How Anti-Migration Sentiment Can Find Itself in Progressive Circles

A tweet from Diane Abbott MP @HackneyAbbott stating “Government boast it is opening up visas to the world’s top graduates. But many originally come from third world countries. Why is Britain asset stripping poor countries like this?”

This morning the left-wing firebrand and Labour MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington Diane Abbott posted a tweet (pictured above) to a quantifiably frosty reception — at time of writing said tweet had only 37 retweets but 562 quote retweets, which is what the kids call a ratio (indicating overwhelming dislike and questioning over sincere support). But I digress, the reception of a tweet by a few very online users shouldn’t be taken as representative of society as a whole or usually anything worth writing about, but this little online episode opens a window into a little-discussed way that that progressives can find themselves feeding anti-migrant sentiment. In order to figure this out, let’s dig deep into some theory.

Migration Politics Within Political Theory

There are, broadly, two main ways to look at migration: as a cultural or an economic issue, and whether one or the other is the primary focus can usually be determined by where on the political spectrum one finds themselves. Many political scientists (and, [in]famously, the political compass test) use a double-axis model, usually containing a cultural axis and an economic axis, to plot different political views. In some phrasing or another, the axes usually go from conservatism to progressivism on the cultural axis and economic interventionism to free markets on the economic axis.

In general, open migration is usually a position that is supported by free marketeers (for economic reasons) and social progressives (for sociocultural reasons), it would then follow that those on the opposite ends of these positions, the economic interventionists and social conservatives, would be opposed. That, however, only leaves us half of the equation and far less than half of the population; for while there are quite a few free market progressives and economically interventionist conservatives, in reality most people tend to be economically interventionist progressives or free market conservatives.
In those cases, what determines if someone is for or against migration? More often than not, some balance is struck. For an economically interventionist progressive like Bernie Sanders, he may generally support the rights of migrants and be broadly pro-immigration, but would stop short of the open borders policy supported by those who are both cultural and economic liberals; as Bernie himself once noted that open borders is a “Koch brothers proposal”. On the other end of the spectrum, for much of US and Australian history, past governments worried about migrants’ racial and cultural composition may restrict certain types of immigration but keep numbers high for economic reasons.

Sometimes however, a clear line in the sand can be drawn, especially if one is much more devoted to the economic or cultural side of their politics. One infamous example is the unabashedly free marketeer conservative Enoch Powell who nonetheless remains better known for his so-called “Rivers of Blood” speech and called for the repatriation of immigrants from Commonwealth countries. Another is the case of communist East Germany where, despite the state’s adherence to the motto “workers of the world, unite!”, walls, barriers and armed guards were raised to prevent the free emigration of their citizenry. In both cases, absolutism in the cultural or economic spheres can take precedence over quite significant support for forces which would, theoretically, indicate a support for open migration.

And so, generally, politics becomes quite predictable as far as migration is concerned; depending on one’s commitment to the existence of a free market or their commitment to the existence of cultural diversity, someone’s political opinion regarding migration can develop accordingly.

Appropriating Arguments from the Opposition

Oftentimes, particularly for issues such as migration, one “side” may appropriate arguments from their usual opposition despite it running counter to the rest of their beliefs. For instance, some conservatives, who normally could actually be quite socially conservative, would nonetheless see the benefits of a more open migration policy as having economic positives which outweigh a few cultural negatives. In this case, while defending an open immigration policy which they believe in for economic reasons, conservatives, such as Angela Merkel during the 2010s migration wave, may in fact try to bolster their economic biases by using the language of progressives. Similarly, during the Brexit referendum, it was far from unheard of to hear quite interventionist socialists and social democrats adopting free market positions on migration to argue on behalf of the EU’s freedom of movement which they had a strong socio-cultural attachment to (for which economics was a secondary or even tertiary concern).

