Neither Bosses Nor Borders
Angela Nagle recently wrote an article for American Affairs trying to argue for a left-wing case against open borders. The result is a mix of association fallacies, contradictions, and misleading statistics. Most of her solutions to economic inequality —– fighting bosses, rejecting imperialism, rejecting unfair trade deals —– are things every radical already supports, but a few of them are such bad ideas that it's almost not worth debating. With the rise of nationalism all across the West, it's more important than ever to reject these arguments and stay true to our principles.
Before getting into the article, we need to clarify something. A common nationalist argument is that by having open borders, we don't have a nation anymore. Trump has used this in several speeches before. The underlying assumption is that by opening the borders, they disappear. It's like claiming that because the prison gates are open, both the prison and the gates are abolished. Both of these are not true. Libertarian writer Daniel Bier illustrated the difference clearly:
It’s not necessary to abolish national boundaries to allow people to cross over them, but confusion on this point bedevils the conversation about immigration.
When Vox asked Bernie Sanders about opening borders, he fulminated, “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal… That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state.”
Of course, this is nationalist claptrap — the United States existed and thrived with open borders for over a hundred years before the government started restricting immigration.
The idea of open borders assumes the existence of borders, and therefore the existence of the state. Many radicals want neither states nor borders. As Bier said, it may seem like a small point. And in my opinion, open borders coupled with a reduction in state power —– perhaps some kind of socialist minarchism —– is a better arrangement than what we have now. But without proper framing, we get Trump claiming the Democrats want anarchy. We also get articles like the one I'm responding to.
Nagle begins by citing Ronald Reagan's famous speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987. There, he identified the division of Germany as a “question of freedom for all mankind,” and that Soviet isolation must give way to global capitalism. She goes on to describe his neoliberalism, and in particular, “a neoliberal attack on national barriers to the flow of labor and capital. At home, Reagan also oversaw one of the most significant pro-migration reforms in American history, the 1986 “Reagan Amnesty” that expanded the labor market by allowing millions of illegal migrants to gain legal status.”
Already, we encounter problems. The claim that neoliberals were mounting an attack on borders between capital and labor is dishonest. In their own takedown of Nagle's article, Libcom brings up the fact that Bill Clinton passed both NAFTA and Operation Gatekeeper. The latter militarized the southern border, doubling law enforcement’s budget and building miles of fence. The only barriers that came down were barriers on capital. Even the Reagan Amnesty established controls for bosses hiring illegal immigrants, as well as increasing border security.
Radical and neoliberal visions of the future sharply diverge. Radicals want a world without authority, where people can associate and move about the world as equals. Neoliberals want capital to dominate and exploit the global working class. Nagle claims we're advocating the same thing, but what could be more different?
Nagle frames both the abolition of borders and a world without nations as foreign concepts to the left, coming out of libertarian capitalist circles. This is also untrue. Both positions have been part of the anarchist movement for over a century. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon —– the first self-identified anarchist —– wrote in his 1851 work General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century that:
If then science, and no longer religion or authority, is taken in every land as the rule of society, the sovereign arbiter of interests, government becoming void, all the legislation of the universe will be in harmony. There will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Man, of whatever race or color he may be, is an inhabitant of the universe; citizenship is everywhere an acquired right.
In the book Distruptive Elements: The Extremes of French Anarchism, translator Vincent Stone quotes from Joseph Dejacque's debut issue of Le Libertaire:
“Le Libertaire” has no homeland but the universal homeland. It is the enemy of limits: limit-borders of nations, property of the State; limit-borders of fields, houses, workshops, personal property; limit-borders of the family, marital and paternal property.”
Mikhail Bakunin —– collectivist anarchist, member of the First International, and an opponent of Karl Marx —– wrote in Stateless Socialism that:
Already we can see approaching the full emancipation of the toiling masses and their free social organization, free from governmental intervention, formed by economic associations of the people and brushing aside all the old State frontiers and national distinctions, and having as its basis only productive labor, humanized labor, having one common interest in spite of its diversity.
