The Work of Bourgeois Hegemony in the Immigration Debate

A troubling aspect of the popular and effectively denationalizing rhetoric calling for an end to border control and deportations is reckless disregard for public safety. Some of this heedlessness stems from ignorance about our situation in the West, which is exacerbated by mass immigration, in which particular cultural orientations are correlated with overrepresentation in crime and violence. In the United States, the problem is primarily associated with immigration from Mexico and the various Central American states. In Europe, African, Eastern European, and West Asian immigrants are overrepresented in serious crime and violence. To clear up any misunderstanding, this has nothing to do with race. There is no relationship between race and crime because race is not an actual thing. However, there is a relationship between culture — defined as patterned ways of thinking and acting — and propensity to commit crime. Put another way, beliefs and habits are criminogenically variable. State and mass media systems enable popular nescience by misleading the public on the facts of immigration and crime, by lumping together groups with variable associations with crime and violence or failing to differentiate serious from less serious criminal offending, as well as obscuring the greater detrimental effects of immigration on working class families, such as declining standards of living, neighborhood overcrowding, and strains on public resources. They mislead by framing claims about the relationship between culture and crime as racism.

The denationalizing rhetoric is presently at a fever pitch as the crisis at the US border that the Democratic Party has denied for months for political gain (and in deference to the needs of their benefactors) has become undeniable even to the liberal media establishment. Law enforcement is overwhelmed by the organized campaign to flood the US border with Central American migrants. However, in admitting there is a crisis, the establishment endeavors to redefine its causes. It is not the de facto coalition of pro-corporate libertarian activists, the Catholic Church, virtue-signalizing cultural leftists, and immigration lawyers that the evidence indicate, but a consequence of the very actions aiming to control the border in the first place. Put simply: it must be Trump’s fault. And so what we are seeing are not processing centers swamped by irregular border crossing, but “concentration camps.” That calling detention facilities, however makeshift the crisis forces them to be, “concentration camp” is insulting to those who actually suffered in concentration camps seems not to trouble the establishment in the least bit. For those readers struggling with the obvious, the overblown rhetoric translates to a call for open borders.

It is helpful in understanding the motive behind media disinformation and misrepresentation in the United States to keep in mind what the American media is, namely a network of mostly privately-funded public relations firms advancing the capitalist mode of production. Corporations strive to keep the immigrant flow at high levels for economic and political reasons: superexploitation of vulnerable workers expands surplus value production (the source of profits); maintaining a surplus of labor power across labor-intensive and capital-intensive sectors puts downward pressure on wages for all workers; disruption of class consciousness impedes the formation of democratic politics and sensibilities; a fractionalized polity makes for a more manageable population. In Europe, where the media system is not as much a mouthpiece for capitalists as it is for governments, the state apparatus, captured by corporate power, does this work, engaging in subterfuge to derail immigration concerns. Many governments there hide the relationship between immigration and crime from the media by refusing to record demographic information on offenders or allowing researchers to conduct detailed demographic analyses of patterns of crime and violence.

In this entry, I want to theorize the deeper ideological structures and processes that work underneath the lockstep march of the corporate media with respect to the immigration issue. This is class warfare and in the context of the present density of hegemonic clouding the tactics are not apparently to a large segment of the audience. Whether it’s corporate or government propaganda distorting the picture, an anti-worker ideology is at work, one hoisting the flags of identity over the red banner of class, replacing the struggle for individual equality and justice with demands for equity and diversity. (When I use equity, I am not referring to considerations of individual needs, which are variable, but distributional demands based on group identity.) The politics of diversity, the center of gravity of contemporary political mainstream culture, is something of a mirror image of the rightwing authoritarian method of control, which also extolls the virtues and superiority of a racial, ethnic, or religious majority or minority. Let me explain:

In rightwing authoritarian mode, elites tamp down the class struggle not merely through domestic terror, which is the immediately accessible historical memory of human experience with this approach, but also by giving the masses a politics of race, ethnicity, and gender to substitute for their right to struggle for equality. In his observations of the character of Fascism, German philosopher Walter Benjamin writes,

The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. 

