilization of people’s minds (and bodies) strikes me as a good tonic for humanity. And I dislike guards, high wire fences, passports, visas and all the paraphernalia of border control – partly because it offends the libertarian part of my soul that thinks people should be able to go more or less where they please, partly because these border control dynamics are the sharp end of what Kapka Kassabova calls “the countless ways in which nationalism doesn’t work” in her superb evocation of the Balkan borderlands (once geared to containing people within Eastern Europe, now geared to keeping people out of it)1, and partly because I find the misery inflicted around borders unconscionable at a simple human level . But ultimately I don’t regard large-scale human movement as an especially positive thing in itself. I’d prefer to see a world where almost everyone can choose to go where they please, and where most people choose to stay more or less where they’re from. So I’d endorse what Jahi Chappell called in a comment on this site ‘the human right not to have to migrate’. Why shouldn’t every place where anyone comes from be, for them, the best place in the world to be?
But meanwhile in the real world about 257 million people globally live in a country other than the one of their birth. Does that constitute ‘large-scale’ migration? Well, at about 3% of the entire global population it’s not as large as some folks would have you believe, but it’s still a lot of people – and of course the distribution of these migrants globally isn’t uniform. At around 50 million, the USA has the largest number of international migrants by a distance. My country, the UK, comes in sixth with about 9 million. Contrast that with, say, Vietnam – a mere 76,000 migrants, or 0.1% of its population. The graph below shows international migrants as a percentage of the total population for the world’s countries ranked by GDP per capita from lowest GDP at the left of the x-axis to highest GDP at the right.
% International migrants by country ranked by GDP per capita
Source: World Development Indicators and UN International Migration Report3
The graph shows pretty clearly that migrants tend to go to the economically wealthy countries. Here’s where the politics kicks in. If you think that the wealthy countries
(a) have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps
(b) suffer economically as a result of international in-migration
(c) have something called an ‘indigenous population’ which is unproblematically identifiable and bears superior civic rights over migrants
then chances are you’ll not be keen on international migration. But if, like me, you think that the wealth of the rich countries is bought to a considerable extent through the poverty of the poorer ones, or that the crises of war, famine and militarized global resource extraction that impel migration are compounded by global power politics dominated by the rich countries, then the case for migration from poor to rich countries is harder to gainsay, regardless of its other implications. Perhaps I’d add in passing that those of us who try to make the case for small-scale farming are inured to the counter-arguments that ‘nobody wants to farm any more’ and that peasants have ‘voted with their feet’ by moving from the impoverished countryside to the more remunerative cities. Neither of these assertions are entirely true, but it’s funny how this ‘voting with their feet’ line of argument seems to dry up at the border, when those people who were extolled for ‘voting with their feet’ in their search for a better life in the richer city are suddenly demonized when they ‘vote with their feet’ by seeking a better life in a richer country.
Anyway, my preferred political solution to the ‘issue’ of international migration would start through rigorous control of global capital flows, so that the ability of capital to create value is largely restricted to where it’s generated. This would incentivize capital to serve the creation of sustainable local livelihoods, and remove at a stroke a large part of the incentives for migration from poor to rich countries, because the difference between them would narrow – which is not, of course, the outcome that those wanting to sustain ‘our’ quality of life in the rich countries seek, but it’s the more ethical outcome, and ultimately the more sustainable one.
But it’s not going to happen, is it? There’s no internationalism in the politics of the rich countries, no political force impelling us to limit our depredations on other countries, on the biosphere and ultimately on ourselves except self-serving fantasies that the poor countries will be able to ‘develop’ in the future just as the rich ones did in the past (but more sustainably). Until there is, I’d express my views on international migration at a human level in this blessing to those on the lowest rung of the migrant ladder, the undocumented: may you be invisible to every border guard, slip through every obstacle placed in your way, find a safe, warm berth in every truck or ship you try to stow away in, reach the place that you seek and achieve the life you dream of.
But, human empathy aside, I spy some wider political possibilities in emerging patterns of global migration. Let me broach them with reference to the conservative political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), who I mentioned briefly in a recent post. Schmitt permanently disgraced himself by allying with the Nazis but has nevertheless remained influential among thinkers of various political stripes. Famously, he defined the political as the realm of pure sovereign decision (the law doesn’t define or circumscribe the sovereign – the sovereign defines the law) which is articulated against an enemy and around a political community of friendship.
A vast amount of political energy has been expended around the world in the past couple of centuries in trying to make the physical borders of any number of sovereign states coterminous with a concept of ‘the nation’ as an organic community of friendship. This nationalist invention of the nation has been enormously successful, but as per Kassabova mentioned above, it can never completely succeed – the binary of the border always masks ambivalences. For his part, Schmitt didn’t claim an inherent equivalence between his concept of ‘friendship’ and national identity. So let me offer you a narrative of how global migration might play out in the future through a Schmittian lens.
Take, for example, the migrant caravan that’s been so exercising President Trump, which has been impelled among other things by the effects of climate change in Central America. At present, the USA will find it easy to repulse the migrants from its borders and to demonize them as undesirables. But there will be more caravans in the future – in the USA, in Europe, in anywhere offering an obvious portal away from danger and poverty and towards the possibility of greater wellbeing.
Chances are, some of these future caravans will be better armed than present ones, and will come with a well-developed theory about the sources of their troubles which is likely to make them mightily pissed off with the rich countries they’re trying to enter. They will bring their own sovereignty with them, they will not be impressed by immigration control policies and it is not foreordained that they will lose all their skirmishes at the border. Over the next thirty years, 140 million people may be forced to migrate as a result of climate change, and many millions more may decide to ‘vote with their feet’ in search of a better life no matter that rich westerners dismiss them as mere ‘economic migrants’.