Peter Kropotkin —– credited as the founder of anarchist communism and perhaps the most popular of the classical anarchists —– wrote in Words of a Rebel that:
For us, “Commune” no longer means a territorial agglomeration; it is rather a generic name, a synonym for the grouping of equals which knows neither frontiers nor walls. The social Commune will soon cease to be a clearly defined entity. Each group in the Commune will necessarily be drawn towards similar groups in other communes; they will come together and the links that federate them will be as solid as those that attach them to their fellow citizens, and in this way there will emerge a Commune of interests whose members are scattered in a thousand towns and villages. Each individual will find the full satisfaction of his needs only by grouping with other individuals who have the same tastes but inhabit a hundred other communes.
Taking free flight, and finding an immense new field of application, that tendency will serve as the basis for the society of the future. It is by free groupings that the social Commune will be organized, and these groupings will overthrow walls and frontiers. There will be millions of communes, no longer territorial, but extending their hands across rivers, mountain chains and oceans, uniting individuals and peoples in the four corners of the earth into the same single family of equals.
Moving out of the 19th century, the International of Anarchist Federations (founded in 1968) states their principles as:
The abolition of all forms of authority whether economic, political, social, religious, cultural or sexual.
The construction of a free society, without classes or States or frontiers, founded on anarchist federalism and mutual aid.
Finally, within the counter-globalization movements of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, a strong trend of alter-globalization existed. This position critiqued global capitalism, but rather than returning to nationalism or isolated local communities, they championed global cooperation. In fact, “anti-globalization” was a term imposed on these movements by capitalist opponents to paint them as reactionary, when most of the activists didn't use the label at all. It unfortunately stuck. This is not to say there wasn't a nationalist element in the movement, but many people who were not nationalists participated.
So these ideas are not new. They come out of recognizing that we share a common fight against exploitation everywhere. They come out of recognizing the hurricane of dreams and desires in every human being, which spills over all aspects of life and defies all restraints. They come out of the fiery cosmopolitan spirit of socialism and anarchism.
Nagle goes on to write:
If 'no human is illegal!,' as the protest chant goes, the Left is implicitly accepting the moral case for no borders or sovereign nations at all. But what implications will unlimited migration have for projects like universal public health care and education, or a federal jobs guarantee?
As someone who wants to go to college but can't afford tuition, I would not accept that if it meant robbing other human beings of their freedom. I certainly wouldn't accept it for a federal jobs' guarantee. Our dreams are boundless and can't be limited to any of these programs. Our standard is freedom for all. Nagle's logic is the logic of capital and authority: in order to live well, it must come at the expense of other people. This is what all of us rebel against. In my opinion, our task as radicals should be to take a page from the Greek anarchists: organize public services independent of state power and shelter, feed, and care for migrants. And we must apply it on an even greater scale, spanning whole countries. This is not easy, but being good is also not easy.
She continues this point by citing Bernie Sanders's opposition to open borders. All it proves is how insufficient Bernie's politics are. A bunch of scrappy anarchists in Exarchia opening their squats to migrants is more important and more valuable than any politician.
Nagle then makes the point that historically, many unions opposed immigration because it weakened labor's ability to bargain. She handwaves the racism by saying these unions were still able to make common cause with workers everywhere. Class solidarity is obviously a good thing, but anti-immigrant racism always comes at the cost of that solidarity. In the 1900s, many unions supported bans on Chinese immigration and restricting Asian-American civil liberties for similar reasons. This was a dark moment in the history of the American labor movement, and we shouldn't emulate it in any way. We should follow the example of revolutionary unions like the IWW, who organized Asian workers and took the idea that workers have no country seriously. Capital is united globally, and if we want a free society, labor must be united too.
The bosses understand this, which is why they oppose it, despite Nagle's objections. She uses the liberal think tank Forward as an example of bosses supporting the abolition of borders, but I found nothing of the sort. Just vague references to fixing our broken immigration system.
