A criticism of Angela Nagle’s recent essay, ‘The Left Case against Open Borders’. Touches on globalism, ethics and electoralism.
Originally published by Libcom.
Note: Enough is Enough is not organizing any of these events, we are publishing this text for people across the US and Europe to be able to see what is going on and for documentation only.
The current global system of states is unjust. To paraphrase Proudhon, there exists open borders for the rich and ironclad closed ones for the poor. For the bad luck of being born into the wrong country, say, one that is economically destitute, or one regularly bombed by western jets, or one governed by a brutal tyrant, you are condemned to a life of misery. Scorning those who try and improve their lot and their family’s by migrating to a developed nation is abhorrent.
This much has been recognised by the entire anarchist movement and other revolutionary sectors of the left since its inception, and in contemporary times it has caught on with a wide spectrum of people. The recent flows of migrants heading to North America, Europe and Australia have caught the left’s attention and driven it to much more openly support freedom of movement; with the prospect of not only more war but also large-scale climate catastrophe hanging over our heads, the question of migrant rights has never been more essential.
All this very much concerns Angela Nagle, who has attempted to give a ‘Left Case against Open Borders’ in the winter 2018 edition of American Affairs.
Globalisation, capitalists and free migration
The article kicks off with a vivid paragraph containing an entirely false claim, emphasis mine:
Before “Build the wall!” there was “Tear down this wall!” In his famous 1987 speech, Ronald Reagan demanded that the “scar” of the Berlin Wall be removed and insisted that the offending restriction of movement it represented amounted to nothing less than a “question of freedom for all mankind.” He went on to say that those who “refuse to join the community of freedom” would “become obsolete” as a result of the irresistible force of the global market. And so they did. In celebration, Leonard Bernstein directed a performance of “Ode to Joy” and Roger Waters performed “The Wall.” Barriers to labor and capital came down all over the world; the end of history was declared; and decades of U.S.-dominated globalization followed.
Hang on, “barriers to labor and capital came down”? In 1994, Bill Clinton did two major very major things: one, he signed NAFTA. Two, he launched Operation Gatekeeper, an unprecedented militarisation of the USA-Mexico border. Barriers to capital came down, yes, but labour was hardly any freer. Something similar happened in my country Australia too – our own neoliberal leader, Paul Keating, signed ‘free-market’ trade treaties whilst also introducing the mandatory detention of unauthorised boat arrivals. Conflating neoliberal globalisation and freedom of migration is central to Nagle’s belief that open border advocacy is less like principled progressivism and more like a swindle by elites.
Nagle builds her arguments against left open-borders advocates by ignoring them. She does not cite a single left-wing defender of this position. No leftist groups are mentioned. Instead, she mostly criticises right-wing Koch-style advocates and then asks us how shocking it is that “the moralizing, pro-open borders left” could cosy up with capitalists who only support migration because it gives them more people to exploit. The left only really exists in her article rhetorically, as a strawman, ready to jeer at radicals of old for contradicting the alleged open-borders dogma. This dishonest strategy lets her avoid dealing with the fact that no radical leftist supporter of free migration defends capitalist exploitation, or in any way provides a humanitarian face for neoliberal self-interest.
Contrary to Nagle’s opinion, very, very few elites support open-borders. The Koch-funded Cato advocacy for open-borders is the exception, rather than the norm. Their backing of the idea no more qualifies it as an elite, capitalist position than the Mercer family’s ‘build-the-wall’ advocacy qualifies that idea as elite and capitalist. Nagle refers to the Mark Zuckerberg-led Silicon Valley think thank ‘Forward’ as another example of capitalist support for open borders; she does not mention that the group advocates for no such thing. When Mark Zuckerberg announced the mission of the organisation in a Washington Post op-ed, he clearly outlined that he and his other CEO friends wanted:
Comprehensive immigration reform that begins with effective border security, allows a path to citizenship and lets us attract the most talented and hardest-working people, no matter where they were born.
Which is very different to open-borders. Generally speaking, it does not seem like free migration and open-borders have figured very prominently into global neoliberalism; in fact, it seems most apparent that a tight system of migration regulation has been neoliberalism’s bedrock. The militarised borders that exist in Europe, the United States and Australia fulfil a defensive function, insulating wealthy states from the blowback of their actions – the imperial wars, the climate destruction, the corporate robbery.
