Tag Archives: folk Marxism

Immigration and Class Struggle

Consider the following paragraphs from an article in Salon about a recent immigration proposal:

“The proposal, then, is to turn most of today’s illegal immigrants in the U.S. into a new, legally resident class of non-citizen foreign serfs. They will be allowed (i.e., compelled) to work for American employers. But they will be denied all the benefits that go to the working citizen poor. And none of them will be eligible to vote for a decade and a half, at the earliest.

Quite apart from its inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants, this proposal is a direct assault on the rights and interests of native and naturalized American citizen-workers. American citizen-workers are threatened by anything that creates a multi-tier labor market inside U.S. borders. Allowing workers with different levels of rights to compete for the same jobs in the U.S. economy permits employers to pit one category of workers against another. And when one group has fewer rights and less bargaining power, many employers will prefer to hire them rather than the workers with more rights and greater bargaining power.”

There are a few distinct strands here, but the basic idea is that we shouldn’t allow immigrants into the country under a system that affords them fewer rights than other citizens because a) it is inhumane to the immigrants and b) it hurts American workers.

Eventually, the article advocates giving “clean, swift amnesty followed by full, equal citizenship” to the undocumented immigrants that are here while hoping that “new waves of illegal immigration could be deterred in the future.”

The combination of preferring total amnesty for existing immigrants while deterring future immigrants seemed a bit contradictory at first to me.  Why consider the welfare of current undocumented immigrants over next years undocumented immigrants?

The answer is that I don’t think the welfare of immigrants is really the author’s driving consideration.  The author is considering immigration as one aspect of a class struggle between labor and capital:

Capitalists benefit from more unskilled immigration because it drives down wages. They prefer not to give the immigrants too many rights because this probably tends to raise reservation wages. Labor would prefer to keep out the competition, but if it can’t prevent immigration outright, they would rather have voting immigrant laborers join their side to bolster their political power.

In short, capital prefers high levels of  immigration and low levels of immigrant rights while labor prefers low immigration and high immigrant rights.

Of course, not everyone fits into these categories, so I present to you my two dimensional immigration Quadrant graph:

Immigrant Quadrants

Note that the origin of this graph does not represent zero immigration or no rights.  The axes just represent “more” and “less” along two different dimensions. Also, the representative groups are not necessarily the only inhabitant of their quadrant.  For example, territorialists also occupy the spot I have attributed to labor.  Finally, when I use the word “rights” I don’t necessarily mean that there actually exists a set of natural rights that everyone is entitled to. You can replace this axis with “privileges,” “entitlements” or whatever suits you.

Perhaps you don’t agree with my placement of labor in the lower right corner in the first place.  Before you object too much, let me concede that not all of those who identify with the labor movement would fit in this quadrant.  But I think there is a pretty significant trend in this direction.  See, for example, this rambling socialist essay noting that the AFL-CIO changed their position to one more in support of immigrant labor rights and sponsored a series of demonstrations in support of immigrant rights.  They go on to urge “immediate and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers” and even “a living wage of $12.50 and free universal health care.”  At the same time they concede that a demand for open borders would be an “obstacle to dialogue between socialists and native born workers.”  To help the poor in other countries they support “assisting in the economic and social development of poor countries.”

So, basically, they want to offer full citizenship and benefits to immigrants in order to achieve labor solidarity and prevent capital from pitting different groups of labor against each other.  But since high levels of continued immigration would drive down wages we need to slow the process down.  Granted, they don’t actually say we need to build a wall on the border.  Maybe they actually believe that global economic aid to poor countries will suddenly start to work.  But the overriding goal is labor solidarity and ultimately this requires accepting those who are already here and making sure that we don’t get too many more.

So, assuming you agree with my quadrants, there are a few things to note.  First, class struggle is relevant to the immigration debate, but it is orthogonal to the Open Borders/Nativism divide.  Second, open borders advocates usually don’t  insist on zero volume restrictions and full rights for immigrants — they often consider keyhole solutions that involve some trading off of volumes and rights.  And my sense is that most open borders advocates would restrict rights before restricting volume.  I am probably in this camp personally. The fact that so many people are willing to come here illegally is evidence enough for me that the benefits (for immigrants) of increased immigration are enough to justify sacrificing some political privileges.

So it seems my preferred immigration policy would probably be beneficial for capital and detrimental to labor.  Since I don’t really have a dog in that fight, maybe I should think more about ways of implementing immigration reform that explicitly favor labor, such as using immigrant fees to help support a guaranteed minimum income.

Or should I simply advocate the immigration policy I think is right and ignore the impact it might have on class struggle?