Of course, as Nagle says, our opposition to borders isn't just based on a class-struggle perspective, but also our commitment to freedom in all spheres of life. These things aren't mutually exclusive; our support of freedom means an opposition to class society, because class society is authoritarian. But we struggle against all forms of authority: authority in the family, authority in gender and sexual relations, authority in race relations, authority in economic relations, and the authority of the state. All these things are linked, because they reproduce masters and servants. To abolish one of them, we must abolish all of them. In order to do so, we must create alternatives that allow all people to act with agency. Embracing immigration restraints so that American workers can enjoy extra bread crumbs doesn't take us in that direction.
She then cites a quote from a letter Karl Marx wrote to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, which I'll also quote here:
Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.
And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
But the evil does not stop here. It continues across the ocean. The antagonism between Englishmen and Irishmen is the hidden basis of the conflict between the United States and England. It makes any honest and serious co-operation between the working classes of the two countries impossible. It enables the governments of both countries, whenever they think fit, to break the edge off the social conflict by their mutual bullying, and, in case of need, by war between the two countries.
England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.
She agrees with Marx that this divided the English and Irish working class. But I don't see Marx supporting any immigration restrictions here. He believed the solution was that English workers should unite with Irish workers for the emancipation of Ireland. The most interesting bit is Marx comparing the situation to that of poor white workers and black people in the southern US. How does Nagle's logic on immigration apply here? If she lived back then, would she have supported efforts to send black people back to Africa, so that white workers could enjoy their extra bread crumbs? Or would she have supported poor white workers and black workers uniting as a class against capitalist tyranny? If the answer is yes, there's no reason why we shouldn't do the same with immigrant workers. If the answer is no, then it's hard to see any value whatsoever in this version of leftism. Nagle accuses radicals of defending a position that divides workers against each other, but more and more, it looks like she's projecting.
Nagle moves on to NAFTA and free trade more broadly. It should go without saying that lots of radicals recognize that “free” trade isn't really free. Such agreements are written to favor capital and transfer even more wealth to the capitalist class. The damage this causes to other countries is already known, and it's natural that people would want to find opportunities in those same capitalist countries, which they may not have done otherwise. Trade deals like NAFTA allow US-backed multinational corporations to corner markets in the global south, like they did with the Mexican corn market. The solution is to fight these trade deals and (as I said earlier) build alternative institutions that can meet the needs of the people. Attributing the problem to supposedly lax border policy is missing the point.
Next, she talks about E-Verify. This is a national database that allows bosses to verify whether potential employees are illegal or not. At the moment, employers can choose whether or not to use it. Nagle wants to make it mandatory, meaning everybody who wants a job must be cleared by the government. According to the ACLU, not only will it create “enormous privacy and security risks,” but workers who are mistakenly flagged by the system won't be able to get a job, it would be incredibly bureaucratic, and it would cost up to $1,000,000,000 in taxpayer money. We’re much better off without it.
Calling out the libertarian left, Nagle claims that our opposition to borders goes against “the will of the people,” and that we'll have to “impose the open border agenda.”
There are two issues here. First, borders are imposed already. They can’t stand without state force propping them up. I’ll get into this more at the end of my response. Second, this appeal to democracy and “the will of the people” betrays ignorance of the libertarian left. We don't recognize the right of a majority to impose on a minority. There's always been a strong critique of democracy from anarchists, arguing that it threatens individual freedom, grants legitimacy to even the most horrible decisions made by the majority, and doesn’t live up to its own ideals. The so-called will of the people is an abstraction that ignores the actual needs and desires of individuals. If we can speak of collectives at all, they're made up of fluid and ever-changing relationships between individuals. Privileging the majority over all else destroys this organic process, and therefore destroys freedom. Anarchy, as Proudhon said, means the “absence of a master—-of a sovereign.“If the majority overrides an individual's choice to associate with immigrants, it's not the individual imposing anything, but rather the majority. And like all masters, they would have to be overthrown.
