Migration: moving from a democratic model to an imperial one

The pervasive attack on citizenship is part of a divide-and-dominate strategy.

Citizens of contemporary developed democracies live within an imperial order, but not in the way folk often claim.

There is an historical fable about the history of Western states that goes like this: once upon a time, Western states colonised the rest of the world, but then they morally advanced and retreated from imperialism, becoming welfare states instead.

I would put it slightly differently. Western states colonised the rest of the world because they could. Imperialism is what states do when they can, as more power and revenue is always preferable to less. But territorial imperialism became increasingly costly and the normative support for it collapsed. So, now Western states colonise their own societies (as more power and revenue remains preferable to less): we call this self-colonisation the welfare state.

Within the welfare state, it is useful to distinguish between the income-transfer state and the government-services-and-regulation state. The existence of complex societies generate unearned — I would say emergent — benefits that are wildly unevenly distributed.

It is reasonable for governments to tax those emergent benefits and distribute them more evenly. There are obviously questions about what taxes to levy and what transfers to make, but the underlying reasonableness of some level of income transfer is clear. Universal basic income (UBI) proposals simply seek to do such re-distribution of society’s emergent benefits systematically and comprehensively.

Problems of accountability

The government-services-and-regulation state is a rather different matter to such income transfers. That governments are generally not efficient regulators is clear: they have a general tendency to over-regulate and to poorly regulate.

The bureaucratic imperative is for more authority and ambit of activity, because that justifies bigger budgets, expanded career paths and higher status. (More revenue and authority is preferable to less.) Added to this is the tendency for regulatory activity to favour organised interests over the general interest, as organised interests can target the regulatory process more effectively. Hence the general tendency towards over-regulation and skewed-regulation. (For an amusing analysis of perverse regulation politics, see Bootleggers and Baptists.)

Part of the problem is one of scale. The more government does, the more whatever effective accountability mechanisms are in play are stretched. It is clearly easy for the regulatory state to expand beyond the level of effective accountability. (And the weaker the accountability mechanisms, the more dysfunctional government’s regulatory efforts are likely to be — the history of Latin America in a nutshell.) There is, after all, no automatic feedback from the effects of the regulation back to the regulatory process. Indeed, the tendency to judge regulations by their stated intentions (as that is easy and rhetorically convenient) often impede enquiry into their actual effects.

The same points apply to government services. Clearly, they can also easily expand beyond the effectiveness of accountability mechanisms. The bureaucratic push for more authority and greater ambit of activity is the same as for regulation, with extra incentive to increase revenue (i.e. expenditure). It is important to remember that what is government expenditure to the general public is revenue to the spending organisation. Nevertheless, the tendency to favour organised interests over the general interest applies as it does for regulation.

There is also the general bureaucratic incentive to favour concern for process over concern for effectiveness or efficiency. Process is easy to follow and easy to measure. The ease and regularity involved in rendering social action via regularised processes is why bureaucracy tends to be so ubiquitous. Accountability for efficiency and effectiveness of bureaucratic action is much harder to institutionalise and to measure. Bureaucracies will always tend to favour the ease of process over the awkwardness of accurately and systematically ascertaining effect.

Accountability mechanisms also tend to be centralised, so subject to information bottle-necks. Chinese dynasties tried for centuries to develop procedural mechanisms to achieve systematic accountability for government bureaucrats. They failed.

As economist Douglas Allen explains in his splendid study The Institutional Revolution (his analysis of the incentive structure of the Royal Navy in particular is well worth reading), systematic accountability mechanisms were achieved in early modern England. They were primarily a mixture of feedback from Parliament, hostage social capital (expensive mansions in out-of-the-way places that were investments in wasteful loneliness if no one visited), and duelling (a way of testing for unobserved social capital). Mechanisms that made patronage appointments and purchase of position generally work in the wider interest of the political nation due to the pressure for normative commitment and tests of character operating on office-holders.

Duelling meant that people were prepared to defend their reputation at the risk of their life: it was a test of character and commitment. Building expensive mansions in out-of-the-way places surrounded by unproductive display parks was a sunk cost demonstrating commitment to the norms that generated a good reputation — if no one visited, those mansions and display parks were very expensive investments in loneliness and social isolation.

