GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 21, 2016

Immigration (and then some other things)

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:55 pm

Is there a single political theory, ancient or modern, that has anything useful to say about immigration? Probably, but I don’t know of it. I suppose it’s because the United States (and then the other Anglo settler colonies) was the first social order in which immigration plays such an important role. Surely there were arguments in the 1840s about (then mostly Irish and German) immigration; and, again, from 1880-1910 regarding the far larger (Italian, Jewish, Slavic) immigration; surely, someone has gathered the records of these debates, someone has written a scholarly monograph on the arguments made for and against over these periods—again, though, if so, I’ve never heard of it. This historical forgetting (and I don’t think it’s just me, otherwise we’d see both pro and anti-immigration arguments invoking the various so-and-sos who said x, y or z in 1885, or 1905, etc.) shows in the pathetic state of the ongoing debate over immigration. But it is at least easy enough to grasp a kind of intuitive, common sense anti-immigration argument: immigrants will work cheaper, undercutting wages, they will be from unfamiliar cultures, perhaps lacking the respect for rights, freedom and individual autonomy we value, they may become more like us but, then again, they may not. From a sheer risk assessment or immunological standpoint, it seems prudent to just keep immigration to a minimum.

But what is the pro-immigration argument? I’m going to construct one here, but I have to confess I can’t remember ever seeing one—the pro-immigrationists seem to have nothing to offer but platitudes about the US being an “immigrant” nation and some of the franker libertarians will assert that we benefit at least from adult immigrants since some other country has paid for their education, from which we get the benefit. But that’s not much—the pro-immigration position seems to rely completely on two things: first, a continual demonization of those skeptical of or opposed to immigration; second, a weird kind of emotional blackmail that goes something like this: if you, the immigration restrictionist, had had your preferred policies enacted in the year xxxx, when your (great) (great) grandfather and mother were preparing to come here, you’d be stuck in some God-forsaken hellhole right now. Now, you don’t want to leave yourself there, do you? For anyone other than a descendant of pre-Revolutionary Americans, there’s something convincing in this argument (if we could call it that)—it’s a call to keep faith with the past, to “pay it forward” by having the kind of faith in future immigrants that someone else must have had in your ancestors. But, insofar as keeping that faith comes into conflict with keeping faith with your own descendants, and leaving them a country at least as good as the one left to you, the latter faith must prevail. Which brings us back to the need for some argument in favor of immigration.

The arguments from the standpoint of business are clear enough—a vast reservoir of cheap labor enables, under some economic conditions, economic growth far greater than would otherwise be possible, and this, in turn, again, under certain conditions, benefits the native population, who can move up to less labor intensive jobs and benefit from cheap and readily available consumer goods. The 19th and early 20th century waves of immigration may have met these conditions (although I have to say I don’t really know—has anyone argued that the American economy would have grown faster or “better” in some sense without all that immigration?), and the cultural differences brought by the Eastern and Southern European immigrants may not have been that disruptive to American traditions (although here, as well, there is probably a good argument to be made to effect that these immigrants brought enough socialism and anarchism with them to tilt the US to the gargantuan state we now have—who voted for FDR, after all?). But today’s (mostly Mexican but also, increasingly, Muslim) immigrants aren’t rushing into major growth industries that will enhance our position as an economic superpower, are they?

There is one more argument in favor of immigration that I can think of, one that I don’t remember having seen made, but that must have been in people’s minds, especially around the turn of the 20th century. This is an imperial argument—if you, a second rank power who wants to play in the big game at a time when that game is getting very big indeed, and is drawing in other powers that were second rank not too long ago (Germany and Japan), wouldn’t a good way of doing so be to increase your own population far more rapidly than could be done through natural increase? And, at the same time, you poach from your competitors some of their most energetic and future oriented people. It may be the case that the US could never have won WWII (much less become the post-War leader of the “Free World”) without those tens of millions of immigrants (but perhaps they wouldn’t have had to fight it?—that is, we’d have to imagine an alternative history to assess these hypotheses). But it’s interesting that all of these pro-immigrant arguments come from the standpoint of the elites—the tycoons, the corporations, the politicians (and their academic and journalistic hanger-ons) who want a globe-spanning empire. (Has there ever been a majority of the American people in favor of immigration? We probably can’t answer that question but there are good reasons to doubt it—the restrictionist arguments all seem to come from the middle class.)

