“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

30 November 2014

Karl Polanyi and the politics and economics of mass immigration



I’m not trained in economics but I do know a bit and have been intermittently digging through Karl Polanyi’s book ‘The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time; said to be a core text for Ed Miliband and his close political gang.

Perhaps the most interesting and arresting ideas in The Great Transformation concern what Polanyi called the ‘fictitious commodities’: land, labour and money.

I was reminded of this when reading a post by Chris Dillow on his Stumbling and Mumbling blog yesterday. Dillow's piece jumped off from the most read post on this blog – about how our immigration debate misses the main point by focusing only on economic aspects and treating how people feel as somehow illegitimate (something which is thankfully no longer the case – partly due to the excellent recent work of British Future).

In his fascinating argument to which I’ll digress for a while here, Dillow discusses how and why public opinion differs from rational economic opinion on general questions, and immigration in particular – though he abstracts from people’s experiences and feelings, which is something I have been keen not to do in my writings here. He then came back to admit that these attempts could be flawed, but kept solidly to the project of a theorist or economist seeking to find a rational solution to the immigration question: is it a good thing? Should we have more of it?

Whether immigration is a good thing as a whole is a universal question which I don’t think we can answer. It of course depends, on so many different things at different times. The question of whether – and to what extent – we want the current extended wave of mass immigration to continue is a more practical question but is difficult enough.

Taking a rationalist approach based on statistical data and other sources, we couldn’t possibly draw on all the potentially relevant facts available to decide this more limited question even if we wanted to. Immigration may be a good thing or a bad thing in different ways in different contexts at different times and places, but deciding which, when and why is an inexact science at best, if it even deserves the title of a science. Attempting to resolve the question requires reducing the phenomenon to a few determinants chosen above others (tax contribution versus benefits for example) – and making that call is not a scientific judgement but a pure judgement call, open to all the prejudice you can muster. The statistics are also often contested, as are the conclusions drawn from them.

This whole project is also, if it is claiming to decide the right course, inherently anti-democratic.

There is nothing wrong with research carried out to inform the debate, and we can never get completely away from the prejudices of researchers (though they are often strikingly obvious). But we should take lightly their claims to scientific, ‘factual’ or ‘logical’ backing for their ultimate judgements of right and wrong, good and bad. They should be helping to inform the debate and not deciding it.

The alternative is democratic decision-making, which is of course imperfect by nature but at least has a form of public legitimacy, rather than elite authority based on a dubious positive rationality (rational thinking is much more secure as a critical tool). As I have discussed here before, Chantal Mouffe makes some arguments about ‘the political’ which offer some good counter-perspectives to the rationalist one – and these have relevance to immigration as discussed here. Democracy is not here to reach some sort of elusive or imaginary rational consensus; it is with us to provide decision-making for the people, on their terms. That is the whole point of it.

I’ve digressed. But nevertheless, for the argument I’m going to try and make now, it’s worth bearing in mind the reality of mass immigration always taking place within a context and with a whole host of different factors at play, along the basic lines of: who the immigrants are; the situation of the place they’re moving to and the people who live there; and the interaction between them.

For me though, it’s been all very well talking about the importance of how people on the ‘receiving’ end feel and having a pop at the rationalists for ignoring this aspect or treating it as illegitimate. As Dillow points to, I’ve provided a brief existential explanation for unease about immigration based around the idea of ‘home’ – the connections and familiarities which make places homes, and how a mass influx of people can disturb and undermine that phenomenon. But personally I haven’t engaged much on the economics, and the economics is an important ground.

One of the valuable aspects of Karl Polanyi’s perspective is that it doesn’t abstract economics from the situatedness of real life, and keeps in view the importance of ethics – addressing head on the idea that economics as a discipline is somehow separate and self-governing. Too often, indeed almost always, the practice and language of economics takes place on a plain of data, calculation and manipulation where it loses those important connections with the world it is talking about. In Polanyi’s view it does this in part by treating land, labour, and money as commodities when they each have a fundamentally different nature to other commodities.

Fred Block explains it as follows:

For Polanyi the definition of a commodity is something that has been produced for sale on a market. By this definition land, labour, and money are fictitious commodities because they were not originally produced to be sold on a market. Labour is simply the activity of human beings, land is subdivided nature, and the supply of money and credit in modern societies is necessarily shaped by governmental policies. Modern economics starts by pretending that these fictitious commodities will behave in the same way as real commodities, but Polanyi insists that this sleight of hand has fatal consequences. It means that economic theorizing is based on a lie, and this lie places human society at risk.”
The economist Karl Polanyi

Polanyi himself says:
Labour is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man.”