But these character-and-commitment mechanisms operated for relatively small bureaucracies embedded in extensive social networks with powerful reputation effects and a strong sense of common culture (so a strong framework of norms and expectations). This is not the situation that contemporary developed democracies find themselves in.

Mass production (so standardised products) and greatly expanded measurement capacity resulted in a shift to meritocracy. But, in the absence of pervasive mechanisms to test character and commitment, with serious problems of measuring effectiveness and efficiency, and the centralisation of accountability mechanisms (with resulting information bottle-necks problems), it is clear that the government-services-and-regulatory-state has expanded beyond the point where accountability mechanisms are reliably effective.

It is not good enough to wave the democratic wand and claim that of course government bureaucracies work in the public interest. There is no of course about and it is pure institutional romanticism to suggest that they automatically do so.(Though, very convenient institutional romanticism for the bureaucracies themselves and for favoured interest groups.)

Indeed, we live in the first period in Western history when there are no systematic tests for character and commitment involved in selecting officials, whether elected or unelected. Apart from the minimal test of having sufficient persistence to acquire credentials.

Selecting for the ability to gain credentials is selecting for a very narrow sense of merit that, apart from the aforementioned credential-scoring persistence, does not select for character or commitment. It is hardly surprising that we end up either with spineless officials who capitulate at the first hint they might be called bad words or conformist adherents to the dominant mode of mimetic moralising. Or both. Hence we are increasingly governed by an unfortunate mixture of mimetic zealots and spineless weathercocks, leavened by the odd bombastic demagogue (who typically gets their political“in” through denouncing the mixture of corruption, spinelessness and mimetic arrogance).

Mimetic zealots being folk who copy moral positions off each other, converging on whatever prestige opinions are deemed to make one a member of the morally meritorious. Such mimetic zealotry is typically engaged in by people whose prime (sometimes only) achievement is to collectively worship the splendour of what is in their heads; the splendour of their ostentatious good intentions. A pattern of moralised status-seeking oneupmanship that naturally generates increasingly bizarre and toxic purity spirals.

So, disabusing ourselves of the presumption of government policy and services acting systematically in the public interest, let us take a more clear-eyed view of the way migration, and migration policy, operates. After a slight detour into the social dynamics of democracy and citizenship.

The social dynamics of democracy

Socially and historically, there is, outside frontier societies, only one reason to have a democratic political system: to give the working class a say in the political process. That was true back in Ancient Greece, when democracies were states that gave the demos, the free poor, the vote. (Typically, because they needed them to row the war galleys.) It is true today. There is no deep association between any ideological tendency and democracy that is more powerful than seeking working-class votes.

In the C19th, frontier societies tended to be more democratic because they wanted more settlers and because they needed to be able to mobilise willing upholders of the peace. Needing people to fight, to settle, to work, are all powerful reasons to give them the vote. (Not so much for indigenous folk, of course, as they were the ones being supplanted.)

Concerning citizenship

Deeply tied in with democracy as a vehicle for incorporating the working class into politics is the notion of the citizen. As a general (though not universal) rule, citizenship has generally been strongly associated with political participation: and often armed political participation.

Democracy tied the status of citizen to all adults (well, all adult males originally) and political participation to citizenship. Being a citizen was tied to the right to participate, to speak, to articulate one’s concerns, to vote. To participate in the full range of political bargaining. You were the citizen of a specific polity, tying yourself to its history, its heritage, its institutions, its conventions and social norms.

Bringing new people into a citizenship polity is a fraught business. They potentially dilute the votes of the existing citizens and they may have loyalties and normative attachments that are at cross-purposes with their new place of residence. (The newcomers in the settler societies of the Americas and the Antipodes had very different allegiances and normative attachments than did the indigenous inhabitants.) For instance, if migrants move to a country with a different religious majority, it has tended to increase, rather than decrease, their identification with their heritage religion, at least among pioneer migrants, though patterns can vary among later waves of migrants. The dramatic falls in transport and communication costs also make it easier for migrants to maintain connections back to their communities of origin.

Hence, some period of residence is usually required before one can become a citizen. It is also why public oaths of allegiance — a ritual of adopting a new identity and loyalty — are required of new citizens.