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Benjamin is describing what today we recognize as identity politics. Identity politics is a superstructure conditioned by the substructure of material production. Benjamin writes: “The transformation of the superstructure, which takes place far more slowly than that of the substructure, has taken more than half a century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production. Only today can it be indicated what form this has taken.” Benjamin is carrying over into his critique of fascist aesthetics an understanding of the then-prevailing conditions of production (this is what makes his theory of art different from the bourgeois approach to the subject matter). Fascism was, during a certain period and in certain locations, the expression of capitalism transcending limitations imposed by the world capitalist situation, the state of class antagonisms, and the strength and character of democratic structures and processes. In the now-prevailing conditions of production, the superstructure takes a form appropriate to navigating through contemporary barriers and limitations. The ideological and political superstructure is not monolithic; the presence of rightwing authoritarianism remains part of the suite of options available to various class fractions. However, the force of historical inertia and prevailing mode of mass consciousness make the rightwing authoritarian option less effective from a control standpoint. What is more, the fractional character of the bourgeoisie means that different strategies are more or less viable based on which fraction or set of fractions is presently hegemonic. Today that is the culturally progressive corporation.

In its leftwing manifestation, the prevailing hegemony assumes a form akin to that which Sheldon Wolin adumbrates in Democracy, Inc. as “inverted totalitarianism”: a method of control “driven by an ideology of the cost-effective rather than of a ‘master race’ (Herrenvolk).” We must more explicitly add to the corporate bureaucratic dynamic the Kulturindustrie (“culture industry”) described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). In their formulation, the standardization of culture via mechanical reproduction manipulates the masses into passivity. Similarly, in One-Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse shows how late capitalism bends all alien cognition to its line of rationality, which is in the service of reproducing the mode of production (and irrational for that reason). The central idea in both of these arguments is that authentic human needs of autonomy and creativity are supplanted by false needs only supplied by the culture industry. This theory requires a bit of a clarification for present circumstances: the stifling of authentic needs produces a popular unease that, estranged from the politics of class struggle, finds its expression of industry-directed activism, mini protestations and rebellions organized around the travails of imagined communities. Misdirection drains off the transformative potential of popular angst into activities that won’t accomplish much (because they are designed not to). These activities thus represent more a form of wasted energy than docility. Even better; it’s not wasted energy from the standpoint of the capitalist, since it is part of capitalist reproduction that secures the conditions for his life of leisure.

Neoliberalism and managed democracy are historically appropriate means to the same ends the rightwing authoritarian seeks: to transcend (however temporarily) the international contradictions of capitalism and restore optimal levels of accumulation by appealing to manufactured loyalties associated with imagined communities. This is reductive identitarianism. Right or left, identity politics makes a fetish of cultural differences, hypostatizing non-essential symbolic and semiotic expression as essential features of human being. At its core, from whatever ideological side it hails, identity politics either aims or functions to divide the working class by denying the individual and sorting persons into groups with incommensurable worldviews that must be appreciated in terms of themselves, which necessarily leads to legitimating and privileging some persons over others. The asymmetry of group power discourse is designed to obscure the actual power core: class segmentation. This is a postmodern condition: truth is determined by standpoint. There are now plainly different truths. So it becomes about power — not power to keeps society free for individuals, but power to impose one totalitarianism over another. In the leftwing manifestation, non-white cultures are good, whereas western culture, defined as “white,” is imperialistic and inherently problematic. It follows that features of western society, free speech, the rule of law, even science, should at the very least be suspected of serving racist and sexist ends. The view that we should preserve the culture that carries in it respect for free speech, the rule of law, etc., thus becomes problematic, even reactionary.

With respect to the immigration debate, open borders propaganda marginalizes conservative and traditionalist concern over immigration by smearing them as “nativist,” “racist,” and “xenophobe.” At the same time, cultural managers of the political strata, typically leftist and centrist intellectuals and activists, inculcate in the young the virtues of “multiculturalism,” what, in his highly-influential 1915 essay “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” published in progressive news magazine The Nation, Horace Kallen called “cultural pluralism.” Kallen, in the face of the daily experiences of working class people, argued that cultural diversity would strengthen national unity not weaken it. (Others during that period advocating similar views were Louis Adamic, Randolph Bourne, and Leonard Covello.) The following passages from an unsigned essay, “The Right to Be Different,” found at Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, capture the spirit of this standpoint: “To [those who opposed the ‘melting pot’ metaphor] freedom meant to be oneself, with all one’s differences and particularities.” Putting the matter this way conflates individual differentiation with group beliefs and habits, as if each member of an ethnic group is or should be a personification of the group in which he enculturated and not a distinct personality. If it was not clear there, then it is clear here: “In the wake of the most intensive decades of massive immigration to America that brought an unprecedented diversity of people to American shores, there were those who argued that the distinctive ways of immigrant communities did not need to be melted down or stripped away for them to become Americans.”

