In Saving Migrants We Save Ourselves

The migrant issue has become a decisive test for all those on the Left who campaign for the emancipation of the people and equal rights for all. Far from protecting existing rights, any concession to to the favouring of one nationality over others or to policies based onborders and identity, will simply help the cause of the extreme right.

“Act in your place, think with the world!” was the advice of poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, (1928 – 2011) for whom the poetic was also political. Putting his own recommendation into practice, Glissant was the first, right at the start of the Nicolas Sarkozy presidency in 2007, to warn against the return in France of the political poison that is national identity, the process of closing in on ourselves, of shutting out others, of forgetting our relationships with the world. This manifesto, Quand les Murs Tombent (‘When the Walls Tumble Down’) published by Galaade, was written with Patrick Chamoiseau who, ten years later in 2017, wrote the salutary Frères Migrants (‘Migrant Brothers’), published by Seuil.

The link is a logical one: the migrant issue is nothing other than an issue about ourselves. To close ourselves to others is to retreat into oneself. The relationship with those who are distant determines the vision we have of those close to us. At least, that is true if we support emancipation, that endless and still unfinished movement for freedom from constraints and oppression, which we normally call the Left, and which the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) liked to say was not a matter of government but one of perception. While conservatives think of what is closest to them, their privileges, their comforts, even if they are run-of-the mill or miniscule, being of the Left is quite the opposite, it is about looking into the distance, towards the horizon. It is about thinking about what is far away in order to act close to home.

Read here (in French) the manifesto launched on Wednesday September 26th, 2018 by the news magazines Regards and Politis and by Mediapart, and signed by 150 leading figures, to welcome migrants.

It was no accident that Édouard Glissant was a close friend of this unorthodox philosopher who, in his stimulating alphabet-based television programme Abécédaire (made with journalist Claire Parnet and directed by Pierre-André Boutang), maintained that “not being of the Left, is a bit like a postal address”. It is, Deleuze said “…. leaving yourself, the street where you are, the town, the country, other countries, going further and further away. You start with yourself and, to the extent that you are privileged or are in a wealthy country, you ask yourself: okay, how can you make the situation last. You feel that there are some dangers, that all that cannot last [the injustices, inequalities and poverty], that it’s too crazy. Okay, but how do you make sure it continues?” In contrast, says Deleuze: “To be of the Left is the opposite.”

Being of the Left, he said, is “first of all to perceive the region, the world, the continent, France etc. It’s a phenomenon of perception. First of all you perceive the horizon, you first look to the horizon.” He summed it up in a definitive expression, noting that it was not about having a “kind soul” but was, on the contrary, about realism and effectiveness. “To be of the Left is to know that the problems of the Third World are closer to us than the problems in our neighbourhood,” he declared. The fact that this point of view was, at the time, a minority one should not be a deterrent. For as far as Deleuze was concerned the Left’s long history is nothing other than a succession of “minority futures” which, from workers to women, from slaves to the colonised, have constantly shaken the certainties of the majority who rest on their established advantages.

Like the colonial issue of yesterday, the migration issue today represents a moment of truth for those on the Left in all their diversity (read this article here in French by Pauline Graulle on the Left’s different stances). When the French empire came to an end, that section of the Left which claimed it was protecting social and labour advantages here (in mainland France) by maintaining the injustices over there (in the colonies) ended up losing its soul. It undermined fundamental rights, presided over the general use of torture by the military and helped the extreme right. In the same way, at a time when the European Union is weakened, any on the Left who claim they are defending and extending our social advances by rejecting migrant peoples will end up helping their worst historic enemies, the opponents of the equality of rights whose preferred trick is to give one nationality preference over others. That allows them to normalise inequality through establishing hierarchies based on a person’s origins, culture, appearance and beliefs.

Italy is carrying out a shattering demonstration of that today with the alignment between a citizens movement born out of democratic demands faced with the gangrene of corruption and anger at socially disastrous economic decisions and a party has inherited a tradition of fascism, xenophobia and racism. This fundamental capitulation has been performed at the expense of the migrants, who have been held up as scapegoats to help impose a nationalist and ethnic ideology. It opens up a fatal breach through which the extreme right has poured. This is illustrated by the rapid rise of Italy’s far-right League, which was previously the extremist flank of Silvio Berlusconi’s movement, to the detriment of the Five Star Movement (M5S), even though it had been the main winner in the last parliamentary elections in Italy.

In the same way, Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan, which picks up on the watchword of the pro-Nazi, North American extreme right of between the world wars, is spreading to Europe and even to some who claim to be on the Left, for example in Germany. Turning foreign migrants into a threat to domestic workers is not defending the rights of those workers but instead means rejecting the equality of rights for all. As a consequence it plays into the hands of those interests who seek to exploit others and who pit one person against another. It is therefore high time to announce that a Left that is worthy of the name – and, beyond that, any politics that supports humankind and their natural rights – can today only defend the welcoming of migrants as a fair and realistic policy.

