Thursday, 28 March 2013

Thinking about immigration

A comment on my last post – yay, a comment! thank you! – reminds me that I was going to come back to the issue of immigration. It’s a good time to do so from a UK perspective as David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has just made a speech promising to ‘get tough’ on immigration. That is of no great interest in itself since it’s timing is mainly motivated by the rise of the anti-immigration, anti-EU UKIP Party, whilst its content is mainly a re-assertion of existing policy (e.g. restrictions on immigrants’ access to benefits) or a response to virtually non-existent problems (e.g. ‘health tourism’). Its wider significance is that, unsurprisingly in a time of what is, in effect, if not in formal definition, a global economic depression anti-immigration sentiment has risen. In the UK this is still relatively benign compared with, say, Greece, where the growth of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party has seen increasing levels of violence against immigrants.

It’s worth recalling why this topic is relevant to the study of organizations and the answer, of course, is that most migration is connected with movements of labour. It is hardly surprising, then, that the business community is, generally, in favour of immigration either as a way of increasing the pool of labour from which it can choose skilled workers or as a way of depressing wages (although the effects of immigration of wage rates is not clear cut). In this way it leads to schisms in both the traditional right and the traditional left. For the right, it opens up the contradiction between social traditionalism and free-market economics. For the left, the contradiction between internationalism and the protection of national working-class constituencies. Thus, in the UK, the Conservative policy of an immigration cap has been vociferously criticised by the City of London. On the other hand, the previous Labour government policy of not restricting immigration from new East European entrants to the EU became an issue in the last election, symbolised by the ‘bigot gate’ controversy.

In some ways, there is nothing new in all this. Although it is often said by opponents of immigration that it used to be fine but has now become ‘uncontrolled’ and is having adverse consequences for employment, social cohesion, housing, overcrowding and so on, I can recall in the 1970s exactly the same kinds of arguments being made. In other words, in precisely the period that is now seen as a time of immigration not being a problem it was, in fact, constituted as a problem. The lesson, I think, is that – leaving aside the out and out racists – problems of one sort (e.g. lack of housing) are ascribed to something else: immigration. In fact, there is no more reason why population growth by immigration causes any more problems that population growth by indigenous fertility. What would actually be a serious problem for Western countries, given historically declining fertility rates and an ageing population, would be a lack of immigration.

What is bizarre is that a much more obvious source of complaint would be the migration of capital, both in the sense of the globalized ownership of what were hitherto national or even regional companies; and the propensity of such companies to shift production and employment around the globe. For example, in the UK, it has just been announced that Sea and Air Rescue (one of whose employees is no less than Prince William, the heir to the British throne) is to be sub-contracted to a US company. Unlike labour migration, capital migration has had very definite effects upon the employment prospects of Europeans and yet is commonly regarded as a simply ‘natural’ event, rather than an outcome of policy. Any criticism of that policy is derided as protectionism. By contrast, immigration is commonly regarded as the ‘unnatural’ consequence of policy decisions and defence of those decisions is derided as being ‘elitist’, even treasonous.

The failure of mainstream politics is not, then, one of not ‘listening’ to the ‘legitimate concerns’ of the population: it is of failing to spell out the meaning and consequences of the globalization that they champion – the Right through dishonesty, the Left through cowardice. Into the space they have left is inserted a populism which is at best platitudinous and at worst violent.

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