An extra complication is the issue of attachments within a polity. As migrants tend to concentrate in particular localities, notably large metropolises, significant levels of movement of people into a society can affect the political balance within that society. It is very obvious that mass migration into the US, France and the UK is sharpening (and partly creating) a metropolitan-provincial split in those societies, with seriously polarising effects. Not only does it mean people have very different experiences of migration, but it can set up a fear-and-arrogance dynamic where one part of a polity thinks it can ignore the concerns of another part because the numbers are increasingly on its side. Conversely, the side that is facing demographic eclipse may get increasingly desperate.

This is not a theoretical scenario, it is precisely the dynamic that led to the American Civil War, as economic historian (and Nobel Memorial Laureate) Paul Fogel explains in his very revealing Without Consent or Contract. However shameful and abhorrent slavery was, the reality was the American republic coped fine with being partly slave and partly free for decades. It was the flood of new migrants, after the development of steamships and railways enormously reduced transport costs, that set up political dynamic that led to the creation of the Republican Party and the secession of the Southern states. A secession due to the plantation elite staring demographic (and so political) eclipse in the face.

It was not merely that the Republican Party was anti-slavery. There had been anti-slavery Presidents prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election. It was the Republican Party platform of also offering land to landless citizens and improving labour income that was potentially highly attractive to poor Southern “whites”. This threatened a potential alliance between freed slaves and poor “whites”. An alliance that the divide-and-dominate strategies of the Southern plantation elite was structured to frustrate. Indeed, that the politics of Democrat-dominated US cities are still structured to frustrate. (The book that makes the dynamics of Southern secession very clear is Kerri Leigh Meritt’s Masterless Men.)

There is another social divide that overlays the metropolitan/provincial divide, one that is picked up nicely in social analyst David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere. That is between networked elites (David Goodhart’s Anywheres: folk who are happy living anywhere there is a decent cafe culture) and those anchored in dense local connections (David Goodhart’s Somewheres). It is the difference between the transactional Gesellschaft world and the relational Gemeinschaft world.

One of the ongoing problems in social dynamics and political polarisation in contemporary developed democracies is that the highly transactional Anywheres include academics and social scientists. They use transactional techniques of social analysis that are often very bad at noticing dense local connections or their significance. The Anywhere academics in particular, often have very little sense of how Somewheres live, how they view the world and why. Anywhere academics often have startlingly little sense, despite their social science credentials. of what they do not know, do not see and do not ask about.

There really are only two mechanisms for working-class social power. One is unionism and the other is the vote. These mechanisms only have any chance of working in the interests of the working class if they rest on strong local patterns of connection. Without strong patterns of local connections, their unions and their political parties are likely to become dominated by university graduates; by members of the human-and-cultural capital class (aka professional and managerial class).

You can only vote according to choices offered to you, and without those strong local connections, working-class folk are likely to have very little say in what is offered. As political economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out, democratic politics has become dominated by the division between human-and-cultural capital (who he labels the Brahmin Left) and commercial capital (the Merchant Right), with working class concerns and perspectives being largely shut out. “Defund the police” may represent a resurgence of the anarchist strain in radical politics but it also represents members of the human-and-cultural capital class attacking the last bastion of working class authority — police forces.

Networks of local connections also provide information and resilience mechanisms. Without such connections, genuinely local community action and control is next to impossible. (So-called community organisers are typically university graduates, working for purposes they find congenial: they are far more local servants of the human-and-cultural-capital class than anything resembling working-class action.)

In two classic studies, (‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, 1973, and ‘The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited’, 1983) sociologist Mark Granvotteer outlined very clearly the importance of these local connections, particularly if locals are to have any effective say over their community. These patterns of local connections provide what economists call social capital and anthropologists call relational wealth. Any social processes that break up these local connections will very much work against the interests of the resident working class. Which brings us to the matter of migration.

Mass migration

Australia and Canada have had a very different experience of mass migration than the US, UK or France. That is because (1) Australia and Canada are highly urbanised societies, without much of a metropolitan/provincial split. (Or, more precisely, the major urban centres are so demographically dominant, that provincial discontent is swamped.) And (2), due to their geography, Australia and Canada can control their borders relatively easily and have no neighbouring source of migrants, so can (and do) very deliberately seek to have a very diverse range of migrants.