The Curious Case of Diane Abbott

So, with all of this in mind, where exactly does Diane Abbott fit in? As an MP from Labour’s most economically left-wing faction, the Socialist Campaign Group, one could assume that her tweet can be explained as her economic leftism taking charge. Underneath her argument, Diane Abbott may be concerned that these visas would in fact undermine the market value and bargaining power of many highly skilled UK graduates. After all, migrants are far less likely to unionise compared to natives. However, I don’t believe this is the underlying reasoning behind Diane Abbott’s tweet. Firstly, given her record for leftism, it would not be out of place for her to make this argument already, so if this was her primary motivation she could just say it straightforwardly. Secondly, Abbott has just as strong record for social progressivism, particularly on the treatment of ethnic minority migrants — so what really is at play here?

I don’t believe that Abbott is simply demonstrating a blind spot in her ideology. Abbott, in her own way, is demonstrating the line between two very different traditions among the “progressive” camp. On the one hand, you have (cultural) libertarianism and on the other communitarianism. To libertarians, the most important unit of social organisation is the individual — their rights and welfare are sacred, beyond any other characteristic. To the communitarian however, it is the collective, or the community (broadly defined) which is sacred. A progressive communitarian holds no ill-will towards those of different cultural backgrounds and usually are the ones to fight strongly on their behalf to defend the collective rights of cultural minorities (as Abbott has done throughout her life). Libertarians, as defenders of individual liberty, would fight just as hard for individuals of a cultural minority to ensure that they have the same individual rights (and opportunity to express collective rights) as a native. The distinction is a subtle one but migration is the best example to demonstrate the difference. Abbott’s tweet offers a fascinating case study into the progressive communitarian mindset. Let’s deconstruct it piece by piece.

Deconstructing the Tweet

“Government boast it is opening up visas to world’s top graduates. But…”
Abbott seems to ostensibly accept that the government’s plans appear good; she knows that normally progressivism has a default pro-immigration bias, but she is priming for opposition by saying “But”, constructing a caveat.

“many originally come from third world countries”
Pushing aside her terminology which some say could be construed as outdated or derogatory, I believe that Abbott is sincerely tweeting in a place of concern for the development of less economically developed countries. Abbott expresses solidarity with the position of these countries which, in her view, are being economically exploited by the West via this policy. She values the community, the collective of “third world countries” in and of themselves and does not wish to see them falter, especially not to benefit already wealthy first world nations.

“Why is Britain asset stripping poor countries like this?”
This rhetorical question is the key to understanding Abbott’s argument.
She uses the term “asset stripping”, the practice of taking over a company in financial difficulties and selling each of its assets separately at a profit without regard for the company’s future. To communitarians like her, the collective unit, the “company” (in this case, third world countries) would have a worsened future, and the individuals who would be allowed to migrate under the government’s scheme are merely assets, or human capital in other words. In the view of communitarians, these poorer countries would be better off retaining their highly valuable graduates to avoid a brain-drain, despite what the graduates themselves would actually want. However a libertarian would see the granting of visas as an absolute win: these poorer individuals would be able to not only improve their economic wellbeing but would have greater freedom to move wherever they wished; people who would otherwise have their potential limited in their home countries would have an enormous opportunity to thrive in a wealthier, more prosperous country.

Understanding the Split Within Progressivism

The communitarian/libertarian split, while often expressed in economic terms, is not the same as the economic left/right divide. Both libertarians and communitarians are progressive, in that they do not oppose migration on cultural grounds. But ultimately, the communitarian is determined to maintain the cohesiveness and success of community units as their expression of progressivism. Migration, the act that causes an individual to leave one community to join another, is a battle line that tugs at the tension between progressives.

Diane Abbott is far from bigoted in relation to migrants, and the cultural composition of a migrant intake does not bother her one bit. Furthermore, despite her economic leftism, she is open to admitting that migration of top graduates is likely to have economic benefits for the UK. Yet with this policy, despite implicitly conceding the benefits for existing UK residents and benefits for those who choose to migrate, (in her understanding) the biggest loser is the “third world” community as a whole, so she is willing to express her opposition. She reaches her conclusion not in spite of, but because of her progressivism, Abbott’s value of the community above all else places the development of third world countries ahead of the development of the UK and the personal development of individuals from the third world.

Somewhat expectedly, in terms of outcomes, this leaves Abbott’s tweet receiving (albeit very few) sincere retweets of support from communitarian progressives and anti-immigration conservatives alike. And while this seems like an unlikely alliance, Abbott’s well-meaning concern for the third world could have the unfortunate consequence of harming some of the world’s poorest people.