It has also been argued that emigration to the US served as a kind of safety-valve for revolution-fearing European states and ruling classes—but that wouldn’t have been America’s problem. Perhaps you need a large immigrant population to settle a new continent—but why? The West was pretty much settled by 1890, and, anyway, without the immigrants, Americans would have surely gotten around, perhaps a bit later, to building up California, Arizona, Nevada, etc. But the difficulty in sorting all this out reveals a basic assumption of modern political theories and assumptions about the nation-state—they all assume a static population. How would, say, social contract theory, need to be reformulated to include the assumption of a steady flow of immigration? But something else of great importance—something that, of course, we all know, but never seems to make it into political thinking—is revealed: modernity essentially shuts down the world. What I mean by that is that the migration of peoples is a basic fact of human history—people were always on the move, replacing, displacing and mixing with other peoples. No government until modern times had sufficient control over its territory to prevent this. All the causes of migration still exist—war, famine, drought, etc.—but people can today only migrate either with the permission of some state, or illegally and surreptitiously. We still have no solution to the inevitable problem of stateless populations, over whom some government must have control but for which no government wants responsibility. All we know how to do its try and make it someone else’s problem.

The American response to immigration during the first half of the 20th century is probably the only one with any chance at all of succeeding. This approach involved forced cultural assimilation, which means treating the immigrant as a kind of colonial subject who must learn the language and adhere to the norms of the dominant society. That also means there must be something to assimilate to—and something that can be assimilated to (unlike, say, ethnic homogeneity). The culture to which the immigrants assimilate must be esthetic and moral, not ethnic or religious. This may also require (at least in the US case it seems to have required) a (specifically political) founding event, reverence for which is assiduously inculcated. This combination of cultural elements will necessarily be very rare, and hard to sustain, as the resentment toward “Americanization” that it became safe to express from the 1960s on demonstrates. The ethnic origins and religious faith of the founders may turn out to be more intrinsic to the founding event than assimilationists would like to believe, which means that even apparently successful waves of assimilation may turn out to be less successful than assumed—and, certainly the more distant from those ethnic and religious conditions the successive waves of immigrants, more unrealistic expectations of reverence for them becomes. No one even seems to want to try anymore—the unspoken hope is that a shared social media, celebrity, pop music and video game culture will accomplish what censorious schoolteachers, a homogenous media and wartime solidarity and propaganda once did.

The Trump phenomenon has raised the question of whether the conventional left/right, liberal/conservative mapping of American politics is ultimately all wrong, or, at least, is less significant than an elite/people, ruling class/country class, globalist/nationalist, victimocracy/normal mapping. From the standpoint of an American nationalism, it’s remarkable to note that of all the items on the conservative checklist (small government, limited powers, free markets, anti-abortion, traditional morality, even gun rights and hawkish foreign policy), none of them intrinsically, necessarily, make the conservation of the American nation a priority. Who, though, does make the conservation of the American nation a priority? It may be only, or almost only, those workers in direct competition with the current wave of immigrants—those whom the blogger ArchDruid, in a a very interesting post John Gay just forwarded to the GaList, calls the “wage earning” class. The argument is that of the four economic classes in contemporary America (the “investor,” “salary,” “wage” and “welfare” classes), the investor and welfare classes are left pretty much the same by globalization and mass immigration, while the salaried class benefits (through lower priced consumer goods) and the wage class is devastated. That certainly brings things into focus, as the salary class includes government workers, academics, the media (i.e., the major components of the victimocracy) and, probably, most Republican “moderates” (who work alongside of and socialize with leftists). The wage class, meanwhile, are those Eric Gans has referred to several times in some recent Chronicles, drawing upon Charles Murray’s study of the economic polarization of what was once a more cohesive, less abrasive, series of gradations up the economic ladder, as the major “problem” for any contemporary politics that hopes to move beyond the victimary.

ArchDruid doesn’t give us numbers, so I can only guess at how many members of each class there are. That guess would be around 10% at the extremes, the welfare and investor class (maybe a bit lower for the latter); and perhaps around 35/45% for the salaried and waged. That would make the wage class a plurality, but not a majority—a coalition of the other 3 classes could always deny them power or, given the sharp conflicts of interest, any remedy or hope whatsoever. But that 45% could certainly make quite a commotion. It seems to be the core of the American nation (and probably, I would imagine, the source of most of our military and police). It seems likely that the only thing that would satisfy this American core is a cessation of immigration, and the expulsion of a very substantial number of the illegals. (They would also probably like victories in some trade wars—tariffs on China, etc.—but that’s more complicated, and the immigration moratorium would probably have enough of an effect to bring about some cross class solidarity.)

