Speaking for Ourselves

Curbing migration won't beat far right

Curbing migration won't beat far right


 Migrant Voice - Curbing migration won't beat far right

In an article published on 22 November as a part of a larger interview with Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Matteo Renzi, Clinton boldly asserts that “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame (of right-wing populism).” 

She asserts that Angela Merkel has been kind and generous but that Europe cannot continue to welcome refugees and migrants because that will “roil the body politic”. What she means is that continuing to offer refuge can destroy liberal democracy in Europe. These sentiments are largely present within the arguments of Blair and Renzi (former Italian Prime Minister) as well.

The claims are two-fold:

1. Immigration is the issue of our time.

2. For liberal democracy to thrive, we must get a handle on it.

But these claims are paradoxical and here’s why.

The first problem relates to strategy. It may be that immigration is the issue of our time, but as Blair well knows, within liberal democracy you win office not by reacting to the issues that others have established, but, as American cognitive linguist George Lakoff explained, by controlling the issues that are talked about and by framing the parameters for the space in which an issue is talked about.

The age of the spin doctor, whose job this was, emerged exactly with those people who now claim that we must work within the parameters created by the far right, within a space defined by the phrase, “immigration is a problem”.

To think that this approach will lead to electoral victory is naïve. And if Clinton, Blair and Renzi were to listen to their younger selves, they would know it.

The second problem relates to the relationship between principles and politics. These politicians claim that for liberal democracy to survive, centrists must get a grip on immigration.

While liberalism does not have a founding doctrine, it does rely on a few core tenets. These include individualism, universalism and reason. From those principles emerged valuable fields such as humanism and various branches of ethics.

When Kant outlined his categorical imperative – that we must treat others like we would want to be treated ourselves – the other was universal: all human beings were of equal worth. Kant called this a fact of reason.

It was this basic notion that was present in the democratic revolutions that still flavour every constitution or basic laws of every supposedly liberal democracy. Governance must always be done in the name of the people – and “the people” is never qualified. The people are brown or white, rich or poor, old or young, men or women. The people are not qualified exactly because of the equality between them. Liberalism asserted that.

It was also liberalism that asserted that, on the basis of our equality, we all have freedoms as individuals. These freedoms were enshrined in rights and they were bestowed to all. For if they were not, there would be no equality.

As such, to advocate for a liberal democracy to clamp down on immigration in the manner that is suggested by Clinton, Blair and Renzi amounts to a betrayal of the core liberal tenets of equality and freedom.

With their suggestions they qualify “the people”: the people become white, not brown, rich, not poor. And decidedly not Muslim.

On the basis of this, the people who lose their equality also lose their freedom. No longer are they free from persecution. Now, they are only free to die, to which the dissolving bodies in the Mediterranean attest. The strategy endorsed by Clinton would only add to that body count. So liberal democracy will not be saved be curbing migration. It will be destroyed by it.

The third problem relates to the way in which we conceive of politics in terms of Left and Right. Renzi, Clinton and Blair claim to be proud, moderate centrists, decrying the right and the left for their populism, their simplifications and their irrationality. Yet, they are mistaken when they equate the centre with liberalism.

While liberalism has intrinsic meaning, the centre only has meaning in relation to left and right. And that means the centre moves. While true liberals have always insisted that we all have equal rights, centrists are guided on the question of equality (as all other questions) by the current state of left and right.

And as the spectrum has shifted rightwards with the rise of the far right across much of Europe, so the centre has shifted that way too. Clinton, Blair, Renzi and others have enabled that shift by allowing the nationalist far right to frame the issues. And with the centre moving to the right, it is now impossible to be both centrists and liberals, as those politicians claim to be.

Torn between the two, they have chosen centrism and renounced liberal principles. And that will only delight the repressive and xenophobic powers within our society.

TOP IMAGE: Migrants and refugees register with authorities after arriving in Serbia, August 2015 (Stephen Ryan/IFRC)

Peter is a student and a migrant.

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