This post has been translated into Chinese.
I recently received the following question from my contact form. I’ve decided to answer it in public, because similar concerns are woven into the immigration narrative far beyond the UK.
“I work for a women’s refuge, recently a Turkish women can to stay with us. Her attitude is that she is in the UK and therefore the government should look after her and her child. She wants her son to have an English education and therefore she’s owed that from the government because she has spent two years getting a visa into the country, she has only been in the country 3 months and has numerous appointments with our healthcare services which she will get for free. She has no ambition to work, no want to put into the system yet wants to be looked after. This kind of attitude infuriates me, as it isn’t an isolated incident. If you could offer me some advice or a different perspective on how to see this situation from a more inter-being or nicer perspective I’d really appreciate it.”
Here we have a compassionate person noticing how she is being invited into a narrative of resentment. She is looking for an alternative, noticing her anger yet also trusting that there must be another way of looking at it.
Basically, the concern here is that foreigners are coming into the UK (and other developed countries) and taking advantage of the social services there, or the employment opportunities. That means less employment, higher taxes, and more stretched social services for those already there. The native residents blame the immigrants for that, and are in turn called racist and xenophobic. But in fact, the tension is an inevitable product of broader circumstances.
The first point to consider is why those immigrants want to leave their home countries behind in the first place, and go through the stress of a two-year visa application process (or taking an illegal boat across the Mediterranean or a tunnel into Texas), leaving behind everything familiar. The reason (if I may be permitted a vast simplification) is that the developed countries (or more accurately, global capital, based in the developed countries), have made life in the poorer countries unlivable for vast numbers of their inhabitants. Neo-liberalism, free trade treaties, austerity, and the global debt regime effectively extract wealth from the less developed countries and transfer it to the more developed. Furthermore, political repression is often necessary to enforce this system, resulting as well in ethnic violence. All of these contribute to make life unlivable for vast numbers of people outside the developed world.
It is quite insane to make life unlivable in another country, and then when people don’t want to live there, to attempt to keep them out by force. Wouldn’t it be better to enact policies that don’t make life unlivable there? Then there wouldn’t be an immigration problem to begin with.
The second point is related: the transfer of wealth to the wealthy from everyone else affects the developed nations too. Financial capital expands at the expense of the poor, the middle class, municipal governments, small businesses, pensions, and government revenues. This creates conditions of endemic scarcity and anxiety that color the perceptions of people like my correspondent. I am sure she would feel less resentful if she hadn’t witnessed three decades now of dwindling social services and growing economic insecurity. Even if she is doing all right personally, many around her are not. The insecurity immerses us all. When economic life screams at us, “There is never enough,” we are not likely to entertain generous impulses toward immigrants,the poor, or anyone in need. When we are secure, we might interpret the Turkish woman’s attitudes differently. Maybe she doesn’t want to work because she is sick, or has many children to take care of, or perhaps a bedridden mother… who knows? Who knows what stories lurk behind the faces of those we judge?
The essence of judgement is, “If I were in her situation, I would do better than she is doing.” But every time when I learn more about another person’s situation, their actions seem more understandable, and I realize, “Yeah, if I were in her shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.”
Of course, racism and xenophobia get in the way of that kind of empathy, because they assign their object into a dehumanized or degraded category of being. It is a mistake, though, to see racism or xenophobia as the root causes of economic injustice. The conditions for resentment and division are built into the economic system that dominates the planet. Racism, ethnic prejudice, and so on enable that system, make it seem justified, but they do not cause it.
If we are truly concerned about immigration, instead of building higher walls and tighter border security, why not make conditions more tolerable in the places being are desperate to leave?
The woman who wrote me the letter above is actually in the same boat, so to speak, as the immigrants. The economic logic that sets her up for resentment is the same logic that drives most immigration. The system perpetuates itself by pitting its victims against each other. These tensions will only increase as the debt pressure intensifies on every level. Blaming the other victims obscures that reality. Sure, there are many people who manage to act on their generous impulses despite the scarcity that surrounds them, but wouldn’t it be better to create a system that embodies and encourages those impulses?
I won’t go into what that system might be here – I wrote a whole book on that. Increasingly, we know what the core of the problem is though. Greece made it obvious if it hadn’t been before. It is debt slavery, the debt that is increasingly controlling the lives of people and the policies of nations.