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Hierarchies of exclusion

Don Flynn seeks to make sense of the immigration debate

Contrary to the claims of the anti-immigrant right, the 'conspiracy' to rack up higher levels of immigration to satisfy the appetites for consumption of the metropolitan elite, has most decidedly not been advanced in conditions of subterfuge and stealth. The chattering classes have left a dense paper trail over the course of the past decades in which their innermost thoughts and ideals are easily traceable. A big portion of their plots and plans are on prominent display in these books*.

Legrain's book, (the only one here you stand a chance of picking up at your local W.H. Smith) is the closest to the sort of thing that the anti-immigrant MigrationWatch outfit would decry as elitist irresponsibility. An avowed supporter of globalisation, he argues that there are mechanisms which can be put in place which would at least challenge the ascendancy of American-style liberal free marketism and allow some of the wealth to be redistributed. Immigration is one of these.

The migrants Legrain praises in this book are the classic heroes of capitalist redemption. Motivated exclusively by the desire to 'make it' for themselves and their families, everything they touch moves up a gear and is transformed into higher rates of productivity, more abundantly distributed welfare, and generally a win-win situation all round.

The only thing which holds back the achievement of all this good from this viewpoint is the supineness of politicians too lazy to challenge the errant ways of their national constituencies. This is a typical liberal free marketeer complaint about politics and democracy, that it gets in the way of people doing business and if only more was left to the people with the get-up-and-go about them we'd all be happier.

All-in-all Legrain at least offers up an impressive review of the range of issues and arguments bound up in the immigration debate and he writes with clarity and enthusiasm. But because it is not possible to banish exploitation and the systematic pursuit of advantage gained from the weakness of other actors from the business of the market or liberal democracy, he is quite wrong to presume that the greater levels of social justice will be attained simply by letting globalisation rip. We need a politics which is adequate to the task of guiding our perspectives on immigration. Fortunately the other books are more interesting on this score.

The collection of essays put together by the Policy Network, the international think-tank put together by Blair, Clinton and Schroder during the salad days of the Third Way, reveals a little more about the ways in which centre-left practitioners of the dark arts are thinking about immigration. They have some real problems. On the one hand, the pieces here show a willingness to acknowledge the economic benefits (Elizabeth Collett's helpful review of the issue), but on the other the centre-left response to the political challenges of adaptation to these new realities becomes little more than a sustained, pitiful whinge. Ernst Hillebrand, director of the London office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, demonstrates neither insight nor a grasp of the evidence base when he complains that the last decades have seen the emergence of 'parallel societies' that 'function according to completely different cultural and social codes'.

In truth there is nothing 'parallel' about western societies, though a lot could be said about their hierarchies of exclusion and exploitation. Immigrants, who have been left to fester at the bottom-most reaches of the social system, are unjustly criticised for attempting to make sense of their predicament through the lenses they have been left with. They have understandably come up with something more strongly tinged with a religious outlook, which, depending on the community, will be any one of a dozen varieties of Christianity, as well as the bete-noir faith of Islam.

Against the standard of some of the near-hysterical contributions to this volume, even Britain's immigration minister, Liam Byrne, seems reasonably well-balanced. Taking up the theme of the 'benefits' of immigration, Byrne calls for a 'tough-minded fairness' in order to ensure that the centre-left doesn't lose office.

What is unsatisfactory about this typically New Labour approach is the purpose of this 'tough' fair-mindedness. Is it needed because of a defect on the part of the immigrants arriving in the country, that some simply don't measure up and there is therefore a need to say no to them? Or would it be truer to say that the problem lies more with the people who are already here, who have either been deprived of the opportunity to understand the nature of their society and the reasons why it generates a demand for migration, or are too steeped in racism to make the imaginative leap to bring themselves into the twenty-first century?

If the problem with immigration really has more to do with the host society than the immigrants, then Byrne's tough-minded fairness is projected in the wrong direction. Instead of depriving immigrants of the opportunities which have come their way through the channels of globalisation, his toughness, tempered no doubt by the appropriate level of fairness, should be directed towards those in his British society who need to be persuaded to let go of the old ways, and face up to the new challenges. This is not very easy because, as Byrne says, such boldness would expose indolent and complacent political office-holders to the danger of losing their cushy jobs.