But the beauty of the historic arc of the rational and secular nation-state is the promise of personal emancipation from the limiting scope of tribal life, from standpoint-based truth. To get stuck at liberation of the tribe (the nation so defined) from the rule of law, liberating tribal leaders to mold those individuals born to various ethnic enclaves in the atavism of irrational custom and tradition, or to sink back into the morass of tribalism, is a deviation of the emancipatory thrust of liberalism. Tribalism is antithetical to liberalism. Thus multiculturalism represents arrested development in the progressive evolution of society. It is regressive. The strategic value of this would have been well-understood by Antonio Gramsci, who recorded in his prison notebooks (1926-1935) that the ruling class achieves cultural hegemony by marginalizing the opposition while leading the masses, by determining and shaping the beliefs, explanations, mores, perceptions, sentiments, and values to guide popular consciousness. In the current phase of control, the velvet glove is preferred as the strategy from above. Bullying is left to the masses. And the cultural left has been worked into a position where they are taking taking it up.

The doctrine of the accepted parameters of the immigration discourse is a master class in ideological hegemony. When a American talks about the wide and deep culture of violence in Mexico and the countries of Central America, he is portrayed or perceived as a bigot. The reality is that the top four most violent cities in the world are located in Mexico, with Tijuana, just across the US-Mexico border, topping the list. The criminal violence associated with this culture rages across the US-Mexico border, which is porous and insecure. The organized crime networks that traffic in human beings — only a small part of human trafficking involves sex workers — are sophisticated and determined. The businesses on the US side of the border that exploit foreign-born labor are not effectively policed, nor do they suffer the negative consequences of illegal immigration, or immigration more broadly; on the contrary, they benefit to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The Catholic Church, which sees itself as a borderless world government, organizes caravans of migrants to challenge US border authority (and to replenish its stores of aggressively faithful devotees).

Meanwhile, immigration authorities have been sounding the alarm about the number of migrants crossing the southern border. NPR is reporting that the daily average of migrants apprehended by federal agents is greater than any time in the last 15 years. The commissioner of the Customs and Border Patrol has warned that the “breaking point has arrived.” “CBP is facing an unprecedented humanitarian and border security crisis all along our Southwest border,” the commissioner said. Trends will push higher. It is expected that the total number of migrants in March will be 100,000. So many are flooding in that there is no way to hold them. And the media takes pictures and the left screams “Concentration camps!” The CBP has warned that will be releasing migrants into the country with a notice to appear in immigration court. Experience tells us most will disappear into the vastness of the United States and live and work here illegally. CBP will release apprehended migrants in cities in the Rio Grande Valley, and they will expand the practice to San Diego, Yuma, Del Rio, and El Paso. What’s behind this? “The increase in family units is a direct response to the vulnerabilities in our legal framework, where migrants and smugglers know that they will be released and allowed to stay in the US indefinitely pending immigration proceedings that could be many years out,” the commissioner said.