How opponents of immigration on the left and right differ: territorialism versus citizenism

Post by Vipul Naik (regular blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

Alex Nowrasteh recently tweeted criticisms of open borders from two fronts: Daniel Costa of the progressive Economic Policy Institute in a blog post titled On International Migrants Day, remember that guest worker programs aren’t the solution for immigration reform and Mark Krikorian of the center-right Center for Immigration Studies in a piece on National Review titled Black Unemployment: Just Don’t Mention the Immigration!

So I read both pieces. What struck me (and I also tweeted this) was that a quick reading of the articles wouldn’t reveal clearly which one was coming from a progressive/left-leaning perspective and which one was coming from a right-leaning/conservative perspective. Superficially, both arguments fell under what Bryan Caplan might dismiss as the master race argument — the idea that low-skilled natives are the ultimate interest group who should be given special preference in any policy discussion. It’s not my place here to critique this line of argument (though, if you’re interested, Nathan Smith blogged about teens and immigrants a while back, and Alex Nowrasteh had a critique of a related CIS study several years ago).

The point I want to make is that, despite the superficial similarity in the two pieces, there is one important difference, which I think is the key difference between the left-wing/progressive segment of opposition to open borders and the right-wing/conservative segment of opposition to open borders. Namely, progressive opponents of open borders tend to be influenced by a mix of territorialism and local inequality aversion. Their sphere of moral concern includes everybody who is within the geographical territory of their country, including citizens and non-citizens, and including both legal and illegal immigrants. And, in addition to being concerned about the absolute status of these people, progressive opponents of immigration are also concerned about inequality within the territory. As Arnold Kling notes in his three axes theory, the distinguishing feature of progressives (compared to conservatives and libertarians) tends to be their tendency to give more importance to the oppressor-oppressed axis (I’ve also written about why I find this sort of folk Marxism unconvincing, even when it is ostensibly pro-open borders). Combining a focus on the oppressor-oppressed axis with territorialism and local inequality aversion produces the kinds of proposals and concerns that Costa raised in his EPI blog post. Explicitly, it generally involves a combination of a path to citizenship, stricter enforcement, strong laws against worker exploitation, and an immigration policy designed to benefit currently low-skilled natives.

Anti-immigration individuals on the center-right, which probably includes all the hardcore restrictionist groups from CIS to VDARE and anti-immigration voices in more mainstream conservative outlets, are more likely to favor citizenism instead of territorialism. They are more likely to favor policies that explicitly discriminate in favor of current citizens. Immigrants and non-citizens who happen to reside within the geographic territory do not get the special status that citizens do, and in so far as they crossed borders illegally, it is considered moral to deport them. As per Kling’s three axes, center-right individuals are likely to be more focused on concerns of civilization versus barbarism, and while the alien invasion metaphor is probably an exaggeration, basic concern about how illegal immigration undermines the rule of law adds to the general worries about the harms created by immigration. Thus, center-right restrictionists are more likely to favor reform proposals that include attrition through enforcement and stronger border security while simultaneously reducing future levels of legal immigration, and while they are not completely averse to a path to citizenship, they would probably insist that it be restricted to a very special subclass (for instance, Mark Krikorian has expressed support for a version of the DREAM Act, but not the current version being passed around).

All in all, the main difference between progressive restrictionists and center-right restrictionists lies in how they want to deal with the illegal immigrants already here. Generally, restrictionists in both camps agree that future immigration levels need to be cut down or tailored to the interests of low-skilled natives, that enforcement (both at the border and in the interior) needs to be stricter, and that large-scale guest worker programs create more problems than they solve. Nonetheless, the differences between these two groups present unique challenges to those who are trying to come up with keyhole solutions. A keyhole solution that denies a path to citizenship, or walls off eligibility to the welfare state, might appeal somewhat to some (but not all) center-right restrictionists, but would be taken very negatively by progressive restrictionists.

A quick final note: I don’t mean to suggest that anybody who subscribes to citizenism or territorialism must necessarily be a restrictionist. Open borders do benefit many citizens, and keyhole solutions can be devised that help make them a win-win for the vast majority of citizens and those living in the geographical territory (as an example, see Nathan Smith’s DRITI proposal, or his blog post the citizenist case for open borders). Progressive restrictionists concerned about a path to citizenship might nonetheless come to the conclusion that expanded guest worker programs, despite their ills, and despite the lack of a path to citizenship, are still an improvement over the status quo. While I personally think of both citizenism and territorialism as morally flawed, there is no prima facie inconsistency between adopting these stances and supporting considerably freer migration than the status quo allows.

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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