In the case of Australia, despite migrants being about 25% of the population (a much bigger share than the 13% or so of the US), the Anglo-Celtic core has remained by far the dominant group, with migrants divided among many groups of highly diverse origins. This means that Anglo-Celtic norms are much more readily picked up by incoming migrants, as none of them have achieved that critical mass that makes it easier to sustain a resistant mass identity. There are attempts to do so within the Muslim community, but as members of that community clearly keep alerting the security forces to would-be jihadis, it is only having limited success. (This is also true in the US and Canada.) Would-be jihadis have much greater success operating within the much larger Muslim communities of the UK and Europe, where resistant identities are clearly flourishing.

The original mass migration policy was one of assimilation. Assimilation as a social ideal is based on democracy, citizenship and attending to the interests of the working class. It prioritises encouraging attachment by migrants to their new home and their integration into a common political culture. It also implicitly promises the working class that there would be minimal threat to their local connections; to the connections that made their communities work as communities and provided them with effective political levers.

The rejection of assimilation and the switch to multiculturalism (now diversity) was a switch to a very different migration policy. It was a switch from a democracy-and-citizenship to a socially imperial migration policy. Any implicit or explicit promise that migration would attend to the interests of the working class was withdrawn. On the contrary, migration policy would now not only be happy to break up the grounded-in-locality social capital/relational wealth of working-class residents, it would also denigrate them for complaining about it. Any attempt to defend local communities, and the connections that sustain them, can expect to be castigated as xenophobic and racist.

Given that the resident working class was overwhelmingly of Northern and Western European origin, even in the Anglo-settler societies, ANY newcomers were likely to be of a different skin colour. Thus it was easy to shut down any attempt to defend working-class communities, and the social capital/relational wealth embedded in them, as “racist! xenophobic!”.

This is an imperial migration policy. Both in the sense of manifesting the social imperialism of the holders of capital and the state apparatus and in the sense of replicating policies of imperial powers. When European empires imported en masse new people into one of their colonies, due to their economic skills or commercial utility, scholars have had no problem analysing such policies as divide-and-dominate policies. Domestic multiculturalism (pursued in the interests of the scholars’ own class) does not get such critical examination. Yet importing people of a different culture or cultures en masse is a divide-and-dominate strategy, whether it is done in Fiji, East Africa, Sri Lanka, the West Indies or in London, Birmingham, Paris or New York. The colonial authorities would even use the same arguments as modern multiculturalists — the newcomers have initiative, they have skills, they work hard, they increase commerce. Often true, just as it was also true that the newcomers made and make excellent vehicles for divide-and-dominate strategies.

Locality-based identities are grounded in lifetime investments in local connections. Thus, importing lots of people who have no prior connection to a locality or its people, lack common experience, lack common norms and expectations and may well have language differences inevitably frays the dense networks of local connections working-class people typically rely on for effective social action. The newcomers are not part of their local pattern of connections: on the contrary, they will fray, undermine and replace them.

Swamping communities with a mass of incoming migrants who are actively encouraged to continue to identify with their existing cultures, with existing residents being expected to make whatever adjustments required for that, systematically undermines the social capital/relational wealth of the existing residents. It makes it easier for members of the human-and-cultural capital class, working through unions, NGOs, government bureaucracies and corporations, to ensure that their perspectives and networks become dominant.

What the shift from assimilation to multiculturalism-cum-diversity has done is to marry the social imperialism of the human-and-cultural-capital class to the bureaucratic imperialism of the government-services-and-regulation state. With a whole lot of knock-on effects.

For example, official support for the existing heritage and culture is increasingly withdrawn, on the grounds it is not the heritage and culture of the newcomers. Meanwhile, the newcomer’s heritages and cultures do get explicit official support, in what political scientist Eric Kaufmann nicely calls asymmetrical multiculturalism.

But the social imperialism of the human-and-cultural-capital class increasingly goes beyond that to, in true imperial style, condemning the heritage of the local working class as being a benighted one. So benighted that their cultural superiors will rescue us all from it and, again in true imperial style, sneer at the locals for being attached to their reactionary heritage. Thereby replicating recurring imperial attitudes to “native” cultures and heritages.