So it seems likely that those who want to keep migrants out of the wealthy countries are going to have their hands full in the years to come trying to stop the dam from bursting. Currently, this brigade has powerful political friends in the form of wealthy, faux-populist politicians like Donald Trump and Britain’s merry band of Tory Brexiteers for whom immigrants are a convenient scapegoat for the spiraling inequalities of their own economic policies. They’re happy to ramp up the rhetoric of the national community of ‘friends’ on this side of the border holding the line against the ‘enemies’ pressing in from the other. If they’re smart, they’ll back this up with redistributive policies that put some money where their mouths are and provide tangible support for the ‘hard-working families’ that they seek to co-opt into this discourse of nationalist ‘friendship’. This may buy them some time, but it’ll be difficult to do because global capital demands its returns, and economic power is ebbing from them. If they don’t redress inequality, I suspect the fiction of national friendship will unravel. As the contradictions multiply, the rhetoric will no doubt amplify into increasingly militaristic, grievance-laden and ultra-nationalist doctrines about a people’s destiny and the enemies of the nation, including ‘enemies within’ who aren’t signed up to the program. Well, nationalism fools a lot of people, but following Lincoln’s “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time” dictum, I’d like to think that this ultra-nationalism – whose harbingers we’ve already seen in outline from the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers – may not sway enough of the people, and will in any case offer such an unattractive vision of social life that the ‘friends’ within may start to wonder if they wouldn’t be better off jumping ship in favor of the ‘enemy’ barbarians at the gate, who they may have more in common with.
All of this will probably be compounded by political change in the countries of the ‘semi-periphery’, especially ones on the doorstep of the core countries, like Mexico and Turkey. Currently, these semi-peripheral countries have a stake in cosying up to the core as a way of improving their own economic status, but in the world to come the current pretense that ‘developing’ countries can become ‘developed’ will be exhausted. Who knows what turbulent politics and desperate allegiances may arise in these Manichean circumstances? What seems clear is that Jane O’Sullivan’s view that keeping migrants out of rich countries like Australia in order to preserve ‘our’ quality of life may not be a wise long-term bet. If you follow her line, throw in your lot with the nationalists, and then find yourself on the wrong side of the ensuing (literal or figurative) war then a Schmittian fate might await you – you have become the enemy of the new sovereign power. Of course, you may find yourself with the nationalists on the winning side, which is fine for you if you can bear to live in the country they’ll create and don’t overly care about those outside your tent. Either way, there’s no hiding place and no second guessing the outcome. And the stakes are bigger than sustaining ‘our’ quality of life, both personally and collectively. So I won’t enter the lists of the debate as to whether international migration is a net positive or negative under current economic realities, because I think it’s irrelevant to the socioeconomic realities that will soon be upon us, and it’s sure as hell irrelevant to the migrants.
Over the longer pulse of human history it seems clear to me that we need to create societies more strongly grounded in sustainable local economic potentialities, with less liquid capital held as a bet against the future. One way this might occur is with the kind of anti-nationalist alliances with incoming migrants I mentioned above, where established local populations make ‘friends’ with incoming migrants against the ‘enemy’ of extractive elite state actors who are giving little back – probably in circumstances like the ‘supersedure state’ that I’ve discussed elsewhere, where the provision of state services is in retreat and people are making politics up as they go along using political traditions like civic republicanism, the more so under the impress of new arrivals who further scramble existing property relations and help build the impetus for local self-reliance. Am I being naïve? Of course I am – in many places, this kind of situation will be a recipe for naked conflict, and the chances that capitalist meltdown alongside an uptick in migrant flows won’t lead to bloodshed anywhere seem minimal. That remains true whatever immigration policies rich countries now enact. But, as historically with Kassabova’s Balkan borderlands, the periodic reassembly of peoples and political economies does sometimes occur and create new political constellations. These are the moments when Schmitt’s realm of sovereignty goes soft and malleable – a time to forge new friendships and sever ties with old state actors whose friendly mask has slipped.
In these circumstances, people who find ways of sharing the possibilities and the skills for creating local livelihoods will bring more to the table than people who want to defend their local culture against incomers (culture is inherently fluid in any case – once you feel the need to ‘defend’ it, you’ve almost certainly lost the battle, or are hiding an economic agenda that has little to do with ‘culture’ as such). This is why in relation to recent discussions of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’ I’d frame the responsibility of migrants not in terms of some ineffable cultural criteria or oath of loyalty but a more republican sensibility, laid out by Iseult Honohan, of “a declared and evident intention to remain living in the country. Immigrants should make the attempt to adapt to their adopted country, not so much because they are ‘last in’, but because they need to make their future together with other citizens, rather than just coexist with them”2.
In the kind of world I’m describing, the way to make a future together will be to build a resilient economy together – to grow food and fiber, to make shelter, to build institutions. This will involve common material practice – an easier basis to make common cause with others than some reified notion of one’s ‘culture’. And this also must be the answer to the objection that immigrants will create too much pressure on local resources. In most places, labor is still the key resource that brings forth the capacity to provide for ourselves.
Presently, ‘centrist heavyweights’ among politicians seem to be falling over themselves to endorse the anti-immigrant line of the right-populists in order to regain influence, since they lack any political analysis of the global forces behind inequality and migration. Much the same goes for those thinkers and writers who lack a political analysis of the global forces behind poverty, population growth and international migration. I think these positionings will be blown away by the more radical political dynamics that are impending. Perhaps it says something when the best centrist soundbite comes from Emmanuel Macron: “Nationalism is inherently treasonous. In saying ‘our interests first, and forget the others’, we lose the most important part of the nation: its moral values.”
- Kassabova, K. 2017. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta, p.139.
- Honohan, I. 2002. Civic Republicanism. Routledge, p.287.