An honest appeal for an intelligent discussion of immigration – Part 3 of 3

For all my lamentations about the hegemony of the economic perspective, too little has been said about the class implications of mass immigration. One of the things that strikes me forcibly here is that mass immigration represents the other side of the international outsourcing that is such a prominent feature of globalisation. Jobs are not being exported in a reconfiguration of the global division of labour, workers are being brought here. Not all menial jobs can be done remotely. Catering, cleaning and other service industries are not footloose: they cannot be exported. And so workers are brought in from poorer countries to take these jobs. Mass immigration represents the outsourcing of the working class.

If I am right in advancing such a view, then the implications could be massive. Historically Britain is the country in the world most conscious of class distinctions. A sense of class identity has shown itself remarkably – almost inexplicably – resilient in the face of the death of the aristocracy, government-sponsored egalitarianism, comprehensive education and post-industrialism; but mass immigration could finally kill it in the sense previously understood. Identity depends on mental divisions, simple categorisations: who’s in, who’s out. That identity can be formed using the counterpoint of a foreign enemy, another class, another religious group – or another ethnic group. For a long time horizontal distinctions based on class have had primacy in the formation of social identities, but after immigration vertical distinctions might become more important. British and immigrant might become the new ‘us and them’ formulation.

Who knows the changes to British life which could be occasioned by the death of the class paradigm? The intersections of class and politics have been weakening for a long time, but the effect should they disappear entirely would be unpredictable. Might we see a political alignment along a new pro- and anti-immigrant axis? Might the party of Britain oppose the party of cosmopolitanism? We could very well see a weakening of social democracy, a political ideology which has its roots in a class analysis that would be outdated. We might see a rightward shift in our politics as one sees in America where race has always trumped class. Just think as well: if class (or socio-economic status) becomes tied up with ethnic identity in communities that refuse to assimilate, then class will reproduce itself consistently generation-on-generation. Immigrants will become de facto second-class citizens locked into a pernicious cycle of poverty.

More prosaically, not enough has been done to explore the differential impact of immigration on different groups within society. To take a narrowly economic perspective, it seems that low income groups, the young and the older unemployed suffer disproportionately from immigration. That is, economically vulnerable groups with little or no voice in public affairs suffer whilst business and the middle-classes gain. One sees here another example of the middle-class bias of the media distorting the debate; and another example of globalisation acting against the interests of the most vulnerable members of developed societies.

In the context of my assault on the myopic economism of the public realm I want to say something favourable about immigration that I do not think I have heard anywhere else. Immigrants bring more than just their skills, their ambition and their well-documented capacity for hard word: they are more than automatons of production; they are human beings, culture-bearers. Sometimes one sees a cursory fourth paragraph about cultural enrichment – one that mentions foreign foods and fashions and music; a vague or facetious make-weight paragraph. We need a better understanding of the cultural contribution of immigrants. The immigrants of Eastern Europe and Poland particularly can help us to this understanding.

At a time of anomie, disillusionment, cynicism and increasingly widespread Dawkinesque assaults on religion the story of Eastern Europe and the Polish story in particular can act as an antidote and an inspiration. Crushed and subjugated repeatedly by more powerful states; effaced from the map or degraded to the status of a satellite state, Poland – the idea – Poland, as it existed in the minds and hearts of those who thought themselves Poles, refused to die. The Polish national story is one of heroic struggle for freedom and autonomy in the face of unimaginable and illegitimate power. A struggle fuelled by principles, inspired by a sense of commonality.

Poland’s has been a nightmare history of absurd repetition; of freedom gained and lost; of partition and independence. The most recent cycle of subjugation and emancipation saw Poland crushed by an inhuman Soviet bureaucracy – an imperialistic Stalinism sustained through the 1970’s and 1980’s by the ever more explicit threat of force. In 1989 the Poles won their freedom in of the only truly popular and non-violent revolution that the world has ever seen. The Polish people, united through the unions and the Catholic Church (the sanctuary of Polish culture and national feeling) destroyed their Communist regime. But it was a revolution inspired not just by a destructive impulse and an object of justifiable hate; it was a positive revolution with a vision of the future. Perhaps it was a product of simplistic Cold War dichotomies, but, whatever the reason, the Poles didn’t just repudiate their regime, they embraced liberal democracy and capitalism.

At a time of cynicism, fragmentation, polemical assault on religion and a dissolving sense of the British story, there is great value to be found in Poland’s example. The Poles that come to Britain can help us to realise the incalculable boon of securing for ourselves peacefully the way of life that they struggled for so enduringly.

When I think about the Poles and the strong sense of national cohesion that their history has instilled them with, it troubles me to think of them coming into a country which has lost all sense of itself as more than a contingent space upon which a dust of individuals has happened to settle. We have become for ourselves atoms of chance proximity. Ideas of shared meaning, common characteristics, a national story have all been dissolved. Britain can find no way of telling its national story which is amenable to modern liberal ears and so the idea of the country is being hollowed out by globalisation and postmodernity.