Every imperial order deems itself to be normatively superior to those it rules over. In this case, we can observe a social and cultural imperialism that is justified by the splendour of what’s in their heads: their prestige opinions and ostentatious good intentions that mark them off as the morally meritorious. An internal imperialism that manifests a sense of not only being a cognitive meritocracy, but being the morally meritorious as well. Of being profoundly justified, indeed morally entitled, due to the perfection of their shared visions of the future that, of course, is so much morally grander than the cultural inheritances of a benighted past.

Hence their collective, massive sense of moral entitlement, where everyone must respect and defer to their moral perspectives while they regularly display their contempt for the moral perspectives of anyone who thinks inconveniently differently for their prestige plays (though rather more conveniently so, because of said contempt, for their dominance plays).

The most vivid way one shows oneself to be a member of the morally meritorious is via contempt for those who think differently. Displaying such contempt is also the easiest way to show commitment. A pattern that encourages convergence to avoid censure but also profoundly devalues the status of citizen.

Claiming to speak for, or on the behalf of, designated marginalised groups is easily used to undermine the existing cultural and institutional order. This form of cultural politics has become very obvious in comic franchises and increasingly obvious in movie franchises.

Imperial orders love multiculturalism/diversity: it means more subjects, and more divided subjects, easier to dominate. A unified citizenry, with common norms and expectations activated through dense networks of local connections, is a much harder (and more demanding) to deal with than a populace divided into different identity groups that the imperial bureaucracy and imperial cultural class will arbitrate between.

This was the strategy of the plantation elite of the Antebellum South. It was the strategy of the Southern elite during Jim Crow. It is the strategy of urban elites in contemporary US cities. It is becoming the strategy in “cosmopolitan” London.

The various versions have used very different rhetorics, but the underlying patterns remain remarkably similar. Telling the Euro-American (“white”) working class that you will “defend” them from the violent “black barbarians” is every bit a divide-and-dominate strategy as telling migrants and those of African descent that you will defend them from “white racists” and “white supremacy”.

Race is very, very useful for divide-and-dominate strategies.

As an analytical category, race makes no sense, as it identifies neither breeding populations nor cultural groups. Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. is quite correct to tell his students “when you hear the word ‘race’ think unicorn, because it is the same thing”. But the physical markers of race are obvious, so it makes it an easy way to divide people.

The recent British Home Office report on group-based child sexual exploitation is a case in point. Sexual exploitation of minors has absolutely nothing to do with race, but by introducing race as a analytical category, inconvenient associations with valorised minorities can be buried, even though we have the testimony from victims of (overwhelmingly Muslim) gangs that their abusers cited religious justifications. But the report is not compiled by servants of the British citizenry, but by officials of the imperial state attempting to minimise discontent among the “natives”.

The Home Office would find identifying a specifically Muslim problem very awkward from a policy perspective and for officials’ membership of the morally meritorious. There is a very clear elite preference to deny any notion of their being a specifically Muslim problem. In such circumstances, as is so often the case nowadays, the analytically useless concept of race can be a very useful distractor.

As David Goodhart outlines in The British Dream, and Ben Cobley discusses in The Tribe, British administrators moved easily from the colonial model of administering multicultural societies to a domestic version of the same, where they do not identify with any group but arbitrate above and between them.

Divide-and-dominate strategies often actively prefer newcomers or minority groups, as they are more disruptive of the capacity to resist domination, and less threatening to the strategy of domination. In the past, that has often elevated the status of market-minorities, sometimes warrior-minorities. Nowadays, it is a range of welfare-, low-wage- and skilled-minorities that are so treated.

Islam is a very convenient weapon to undermine existing heritage, given that heritage is Christian in its origins. (The concerns of Christian migrants, for example, do not get anywhere near such tender attention from progressive possessors of human-and-cultural capital as do Muslim sensibilities.)

As part of the discounting of working-class concerns, it is sometimes claimed that there is nothing specific to migrants demand on welfare services, so complaints about migrants using welfare services are actually cover for complaining about migrants. The reality is rather more complex than that. The argument that migrants, in themselves, make no significant difference to demand presumes that there is no welfare or government services infrastructure, or that such infrastructure responds smoothly to population surges. This is incorrect. There is welfare and government services infrastructure and such infrastructure notoriously does not respond smoothly to population surges. Moreover, different language, norms and expectations increase transaction costs in using welfare systems, putting further stress on them.