The importance of these perspectives for our immigration debate is firstly that land and labour (people) are limited and have a value of their own that’s separate from the calculating, maximising ways of our dominant economic modes of thinking.

But through mass immigration the economic forces which drive our world are finding ingenious ways to get around these constraints.

Business has been using mass immigration as a means of expanding its pool of labour – much of it willing to work more for less – while retaining the advantages and benefits of staying in Britain. Likewise the Treasury in Whitehall likes immigration because it means more workers paying more in tax while it lumps many of the costs on to local councils already struggling with terrible funding cuts.

This is the expansionary aspect of capitalism as an economic system – it constantly seeks new markets and better, more efficient means of production. More people means bigger markets, greater spending and increased potential profits. This is just what business does – there’s nothing necessarily immoral or wrong with it, though we should be questioning the system which keeps driving these processes.

So in a sense, what we are seeing with Britain’s current great immigration wave (which began in 1997 with the election of a Labour Government), is the economy buying in additional labour from abroad just like a football club buying a foreign star – and thereby getting around that one of Polanyi’s fictitious commodities.

The fact that land is limited and cannot be produced (except in exceptional circumstances like in Holland and East Anglia) has seen our economic system seeking out new markets and new means of production – through colonisation (remember that it was the East India Company which captured India) and other, softer means – including the basic incentives of wealth and power that Britain was the first to demonstrate. This system has now captured virtually the whole world but has also always expanded within existing territories to maximise and intensify activity – finding avenues to intrude into every corner of our lives. Rising population goes hand in glove with this process, creating new bands of buyers all the time – and also workers.

But the limits of land keep on being felt through this process of economic intensification and the population growth that goes with it.

By importing a net 260,000 people a year as Britain is now, we are increasing our population by the the size of Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, every four years. Most of the new arrivals are settling in England, which is already the most crowded country in Europe. This requires us to intrude more and more into our environment to accommodate these people and cater for their activities and needs. We can see the effects of this all around us, especially in the most crowded part of England, London and the South-East. Just in my local area of South London, the impacts of continually rising population are everywhere: primary schools expanding into their playgrounds with new buildings; property and rental prices going beyond the reach of many; public services straining under a combination of increasing demand and reduced funding; and congestion on roads and public transport making getting to work a daily nightmare for many.

Economically, we might expect these factors to deter people and push them away, but there is little sign of this as yet.

Besides our concern with the environment and a natural world, in which species are progressively dying off as we colonise and pollute our way to greater growth, we should question the sort of life we are offering to ourselves and future generations by cramming in so many new people every year. We should also be concerned about food security, which will become more and more pressing as global heating (otherwise known as 'warming') gathers pace, for food production requires land.

As the sociologist Anthony Giddens said recently: “Climate change is a huge existential risk for us, which the world at the moment is in absolute denial of.”

As a democratic society we have not been thinking about these aspects in anything like a serious manner. We have no strategy for what to do with our limited land nor what to do with our people, beyond feeding them into the same cement mixer and replacing the people who don’t come up to specification with other people from elsewhere. As Polanyi points out, this is a project of our state and our politics: in his words, “laissez-faire was planned”. Nearly always, our political debates get reduced to technical economic terms and attempts to maximise economic growth, keeping on the same narrative and pushing other major issues aside. 

Mass immigration feeds into this growth agenda. But, as a phenomenon, immigration always defies reduction to a single aspect – there are so many different considerations and different factors to consider, including the existential. As such it mirrors the wider vista of politics, which our political, media and business establishment has found convenient to ignore for too long. 


For more on related topics, see Immigration and the left and Environment, climate and land pages.

19 November 2014

In Praise of Yvette Cooper - for standing up against the paralysing ‘liberal’ consensus



Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has helped ignite another of those increasingly regular cyclones of protest from our liberal-left publications about virtually any talk about immigration.

Cooper’s speech on ‘Labour’s approach to immigration’ addressed this sort of attitude head-on in her introductory passage, in which she said:


On the one hand we now have an arms race of rhetoric involving the Tories and UKIP over immigration. UKIP are exploiting peoples’ fears, fuelling anxiety and division, and David Cameron is racing to catch up. Between them they promote the idea that immigration is all and always bad, and should always be stopped.

