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Utopia Talk / Politics / The Marxist case against open borders
Sat Jul 11 15:33:08
As the readers of my blog know, the opinions I express here are strictly non-partisan and non-ideological. My main interest is to go where science leads. Ideological thinking is different from science in that in science data triumphs over theories. Ideologues, on the other hand, can ignore or twist facts to suit their theoretical predispositions (see, for example, An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution).

But it doesn’t mean that everything coming from an ideological camp is wrong. Take Marxism. I realize that it is now used in certain quarters as a label for “bad people”, but here I mean by it just the philosophical ideas of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their followers.

My own attitudes towards it went through quite wild swings over my life time. I grew up in the Soviet Union, where I was force-fed Marxism in school, so I took a very dim view of the ideas of Marx and Engels. But when I switched from studying ecology to human societies, I realized that there were interesting and valid ideas in Marx’s theory. The main problem for Marx and Engels, I now tend to think, was that they worked with a very limited empirical material (for example, they didn’t have the Seshat Databank!). I now acknowledge Marxian contributions to the structural-demographic theory (together with other important thinkers, such as Malthus, Durkheim, Weber). Furthermore, I found ideas from a number of contemporary Marxian thinkers to be useful in illuminating various aspects of how our complex societies function. As an example, see my use of Kitty Calavita’s “structural model of the capitalist state” in Chapter 10 of Ages of Discord.

A more recent example is Angela Nagle’s The Left Case against Open Borders. This title seems to be a self-contradictory “oxymoron”. As Nagle notes,

In the heightened emotions of America’s public debate on migration, a simple moral and political dichotomy prevails. It is “right-wing” to be “against immigration” and “left-wing” to be “for immigration.” But the economics of migration tell a different story.

Of course, economics is only one of the considerations that should inform public policy on immigration. It has become a hugely emotional issue. As Nagle writes,

With obscene images of low-wage migrants being chased down as criminals by ICE, others drowning in the Mediterranean, and the worrying growth of anti-immigrant sentiment across the world, it is easy to see why the Left wants to defend illegal migrants against being targeted and victimized. And it should. But acting on the correct moral impulse to defend the human dignity of migrants, the Left has ended up pulling the front line too far back, effectively defending the exploitative system of migration itself.

What I want to do, as I often do in this blog, is to follow Nagle and look below the surface to structural issues—economics, but even more deeply, power.

The economic argument is very clear. Massive immigration increases the supply of labor, which in turn depresses its cost—in other words, worker wages. Clearly, such development benefits the consumers of labor (employers, or “capitalists”) and disadvantages the workers.

Of course, immigration is only one of the many forces affecting wages. I explore this issue in a blog series, Why Real Wages Stopped Growing, with the summary in the fourth post, Putting It All Together (Why Real Wages Stopped Growing IV). My conclusion is that immigration was a significant contributor to the stagnation/decline of the wages in the USA over the past several decades, although not the only one. Unless there are strong institutions protecting workers’ wages, an oversupply of labor is going to depress them—it is simply the law of supply and demand in action.

As Nagle points out, this was clear to Karl Marx, who

expressed a highly critical view of the effects of the migration that occurred in the nineteenth century. In a letter to two of his American fellow-travelers, Marx argued that the importation of low-paid Irish immigrants to England forced them into hostile competition with English workers. He saw it as part of a system of exploitation, which divided the working class and which represented an extension of the colonial system.

It was also clear to those, who were negatively affected—the workers and their organizations:

From the first law restricting immigration in 1882 to Cesar Chavez and the famously multiethnic United Farm Workers protesting against employers’ use and encouragement of illegal migration in 1969, trade unions have often opposed mass migration. They saw the deliberate importation of illegal, low-wage workers as weakening labor’s bargaining power and as a form of exploitation. There is no getting around the fact that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced. Open borders and mass immigration are a victory for the bosses.

In fact, popular opposition to unrestricted immigration goes farther back in the American history. In 1854 the anti-immigrant Native American Party (“Know-Nothings”) achieved a stunning victory in several states that were most affected by the arrival of immigrants from Europe, carrying 63 percent of the vote in Massachusetts, 40 percent in Pennsylvania, and 25 percent in New York.

This 1888 cartoon in Puck attacks businessmen for welcoming large numbers of low-paid immigrants, leaving the American workingman unemployed

And, not surprisingly, the American economic elites also were very well aware that a continuing influx of immigrants allowed them to depress worker wages and increase the returns on capital. Andrew Carnegie in 1886 compared immigration to “a golden stream which flows into the country each year”. During the nineteenth century the corporate community often used the American state to ensure that this “golden stream” would continue to flow. For example, in 1864 (during the Lincoln administration) Congress passed the Act to Encourage Immigration. One of its provisions was the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Immigration, whose explicit intent was “the development of a surplus labor force” (italics are mine).

The business leaders today are much more circumspect about these issues. But one wonders, how many of them think in the same terms, even if they don’t speak publicly about it, instead choosing to emphasize the humanitarian aspects of migration.

To strip Nagle’s main argument to its essence, globalization is wielded by the governing elites to increase their power at the expense of the non-elites. It redistributes wealth from workers to the “bosses”. Some of that extra wealth is then converted into greater political power for big business. Furthermore, antagonism between native and immigrant workers corrodes their ability to organize. As a result, Nagle argues,

Today’s well-intentioned activists have become the useful idiots of big business. With their adoption of “open borders” advocacy—and a fierce moral absolutism that regards any limit to migration as an unspeakable evil—any criticism of the exploitative system of mass migration is effectively dismissed as blasphemy.

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