The argument also relies on the notion that there are no positional goods in welfare provision and that is simply not so. Social capital/relational wealth is riddled with connections to positional goods.

So, there is a legitimate basis for complaining about migrant pressure on welfare and government services. Particularly in the case of public housing, where need-based criteria often result in family and other connections in a locality being broken up.

The lack of attention to, or concern for, locality or connection creates societies that easier to dominate, but are also less resilient as it frays social bonds and creates mass disaffection.

A pervasive attach on citizenship

In service of this divide-and-dominate strategy, a pervasive attack on citizenship has developed. Partly this is a product of the development of internet technology. As the major tech platforms have come to dominate access to information, a series of private platforms have largely swallowed the public space. One does not interact or use these platforms as citizens but as users. Being private platforms, they are largely outside the protections that have developed to protect the ability of citizens to express themselves in the public space.

In the online world, we are not citizens, we are all just internet users.

But the use of the status as private providers to attempt to “prune” online opinion would not have got anywhere near as far if there was not a much broader attack on the status of citizenship underway.

The imperial nature of this attack shows up in odd places. Such as contempt for the small (e.g. florists, bakers, etc. who fail to conform to the designated prestige opinions and whose services are easily replaced) and worship of the powerful (the tech giants “proper” management of online opinion and whose services are much less replaceable).

More broadly, the previous notion of civil liberties bodies — that even Nazis are citizens too — has been replaced by the pervasive attack on the status of citizenship based on valorised groups and stigmatised opinions. “Punch a Nazi” is a very different approach. One that normalises (political) violence against anyone deemed beyond the moral pale, regardless of their citizenship status. The attempt to drive declared racists, transphobes, etc out of workplaces, business and the public sphere says expressing the correct opinions is much more important than your status as a citizen.

The problem with the concept of citizenship is that has too much status and specific heritage to it, too much cultural depth. The prestige opinions that grant status as being of the morally meritorious are much thinner gruel. Especially given the religion-shaped-hole in contemporary developed democracies. Religion has historically provided a web of rituals, norms, expectations and social connections that tie societies together, ground common norms and expectations, provide frameworks of meaning and purpose. The retreat of religion provides space for something new to fill that space, as the convergent self-worship of a shared sense of moral merit is evolving to do so.

The consequence of the rejection of the cultural depth of our received heritage is that it easily leaves people with a thin, insecure, even paranoid, sense of self. A form of collective narcissism is natural to such a thin sense of self. Words become expressions of, and threats to, this thin, emotional, affirmative-display self. So threatening, that we get the concomitant demands for social purity in any social milieu that those participating in the new faith system of convergent self-worship are in or associate with.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me is a mantra of a robust citizenship culture with robust discovery mechanisms. The constant invoking of being offended, and (highly selectively) avoiding offence, has rather different implications.

From this convergent collective narcissism based on worship of the splendour of what’s in their heads develops mimetic zealotry and purity spirals. With the selective attention and self-serving narratives that are so much a part of narcissism. And the associated hostility to discovery processes. No narcissist wants to be constrained or wounded by the stings of truth.

Inconvenient science is rejected because science requires doubt and the risk of not supporting the narratives of moral merit, of moral purity. Inconvenient speech and intellectual inquiry is rejected for the same reason. As is inconvenient voting.

Protecting conformity to the markers of moral merit is the point. Hence the aforementioned hostility to discovery processes. The mimetic moralisers, in the apt comments of YouTuber Benjamin Boyce, have intentions that are so good that they cannot doubt themselves.

Migration fits in so well with all of this; if done “properly”, which is to say imperially.

To defend assimilation as a policy is to cast oneself outside the realm of moral merit. But imperial orders always hate the idea that the divided-and-dominated might cohere in ways that demand attention to their interests and concerns.

The logic of divide-and-dominate is not a democratic logic. Nor is a logic for good public policy or resilient societies. But it is excellent for those who so dominate the cultural commanding heights.

An accidental small businessman who reads a lot and thinks about what he reads, sometimes productively. Currently writing a book on marriage.