Migration and the Dynamics of Empire

Migration and the Dynamics of Empire

Mini Teaser: Do all roads lead to the new (American) Rome? The imperial task has always been affected by the movement of peoples. It still is.

by Author(s): James Kurth

Imperial Immigration

The contemporary American experience with immigration also has much in common with the European one. For both the United States and for several European states, the vast immigration of the last several decades has been closely connected with the nature of their empires. Let us see how.

Decolonization was not the last chapter in the long narrative of the European empires. A new chapter has been written since the 1960s by the massive migration of formerly-colonial peoples into the European metropoles. Thus, Britain has received immigrants especially from India, Pakistan and the former British West Indies; France especially from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and the former French West Africa; the Netherlands from Indonesia and Surinam; and Belgium from what had been the Belgian Congo. For the most part, large-scale immigration from the colonies into the metropole commenced about the same time or not long after decolonization was occurring. It has continued to the present day; post-imperial immigration thus has been under way for four or five decades.

What explains this massive and prolonged immigration from the successor states of the European empires into their former imperial metropoles? Why has it occurred after the empires came to an end rather than at some earlier time? The answers to these questions lie principally within the metropoles themselves.

Some historians of Europe have seen the period 1914-45 to be another Thirty Years War. It certainly was a period of successive catastrophes--World War I, the communist revolutions in Russia and in parts of central Europe, the Great Depression, the Nazi and fascist dictatorships, World War II, the Holocaust, and the omnipresence of class conflict throughout the entire period. After 1945, it was natural that creative and constructive political leaders were determined to remove, once and for all, the causes of these catastrophes.

Fifty years later, we can see that these political leaders succeeded. To remove the causes of the two world wars, the Nazi and fascist dictatorships and the Holocaust, they promoted supranational and pan-European institutions, and also postnationalist and post-racist ideologies. The most recent, and most pronounced, versions of these ideologies are multiculturalism and universal human rights. To remove the causes of the Great Depression, they promoted the managed economy and European economic integration. To remove the causes of class conflict and communist revolutions, they promoted the welfare state and the elevation of the working class into a middle-class way of life. Together, these great and successful projects to remove the causes of the great catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century represent the finest achievements of European civilization in the second half of that century.

The last of these great achievements, however--that all their citizens were entitled to middle-class amenities--had embedded within it an intrinsic flaw. As this achievement advanced, ever fewer citizens of modern, affluent Europe wanted to do the decidedly non-middle-class work necessary to any modern economy--the dirty (and sometimes dangerous or degrading) jobs in the farms, factories, streets and hospitals of that modern economy. Thus, as soon as the welfare state and middle-class expectations were fully established for the citizenry of Western Europe (by the early 1960s in most cases), there developed a need for workers who were not citizens; i.e., immigrants or "guest workers" (the term tellingly invented at the time).

One obvious place where European nations could find these immigrant workers was in the countries to their south--for example, Algeria for France, and Turkey for West Germany. (At the same time, Mexico and Puerto Rico were performing a similar role for the United States.) More generally, the obvious place to find immigrant workers was among the former colonies or other dependent territories of the nation's recently devolved empire. The colonial peoples had already been doing a good deal of the dirty work of the empire for several generations--in the plantations, factories, streets, homes and hospitals of the colonies. This included working to maintain the European civil officials, military officers and other emigrants to the colonies in a comfortable middle-class life style. It was natural, then, that as the working-class citizens of European nations ascended into some version of middle-class life (or at least middle-class pretensions), their necessary and essential working-class functions were filled by working-class immigrants from the colonies. Colonial workers not only knew how to work, they were also more likely than non-colonial peoples to know the distinctive national language, codes and customs of the citizens within the metropole.

The sociological phenomenon of the ascending working class was reinforced by the demographic phenomenon of the descending birth rate. The 1960s saw the end of the postwar baby boom and its replacement with a birth dearth, which has continued to the present day. Demographers observe that, in order for a population to sustain itself, it should have an average reproduction rate of 2.1 births per woman. The reproduction rate for every European nation (except Albania) has fallen beneath 1.5 during the past few decades. When one projects these demographic statistics forward, it would appear inevitable that, in half a century, most European nations (or more precisely, European-descended peoples) will have less than two-thirds of the population they have today. Furthermore, a much larger percentage of that population will be old and no longer able to work. The only peoples in Europe whose birth rates are high enough to sustain or increase their populations are the communities composed of immigrants from the former imperial territories.

As it happens, the largest of these immigrant communities in most European countries are Muslim. These Muslim communities already form 5-10 percent of the population of some European countries, and much higher percentages of younger age cohorts. That percentage is steadily increasing both from continuing immigration and high natural increase among immigrant populations. These immigrant populations now perform functions essential to the economic system and are poised to make a significant impact on the political system as well, becoming a force in democratic elections, multiparty politics and coalition governments.

One might have expected the European nations to develop a strong resistance to admitting immigrants--particularly Muslim immigrants--whose culture was obviously very different from their own traditional national or European ones. However, this potential resistance has been aborted by one of the other achievements of the European political leadership in its successful efforts to remove the causes of the great catastrophes of the 20th century--the aforementioned development of post-nationalist, post-racist and multicultural ideologies. In doing so, however, the Europeans prepared the ground for a different kind of great conflict in the 21st century: a form of war-cum-terrorism that has already visited the United States and that will, very likely, visit Europe as well.

Muslim Immigrants

The specter of Islamic terrorism that now haunts the West has focused attention upon Muslim immigrants in Western countries. These immigrants form communities that have long been hostile to the culture--whether seen as Christian or as secular--of the host countries, and they now pose serious problems for domestic security. Muslim immigrants thus have an anomalous position in both Europe and America. The particular nature of the anomaly is different, however, in the two regions of the West.

For Europe, Muslim countries comprised major parts of the British, French and Dutch empires. Accordingly, Muslim communities in these post-imperial states comprise 5-10 percent of their populations. Muslims also comprise more than 5 percent of the population of Germany and several other west European countries. European political leaders will have to take Muslim political demands into account, and Muslim leaders may gain veto power over some policy issues, most obviously in regard to foreign policy toward the Middle East.

For the United States, in contrast, Muslim countries have not been long-established parts of the American empire. Even such putative allies as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have often engaged in independent, unfriendly and distinctly un-colonial behavior toward the United States. Accordingly, Muslim immigrant communities comprise only a small part (about 1 percent) of the U.S. population. Furthermore, given the uninviting environment in America for Muslim immigrants since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslim immigrant communities probably will not form a much larger part of the American population anytime soon. Consequently, American political leaders will not have to take Muslim political demands into account. On the contrary, they very likely will reject any such demands, particularly in so far as they conflict with those put forward by American Jews, most obviously in regard to foreign policy toward the Middle East.

The clear differences between Europe and America in regard to the relative strengths of their Muslim and Jewish communities--Muslims being strong in Europe and weak in America, and Jews being weak in Europe and strong in America--have already helped to crystallize a great divide between Europe and America with regard to their respective Middle East policies (though that divide has other, more important sources). It will take major efforts on the part of both European and American statesmen to ensure that this double and reverse asymmetry in communal structure does not contribute to a great divide between Europe and America on other policy issues, as well.

Essay Types: Essay