Those people who, claiming to be on the Left, refuse to accept such an approach and justify it by brandishing the words of Karl Marx (1818-1883) about the “industrial reserve army” used by bosses to increase competition, lower wages and divide workers, are just superficial readers of that section of ‘Das Kapital’, as shown in this article (in French) by Romaric Godin. Marx did not advocate the nationalist politics of rejection, quite the contrary; he used it as an argument to plead for greater solidarity alongside migrant workers. In this particular case it concerned Irish workers, migrant manual labourers who had been exploited with the great disdain of colonial prejudice. And Marx endlessly repeated, as for example in a letter in 1870, that the emancipation of Ireland was not, for the English working class “a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation”. In that letter he criticises the approach in which those who claim to defend the exploited end up doing the work of the exploiters. His words inevitably bring to mind the current situation in which the issue of immigration has been used – for decades – to undermine the social movement.

The insights of Karl Marx, the knowledge of François Héran

“The ordinary English worker,” wrote Marx in 1870, “hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

In the same way that in the past a population which agreed to oppress another could not be free themselves as they were playing their masters’ games, so today any population which agrees to reject humanity knocking on their door will never be able to defend their own humanity, because they will have accepted a challenge to fundamental rights. For it is when there are security obsessions driven by the migrant issue that we grow accustomed to the existence of camps in Europe in which we lock up people who have committed no crime but who simply wanted to exercise a natural right, one set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” That is also how we have become accustomed to the locking up of minors with no regard for children’s rights, to obstacles being placed on the freedom to come and go, to retrograde steps in the freedom of expression and the right to protest, to challenges to the right of asylum, to xenophobic comments and acts, and so on.

In a way that has astonishing resonance with the current media and ideological climate, Marx also talked about the artificial way that antagonism is maintained between domestic and foreign workers. Today it is couched in terms of being between a native people and “the world’s poor” who are supposedly coming to invade, or even submerge them. In two recent and definitive articles, one in the review Population & Sociétés, the other on the website La Vie des idées, the demographer François Héran, the ex-directer of the Institut National des Études Démographiques (INED) who now holds the chair of Migrations and Societies at the Collège de France education research establishment, has scientifically shot down all the claptrap that is currently poisoning public debate. In particular he has taken apart the toned-down version of the ‘great replacement‘ fantasy of the extreme right which was produced in a recent book by journalist Stephen Smith, La Ruée vers l’Europe (‘The Rush to Europe’) published by Grasset in 2018.

Subtitled ‘Young Africa heading for the Old Continent’, Smith’s work raises the spectre of a Europe where by 2050 some 25% of the population would be from sub-Saharan Africa. In his relentless reasoning, François Héran demonstrates that this claim does “not hold water” and that the “kind of scale that is the most realistic is five times lower”. Héran attacks a line of argument that is “obsolete and full of holes”, based on “second-hand figures” linked with “economic speculation” and a “sensational message” which is far removed from the rigours of demographic reasoning. The academic points out the crucial facts that have been borne out by research, and which are summarised in three key points. “1. Compared with other regions, Sub-Saharan Africans emigrate little, for the very reason of their poverty; 2. When they emigrate 70% go to another sub-Saharan country and only 15% to Europe, the rest being split between the Gulf countries and North America; 3. If you incorporate the demographic growth projected by the UN, sub-Saharan migrants will indeed occupy a growing place in societies in the North, however, they will remain very much a minority: at most 3% to 4% of the population around 2050 – very far from the 25% feared,” Professor Héran writes.

“In addition, raising the spectre of a ‘rush’ from Africa to Europe is to forget that migrants are also producers, consumers, taxpayers and contributors,” the academic writes in Population & Sociétés. Professor Héran also points out that the evidence of social history since 1945 has completely refuted the “bar-room assertions that immigration is inevitably incompatible with the welfare state”. He adds on the La Vie des idées website: “The idea that the migrants ‘take’ the work of native [workers] or are an undue drain on their welfare services is based on the fallacy that work and resources are a fixed quantity … it is imagining that goods exist in a finite quantity, as if you had to give up wanting to reconcile realism and respect for political and moral rights.”

François Héran concludes: “If you have to fear a rush, it’s not that of foreigners coming from the South to transform Europe into ‘Eurafrica’ but rather the rush that consists of throwing yourself at the first explanation that comes along or getting carried away too quickly by outrageous metaphors to get cheap headlines. It remains to be hoped that political leaders, now that they are better armed, will know how to avoid such traps in the future and will stop raising the spectre of the black peril.”

English translation by Michael Streeter;

first published at Mediapart; the French version of this article can be found here.