Resistance to the Trump Administration’s efforts to control the tide of migrants has been determined (although the House of Representative failed to override a veto that sought to end Trump’s emergency order to strengthen border security). Why the resistance? It ultimately goes back to economics. Beyond the political value in disorganizing the proletariat, elites are desperate to restore the rate of profit, which has been in decline since the end of the neoliberal boom in late 1990s. US elites of the 1980s-1990s believed that with globalization, union-busting, deregulation, and pumping up the credit market they had solved the problems of the declining rate of profit and effective demand, both problems emerging from decoupling compensation from productivity in the late 1960s in the United States. If it wasn’t clear during the Bush Junior years that these changes hadn’t solved their problems, the 2008 crash and subsequent years of stagnation certainly made it obvious. Ignoring, or, more accurately rejecting the lessons of the golden years (1948-1965), in which the West pursued social democratic and highly-restictive immigration policies to great success across the income structure (albeit, of course, at the risk of rising democratic consciousness — the “crisis of democracy”), elites looked instead to the period of wide-open immigration to the United States (late-19th to early-20th centuries), a time when capitalists enjoyed unprecedented profit rates. Lawmakers had changed course on immigration in 1965 with disastrous results, results obscured by the Reagan-Clinton boom associated with intensive globalization. Today, elites are doubling down on a failed economic strategy. Maybe not failed for the financiers, of course.

The success of the business class at getting leaders and actors on the left to carry out this agenda is one of capitalism’s more spectacular propaganda achievements. While the left is capable of expressing some understanding that moving production overseas to take advantage of cheap and vulnerable labor is designed to discipline labor in the western world in order to reap mega-profits for transnational corporations, they seem to have no recognition that importing cheap and vulnerable labor to work in the West is part of the same globalist project. Again, this ignorance represents the work of an elitist ideology that substitutes the virtues of identity and diversity for the politics of social class and individual equality. Multiculturalism has become the water the left swims in. It has turned potentially progressive-minded individuals, especially among the young, into virtue-signaling automatons who vilify their working class brothers and sisters. In Europe, teary-eyed young Scandinavian women hold up deportations with acts of civil disobedience, refusing to sit down on planes or preventing passengers from boarding, oblivious to the problems migrants bring to their nations. Folks around me, confessing to and seeking redemption for white privilege, expressing cultural self-loathing, and accepting responsibility for deeds they could not have possibly committed, reflexively list among the evils of so-called rightwing populism growing opposition to illegal immigration and mass immigration. There is no understanding on the left of the political economy of all this or the fact that rightwing populism is the result of neoliberal multiculturalism. This naiveté explains the shock of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory in the race for the American presidency. The hysteria that followed (recall that some universities even provided grief counselors to students traumatized by the election) represented the nightmare par excellence of anomie–of not understanding what is going on or how to effectively respond to it. The recent disappointment with the Mueller investigation and the lost chance to use extra-democratic means to overturn a democratic outcome adds to the frustration. (Perhaps more grief counselors?)

Of course, as should be obvious, there is nothing intrinsically racist about immigration law and enforcement or seeking limits on immigration, and we need to be more strident in making this point. Moreover, there is nothing intrinsically racist about nationalism, and by conflating the two, globalizing elites means to deprive those on the left of a means of defending the working class. It is in the nation-state that the proletariat finds the machinery to reorganize society. So let’s clarify: An immigrant is a civilian who lives in a country she wasn’t born in or isn’t a citizen of. An immigrant can be of any race (ethnicity, religion, etc). And so they are. Immigrants in the US come from all over the world. And there are lots of them. More than a million come to the US legally every year. While people have a right to leave their home country, they have no right to live in another. They only have a right to seek asylum. And even here, they have no right to receive it. Asylum seekers are a small portion of the millions who leave their homes every year. Most immigrants come seeking access to the educational systems, jobs, and social welfare systems of developed economies. Outsiders have no right to these. Yet, to listen to the left these days, the demand is for the United States to accept everybody who “only wants a better life for themselves and their children.” They insist that it is a human right to live in the United States, that Americans either honor that selective moral imperative (the native-born be damned) or be smeared as heartless bigots for skepticism or concern. Reducing the number of immigrants coming into the United States is not ending immigration. But the panic does not really represent a reaction to a nation abandoning immigration. The panic is a reaction to the desire that the nation be more discerning about who comes to America and in what numbers they come. The character of the reaction testifies to the desire to throw open the borders to everybody who wants to come. And the logic behind this I have already made plain: it is a capitalist strategy to increase exploitation of and disempower the working class.