For a time in the nineteenth century we were a country blessed by a peaceful constitutional evolution in which the interests of aristocracy, commerce and people were brought happily and harmoniously into balance under the aegis of a benevolent minimal tax-free trade state. That idea worn out by the fading of the aristocracy, the growth of the state and the advent of protectionism, we started to tell our story in imperial terms. Britain had a civilizing mission. The proper seat of British pride was not our institutions but our character – the genius of the nation. In time such a national story ceased to be reconcilable with the dissolution of the empire. Imperial guilt, cultural relativism and a powerful new taboo on racism prevented even nostalgic representations. The less that was said about the empire the better. The new national story was decline. For the first time Britain’s construction of its own past and future trajectory ceased to be self-celebratory and became elegiac. Perhaps tapping into some sort of social-psychological guilt no longer finding its outlet in Evangelicalism, the British started to flay themselves mercilessly. Decay and disease became the standing metaphors; the standard question: what went wrong? A massive historiographical literature came into being on the recognised topic of decline; a post-mortem on failure. But in the last twenty-five years Britain’s stronger economic performance – relative to that of other advanced nations – has deprived us even of our self-pity. Britain isn’t anymore a nation huddling together over a dying fire, moaning over the injustice of its decay, crying over its lost greatness.

Britain doesn’t know what it is anymore. The British don’t know who they are. How does one construct a collective identity with a history that defies the liberal shibboleths that we hold to so fiercely? How could we possibly claim that liberal values like tolerance, the rule of law and respect for rights are specifically British values? In a world of incredible cross-cultural fertilisation, of astounding promiscuity, how can we expect to construct a distinct and stable identity? Homogenisation, hybridisation and flux characterise the culture of the Western world: the old monolithic national myths collapse when they’re exposed to such an array of influences. And the idea of reverencing a nation, of piety before a national tradition, of earnest, unquestioning self-celebration is profoundly at variance with the mood of the time. We are ironic, doubting, angsting and cynical; we don’t respect that which is received, we crave the new; we don’t like mass beliefs, we favour the quixotic and idiomatic; authority and virtue are things to be mocked; national character is to be satirised. Our temper is resistant to the building of myth and narrative. No sooner is something proffered than it is excoriated as cant, sententiousness, hypocrisy, self-serving, reductive. These are the unanswerable charges of our time. We are drawn towards the destructive and the irreverent; we exist at an ironic distance from ourselves and others. The spirit of critique is so strong, the environment so harsh, that nothing can survive. And so there is fragmentation, anomie. We have squandered the ability to theorise propinquity, to make of it anything more exalted. All we are left with is the irresistible force of our scepticism.

I don’t know what it means to introduce a multifarious immigrant population into that cultural scenario. I suppose that it can only make matters worse. Any idea of a sense of collectivity based on genealogy or antecedents becomes impossible, but in reality earlier immigration has for decades made such a possibility impracticable even if the temper of the times had not so vehemently opposed it. Even so, one cannot but think that diversity of lifestyles and manners will make it even harder to cross the abyss that separates propinquity from solidarity. And the fear can never be far away that the free-for-all liberalism will not be able to stand the strains of such an influx – that it will give way instead to a ghettoized society of enclaves in some sort of cultural Mexican standoff. I think it an unlikely development, though. All immigrant groups and the established population are subject to such sedulous and multifarious cultural bombardment that any idea of holding oneself aloof from the cultural melee, of disdaining hybridisation, is probably futile.

The greater likelihood is that the fragmentation will continue and that politicians will continue to peddle the fiction that the nation can be reforged and propagated by reference to a milk-and-water liberalism, a prozac liberalism as scrupulously unobjectionable as the contents of children’s television.

Unfortunately, I have to confess that the whole of this essay has been predicated on a piece of implicit intellectual dishonesty. Throughout I have tried to maintain a sense that we stand on the brink of a mass immigration, that the time has now come for a serious discussion as a preliminary to policy. But that is of course a nonsense. We are not living in 1997. Mass immigration is not a prospect to be discussed and legislated on: it is a fait accompli. Yet it is also a process that is ongoing and for all the retrospection that the debate must tend toward, there will also be a significant element of prospection. When we do talk about prospective immigration I want us to do it with the greater sophistication that comes from realising that we are not staking out mechanical positions but making statements about the sort of country that we want Britain to be. This debate is fundamental and the combination of surface banalities and calcified rhetoric must not be allowed to obscure that.

One Response to “An honest appeal for an intelligent discussion of immigration – Part 3 of 3”

  1. mark geoghegan Says:

    But we’ve already had 50 years of mass immigration to all UK cities following centuries of steady immigration to major port cities. What’s your analysis?

    Mine is that immigrants simply join in with the UK class system after a time of integration.

    Also I have never understod the peculiar idea that Britain’s class system is in any way special – class divisions are universal. Lawyers and labourers, graduates and those who left school at 14 can’t have that much in common, wherever they come from.

    Race and cultural differences are another matter entirely.

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