This has been a rambling post (and it’s not the first time in the last couple of months I’ve tried to write something on immigration) but I’m publishing it anyway, because I think I’ve arrived at a useful conclusion: any community, and society, has a core, which might be a substantial minority or an overwhelming majority. What makes them the core is that they resist inter-social merging—either the integration of their society into a larger one (they would be the basis of an anti-colonial revolt), or the integration of members of other communities into their own. There will be cultural and economic reasons for this resistance, or “allergy.” What brings about dangerous social imbalances are social and economic trends that undermine the position of the core, and/or put its interests at odds with the more peripheral (although perhaps more powerful) social elements. What gives cause for despair of the American polity is the difficulty of seeing why any of the other classes would be inclined to concede anything to the waged—indeed, from the perspective outlined here, we could say that the victimocracy is essentially a war by a large chunk of the salaried against the waged, a war in which the welfare class is used as shock troops and for psyops, with threatening gestures toward the investors serving as an ongoing distraction. It’s a war with an economic basis, backed by deeply laid cultural hostilities (by now unconcealed hatred), and a war the aggressors most likely think they are winning (or can even pretend they aren’t fighting). Trump, at last, gives the aggressed against a general—if he doesn’t lead them to some victories, someone else will rise from the ranks. Whatever that might look like, it’s preferable to the continuing destruction of the American core, because that way lies societal suicide.

A final word: it seems to me that a way of supporting the American core (the waged), beyond the absolutely necessary immigration moratorium, is to support the kind of labor that in its very nature cannot be outsourced and, moreover, can only very moderately be transformed technologically. House painters, plumbers, contractors, landscapers, electricians, mechanics and so on—all well paying jobs that require skills and discipline, but not 1300 SAT scores or the piling up of 100,000$ in student loans. All jobs that we will always need—any homeowner can learn to do a lot of these things, but most won’t, because of the law of comparative advantage, and because they won’t get as good at them as someone who does them professionally. All dignified jobs, which allow for independence and mobility—your life won’t be destroyed if the plant closes up or moves to the Philippines. I don’t know how many of the waged class are in, or could move into such occupations—but whatever can be done, e.g., through tax policies, the elimination of licensing requirements, the loosening of safety and other regulations, should be done to make these occupations viable. This seems far simpler than trying to change our trade balance with China. It would at least be a gesture of good will, if the salaried can accept paying a bit more for some of their amenities.


  1. A good summation of the mysterious inarticulacy of immigration theory in immigrant nations (akin to feminism’s lack of serious discussion about women among women?) You are probably right that a majority have never been for mass immigration (as might well be true among recent immigrants today if you bracket the question of family reunification) but then why haven’t they been more articulate? Historians have certainly written about nativism and written it off as intellectually barren, probably not just because of academic prejudices. I suppose the basic problem is that Americans, on average, have themselves been very mobile people, not keeping rooted in one place, and thus feeling their claim to any particular locality attracting many other newcomers is already somehow only abstractly “American”.

    My sense is that pro-immigration arguments have never been much more than, ‘we need the manpower to grow the country’ which as you note is usually understood in terms of short term elite exigencies to fill cheap jobs, though in Canada where Westward expansion did have to move quickly, at least if fears of American annexation were realistic, the debate had some elaboration, founding what in time became a popular immigration is nation building myth. But at the start Canadian nationalism was inextricably tied (for the vast majority of anglo people) to British imperialism, until WWI started to erode the latter, and perhaps, as you note, a competing American (and hence pro-population) imperialism was a stronger force than we tend to recognize.

    Today, I believe that almost all “conservative” politicians are unquestioningly pro-immigration because they see no other way of keeping the welfare state going which, as people live longer and more and more resources go to the elderly – medical and pensions (more than half of state budgets i believe) – has become a Ponzi, in many eyes, but still too sacred to question without committing political suicide. The fact that you can find no convincing argument that mass immigration can overcome the Ponzi long term seems irrelevant as long as it provides some sense of short-term relief to the imbalance of elderly and workers. But how might politics change if mostly white baby boomers (and Gen X) prove an impossible burden to increasingly non-white young people?

    Closely related to this is the massive build up in debt, private debt most of all, that allows for the (pulled forward) spending that keeps GDP (and state revenues) more or less creeping along, though debt (and its service) rising faster than GDP is a trend that can’t continue for long; indeed that road seems maxed out now, though bringing in immigrants who even if less well paid can nonetheless take on some fresh debt at near zero interest rates helps keep the Ponzi rolling. All of this only insures that retirees who have not cashed in on debt-backed housing bubbles are likely to run out of savings sooner than later and further pressure the welfare state.

