In late 2007, the world order teetered and almost fell. The contradictions of economic growth predicated on financial speculation at ever-increasing levels of abstraction were exposed when a collapse of consumer debt made unsustainable by decades of wage stagnation triggered a crisis in the banking system that spread outward from the United States to the global economy. Politicians scrambled to bail out the banks, and total chaos was averted.
But the cost to ordinary citizens was immense. Those who did not lose their jobs in the ensuing recession had to shoulder the tax burden amassed by the trillions spent in bailouts; those who did not lose their homes in mortgage defaults saw the value of those houses plummet. And – depending on whether the changing of the political guard in various countries resulted in the centre-right taking over, as in the UK, or in the centre-left, as in the US – the populace were treated either to stimulus spending at homeopathic dosage followed by austerity, or full-blooded ’savage cuts’ to public spending that deepened and lengthened the recession.
(Australia was one of the few countries largely unscathed by the global financial crisis, thanks to Chinese demand for its raw materials, and stimulus measures aimed, sensibly, at those sections of the population most likely to spend them and thus boost the economy; the current level of household debt combined with a slump in house prices, however, suggest that it might be more a case of crisis deferred than averted.)
One might have assumed, given the longstanding critique of the global financial system from the left, that the obscene injustice of these results ought to have given left-wing politics an enormous boost in public support. Certainly, public opinion in many countries has turned decisively against the centre, although the coordinates are relative rather than absolute: the swell in support – surely unthinkable but for the aftermath of the global financial crisis – for the 2016 presidential candidature of Bernie Sanders obscured the fact that his policy platform was broadly in line with the traditional parties of European social democracy who have experienced a virtual wipe-out. But in many cases, public wrath has resulted in gains in the opposite direction: populism of the right, whether in the form of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, or the unholy alliance of Matteo Salvini’s far-right Northern League with the eccentric Five Star Movement. How might we explain this phenomenon?
For Angela Nagle, best known for her 2017 book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, the left has taken a wrong turn, and needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. An earnest ‘new generation of liberal left-identitarians’, obsessed with measuring relative degrees of privilege and policing speech codes, is locked in a symbiotic relationship with new mutations of far-right ideology disgorged from the meme factories of online trolls.
Nagle argues that this latest incarnation of left politics, having abandoned the economic arguments that might help a mass coalition of working people assemble in their common interest against the elite that continues to exploit them, leaves the general public at best baffled by an increasingly esoteric discourse of micro-aggressions and intersectionality, or alienated by charges of privilege that they do not recognise or accept.
In a recent article for American Affairs, Nagle claims that the liberal-left position on immigration reflects its elite detachment from the concerns of ordinary people: the American workers whose livelihoods are threatened by an influx of cheap labour, those left behind in the countries that suffer from the emigration of their young people, and immigrants themselves, especially the undocumented, whose desperation is exploited by corporations. She writes of a ‘convergence between the open-borders Left and the “respectable” pro-business Right’, a dovetailing of ostensibly opposing wings of American politics that operates in a pincer movement of big business interests that want a supply of cheap labour, and ‘moral blackmail’ from the liberal left, who brand every opponent of mass migration a racist. This she identifies as an intolerable elite consensus that, absent a left alternative that affirmed public support for border control, drove the public into the arms of Trump:
The truth is that mass migration is a tragedy, and upper-middle-class moralizing about it is a farce. Perhaps the ultra-wealthy can afford to live in the borderless world they aggressively advocate for, but most people need—and want—a coherent, sovereign political body to defend their rights as citizens.
Nagle urges the left to follow the example of certain anti-immigration trade unionists of the mid twentieth century and, as an alternative to Trump’s proposed border wall, ‘support efforts to make E-Verify mandatory and push for stiff penalties on employers who fail to comply’.
There is much to criticise in Nagle’s piece. Justin Akers Chacón points out that her argument rests on the claim that ‘barriers to labor and capital came down all over the world’, which is only half true: capital can flow freely around the world, but the migration of workers is heavily restricted by states, not to end migration altogether but to facilitate ‘super-exploitation of immigrant labor through criminalization’. The very policies that Nagle calls for – state-mandated employer checks on workers’ immigration status – have been shown to depress those workers’ wages. Taylor Scollon sums it up well: union power is undermined by undocumented immigrants ‘not because … they are immigrants, but because they are undocumented.’
