Open Borders?

Grayson Scott

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some grave sites, out by the highway,
A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,
I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in a ghetto,
I’ve lived all over this town

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now

Transmit the message, to the receiver,
Hope for an answer some day
I got three passports, a couple of visas,
You don’t even know my real name

“Life during Wartime”, Talking Heads (1979)

David Byrne may not be the first person you would look to for a perspective on cosmopolitanism, but in the recent frenzy among leftists to establish a coherent position on open borders one can’t be blamed for slipping outside the mainstream.
The song warrants a mention because it does competently what many writers on the left do not. It envisions a way of doing politics that neither trivializes nor inflates our responsibility for those around us. Art, or at least successful art, resonates with us somatically. When we talk about borders we are foremost discussing people’s bodies: where they are and aren’t allowed to be and whether or not they are safe there.

It’s an anthem for the New Age, surely, but also for our age. Byrne sketches a narrative imaginary in which cosmopolitan and individual interests intersect. Sometimes with a bang — the “van that is loaded with weapons” line makes an impact— but with sensitivity, too. His narrator moves through distant political and economic communities with the fluency of fiction, laying out branches of responsibility among them. The urgency of “no time for dancing” provokes the listener to do anything other than pick among their “three passports” and leave the crisis in the rearview.

Anyone engaged with today’s left should feel the tug of familiarity in these lines, with their vaguely menacing aura of helplessness in the face of rising stakes. Byrne’s allusive lyrics conjure everything from billionaires holed up on private islands guarded by private militaries to the evergreen threat by American liberals to move to Canada. Even the reference to wartime in the song’s title evokes the newly rediscovered rhetoric framing migrants as invaders and America as a country under siege. It urges you to remember your “real name”, the mantle of responsibility assumed as both a citizen of this country — Byrnes’ “brownstones” — and a participant in a shared global reality. For many, that world resembles nothing so much as the “ghettos” of the same verse. The song’s story is compelling because it imagines an empowered actor struggling with the same choices we face: whether to throw up our hands and relent, or confront the unstable reality we share the responsibility for creating.

Not bad for a forty-year old cultural relic. The song needles us to ask questions we’re too often reluctant to consider despite their urgency and relevance. In an era of profound political division, violence, and uncertainty, what (if anything) does the nation continue to offer us? And what are our responsibilities to those outside our borders?

The two positions carved out in the pages of left journals are essentially as follows: One camp alleges a moral imperative, backed up by the left’s history of internationalism, that requires opening our borders, an appeal founded analytically on the interconnectivity of capital’s crimes at home and abroad. Their opponents respond that increasing immigration hurts existing immigrant populations, among others, undercutting open borders’ supporters claims to moral superiority. They answer, further, that support for something so unpopular as undoing our more or less functioning citizenship and nationhood threatens national organizing efforts against capital, the force that destabilizes the developing world and sends immigrants in the first place. Both arguments mobilize fears about climate collapse to lend urgency to their cause. Each bolsters its claim to credibility through associations with historic left positions, particularly the support of American workers — both immigrant and not.

This point requires special attention, as opponents in the open borders debate make opposing claims about American workers’ economic security and the consequences increased immigration would or would not have on their quality of life. Let us agree: any conversation about the American left must both be accountable to the beliefs and aspirations of the working class here and engaged with the lives of workers around the world. Taking an uncritical position in support of labor’s historic opposition to immigration, even to manifest solidarity with blue-collar America, does no justice to the complexity of labor’s relationship to domestic immigrant communities and less to their fellow workers abroad.

The American labor movement’s history of racebaiting and anti-immigrant xenophobia has been comprehensively catalogued. In Dana Frank’s excellent Buy American, a history of economic nationalism, the relationship of American workers to fellow workers at home and overseas has been marred by suspicion and violence instead of principled solidarity. Frank illustrates the extent to which racist attacks, like the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by union members and anti-immigrant union ad campaigns encouraged nationalism of an unacceptable kind among American workers.

That these tendencies are often provoked by the same managers’ and employers’ associations they are fighting is a critical piece of the puzzle. It has been in the interest of American business to promote free movement of labor and capital since the advent of globalization. Exploiting racist prejudices among workers is a cheap and easy way to sabotage unity against bosses. Many “Buy American” campaigns notably ignored union goods, especially those funded by American manufacturers and retailers.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is not the exclusive territory of American workers mistaken in believing immigrant and foreign labor threaten their jobs. Frank recounts the Wal-Mart “Buy American” campaign of the late 1990s and early 2000s, illuminating the retail giant’s exploitation of consumer fears to consolidate their grip on the domestic labor market, and from there secure international supply chains. Blue-collar xenophobia is a real danger, but it is as much a product of business strategy as it is union policy. Neither business nor labor is guiltless, but contextualizing the support open border beliefs have had from capital is essential to framing today’s debate.