On the other hand some liberal commentators seem to think talking about immigration at all is reactionary, and concern about immigration is irrational. They give the impression that immigration is all and always good, and should all be encouraged.

Both sides shout at each other. Neither are right. And most people don’t agree with either of them.”


This language isn’t unlike some of the arguments I have been making on this blog, though I think the initial rhetoric about an ‘arms race’ between the Tories and UKIP is overblown: I’ve got no love for either party but I’ve heard virtually nothing from either of them promoting the idea that immigration is all and always bad. This is the kind of lazy accusation that we repeat to each other to reassure ourselves and then end up actually believing.

Nevertheless, the next few things Cooper said were more interesting, challenging ‘liberal commentators’, their idea that concerns about immigration are ‘irrational’ and that all immigration is good. It’s nice to see this sort of argument coming out not just from Labour’s more thoughtful backbenchers but from senior Labour shadow cabinet members, in a feverish environment in which they have virtually no support from liberal-left media and institutions.

The rest of the speech mostly reiterated existing policies and positions, though there was another good, straightforward message on EU migration: ‘Fair movement, rather than free movement’. This is a significant statement in Labour and left-wing politics, and is not a world away from the position that David Cameron holds in trying to renegotiate in the EU, though with a more friendly attitude and no threat to withdraw in Labour’s case.

The liberal-left reaction has again been remarkable in its vituperation, anger - and what I might even suggest is a degree of desperation, that despite all their pleas, this issue has not gone away. The arguments used are the familiar, well-worn ones we’ve seen many times before

Since hardly anyone else is doing it, it’s worth going through some of the latest ones and showing how flimsy they are.

Let’s start with an editorial in The Independent newspaper: ‘Race to the Bottom on Immigration’, which damned Cooper, saying she “might have added that Labour has been so spooked by the arms race that it too has decided to join in”, adding for good measure that “immigration takes a regrettable place on every party’s agenda”.

Now undoubtedly every party is thinking about electoral dynamics and their chances heading up to the next election, but it seems just straightforwardly wrong to suggest this is purely cynical politics and just represents some sort of race to the bottom.

Labour MPs want to be re-elected and candidates want to get elected. More than eight out of 10 Britons now support a major tightening of rules on benefits and curbs on overall immigration (which is now running at a million new people net every four years, excluding illegals). Responding to real concerns is what democratic politicians do, and we should welcome it both within the Labour Party and in the media.

But those same-old counter arguments keep coming. Anoosh Chakelian of the New Statesman makes the same one, asking ‘Is Labour on the brink of an immigration arms race?’. She answers a straight ‘yes’, deriding “this country’s so-called immigration problem” and suggesting that politicians are blaming immigrants for “structural failings” like “housing shortages, low wages, and a damagingly flexible labour market, as well as anxieties about other cash-strapped public services”.

There are a couple of the most common conceits in dominant liberal-left opinion here. First up, that being concerned about immigration and its various aspects means ‘blaming immigrants’. This is dreadful and dishonest use of language that needs some evidence to back it up at least – but we never see it, or rather we generally infer the blame from...somebody not blaming. The second is that when it comes to supply and demand dynamics, only the side that doesn’t conflict with our political views matters. So housing shortages and prices going up has nothing to do with an extra four or five million people needing somewhere to live, low wages have nothing to do with extra competition from those prepared to work more for less, etc. 

Pointing out these things has nothing to do with blaming immigrants, but the fact that Labour and wider liberal-left opinion sees these basics as taboo should be as alarming as it is unsurprising. When those picked to disseminate opinion within your ranks start sacrificing truth to assertion and moralistic preening, you're in trouble.

The Guardian’s political editor Rafael Behr, while not referring directly to Cooper’s speech, wishes that Labour “would deal with resentment of immigration through policies that address the pressure on wages and services that new arrivals are said to exert, not by pretending the border can be sealed”.

This seems to be what Labour is basically doing, though it will be interesting to see what transpires from ‘fair movement’ rather than free movement within the EU. However, again, note the language from Behr– “are said to exert” as if it is some sort of myth that heightened demand doesn’t affect service availability. It's really quite remarkable.