But what of Nagle’s argument that ‘open borders have no public mandate’, that neglect of public opinion on the issue by the traditional parties of both left and right has driven the rise of right-wing populism?
Claims about public opinion tout court should be treated sceptically: the opinions of people are neither static nor monolithic. In fact, according to Gallup’s polling, support among Americans for an increase in immigration is currently at its highest level, 28%, since the question was first polled. Those wishing for a decrease are only a single percentage point higher, while a plurality, 39%, believe it is at about the right level.
This does not fit the narrative of elite betrayal – unless one is inclined to categorise two-thirds of the United States population as an ‘elite’. It also seems that people who lives in areas with little immigration are more likely to dislike the idea – in the abstract, one might say – than those who live in areas with a higher proportion of immigrants, and thus direct experience of the phenomenon. Chris Lawton and Robert Akrill’s analysis of the data demonstrates that, in the Brexit vote, ‘high proportions of Leave voters were overwhelmingly more likely to live in areas with very low levels of migration’.
The desire to curb freedom of movement between the UK and the rest of Europe was not the only factor in determining the Brexit vote, but it does not seem too much of a stretch to characterise Londoners, who are used to arrivals from all over the world, as (on average) far more relaxed about migration than (on average) inhabitants of small towns and villages who had not had much exposure to migration. The outliers to this trend, such as the Lincolnshire town of Boston (which had the highest proportion of Leave voters and also a relatively high immigrant population), are also instructive: Boston experienced an anomalously rapid rate of immigration, an increase of 467% in a decade, resulting in a lack of integration between communities.
While, as Nagle rightly describes, economic migration is most often a bitter wrench both for the migrant and for the depleted communities left behind, and cultural clashes can occur between groups, the political implications of this effect is that the movement of labour makes bottom-up internationalism possible. Indeed, the glory days of American unions to which Nagle harkens back were greatly strengthened by the influx of ’immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean’, as Chacón notes. The condition of migrant workers is such that they cannot look to ‘a coherent, sovereign political body to defend their rights as citizens’.
This is the paradox in Nagle’s prescriptions: she wants to embrace the legacy of workers organising to secure their rights, and at the same time to insist on the role of the state as guarantor of those same rights. But that has never been the function of the nation-state. Its primary domestic function is to preserve order, which in practice means the continued exploitation of labour by capital. In terms of its international relations, it acts as a protection racket for its own citizens. Cooperation between states inevitably take the form of alliances between elites, or outright domination.
When Nagle calls for ‘a strong national Left in the small and developing nations … acting in concert with a Left committed to ending financialization and global labor exploitation in the larger economies’, this does not take into account the fundamental nature of nation-states, or the incentive mechanisms inherent to them. The job of a national government of any kind – whether it portrays itself as leftwing, rightwing, or something in between – is to maintain itself and serve the interests of the group it represents. Whether those interests are of an elite or of a broader section of its citizens is irrelevant as far as non-citizens are concerned. Nation-states do not facilitate ‘acting in concert’ for the common good; they hinder it. Take the crises of migration we have seen so far compared to the flows of climate refugees likely to come; in such a scenario, the gated community of the nation-state is a recipe for mass death, not solidarity.
Meanwhile, international capital operates on the old imperial logic of divide and conquer. So long as workers’ power is narrowly confined within the boundaries of a nation state, the most heroic of gains can be wiped out by capital flight, the punitive removal of investment – or indeed, the setting of one nation’s workers against another’s. That is the significance that Nagle appears completely to miss when she quotes Karl Marx’s 1870 letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, describing the antagonism between English and Irish workers as the means by which the capitalist class keeps both under domination:
The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.
It is precisely the allegiance of workers to the nation-state that perpetuates their subordination. The tragedy of left projects that attempt to operate within the system of Westphalian sovereignty is that, on the one hand, they will always be susceptible to more emphatic claims to the national interest from the right. On the other, they cannot hope to match the power of capital, which knows no national borders. A mass movement of sufficient power to overcome capital must be equally untrammelled by the political structures of nation states – and borders.
Image: photo of ‘Lilac’ by Gene Davis (1980) / flickr