Globalitis: Why Economic Migration is not always Good News

This Wednesday's Independent (UK edition, 26/07/06) ran a front page story spilling over to page two under the heading “Outstanding: Official Verdict on school that shows the success of immigration”. It featured a fabulous inner London primary school with twenty six pupils and twenty six languages, all apparently excelling academically and growing up bilingual in a dynamic multicultural setting of tolerance and mutual understanding. With pictures of such charming and talented children, how could anyone fail to realise the huge benefits of immigration, wondered the opinionated journalists? The article did not consider the metropolis's looming water, refuse management and housing crises, nor the fact that few Londoners are directly involved in the harvesting or production of the products they consume. On the same day the editorial page bemoaned the adverse effects on the developing world of a probable collapse of talks on global free trade. The conclusions the Independent wants us to reach are:

  1. immigration is always good and environmentally sustainable;
  2. free trade benefits the poor.

The two are, of course, inextricably linked because contrary to popular mythology it is largely economics that drives both immigration and political repression. People move to more prosperous regions to improve their professional and financial prospects within the prevailing economic reality. As the ruling classes can only maintain a semblance of democracy when they can successfully lure the masses with a share of their wealth, relative economic deprivation with extremes of wealth and poverty provides a ripe climate for state repression of unwanted or vulnerable sections of populace. In the absence of immigration controls any global model of development with extreme variations in earning potential, career opportunities for the university educated, provision of key social services and relative security will lead to massive flows of human beings from the least desirable regions towards lands with greener pastures. In theory this should have a balancing effect, but many argue that new immigration drives economic growth, e.g. A person migrating from a low consumption region to high consumption region would tend to increase aggregate global consumption. In a world comprising largely self-sufficient regions most migration will tend to flow within each region without new wars of conquest and colonisation. Current migration is fuelled largely by the dynamics of a global trading system that has its roots in 18th and 19th century colonial mercantilism. However, in the long term the world is bound by the same laws of thermodynamics or limits to growth. Historically such movements have tended to occur much more gradually and with a much smaller human population. Never has the UK been so dependent on global trade and what is left of the country's manufacturing and farming sectors are predominantly outside the South East of England. The capital's economy revolves around banking, media, advertising, property, education and administration as well as a booming catering and leisure industry to accommodate the desires of service workers. We could simplify these categories into finance and propaganda. Everything is imported, even much of the city's water arrives from France in plastic bottles. Why should China continue to ship its wares to London? What services does it get in exchange? Londoners design a few adverts and Chinese workers deliver the goods! So in what kind of world do we move talented young people from one country which still has much more fertile land per capita than the UK to one of Europe's most overcrowded conurbations? If we believe the Independent, the UK has a chronic skills shortage and an ageing population requiring affordable carers. Might this be because cultural trends here induce natives to opt for media studies, business administration, psychology and graphic design at uni rather than acquire hard skills such as plumbing, mechanical engineering, etc.? As for the elderly, why can we not take care of our own within the family? We all know the answer, because family units have broken down and many potential carers are too busy earning a living in the service sector to serve their creators.

If immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent and Middle East had affected British culture, one might naively have expected a resurgence in close-knit extended family values. Instead the native population has witnessed a rapid rise in the proportion of single-parent households. The cultural impact of the post-WW2 immigrant communities has mainly manifested itself in culinary contributions and music, but as a rule the more a community has assimilated into mainstream English, Scottish or Welsh society, the more its youth has been immersed in fun culture. It should hardly surprise us that so many programmers hail from the UK's Asian communities that shielded them to some extent from cultural decadence so they could acquire the core logical mathematical skills they need to excel in domains that many other British kids find dly uncool. What about catering staff? Well you'd think home-grown students would want to earn a few pennies? In sector after sector we've witnessed the outsourcing of jobs and, especially in the South East of England, the importation of new cheaper human resources, while millions of natives are either unemployed or on incapacity benefits as a result of spuriously defined mental health problems. When will we realise that we need cleaners, cooks, bus drivers, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, farm labourers much more than It consultants or marketing executives. We might need programmers and sociologists, but not more professionals who push an essentially corporate agenda.