\That there is even a conversation about open borders, much less such a fractious and confused one, is surprising. Here in the United States — and this is largely a conversation about the United States — we have a surprisingly lengthy historical consensus on what kind and how much immigration is acceptable. The percentage of Americans who feel immigration should neither increase nor decrease has hardly shifted since polling on the question began in 1965 , and remains stable even among Latinx and other predominantly immigrant minority groups. Add their numbers to those who believe it should decrease, and the result becomes clear: If the coming 2020 election is anywhere near as close as our last, this sentiment cannot be ignored. Open-borders opponents argue, perhaps cynically, that more meaningful change for workers can be affected without stirring up trouble amidst these demographic blocs.

It wasn’t until the Bush years that the American liberal tendency began to migrate away from essential moderation into righteous condemnation. Pro-immigration policy has traditionally been the bailiwick of the economic right: whatever cannot yet be offshored can be accomplished by a reserve army of labor, preferably politically impotent, at bargain prices. The right has remained committed to free market, free movement ideology even as the progressive left has come to accept open borders rhetoric.

As with many arguments on the American left, this one seems to have begun with Bernie Sanders. In a 2015 Vox interview, the senator famously responded to a question about whether he approves of open borders with: “No. That’s a Koch brothers proposal.”

The incongruity of American leftists adopting a position supported by the Cato Institute was publicly, loudly exposed. The day after the interview came online, a colleague of the interviewer posted a vicious rebuttal to Sanders’ position calling the comment “ugly” and “wrongheaded”, and a Twitter firestorm ensued over the Democratic primary candidate’s alleged racism.
This response, by journalist Dylan Matthews, essentially sets the script for the pro-open borders discourse in the following years. Matthews interrogates economist George Borjas’ findings regarding what happens to economies when new immigrant labor joins them and attempts to refute them on their own grounds. (Borjas reappears in Angela Nagle’s piece for American Affairs, which resurrected the argument last year and, for better or worse, is perhaps the most-cited statement on the topic.) Matthews contests that American workers would by and large be fine and may even benefit from an influx of labor, while evading Borjas’ conclusion that existing immigrant populations would likely suffer cratering wages.

But it seems likely that Borjas is right. These wages would be unlikely to stabilize, Borjas points out, because racism depresses wages among even established minority groups in America, resisting the boost that would be expected to result from increased spending on commodities as more workers entered the economy. Whether American workers would indeed be unaffected is arguable, but the data suggests that blue-collar workers already experiencing competition from immigrant labor would suffer along with their newly-arrived counterparts. Matthews, as a white-collar, educated culture worker, can probably be excused for his lack of concern with working-class Americans, but in an election year without a clear Democratic frontrunner, the rest of us should not be so cavalier.

Nagle’s “The Left Case against Open Borders” in American Affairs is probably the soundest argument from her side so far, drawing on Borjas, Marx and Engels, and rightwing think tank policy documents to contend that open borders would only deepen the economic, social, and environmental crises inflicted by globalization. Nagle’s article recommends actual policy goals to protect migrants against exploitation by capital, including encouraging the use of E-Verify by employers and making companies, rather than migrants, the target of immigration enforcement. Her conclusion offers a comprehensive argument for the moral and strategic clarity of this position:

Progressives should focus on addressing the systemic exploitation at the root of mass migration rather than retreating to a shallow moralism that legitimates these exploitative forces. This does not mean that leftists should ignore injustices against immigrants. They should vigorously defend migrants against inhumane treatment. At the same time, any sincere Left must take a hard line against the corporate, financial, and other actors who create the desperate circumstances underlying mass migration (which, in turn, produces the populist reaction against it). Only a strong national Left in the small and developing nations—acting in concert with a Left committed to ending financialization and global labor exploitation in the larger economies—could have any hope of addressing these problems.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s rebuttal, entitled “There Is No Case for Left Nationalism”, returned fire in short order. Her position broadly recycles the claims made in Matthews’ Sanders piece, down to a near word-for-word reproduction of Matthews’ “drowning migrant” thought experiment, itself cribbed from Peter Singer. Abrahamian spends more time going after Nagle than building an alternative to her nationalist critique: “It’s unfair to single out Nagle, especially given that she’s an expert on Internet trolls, not migration,” and slyly labeling Nagle as a “liberal” despite her Marxist bona fides.

For such vigorous fusillades, Abrahamian ends up giving a lot of ground. Opening borders, Abrahamian concedes, won’t save us from capital: “But the problem with foreign money isn’t that it’s foreign; it’s that it’s money.” So far so good, but now what? It ought to occur to an intellectual of her caliber that nationalist economic policies can offer a good number of upsides for leftists, including opportunities to pry tax revenue from the multinational monopoly deathgrip or nationalize them outright. Existing internationalist economic policy, on the other hand, has thus far done little but open up national resources to capital and encourage privatization.

