Bernie Sanders Gets it on Open Borders Rhetoric—At Least He Did in 2015

“Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States.”

Bernie Sanders, July 2015

I just ran across this Bernie Sanders interview from 2015. I don’t know how I missed it at the time. But I have it now. It’s from a conversation between Sanders and Ezra Klein in Vox, July 28, 2015, a web magazine Klein helped found in 2014 (along with Matt Yglesias and Melissa Bell). In the clip, Klein asks Sanders about international poverty. Klein looks stunned by Sander’s answer. From a working-class standpoint, it is the correct answer.

On January 19, 2019, I wrote about the right-wing libertarian open borders push on my blog: The Koch Brothers and the Building of a Grassroots Coalition to Advance Open Borders. It’s one of many posts I have written to demonstrate what the actual working-class position on immigration looks like in contrast to the neoliberal denationalizing rhetoric championed by Democrats and the faux-left (i.e. progressives).

Progressives don’t know quite what to do with leftwing arguments hailing from the organic standpoint of social class. However it’s quite satisfying for these ears to hear Sanders saying things about open borders such as: It would make everybody in America poorer—you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of left-wingers who do believe in that. They want to dismantle security fencing and barriers, abolish Custom and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and grant amnesty to millions of people who are in the US illegally. They call for decriminalizing immigration, which will open the floodgates. Open border folks are especially eager to recruit Catholics from Central America and Muslims from anywhere, who bring with them ideologies harmful to women, children, and gays and lesbians—ideologies that do not respect open and secular societies.

To be sure, Sanders is no socialist. But one doesn’t have to be in order to understand how immigration is contrary to the interests of the native-born of developed nations. The harm immigration causes was well understood by labor in the early twentieth century and the New Liberals of middle twentieth century United States, as well as their social democratic counterparts in Europe (see The Need for Limits).

“If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or (the United Kingdom) or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.”

Bernie Sanders, July 2015

Sanders is observing a basic economic principle that capitalists exploit to check rising labor costs: a surplus of the labor commodity (to which humans come attached) drives down the price of labor (wages). As Marx pointed out in the nineteenth century, the economic imperative of surplus value drives the population dynamic under capitalism (see The Urgency of Population Control).

Marx incorporated this understanding in his strategic proposals. In an April 9, 1870 to letter to Sigrid Meyer and August Vogt (who were in New York), Marx writes, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labor market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.The contemporary analogs should be obvious. In case they are not, consider the Central American states, or the Muslim-majority countries of Central Asia and North Africa.

Marx grasps the function of Irish immigration: Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Anticipating WEB DuBois’ psychological wage enjoyed by white workers over black workers, Marx writes, In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” The English worker cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker.

Of course, these antagonisms are not to be confused with racism, but they are exploited in much the same way by the capitalist class to disorganize the English working class. “This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation,” Marx argues. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this. It is in other words a conscious strategy by capitalist elites.

As I note in that January 19, 2019 blog entry on the Koch brothers, the LIBRE initiative, which enjoys the backing of conservative mega-donors who stand to profit from the massive transfer of value that comes with immigration, strives to help immigrants (legal and illegal) come and live in America, learn English, and pass their drivers’ license tests. The goal of LIBRE is not only to gain access to cheap foreign labor, but to drive down the wages for all labor and disrupt worker solidarity. 

What did Marx believe was the solution to this antagonism? He argues that the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation. Marx does not sink into the morass of social justice, but rather the practical politics of nationalism. As Marx and Engels insist in the Communist Manifesto: “Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” Leftwing politics from a Marxist standpoint differs radically from the the politics of the identitarian left, which are in substance neoliberal.

Marx encourages Meyer and Vogt to forge a coalition between German and Irish works, as well as English and American workers willing to participate, to raise consciousness about the importance of Ireland’s national emancipation—to become an independent nation-state organized around Irish nationality. Marx’s argument in favor of ethnic nationalism have been warped in the service of aggressive pro-immigration politics. Sanders views have likewise been distorted. (See for example, David Wilsons Marx on Immigration in the February 1, 2017 edition of Monthly Review.)

