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.

With a General Election just a year away and the crucial issue of immigration not resolved in anything near a clear fashion by Labour, it makes for quite a muddle.

For more on this topic, see Immigration and the left page.


  1. I think it's a lot more simpler than that Ben.

    The elite thought that pandering would get them votes.

    It did but, along with many other things, the areas won came at a price namely the alienation of some voters.

    While hoping I am wrong I am cynical enough to doubt the 'bravery' of Jon Cruddas, Rachel Reeves, John Denham and others and put it more down to them being clever enough to read the rise of UKIP and doing / saying what they feel is needed to appease those voters who were still around but decided to switch.

    I hope it isn't to late but a bit like Dave's pandering to the feminista's in the reshuffle, in the belief it will swing the female vote to them, suspect it will have little bearing.

    Labour, despite being seen like most parties for what they are (especially the elite end of it) will still win but it will be down to them being the best of the worse best option.

    A real shame but at the moment it is nothing more than what they deserve.

  2. This is deeply flawed Ben. People don't like immigration. We fear seeing new people arrive in big numbers. This is mainly because of a primeval fear of not-like-me. It's tribalism. Countries are just tribes+. New people might kill us, eat our food, use our resources. They might speak differently so we can't read their intent.

    The problem with dignifying this fear is it validates it the notion of important difference. People are people (so sang Depeche Mode). We are of equal value. If the UK was suffering and (say) Chad held some promised land, we would move. You can't penalise people for seeking prosperity. Britain is a rich country precisely because we did that, at some considerable cost to various peoples of the world.

    The difference between people is slight. Even what appears to be major cultural differences disappear when you break bread together.

    But this is only so much hippy dippy stuff from a (new) member of the liberal elite. The working class fear immigrants because they can be seen. They are demonstrably new people chasing their resources. Workers don't care if they are from the next village, town, city or country. The same cry will go up: I should come first.

    But why?

    But this is the wrong question. Instead of arguing about the rules of the game we must examine the game. And that is what the left has not done. The left is part of the centuries old dialectic in service of the system that encourages the fetishisation of resources holding.

    Once, hoarding resources meant having two elk instead of one, probably as a reward for being faster, stronger, nicer or more sneaky than your neighbour. Now it means one family having more wealth than millions of individuals. We have enough. The debate shouldn't be who we share it with, it should be HOW we share it.


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