Lastly here, Labour’s house news service LabourList carried a piece by Maya Goodfellow, entitled: ‘Miliband says it’s not prejudiced to talk about immigration – but that’s exactly what this immigration debate is built on’ - protesting that Labour MPs like David Blunkett and Frank Field and the leadership are “continuing to concede ground to Ukip and the Tories by accepting that immigration is a problem at all”.

This reminds me of a passage from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language:

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Saying that our immigration debate is ‘built on’ prejudice is both meaningless and wrong, as if there is a root cause of a debate like this, and it’s not the experiences of the real people that the likes of Frank Field and David Blunkett meet in their work as MPs but rather from their own prejudice – that they are basically racist. Either Maya Goodfellow is not honest enough to come out and say that or she doesn’t really believe it, in which case she shouldn’t be saying it indirectly.

All these articles and their opinions are significant not just in themselves but for what they say about where hegemony of opinion lies on the left. These are the house opinions of left publications, and they are all the same. I haven’t quoted from the Huffington Post UK, but its political director Mehdi Hasan put out a stream of vituperative tweets about Labour and immigration following Cooper’s speech.

Goodfellow’s article was also strikingly aggressive towards Ed Miliband for his own (very benign) rhetoric, in a way that you would be unlikely to see on any other subject except immigration.

Hegemony doesn’t give up its supremacy without a fight. For this hegemony though, it is notable that that the more its members fight and make a noise, they more they succeed in convincing and mobilising each other, but hardly anyone else.


For more on similar issues from this blog, see Immigration and the left page and The Labour Party and other party politics page.

12 November 2014

How social liberalism’s triumph is turning to defeat



It has often been said that while the right has won the economic battles of the last few decades, the left (in its various liberal and pseudo-liberal forms) has conclusively won the social war. This seems incontrovertible in Western Europe and America at least.

I won’t go into the political triumph of economic liberalism here because: 1) it’s not what I’m talking about here and 2) it’s a bit technical and boring. But it’s good to reflect on social liberalism’s success, which is largely the story of a basic positive and righteous progression of politics from ‘not-so-good’ to ‘a lot better’. In Britain we are much better off, or perhaps better to say we are more civilised, for the reforms and changed social attitudes that have come with the triumph of social liberalism during the last Labour governments.

From free museums admission, the ‘right to roam’, free bus travel for pensioners and civil partnerships for gay couples, we have been freed up to live our lives more how we choose, and without any question of harming others. This is also the case with the decline in racist attitudes, the continuing rise of girls through the education system and women in the workplace, and the broad social acceptance of openly gay people as part of mainstream society.

The great 19th Century liberal John Stuart Mill would have been proud, for many of the battles he fought largely without success in his own time have now been won. Now, for the most part, sensible and genuine social liberals have gone home and turned their minds to other things, like gardening.

Yet what I would call ‘pseudo-liberal’ movements are still going strong and are if anything getting stronger in mainstream politics. You might see the success of the battle for gay marriage as an example of this – a reform that built on the existing civil partnerships and which increases freedom but also stepped on the established institution of marriage and changed its meaning, causing some people quite considerable concern and offence in the process.

Gay marriage is perhaps a relatively small ‘issue’ and has not been mightily contentious, but I think it is indicative of how those who now carry the flame of ‘rights’ – traditionally a liberal term – have jumped over the fence of liberalism by seeking not just to increase freedom of people they claim to represent, but to reduce freedom of others – for example by enforced diversity quotas in certain favoured professions.

This sort of authoritarian social liberalism is nothing particularly new; it was bubbling away throughout the last Labour governments, but now it is pretty much the only ‘liberal’ game in town on the left – and it is completely dominant within the present Labour Party. Emboldened by past successes, strengthened in their organisation and full to the brim with self-righteousness, these extreme elements have claimed the mantle of progress and taken hold of mainstream leftist politics.

As a result, the left is now on the wrong side of pretty much every major existential issue now facing Britain. We don’t have a story to tell about the future of the country and our politics, except of more change through more immigration and more of the Orwellian ‘Equalities’ agendas which protect certain people from the consequences of wrongdoing, while not facing up to the rise of an intolerant and increasingly confident Islamist politics.

The change in outlook and attitude and the liberal reforms promised by a new Labour government in 1997 put the left firmly on the side of the good, and going with public opinion not against it. The picture is very different now.


For more on similar themes, see Identity politics and the left page.