    So my sense is that anti-immigration politics cannot go far unless there is more widespread recognition of the debt crisis and growing political will to have some kind of jubilee, an idea which perhaps furthers the undermining of left-right distinctions as i see it has popularity not only among traditional economic leftists but the kind of nationalist voices you see at Vox Day’s blog (hear his friendly interview with leftist, pro-immigrant (because SJW!) economist, Steve Keen, e.g.) BTW, Whether socialist immigrants, or not, the people who voted for FDR were those whacked hardest by massive debt deflation in the early 30s.

    Your idea of a core demographic whose survival is key to national survival rings true and i feel even the immigrants in my “very diverse” neighborhood recognize this at times, as i sense some deference to what is a hoped for source of order, though of course some, especially those who go to university, become susceptible to the victimary. And i believe that those who call for more emphasis on skilled trades education and less on the university salary bubble are likely right. But it is impossible to know now what would be a realistic level of trades employment and wages. How much of the present high debt volume goes into (housing) construction and renovation that is beyond what would be deemed necessary in a more modest, household debt-limiting, economy? Or how much of today’s high debt is simply financial and somehow unproductive? Anyway if we produced enough plumbers, say, would we not undermine the wage (or why does Poland export so many of them)? At the end of the day, trade imbalances have to be righted for most nations if wage earners are going to do alright (though perhaps not for the one nation whose currency is the world’s reserve…)

    On China…. One may well want to concede much low skill manufacturing to poorer countries in the name of maximizing trade on both ends. But when they grow their own domestic markets and they prove very difficult, for a myriad of political, legal, and cultural reasons, for outsiders to trade in, and when they use those difficulties to pressure for direct investment and transfer of technologies, e.g. Boeing “selling planes” by teaching China how to build high end craft more effectively, so that high wage jobs are transferred, then free trade agreements look like a farce hiding an unfair economic war. And yet tariffs are indeed unlikely to be a satisfactory response; it somehow requires a more self-conscious nationalism throughout one’s political economy.

    I wonder if there might not be an impending limit to the salary class’s self interest in sweating down the wage earners, no matter how invested the former become in globalization. Can they avoid the risk of creating an impossibly overbearing welfare class? And the investor class needs more than interest-rate destroying debt bubbles and dubious deals with the Asian oligarchies going forward. So I’m not sure your pessimism is entirely warranted.

    Comment by John — January 23, 2016 @ 1:27 am

  2. That’s a post in itself, and I’m inclined to just let it stand, insofar as I don’t see much to add or disagree with. But, regarding your concluding paragraph, I wonder how much of the salaried class has any more than a parasitic existence (how many would be wiped out by a bursting of the higher education bubble, or any significant reduction in the size of government), in which case, regardless of the consequences, sweating down the wage earners might be their only option. In the end, maybe many of them will be tossed into the pile of wage earners, and what would the consequence of that be?

    A “conscious nationalism throughout one’s political economy” is a very interesting thing to consider.

    On the jubilee–leaving aside the economic consequences (which I’m not sure about) how many people would be relieved at having “unjustly” accrued debt lifted from their shoulders, and how many would be outraged that they worked years to pay off their mortgages and student loans while keeping their credit card debt under control and now others don’t have to bother? That’s a real, not rhetorical, question–I simply have no idea how those numbers would look.

    Comment by adam — January 23, 2016 @ 8:05 am

  3. Well the argument for jubilees i’m seeing says everyone gets equally the helicopter money but, somehow (i don’t know if anyone knows how) those with debt must first be forced to use the money to pay down their debt. It is then argued that this is not inflationary and destructive of savers because getting rid of debt/money is inherently deflationary, though i can’t say i have seen this argued through to a point i find satisfying. i’m not sure i would ever be convinced by an economic model anyway.

    Comment by John — January 23, 2016 @ 11:30 am

  4. I share your skepticism (and then some) but, anyway, it’s good to bring more ideas into the realm of the thinkable. Once we all have a good sense of what we’re fighting over, maybe we can get to it. Right now, the fog of inherited ideas is still too thick. Things are moving, though.

    Comment by adam — January 23, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

  5. Well, in an update to a case i think i mentioned here some time ago, the SJWs lost:

    And the real victim, after being wrung through the courts, says being forced offline for three years was a blessing in disguise:

    Comment by John — January 23, 2016 @ 1:58 pm

  6. Still, until the SJWs can be made to pay a price for such predations they have no reason to stop doing it.

    Comment by adam — January 23, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

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