Nagle cites the work of George J. Borjas and the National Acadamey of Sciences on immigration, attempting to prove that it has “disproportionately negative effects on poor and minority Americans.” She doesn't include a reference for the NAS study. I’ll let the reader judge why.
The study states that there are a range of positives and negatives. Immigration may indeed have short-term “negligible to modestly negative” effects on the wages of native-born workers, as well as immigrants who arrived prior. But these effects disappear over time. And in its conclusions, it also states that immigration can raise overall income for the native population and reduce the costs of certain goods and services.
The work of George Borjas is cited in the study, which does point to the kind of effects Nagle talks about. For example, he claims the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 wound up reducing wages by 10-30% in Miami. This would overturn a study performed 25 years ago by David Card, who found that the boatlift hardly had an effect on Miami wages. However, this work has been criticized by other researches, noting that he left out non-Cuban hispanic people, women, and young people aged 19-24, as well as measurement errors ranging as high as 30% in the sample he used. Studies and commentary from these critics show a much smaller negative effect on wages, and in some cases even show increases in wages.
But even Borjas argues that we focus too much on how many immigrants we should accept and not on mitigating harm (however negligible it is). Nagle ignores all of this so she can make her short four-sentences-long point that will fuel nationalist arguments and trick gullible white social democrats.
Nagle leaves academic research to bring up a highly controversial subject from the 2016 election. She quotes from a Wikileaks-revealed private speech by Hillary Clinton:
My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it.
However, Clinton said of the European migrant crisis recently that:
I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message — ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ — because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.
A response to this point might be that Clinton is just expressing a public position while hiding her secret belief in open borders. That doesn't explain why as a senator in 2006, she voted for increased border security, including a fence and a partial wall. Maybe “open borders” here really just means more freedom for capital, and not for labor?
Nagle's claim that most people need “a coherent, sovereign political body” (i.e. the nation-state) leaves out important details. People feel that way because of the inequality created and defended by authority, especially the state. Not to mention that because we live in an authoritarian society, we're ingrained with its logic. 60% of Americans also support capitalism, but that doesn't make capitalism good. As we come to realize that our freedom and happiness depend on each other, we'll also realize we don't need bosses nor governments.
Toward the end of the article, Nagle lists approaches the left could take to fight exploitation:
Punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Opposing trade deals like NAFTA.
Stop imperialist wars.
Make E-Verify mandatory.
Nagle concludes with a final jab against us: our position isn't nearly as radical as we think. I don't see how. Most of us believe in fighting bosses, exploitative trade deals, and imperialism, while still opposing borders. What exactly is more radical about Nagle's position? She defends the practices of racist unions, she defends the idea of a national database, and she takes nations for granted. Why should radicals take on all this conservative baggage?
One of the worst problems with the article is what it doesn’t say. In between weak statements about how migrants themselves shouldn’t be punished, ICE is only mentioned three times in passing. How come? Surely any left-wing approach to the border would include the question of ICE and whether we should abolish it or not. Surely a left-wing approach would talk about the rampant sexual violence in ICE detention centers, or growing numbers of immigrant children in ICE camps despite Trump formally ending family separation, or how they’re even grabbing lawful permanent residents. Maybe a left-wing approach should question whether any authority has the right to take innocent people against their will and send them away. Maybe a left-wing approach should question why upholding borders not only produces horrors like ICE, but also produces other horrors across Europe in the form of “refugee camps.” Maybe a left-wing approach should question why borders and nations seem to turn people into the most violent killers and abusers —– soulless vessels for the nation, who exist only to defend its power.
All of us want a free society. In order to get there, we must recognize the freedom of others, and unite together in the struggle against privilege and authority. This is completely at odds with the existence of borders and nations, which artificially separate human beings and turn them against each other. If the choice is between bosses or borders, then we reject both and choose freedom.