The other thing to stress is that an idea is not bad merely because some unpleasant people support it. It is true that there is a section of the upper-class that supports genuine open-borders. The Koch brothers are probably the most prominent. But they don’t just support open-borders, they also support prison reform and drug decriminalisation – does that mean leftists should be against these two things also?
Open-borders and the left
Nagle’s other major claim is that opposition to open-borders can and should be left-wing. The first thing to note is that the term ‘left-wing’ is so broad as to render the term near-useless. Nagle uses it to encompass Marx, the American union movement, Bernie Sanders and a whole host of other forces that often have little of substance in common with each other. Strong arguments don’t rely on vague generalisations, and her essay would have been much better had she actually engaged directly with leftist writing.
Nagle uses the historical radicals to try and show that open-borders is not an inherently radical position; an example of this is her claim that ‘figures like Marcus Garvey or Fredrick Douglass’ would not be surprised by study allegedly showing that immigration has negative effects on poor and minority Americans. She drives home the point by claiming that the modern open-borders left would tar and feather them for holding the position she thinks they would hold.
This particular claim about Garvey and Douglass is strange for three reasons. Firstly, Marcus Garvey is not a particularly left-wing figure. He was complex, no doubt, but his central political project was the repatriation of the black diaspora to Africa. He was willing to ally himself with the Ku Klux Klan to try and achieve this goal. He was loathed by black leftists of the era and they loathed him; he believed communism was a white plot against black people whilst black leftists like C.L.R. James described him as ‘reactionary’, a ‘born demagogue’, and a proto-Hitler. We can appreciate his belief in self-determination, and self-pride, but there’s not a whole lot of leftism in him.
Secondly, the positions of leftists of yore should not be held up as sacrosanct; many historic radicals held political beliefs and attitudes that most reasonable people would now find repugnant – hostility to homosexuals, racism, misogyny and so on. It may well be that belief in open-borders may be another one of these issues, and it can be considered a sign of progress that leftists no longer see the repression of migrants as a good thing. It is also worth noting that contemporary migration patters are quite different to what they were one or two hundred years ago.
Finally, it is not at all clear that the poor are disproportionately affected by ‘open-borders’, even if you accept Nagel’s evaluation of it. The study deals with the welfare of Americans, not all of the individuals involved in the situation. A fuller analysis of the impacts of immigration would also assess the welfare of the immigrants themselves. This may seem pedantic, but the leftist opposition to borders has always gone hand-in-hand with a radical opposition to nationalism. Privileging the well-being of one national group over the other is not defensible, and it runs contrary to the basic radical principle of egalitarianism. We’re interested in humans, not national categories; the American poor are not worthy of more moral consideration than the Mexican poor, or the Guatemalan poor, and so on.
What Nagle gets right
Nagle’s article isn’t entirely worthless, and she makes some points which radicals should consider. The most important one is that acceptance of the rightness of open-borders entails an acceptance of basic anarchist principles, regardless of whether the person realises it or not. If you believe in the rightness of the protest chant “no human is illegal”, then you implicitly accept “the moral case for no borders or sovereign nations at all”. I have no response to this, other than fuck yes!
In all seriousness, Nagle’s article touches on something relatively new and recent in the western left. Leftists have started winning elections again. Jeremy Corbyn and his allies have essentially taken control of the Labour Party. Bernie Sanders came fairly close to winning the Democratic primary, and potentially the 2016 election. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pipped a Clintonite in the primaries to take a seat in the House of Representatives. This means that significant parts of the left are now playing the cynical PR game essential to successful electoralism; firing up their radical base by flagging and dogwhistling that they’re one of them, whilst also maintaining enough ‘respectability’ to non-radicals to get elected and achieve their (in the grand scheme of things, moderate) aims.
To these people, and the leftists deeply concerned with getting them elected, ‘electable’ policies are paramount. Opening the borders is not one of these, and accordingly they are not going to advocate for it, even if they wanted to. Corbyn, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez all explicitly disavow open-borders. As anarchists, we’re in a tough spot, as usual — the things we advocate for aren’t widely popular. So what do we do?
For virtually the entirety of our history, we have been in the minority. It’s not new to us. This is obvious, but bears repeating: the fact that our ideas aren’t widely held, and are perhaps even violently opposed by an large proportion of the working class should not be cause to abandon our core principles and embrace what we hate. What we are to do is keep fighting, keep spreading our ideas and to try and change things, so that all the good in the world might overcome the bad.
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