Reparations and Open Borders

Suketu Mehta’s The New York Times op-ed, “Why Should Immigrants ‘Respect Our Borders’? The West Never Respected Theirs,” collapses in the second sentence when he affirms his support for reparations, a probably unworkable and, more importantly, thoroughly immoral justice claim. He then trudges through the ruins of his argument, compiling a familiar list of grievances: colonial adventures, foreign wars, global inequality (development and underdevelopment), and climate change.

Suketu Mehta

The list is real and, while interpretations of causal forces vary, the historical record is not disputed. Originating in the West less than a millennium ago, capitalism spreads outward from Europe to incorporate the world by the end of the twentieth century. But how are my sons responsible for any of the items on Mehta’s list? One is a college student. The other is in high school. Hardly colonial masters. They moreover lack supernatural powers to conjure the past injustices Mehta wants to hold them responsible for.

Mehta presumes that crimes of past generations implicate the living. But there is no rational logic that will get him there. Whatever reasoning one might charitably identify would be biblical and primitive: God encodes sin in ancestral lines because (some) victims are righteous. I bear the mark of Cain in this particular theological exercise, I understand. I am a white man of European descent. There are persons in my family line who owned slaves. I am cursed.

All this is superstition. Europeans and their descendents aren’t a tribe. They are at best a myriad of what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities.” As such they aren’t automatically responsible for anything—certainly not for merely being. Moreover, nobody is responsible for the actions of his ancestors.

Most European natives and immigrants were not members of the social classes that organized colonial adventures. The vast majority of Europeans and their descendants were peasants and serfs, farmers and workers. They didn’t own slaves. They didn’t perpetrate genocide. Even if one supposes the vast wealth held by the rich today was acquired mostly at the expense of persons outside the West, how could the majority of Europe’s descendants be responsible for the decisions of powerful elites?

If history matters, then we must never forget that the rich got rich from exploiting peasants and serfs, the farmers and workers of North America and Europe. Mehta’s argument asks us to forget this by drawing false dividing lines. He lumps by race and culture. But history is organized primarily by social class, and these relations cut across geographical boundaries in a world economy.

Moreover, because of his method of division, Mehta treats as intrinsic to the West that which the forward thinking in the West fought to overcome: slavery, war, absolutism, and economic exploitation—all things that preceded the West, that were incorporated into the West during its expansion. For example, slavery was taken over from the Islamic world, which, unlike the West, never produced an abolitionist movement. It was the Christian West that abolished slavery. European imperialism abolished slavery elsewhere.

Mehta’s essay is a fine example of the identity politics that is so antithetical to economic justice: fractions of the working class pitting themselves against other fractions of the working class, fractionated by an ideology that those who demand reparations and open borders perpetuate through the praxis of ethnicized and racialized thinking. 

It is a fine example of the theological character of this politics, as well. Mehta judges the West to have sinned mightily against the world and demands it pay penance, collectively. He demands that the West open up its home to the world so the downtrodden may take what moral entrepreneurs like Mehta think they deserve by virtue of location of birth and accident of history.

The tragedy compounding tragedy is that these eruptions of racial and ethnic resentments are not merely unnecessary—they keep us off the road to justice. The way to deal with the problem of inequality is to replace capitalism with a socialist economy that provides access to the means of production to all those willing and able to work (with support for those who can’t) independent of race and ethnicity. 

History helps us understand the past. But is inadequate for telling the living how to solve the problems of the present. Why are people poor today? Because a handful of people have a lot money they don’t really need, and they get it from people who work. Capitalism lies in back of colonialism. Capitalism is the source of inequality in real time. 

In some sense, Mehta grasps the problem of capitalism. Others recognize this in his work. Economist, and progressive advocate of a more humane capitalism, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz agrees, telling his audience that Mehta’s book, This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, “reveals the deep forces that propel [immigrants] on their journeys.” Refugee rights lawyer Becca Heller writes that Mehta’s book: “lays bare the structural inequalities forcing millions of migrants to flee their countries of origin.”

But Heller also praises The Land is Our Land for its “fearless and brutally honest look at the rise and inevitable fall of national borders and those who seek to enforce them.” And, really, this is what Mehta’s argument is about: open borders. Identity merchants like Mehta aim to shame the West into accepting the plunder of its resources.

Turnabout is fair play is the ethic that lies behind this; by the lights of a quasi-religious cosmology of justice, the West has long had it coming. Heller tells us that “powerful nations have an obligation to welcome those they have uprooted.”

Those who defend the nation-state are the bad guys. The “anti-immigrant forces.” The “populist ideologues.” The pages of liberal and leftwing media are full of rhetoric smearing working people who believe that governments exists to protect their rights and their livelihood.

Rather than address the problem of capitalism, Mehta turns to the ancient logic of kin punishment, giving the West a choice: reparations or open borders. He, along with Heller and her ilk, pine for the collapse of the interstate system, replaced by a world ruled by transnational corporate power that directs labor flows to undermine the living standards of those who led the world in economic and technological innovation, who advanced the superior values of secularism, liberalism, individualism, and human rights, and who sacrificed blood and treasure to defend those values against the threat of global fascism.

Since, in Mehta’s mind, I am responsible for the sins of the West, then he surely won’t mind if I answer for the West. I don’t accept his proposition.  

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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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