But this is more diplomatically-argued by the excellent Jon Cruddas, who, in his vulnerable east London parliamentary constituency in Dagenham, is better-placed to know where the resources of toughness should be directed. His complaint that New Labour has 'quite consciously' removed class as a perspective from its own thinking about politics, and has therefore done much to deprive the majority community in the economically-deprived parts of Britain's cities of an understanding of the mechanisms that have confirmed the subaltern status of these communities, is the wisest thing that is said in the Policy Network book. To foster the emergence of a democratic politics that engaged with communities on this basis, and look for ways in which solidarities could be expressed between communities on the basis of class, would be the most important contribution the centre-left could make to discussions about the future of immigration policy.

The last two books in this review make the politics of immigration their explicit theme. Nandita Sharma, a Canadian political scientist and campaigning activist, draws on the veins of feminism and anti-racism to develop her critique of the way in which the authorities in her home country have sought to manage immigration. It is a timely account for those of us working on these issues in Europe for precisely the reason that Canada is so often presented by the centre-left as a model of what can be done to manage migration in a positive way, to extract mutual benefits for all the parties involved.

Contrary to the perception that Canada welcomes immigrants, Sharma dissects the workings of the Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program (NIEAP), the principle tool used to administer economic migration into the country. Since 1973 the NIEAP has recruited migrants to do the work which Canadian citizens or 'landed immigrants' (i.e. immigrants admitted for permanent settlement) have been unwilling to do. In the region of 200,000 migrants enter each year under the scheme and are contracted to work in modestly remunerated employment for short periods of time and on conditions which prohibit changes of employer. Their designation as 'non-immigrants' is a bureaucratic slight-of-hand which has the effect of removing them from the channels which permit the entry of relatively privileged skilled migrants, who can at least look forward to the prospect of a secure residence status and the company of their families in their new country.

The issue for Sharma is the way in capitalist societies organise the conditions of 'non-freedom' for those working in the basement sweatshops of their economic systems, whilst preserving a self-image of liberalism and decency as a distinguishing feature of their ethos. This is secured by the way in which immigration is organised as a national project, drawing all the designated Canadian parts of society, be they rich or poor, into a collaboration which has as its object the ruthless exploitation of all those who are imagined to be outside the nation.

The repudiation of this unjust system requires, for Sharma, the refusal of the categories of citizenship and migrant, as endlessly opposed binaries. Her perspective is of a struggle for rights which roots itself in the supra-national solidarities which are capable of being generated between groups of people, such as peoples of colour, women, gay and lesbian people, and which has no reference to national outcomes.

Schierup and his co-authors share Sharma's interest in international strategies which bolster the social, as opposed to the market economic, dimension of life. Their starting point is the fate of the welfare state in Europe over the past twenty years, and the extent to which a concept of social citizenship has been eroded by the advance of free-market globalisation. The reduction of the authority of social citizenship is, from this viewpoint, the real benchmark by which we need to measure the loss of Europe's capacity to deliver equality and justice to its denizens, and the lowering of its capacity to manage immigration in ways which acknowledge the rights of the various parties involved.

This is a subtle argument that takes the debate well beyond the inanities of a centre-left which cannot get beyond focus groups and triangulation as ways of thinking about immigration. It raises the issue, too seldom discussed by anyone interested in this area of policy, of not what good can immigrants do for the nation ('your country needs them' in Legrain's discourse), but what can immigrants bring to the continuing battle to strengthen democracy. In particular, how the exercise of power in the modern world, whether of the political or economic kinds, is made accountable to the people who will live with its consequences.

The evidence of thinking along these lines is scant. But it will be within a framework which aims to facilitate action to extend the reach of democracy across world society that we will come to understand the real importance of immigration and the social struggles it has set in train.

* Immigrants Your Country Needs Them Phillippe Legrain, (Little, Brown 2006, £12.99)

Rethinking Immigration and Integration: a New Centre-Left Agenda Policy Network 2007 (http://www.progressive-governance.net/uploadedFiles/Publications/Publications/Immigration%20and%20Integration%20final.pdf)

Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of 'Migrant Workers' in Canada Nandita Sharma, (University of Toronto Press 2006, no UK price quoted)

Migration, Citizenship, and the European Welfare State: A European Dilemma Carl-Ulrik Schierup et al (Oxford University Press, £20.00)