What does the “globalization that we ought to have” look like to Abrahamian? Lovely, actually:

“[G]overnments should do far more to help workers and poor people, but to do so requires a global framework, with new forms of redistribution across borders, not just within them. Wealth is unevenly distributed; so is power. These new structures, be they a global accountability mechanism for multinational taxation or more say for workers around the world in trade agreements, need to adapt to the realities of the 21st century.”

The fact is, of course, that existing internationalist bodies already do a terrific job of redistributing wealth across borders, just not quite the way we’d like.

And it isn’t as if internationalism itself is blameless: Fortress Europe has caused 1,077 deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone . Even when Abrahamian gestures at a programmatic vision, it comes off sounding more like left globalization than internationalism: “For an open-borders politics to work, we would need policies addressing the inequalities between people within a state and the inequality between states.” The best way to get there, it seems to me, would be devolving to empowered national democracies rather than working through existing supranational organizations which have proven themselves profoundly hostile both to migrants and progressive economic policies. If Abrahamian wants to go beyond the nation, she is equally as responsible for the failures of internationalism as her opponents are for those of nationalism. What we get instead is an uplifting melody without much in the way of prosaic substance.

The problem with Abrahamian’s argument, as I see it, is a failure of imagination. Certainly nationalism is popular, and indeed some unsettling things have come out of convergences between nationalism and populism. But they are not the same. Ignoring the ideological differences between, say, Lexit and Brexit because their outcomes are essentially similar is not thoroughgoing political critique. If Abrahamian is planting her flag outside both contemporary internationalism and nationalism, it’s important to map out exactly where the new borders lie.

Abrahamian took up the debate anew with Michael Kazin in the Summer 2019 edition of Dissent. Kazin opens by arguing that since we’re stuck with the nation-state as our primary political imaginary, at least for the moment, “the only way to accomplish [a decent society] is to mobilize the citizens and institutions of the nation we have.” A relatively boilerplate response overall, with the notable exception of a disconcerting reference to John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Kazin also sacrifices the opportunity to propose the nation as a potential ally of cosmopolitanism, allowing Abrahamian’s nationalist/cosmopolitan binary to proceed unchallenged.

Abrahamian responds by again encouraging readers to think about citizenship and “belonging” differently. The U.N. and I.C.C., imperfect though they surely are, aren’t genetically incapable of changing to suit her goals; one wonders why she fails to mention them here. Abrahamian does concede tactical efficacy to Kazin:

“I share your enthusiasm for national programs like the New Deal. But the reason programs like that work is because they make people’s lives better, not because they’re nationalistic. Yes, they exist in a national framework—that’s where the money is—but I don’t think any of the Green New Deal’s hypothetical beneficiaries, rich or poor, are particularly attached to the nation-state.” 

Turning Nagle and Kazin’s vocabulary against them, Abrahamian paints herself as the “real” opponent of international financialization and neoliberalism. What is disappointing is that she gets to pull it off without doing much of the (admittedly difficult) theoretical work of building a novel critique.

The pages of the London Review of Books offer a more worldly (and inevitably less harmonious) perspective on open borders in an exchange between Adam Tooze and Wolfgang Streeck . It would be worthy of inclusion here on the strength of the writers’ profiles alone, but also provides a useful way into understanding how the open borders debate became so polarized.
Tooze is reviewing Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?, a central conceit of which is that the current politics of bodies like the E.U. involves surrendering the economic autonomy progressive politics demands, instead opening nations up to domination by powerful actors like Germany. The headline here is that internationalist politics of the continental variety restructure national economies into neoliberal hellscapes, while nationalism offers the power to renationalize and democratize industry. Tooze quotes him to this effect in his review:

‘Bringing capitalism back into the ambit of democratic government, and thereby saving the latter from extinction, means de-globalising capitalism.’ Capitalism must be cut back to the scale of the nation-state, because it is at the level of the nation-state that Europeans have over the last two centuries been able to establish ‘social cohesion and solidarity and governability’.
A far cry from Abrahamian’s “globalism that we ought to have”, surely. But much of the edifying value of the exchange lies elsewhere, in the difficulty nationalists have in freeing themselves from the kind of rhetoric that makes them vulnerable to accusations of heartless xenophobia.