All of this has caused a profound ignorance about the importance of maintaining a free republic. This is why we have nation-states: to represent and defend the rights and freedoms of those who legally live in them. Americans are not subject to the theocratic laws of Islam because we live in a secular America. That others are not so lucky doesn’t mean that we should relinquish what makes us superior by defending the practice of transplanting backwards cultural ideas here. The republic exists so that the people do not sacrifice their standard of living and way of life to those who are not a part of that republic. When conservative philosopher Roger Scruton points out that, after all, what is democracy if not a people’s ability to collectively affect their lives? That is the point. Transnational capitalism takes that away. It has been puzzling to me for a very long time why the left has had such a freak out over Brexit. When I studied international political economy in the 1990s (my other area of specialization is political economy) it was well understood among Marxists that the EU was a massive cluster-fucking of the worker. Regionalization and globalization puts these decisions in the hands of technocrats who serve at the direction of corporate power. It was wrong to buy into this monstrosity and it’s never wrong to leave a monstrosity — although at a certain point you may not be able to. And then Brexit happens and everybody was like, “Stupid Brits.” “Xenophobes!” “Racists!” To be sure, Britain is capitalist. But, as Marx pointed out, proletarians have to settle accounts with their national bourgeoisie. When Marx says working men have no country, he means they have not yet won their country. That’s the work of class struggle! And workers can’t accomplish that without solidarity. And solidarity depends on a common interests and a common set of ideas and clear means to communicate them. Transnationalize everything and the worker loses the state machinery and the common core he needs to win the state in order to transform society. There is no worker state without a state. But even if the worker never overthrows the bourgeoisie, at least it’s his country to a much greater extent than if the central banks of Europe run it. 

The left has it so wrong on immigration. And it’s tragic when a conservative thinker gets the labor question better than huge swaths of the left who no longer do because they’re lost in reductive identitarianism, when they all out to out-racialize the racialists. Of course, Scruton is no ordinary conservative (which is why it’s stupid not to pay attention to him). But just imagine a left that actually represents the collective interests of their countrymen. A left that isn’t doing the work of capitalists by alienating a huge chunk of the working class by calling them “deplorable” and “nativists” because they want to have a decent standard of living and pass on their culture to their children — because they want to live in a free society where it is possible to abandon ideas if they want to. I have a lot of conservative friends. I know the reason they reject a lot of leftwing ideas is because the left treats them like shit, belittles them and trashes their culture. Why would anybody want to hook up with people who look down at them? Who blame them for things other people did who look like them? The Preamble to the US Constitution states: “We the people of the United States….” It does not say, “You the people of the world….” It does not say that the union is established to “secure the blessings of liberty to everybody in the world and their posterity,” although we certainly stand as a model for the rest of the world to emulate — yet another reason to preserve the American Republic, what Christopher Hitchens call the last best hope for humanity. We established a nation that suits us and we are better for it. If people want a nation like ours, then we urge them to build it. And if they come here in manageable numbers with the desire to join our national community, then we will welcome and work with them. But they cannot all live here and they surely can’t expect to supplant our culture with theirs. Beyond an ulterior motive, why would this even be controversial? That’s what the Brits who voted for Brexit wanted.

Americans can be any race or any religion (or no religion at all). But to be an American requires an America, a place where freedom of speech and religious liberty, from arbitrary detention and search and seizure, and a myriad of other liberties and rights are enshrined in law. People in many parts of the world, a planet marked by religious oppression and authoritarian personalities, don’t enjoy these rights and liberties. Moreover, it is a mistake to assume they want to enjoy them given the depth of their indoctrination in anti-humanist ideology. The truth is not obvious — even less so under conditions of extreme alienation. Our rights and liberties are something unique to the western way of life (and the West is unique visàvis the rest of the world), the result of leaning on science more than religion, an enlightened worldview that is harmed by reflexive toleration of alien cultures that not only resist assimilation, but would rather see their culture in place of ours. Human rights is not a western invention, but a discovery by the western mode of thought. People in the West have the obligation to scrutinize those who want in, to take an interest in their ideologies, to be mindful of the tendencies of their manner of thinking. Yet folks are too busy virtue signaling to pay attention to the threat to our freedom and democracy. They practice the soft bigotry of believing that others are incapable of becoming enlightened beings in their own lands, masked by their belief that there is no such good as enlightenment, and thus enable the moral entrepreneurs of oppressive cultures to keep the people shackled in mental chains. Even when they live in the West.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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