Thursday, November 8, 2007

De-Spinning the Immigration "Debate"

Globalization is a major 21st C phenomenon. As Mario Soares, former President and former Prime Minister of Portugal just pointed out, it is also nothing new. Modern globalization dates from the late 15th C maritime trade explorations from Europe to Africa and the Americas. Now as then, technological development, economic and monetary policy, religious and military conflict, exploration, trade dynamics, natural disasters, plagues, and other mega-forces stimulate massive changes in population demographics, the distribution of wealth, agricultural and other resource production and value, and territorial habitability.

These, in turn, prompt waves of migration comprising many, many thousands of political and/or economic refugees, and the stream of effects continues. Life goes on, its national histories etched with assimilations, diasporas, campaigns of repression, border realignments, and new forms of culture and social organization.

To understand immigration issues in the USA, it’s wise to begin thinking about them in this kind of historical perspective. Then it's obvious that migration is as universal and timeless as the wind, that it is frequently global, or at least regional and multi-national rather than bi-national, that it has causes and complexities that aren’t well communicated in sound bites, and that racist, punitive, and exclusionary strategies don't solve anything because they never, ever address underlying causes. Instead, what they do seem to accomplish, repeatedly, are festering social, psychological, and economic sores. What's astounding is that, unlike rats, we haven't mastered this part of Advanced Cheese Theory. There's just no cheese there.

In other words, knowing the context can be a good head start for detecting when the public debate is up to the challenge and when it's up to no good.

Soares outlines the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the USA as the world’s sole major power, and the ascendency of Reagan-Bush economic neo-liberalism (not to be confused with classical liberal social theory).

Americans rightly tend to link economic neo-liberalism to neo-conservatism because of pronounced connections among University of Chicago economists, principally Milton Friedman, University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss, and neo-con defense/foreign policy architects including Wolfowitz, Perle, and Rumsfeld, among others.

Keep in mind that major elements of neo-liberalism are imperialism, "free" trade, deregulation, anti-environmentalism, anti-unionism, anti-government intervention(except subsidies for favored multinational enterprises and tax policy tilts), and privatization of certain government functions and most commonwealth resources (water, airwaves, forests, etc.).

Soares writes:

Under the command of George W. Bush, the US revived its imperial ambitions, began its dangerous but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to marginalise the United Nations, and guaranteed the triumph of neo-liberalism as the dominant economic-political ideology.

In truth, the influence of neo-liberalism was felt most strongly in the last years of the last century and was responsible for giving capitalism an essentially speculative and virtual financial face. One of its characteristics was the expansion of stock trading and the generation of multi-million dollar profits without having a significant impact in the real, productive economy.[Emphasis added.]

Globalisation increased social inequality and the gap between poor and rich nations and people. It brought about a growing concentration in business and the banking sector in particular, the outsourcing of production to areas with low wages if not slave labour, financial scandals, and high-level corruption, all of which are current practices of neo-liberal globalisation, which as a result has been thoroughly discredited.

This is familiar terrain to readers of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and this—continuing now from Soares—is becoming frighteningly familiar to anyone watching cable TV today:
It is no accident that the neo-liberal ideology loses more ground every day or that the world now finds itself on the verge of a grave financial crisis that is manifesting itself in the rapid seesawing of the stock market and is beginning to affect US society: a deepening of the real estate crisis, rising unemployment, fears of inflation, unprecedented increases in the price of oil, not to mention the colossal trade deficit which no one seems able to relieve.

It is a commonplace today to say that the policies of President Bush have resulted in total disaster both domestically and abroad.

A country’s economic prosperity is usually measured by GDP—the total dollar value of all the goods and services it produces in a given time—say, a year. But of course, as Hazel Henderson points out, GDP does not measure the health of our natural resources, our people, our schools, or our quality of life. Policies such as privatization of commonwealth natural resources, unchecked development, unregulated business, subsidized oil exploration, subsidized agribusiness, hostility to conservation, and refusal to mediate the effects of global warming, as well as an expanding draught, continue to degrade our air, water, and land and our living standard.

The consequences are more than economic. In physical terms, they are measured in our medical viability. What with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, ADD, sleeplessness, depression, and obesity, ours isn’t all that spectacular despite the outrageous cost of healthcare. And we know it.

To all this, add rising crime rates, lousy schools, drug abuse, out-of-reach higher education, escalating costs of living, wage stagnation, outsourcing and downsizing, plummeting house values, rising foreclosures, individual indebtedness, a wobbly stock market, a weakening dollar, threats of terrorism, the horrors and expense of the (optional) Iraq occupation, the threat of war with Iran, a president and veep contemptuous of Congress and the Constitution, bizarre weather patterns, and a marked increase in racist, fascist, fundamentalist, and nationalist organizations.

What you get is the “felt” if not necessarily rationally understood framework within which North Americans are trying to come to terms with immigration.

OK. That said, I think it’s fair to say that the US debate on immigration so far has been shaped by a mere handful of thought—nuggets linking immigration to crime, property values, stolen social services, deteriorated public schools, lost jobs, and so on. Singly and together, these memes are helpfully presented as if they alone explain the impact of (primarily) Mexican and Latino immigration.

I hope it’s clear now that they don’t, and that some of what they leave out is clearer. It remains to be seen why they fail so miserably to reflect and to grapple with reality.

But if you look at the source of these memes, the talking megaphones that shout them, and the "data" disseminated to support them, you’ll find that, just like neo-liberalism and the neo-cons, they come from the Far Right. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, do you?

More later.