The criticism levelled at Streeck by Tooze is of exactly this kind. Tooze takes Streeck to task over his Marktvolk/Staatsvolk distinction, meant to elaborate the difference between the “financial community” and the voting community. This does not go according to plan, for reasons Streeck should have been able to anticipate. Streeck has mistakenly bumbled into a nationalist trap (quite similar to the one Abrahamian suggests Nagleians are committed to by default) in using a term — Volk — with a racialized timbre. It isn’t what he meant, of course, but it is nonetheless an instructive mistake. The left needs to take seriously the tendency for opponents of progressive politicians, like Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, to suggest that their skepticism of internationalism actually results from the term’s historic usage as an anti-semitic dogwhistle rather than a reasoned mistrust of free-market ideology and start behaving accordingly. Mistakes like Streeck’s undermine progressive nationalists’ claim to the fundaments of leftism — a peaceful, dignified life for all — and overshadow otherwise legitimate critique.

Arguing for political and social nationalism from an economic perspective naturally makes one vulnerable to accusations of racism, and anyone on that side of things needs to step carefully. Tooze harmonizes with Abrahamian’s critique that nationalist discourse naturally aligns itself with far-right movements, either deliberately to gain vote share or indirectly through essentially xenophobic and immoral rhetoric. Here is Tooze’s take in the Letters:

“The experience of the 20th century suggests that when trying to channel nationalists’ energies into progressive politics, it is crucial to be clear-headed about one’s objectives. When you say you want to put the nation in charge and to throw off the yoke imposed by the invisible power of the cosmopolitan ‘market people’, who do you expect to rally to your banner? Streeck may protest to sympathetic interviewers that when he advocates immigration restrictions that doesn’t make him a closet AfD supporter or a proto-fascist. But given Streeck’s slide from a conflictual notion of class to the idea of an integrated society and from there to an enthusiastic embrace of the nation, and all this against the backdrop of bona fide nationalist mobilisation, what does he expect?”

Streeck’s response deserves to be quoted at length as well:

“My concern is not with ‘an assertion of the primacy of the nation’, but with how our historically inherited nation-states can be bound into a European fabric where they can live in peace with each other and with themselves – the latter meaning, to me at least, shielding themselves from powerful pressures, internal as well as external, for a neoliberal restructuring of their economies and societies. Too much centralisation is counterproductive in this respect; see the rise of anti-integrationist, nationalist parties everywhere, and the exit from Europe of a country like the UK, that was at best only marginally integrated in ‘Europe’ to begin with. The more you push for ‘more Europe’, the less Europe you get.”

To my mind, this is a masterful attempt to resolve the tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. The crux of the progressive nationalist argument is not that internationalism is bad, but that the nation is inevitably how we will get there.

Something all of these commentators agree on, to their credit, is the necessity of combating climate collapse. An oft-ignored argument against open borders rests on a reasoned study of the probable consequences of climate change on human migration patterns. The UN’s IOM predicts at least an additional 200 million climate migrants by 2050 . Add that to the 750 million adults estimated by Gallup who wish to leave their home countries, and any dream of accommodating these numbers outside of vast dystopian tent cities — much less in the kind of expanded welfare state leftists want— starts to sound more like a delusion. The idea is to have an America that refuses to lock them in cages when they start knocking. Even better if climate collapse can be averted within those next seven presidential election cycles.

This is not simply speculative: Climate change in Syria contributed to the rise of ISIS, as reported by National Geographic . The country has 7 million displaced by the ongoing conflict out of a prewar population of 22 million. It isn’t difficult to imagine the consequences unchecked climate change could have on our world, especially for those already most likely to migrate.

The UN assures us that climate collapse will happen without massive political mobilization on a scale unseen since World War II. 73% of Americans believe climate change is happening , double the number of those who support increased immigration. Angela Nagle is right to prioritize organizing at the national level to prevent further destabilization around the world, and that project begins with uniting American workers against capital. The left can remain international in its outlook and morality without sacrificing its defense of the working class in America, immigrants included. This country has an outsized presence on the world stage — that’s both why immigrants want to come here and why they are forced to come here — but there is no reason to believe American influence must always be repressive, exploitative, and unchecked.

Opening this article with the lyrics from the Talking Heads’ 1979 hit runs the risk of melodrama, even alarmism. There is no gunfire in the distance — at least none I can hear from my apartment in Manhattan — and the outlook is not yet so bleak. Another apocalyptic vision is hardly necessary when there are real disasters on the horizon.

We have choices to make on the left. There are places with “van[s] loaded with weapons” that innocent people want to leave. Any proposed solution requires an honest reckoning with that truth, but that can’t mean neglecting the equally real constraints of national politics. Taking responsibility begins here, inside our borders. Opening them risks surrendering more territory to actors seeking to exploit and disempower the working class, here and across the world, as they have always done. Open borders will not make the ruling class disappear, and it risks sacrificing the few tools we have to combat it. The political power of the American working class is our best hope for remaking America as a progressive force for a more equitable world