19 June 2014
Why the left is in such a muddle over immigration
The liberal-left is in a terrible muddle over immigration at the moment largely because of a pervasive and highly-judgemental rationalism which completely fails to engage with people as they are.
This rather arrogant, dogmatic form of rationalism assumes that who we are, our opinions and our feelings, are all derived from thought, reflection, decisions and judgements.
Hence the discomfort someone might be feeling about lots of outsiders moving into their neighbourhood is viewed as being derived from a thought and ultimately a judgement that outsiders, or certain types of outsiders, are bad by definition.
In this way this sort of rationalism takes theoretical, universalistic thinking as primary to human existence, and assumes we are formed and come to be who we are primarily by thinking and judgements made from thinking. So, we would assume the person who is discomforted by lots of outsiders moving in to their area has done some thinking and concluded that outsiders are bad. On this basis we could reasonably assume that he or she is a racist or a xenophobe, and might also reasonably assume that those feelings of discomfort they have are a natural result of them being a racist or a xenophobe. We could reasonably say they are wrong both in factual and in moral terms and seek to attack and suppress them and their views.
This is quite a jump, from the person in question feeling discomforted by immigration to seeing them as a racist who is worth attacking.
This leap is made possible by an abstraction of the feeling, from the actual world of experience in which it arose to a universalistic ideological dimension – the dimension of high political theory. A personal resistance to a specific example of immigration is therefore taken by this sort of rationalism as a universal resistance to immigration and therefore also to immigrants – universalising the particular in a way customary to all ideologies.
I presented this as a hypothetical case, but anyone familiar with the ways of the liberal-left should be familiar with this train of thought. It is a startlingly judgemental way of looking at people, not least in this case because the person in question has not actually expressed any racist views. We know however that this will not stop them being accused directly or indirectly of being a racist, both from the left and by ex-New Labour types and Liberal Democrats.
This position is another example of the sort of ideological thinking I have been exploring a lot on this blog. It relies on a basic prejudice grounded in the assumption that just by feeling uncomfortable about incomings, this person’s world and place in the world can be understood fundamentally and can therefore be judged and pronounced upon freely and confidently.
In this way the immigrationist ideologue will say that the person feeling uncomfortable is ‘wrong’, perhaps because they ‘don’t understand the facts’, while at the same time not maintaining even a bare acquaintance with that person’s life experience – an irony they will either gloss over or be completely unaware of.
Unfortunately this rather authoritarian type of rationalism is widespread across the whole liberal-left in Britain, including Labour, the Liberal-Democrats and the Greens. I would go as far as to say it is the dominant way of thinking on the liberal-left today; it is something of a default position to fall back on and gather around in order to reassert our group bonds.
Thankfully, this tendency is being challenged by braver and more reflective types like Jon Cruddas, Rachel Reeves and John Denham, who know that people who are concerned about immigration are not all nasty racists who deserve to be suppressed and written off. But they do not have the ready language and easy arguments to fall back on that the dominant rationalist view does: theirs are relatively new and unfamiliar arguments that do not tell people what they want to hear, and do not hold ready appeal to mainstream left-wing activists and true believers.
Even though Cruddas and Reeves are both important members of the Shadow Cabinet with access to the leader, in everyday liberal political-media discourse they are insurgents, barely chipping away at the consensus view. In their resolution not to dismiss the hypothetical person in this article, they are rather lonely on the left. The left’s dominant tribes do not like their message, and are not afraid to say so. Our old habits of denunciation remain very much intact for those who stray from the straight and rightful path.