Cultural Imperialism

Sustainable immigration can benefit the host nation in innumerable ways enriching local culture and bringing in new skill sets. This works well in a climate of mutual respect and a relative equality of opportunities for all. Countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil and Canada have literally been built by successive waves of immigrants, but sooner or later we encounter the environmental equivalent of the law of diminishing returns. Most societies have one dominant culture to which other subcultures must adapt.

Curiously, immigrant communities in the UK since the end of World War Two have by and large brought with them traditional extended family values and hailed from close-knit communities. Many liberals see it as their mission to convert stalwart ethnic minorities to the new mantra of sexual liberation, women's rights, smaller family units and the commercial fun culture that tends to accompany these trends. Don't get me wrong a healthy society includes all its citizens in the decision-making process and does not discriminate against people for exhibiting natural non-abusive variants of human sexuality, but it is debatable whether recent trends have actually empowered women or have just created new categories of human beings. Why should one society have it right and another wrong? Surely customs and ethics evolve gradually as a result of generations of experience. One may view rights in individualised terms, e.g. gay rights, or one may view a society as a cohesive entity, e.g. Considering how the rights of one category affect the rights of another. More communal societies tend to take a holistic approach rather than affording abstract rights to minorities.

While the immigrant communities have contributed to cuisine and music, they have abjectly failed to stem the tide towards hedonism and dysfunctional family units. As greater integration leads minorities to assimilate the dominant culture, the net effect of migration is the erosion of the cultural heritage of migrants. However, for many observers the new dominant culture shares few traits with traditional English customs and values. The Welsh and Scots have long had a stronger sense of identity, but everywhere local culture is dumbed down to supporting the national football team, boozing and frequenting the same set of chain stores. Tesco, Weatherspoons, B&Q, Next, Game, William Hill and The Sun reflect dominant culture more accurately than tea and scones, a Sunday roast with beef and Yorkshire pudding, corner grocery stores, morris dancing, cricket, golf or quaint garden parties with cucumber sandwiches. With few exceptions what remains of native island culture has been commercialised or consigned to occasional appearances in annual festitivities. The same is happening to more recent cultural imports. Oddly as some Londoners grumble about the English language proficiency of some Poles, one by-product of the recent wave of Eastern European immigration to England will be to consolidate the dominant role of the English language within European commerce.

Supply and Demand

If we conclude that immigration is environmentally unsustainable and socially destabilising, we can act either on the supply or demand side. I find it totally selfish to advocate immigration controls in order to preserve our standard of living, for our wealth has been gained by plundering resources elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of Poles did not descend on the UK because they like the climate or appreciate any aspects of traditional island culture, but because a booming London-centred service sector, totally subservient to transnational corps, took advantage of one of Europe's most cost-efficient labour markets, all eager to learn English. If immigration served to provide a safe haven for the victims of state repression and extreme poverty, then the UK Government should open the floodgates to hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indians and Africans, but few could afford the plane ticket. More important much deprivation abroad is a direct result of the UK and US's economic and military policies and the export of an unsustainable economic model of continuous material growth.

Immigration controls act solely on the supply side. As long as the demand is there, prospective immigrants will claim a denial of human rights if they cannot move to meet this demand and take their slice of seemingly large prosperity cake. I'd favour what we might term as demand-side environmental re stabilisation by powering down booming economies in high-consumption areas and creating more demand for jobs in regions of net emigration. This can only be made to work if each region produces as much as is practically possible locally. As fossil fuels become scarcer and dearer, we will need to re localise our economies. The alternative may well be internecine warfare as the delicate harmony among ethnic communities falls apart. I certainly don't want to see more Draconian legislation or the resurgence of racism, but if we fail to tackle very real problems we might end up with an even more authoritarian regime manipulating conflicts of short-term interests within rival sections of the poor.

Author: 
Neil Gardner
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