Why I Prefer Libertarianism over Communitarianism

Perhaps it is difficult for me to put myself entirely in Abbott’s shoes here since I see myself within the libertarian side of the internal progressive divide. After all, I value freedom of movement as a principle and care more for individual outcomes than some hard-to-classify collective entity like the “third world” or “developing world”. Imagine an impoverished village of a 100 people and a wealthy, productive city. Which would be the preferable outcome? 1. Giving the most talented 10 villagers the opportunity to move to a wealthy city where they will escape poverty and have far more opportunities, or 2. Forcing them to stay in the village on the chance that eventually they slightly alleviate the poverty of the other 90? Furthermore, what is there to say that those lucky enough to move to the city won’t send back remittances to help develop the 90 left behind? The “village” is an abstraction but the people who benefit from moving to the city are real. It does not become a debate about valuing freedom of movement over economic development, but more about whether we believe that the community as a unit is worth more than the individuals that communities consist of.

The Communitarian-Conservative Alliance

By valuing communities more than individuals, Abbott may not necessarily care if, as data suggests, it would mean that global poverty alleviates at a slower pace; that debate is an economic one, which isn’t the focus of this article. Beyond the issues within the debate about whether to either help the world’s poorest people or the world’s poorest communities, the most dangerous aspect of Abbott’s ideology is her(perhaps unwitting) insistence to remain on the same side as right-wing anti-immigrant forces while deploying progressive argumentation. Now, via her tweet, she has opened the door to an argument which can be used in bad faith by anti-immigration figures to bolster their own agenda. A move to restrict immigration through a belief in the cultural or racial inferiority of other people can be “balanced” with Abbott’s argument that it is for the own good of the people of those countries, just as she “balanced” her tweet by admitting, on at least a surface level, that the government’s policy is worth boasting about.

This seemingly unlikely policy agreement between the right and the communitarian left on migration doesn’t even have to extend beyond national boundaries, you only need to look within our cities. The “NIMBY” phenomenon, where the construction of new housing is halted by local residents to avoid new residents moving in to established communities, has a cultural dynamic too. Some conservatives would flat out block new housing to prevent ethnic minorities from moving in, and a progressive might oppose the same on the basis of “gentrification”. While the culture of new residents doesn’t bother communitarians, the change to existing communities is intolerable enough to warrant the same action. Hence, if someone stands up during a planning meeting to discuss preserving the “character of the community” you’d be hard-pressed to immediately determine whether it was a conservative or a progressive who was speaking.

Even more poignantly, I’m reminded of the case of the founding of the the Republic of Liberia in West Africa, a safe haven and homeland for the freed slaves of the Americas. While ostensibly a progressive project to liberate and give a homeland to those who suffered generational brutality, it was nonetheless backed by many who held a sincere belief in the incompatibility of the races to live side by side. The American Colonization Society, who funded the project, was funded by a coalition of both slaveholders and idealistic black nationalists. Liberia, by all means, largely became a segregated and failed state. An extreme example to be sure, but this 19th century alliance of progressive nationalists and Southern reactionaries uniting in policy did little but exacerbate human suffering. Those progressives who instead valued liberty, the abolitionists, held their opposition to the project throughout.

Concluding Remarks

The purpose of exemplifying the communitarian-conservative alliance is not to demonise or diminish the importance of community. Progressives of both sides of the divide value community greatly and believe that communities can, and should, be celebrated. Freedom of movement however, should be paramount. It is the freedom to choose which community you want to belong to which differentiates communities from prisons. It is not only desirable but necessary to grant that freedom when and where we can to give people the chance to escape poverty, but this doesn’t mean that migration should be the only means of escape from poverty. Helping the world’s poorest should involve aid, trade and yes, migration. But if instead of extending a hand of assistance, we only extend one finger, our response should be to extend the whole hand, not to retract the only assistance we’re offering. The alternative — siding with those who wish not to offer any help at all — may come from a place of progressive concern, but can lead to insidious consequences that other progressives should rightly be wary of.

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