Folk Marxist arguments for open borders

While creating the Open Borders website, I’ve tried to include a wide range of perspectives for the moral caselibertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and various hybrid versions. I’ve also tried to search for a wide range of practical arguments in support of open borders. But there’s one category of arguments that I’ve avoided, and I’ll try to explain the reasons behind that in this blog post.

The arguments fall broadly under the category of folk Marxism, a term introduced by Arnold Kling in the essay Folk Beliefs Have Consequences. Roughly, folk Marxist theories are theories that see events and actions in the context of a struggle between oppressor classes and oppressed classes. Folk Marxist arguments for open borders see developing countries and migrant workers as the oppressed classes. Business interests in the developed world and racist/nationalist type folks in the developed countries are variously seen as oppressors. It’s argued that the actions of the oppressors cause violence and poverty in the lands of the oppressed, forcing them to migrate to the lands of the oppressors (developed countries) and work there. On this view, mass immigration is not something to celebrate, but rather, an unfortunate consequence of exploitative policies. Turning away the immigrants, or dehumanizing their status (for instance, by labeling them as illegal and denying them rights and privileges accorded to citizens) is a further wrong against them. Welcoming immigrants is the least that can be done, while the root causes of mass migration are fixed. I present below a passage from the beginning of the final chapter (Myth 21) of They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Amazon ebook) by Aviva Chomsky (Wikipedia page).

Today’s immigration is structured by contemporary relationships among countries and regions, and by their history of economic inequality. Unequal economic relationships should be changed — not because they lead to migration, but because they lead to human suffering and an unsustainable world. High levels of migration are a symptom of a global economic system that privileges the few at the expense of the many. It could be called capitalism, it could be called neoliberalism, it could be called globalization, it could be called neocolonialism. As long as it keeps resources unequally distributed in the world, you’re going to have people escaping the regions that are deliberately kept poor and violent and seeking freedom in the places where the world’s resources have been concentrated: in the countries that have controlled, and been the beneficiaries of, the global economic system since 1492.

So, why is this line of argument not included in the Open Borders website? The reason is three-fold. First, I personally don’t think that this line of reasoning is correct or plausible in general as a reason to support open borders. This is not to deny that exploitation does not occur, but rather, to claim that the occurrence of exploitation is not a suitable generic rationale for open borders.

Second, and more importantly, it is in tension and contradiction with the other pro-open borders arguments presented. While it’s good to present multifaceted case for open borders, it is bad to present an internally contradictory case.

Third, even if the folk Marxist arguments were correct, I don’t think they add much weight to the pro-open borders position. Yes, folk Marxists often do make correct and convincing arguments favoring open borders. However, these are typically the arguments that can also be made, and have been made, from a non-folk Marxist perspective. The value added by the folk Marxist perspective seems to me to be zero or negative. For instance, folk Marxists often seem to side with restrictionists when they accept mass migration as a problem but shift blame from the migrants to capitalists and other oppressors. This is not exactly a position that bolsters confidence in open borders.

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7 thoughts on “Folk Marxist arguments for open borders”

  1. The Marxists I know and associate with (and having been in a communist party myself once and studied Marxism) are all for open borders but not for the reasons for describe. For a start, Marx was in favour of free trade and a supporter of the globalising factors of his time. He saw capitalism as initially revolutionary but hypothesized that it would lose its dynamic due to internal contradictions. I think the current world situation favours his hypothesis, but that’s not my main point in responding to your article. The main point is that Marxists, communists, eschew national borders in this age of progressive globalisation and see nationalism as ‘false consciousness’. The working class knows no nationality. I shudder whenever I hear people opposing mass immigration or open borders claiming to be left-wing or Marxist. In such cases, I recall what Marx once stated: “I am not a Marxist”. Do not confuse the pseudo-left with the red left.

  2. Never heard of “folk Marxism” but what you describe seems in line with Maoism or 3rd Worldism. The Marxist position is that the nation-state system is anachronistic and should be dissolved into a world socialist federation without restrictions on the movement of people. How else are the workers of the world to unite?

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