Individual control over reproductive capacity in modern secular nations presents a problem for the bourgeoisie: lower fertility rates, fewer children, and longer inter-pregnancy intervals (or birth spacing) reduces the rate of population growth. The decline in the rate of population growth is welcome news for humanity: a population that is not growing or (even better) shrinking, means a higher standard of living with a reduced risk of exceeding the ecosystem’s carrying capacity (overshoot and collapse). But this situation is bad news for capitalists. It means rising wages, falling profit rates, and deepening class consciousness. This is why the governing elite opened the borders in the 1960s to import cheap labor from developing countries, namely to drive down wages for native-born workers through displacement and disadvantage and restore high rates of profit. The strategy carried an added benefit: by disorganizing the national culture—common language and values—it disrupted the formation of class consciousness and effective political organizing. The countermovement stopped socialist progress in its tracks and opened society instead to the New Right.

In his conversation with Klein, Sanders correctly ties the open borders strategy to the situation of workers in the United States: “You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids? I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer. We have native-born Americans who need jobs.”

Yes, Sanders said “native-born Americans.” We’re told that this terminology is nativist, xenophobic, even racist. But this is who the left is supposed to represent: the national proletariat. These politics are neither racist nor xenophobic; they’re pro-worker. They benefit not only white male workers, but black workers, Latino workers, women workers—all workers. We have enough people in the United States to do the work of the nation. We don’t need more people. On the contrary, we need fewer people (see “PBS and Immigration Apologetics”).

The denationalizing rhetoric of the progressive left represents a spectacular propaganda achievement by the bourgeoisie, in which the neoliberal globalists have masterfully deployed cultural pluralism and cultivated a popular desire to virtue signal in order to enlist political strata, cultural managers, and young proletarians in a project to undermine the working class in the West, to expropriate all that working people have built over the decades and leverage the social surplus to raise the rate of profit, all while politically disorganizing the masses. This is the neoliberal agenda, and progressive Democrats are among its major proponents.

Leftists need to ask themselves the question that conservatives (for example, Roger Scruton) have rhetorically asking for years: What is the point of having a democratic republic if the citizens who built it can’t depend on their own government to protect their interests? How could any activist, politician, or pundit claiming to speak for the interests of labor advocate and enable policies that benefit the capitalist class at the expense of working families?

As I have shown in numerous entries on this blog, the Democratic Party stands at the forefront of selling out the American worker. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a paradigm of misdirection (see “The Democratic Party and the Doctrine of Multiculturalism”). History tells us that right-wing populism thrives in weakly social democratic moments. Right-wing populism fills the vacuum left by the abandonment of class politics by the left. Today, instead of focusing on inequality and poverty, liberal Democrats and progressives make a fetish of diversity and identity. They push false essentialisms and alienate working people with sterile politically-correct argot. The left needs a left-wing populism, not a globalism that feigns humanitarian concern. The United States needs to emancipate itself from the global capitalist order.

Progressivism is paradigmatic of a left-wing politics that allows right-wing politics to thrive. It is a politics that antagonizes workers and disrupts class consciousness by disorganizing national culture. However good somebody like an Ocasio-Cortez may sound on issues of social class and economics, advocacy of cultural pluralism betrays the rhetoric. Ocasio-Cortezs code-switching and tribal pandering pushes her to margins—and her devotees follow her into that marginalization. Millions of working-class Americans cant go where the multiculturalists mean to take them. Nor should they. Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk represent the wrong direction for Democrats if they want to reclaim the mantle of champion of working people (I know, this was never organic, but for a few decades, there was an opportunity there). The identitarians who see a moment for their anti-class politics to shine are destructive to the proletarian movement. 

When Democrats return to the politics of class and popular economics of Roosevelt and extol the founding liberal values of individual liberty, secularism, and the open society, then the rightwing in America will run into a wall. The political and cultural right will stand alone as practitioners of such atavisms as religionism and tribalism.

In the final analysis, the Democratic Party appears to be a dead-end. Working people need a viable socialist party rooted in the Marxist theoretic, a working class movement focused on equality and championing individuals liberties and rights that brings all people together around their common class interests. This occurs in a national context with a common language and a government that defends the needs of the majority of its people.

Published by

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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