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

The most important division created by Muslim immigrants, however, will not be between Europe and America, but within the European states themselves. Over the next few decades, the prospects are for several European states, particularly the once imperial ones, to become two nations. The first will be the European nation: descended from the European and imperial peoples, it will be secular, rich, old and feeble. The second will be the anti-European nation: descended from the non-European and colonial peoples, it will be Islamic, poor, young and virile. It will be a kind of overseas colony of a foreign nation, an obviously familiar occurrence in European history. But this time the foreign nation will be the umma of Islam, and the colonized entity will be Europe. As the umma forms the beginnings of a kind of settler state, the two nations will increasingly regard each other with mutual contempt, but in the new anti-European nation there will be a growing rage, and in the old European nation there will be a growing fear. This will provide the perfect conditions for endemic Islamic terrorism to be deployed against a terrified, once-imperial people.

At the same time that some European states are becoming two nations, they are becoming subordinate states within the European Union--conforming to economic policies made by the European Commission in Brussels and to monetary policies made by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. They have also become subordinate dominions of a sort within the American empire (or perhaps within an American commonwealth of nations)--conforming to military policies ostensibly implemented through NATO in Brussels but which are actually made in Washington. In short, post-imperial immigration has resulted in European states that are becoming bi-national, while quasi-imperial subordination has resulted in European states that are becoming post- or even sub-national.

This is, to understate the matter, a long way from where European nations and national consciousness were less than two centuries ago, in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution and at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The European metropoles began their imperial narratives as nation-states. The creators and exemplars of the nation-state were Britain and France, and the creators and exemplars of the overseas empires of the industrial age were the British and the French Empires. In the first half of the 20th century, at the highest point of the modern and industrial age, these were respectively the largest and second-largest overseas empires in the world.

Today, however, the long imperial narratives of Britain and France have reached the point that, in many ways, they are no longer nations at all. For about a century (from about the 1830s to the 1940s) the imperial narrative seemed to provide the latest chapters, indeed the fulfillment, of the much longer national narrative, and for both Britain and France this was a narrative that reached back more than a thousand years. The British and French Empires both, in their own way, seemed to be the consummation of the longest and grandest historical drama since that of the Roman Empire. But now, a half century after the end of these two empires, it seems that a boomerang effect of empire--in particular, immigration from the empire into the metropole and the heartland--may be bringing about the end of the British and the French national narratives themselves.

This melancholy tale of empire, immigration and national disintegration may not be relevant only to Europe. Perhaps it provides a warning, or a prophecy, for America as well.

Imperial Immigration to America

The contemporary American experience with immigration can be usefully compared to other periods of massive immigration, particularly the American experience of a century ago and the European experience in recent decades.

Contemporary immigation to America does share some similarities with the massive immigration of the 1890s-1910s. Latin-American immigrants seem to be recapitulating the earlier path of Italian immigrants, and Asian immigrants seem to be recapitulating the earlier path of east European Jews. In the early 20th century, there was widespread concern that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe could not be assimilated into the American way of life. By the 1960s, however, these groups were largely integrated into American society. By analogy, one might expect Latin American and Asian immigrants to be largely integrated within a few decades.

However, it is also useful to recall important differences between the circumstances of immigration a century ago and those today. First, the United States was then a self-conscious and self-confident national state. The American political class promulgated "the American Creed" and vigorously promoted what was known as the Americanization program--assimilation of immigrants into "the melting pot." Second, the growing industrial economy of the time enabled immigrants to gain a step up on the ladder of social mobility (and also outward geographical mobility and dispersion). Third, the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 sharply curtailed immigration for four decades, until the passage of the very different and unrestrictive Immigration Act of 1965. This converted immigrant communities from the turbulent streams of the 1890s-1910s into the settled masses of the 1920s-50s, upon which the Americanization program could steadily and relentlessly work its way. Fourth, almost none of the immigrants came from areas that were in the American empire of the time (Latin America or the Philippines). This meant that they did not bring with them the resentments and grievances of colonized populations. On the contrary, many immigrants were fleeing foreign empires that persecuted or limited them.

Even with these four factors favorable to assimilation, some immigrants brought with them particular ideologies prevalent in the lands they had left behind (anarchism among some Italians, Marxism among some Jews). For a few immigrants, these ideologies legitimated their sense of separation from and opposition to the dominant American culture of liberal democracy, the free market and competitive individualism. This produced a few obstacles on the road to assimilation (the "Red Scare" of 1919-20 and the deportation of some anarchists and Marxists, the activities of the Communist Party in the 1930s-40s, McCarthyism in the 1950s).

These four factors favorable to assimilation have been largely absent during the contemporary era of American immigration, however. In particular, the reigning ideology of multiculturalism has placed far greater obstacles on the road to assimilation than anarchism or Marxism ever did.

The contemporary era of immigration into America began with the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated previous restrictions on immigration from non-European regions (and, in effect, increased restrictions on immigration from Europe). Americans have been living under this immigration regime for almost four decades, and the result is manifest.

In contrast to the earlier American experience with immigration, in the contemporary era most immigrants to the United States have come from the various regions of the American empire. By far the majority has come from the oldest domains of the empire, namely, those countries that fell under the hegemony of the United States as a result of its 19th-century wars with Mexico and Spain: Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the countries of Central America and the Philippines. In addition, many immigrants have come from countries within the empire America established in the western Pacific after World War II, or more precisely, after the Korean War--particularly from South Korea and Taiwan and also from the abortive domain of Indochina.

With respect to immigration coming principally from the territories of one's own empire, the contemporary American experience has been similar to the contemporary European one. However, whereas in Europe the great surge in immigration has come in its post-imperial era, in the United States it has come in the high imperial era, at a time when the American empire has been in its ascendancy.

In the past four decades or so, too, there have been powerful factors common to both Europe and America that have generated the need for immigrants. As it happens, the United States has its own version of the sociological, demographic and ideological factors that we have described for Europe: the ascent of working-class American citizens into a middle-class lifestyle, or at least into middle-class pretensions; the decline in the reproduction rate of the European-descended majority; and the establishment of a post-national, multicultural ideology. This has resulted in a similar structural demand for immigrant workers in the United States as in Europe. Once the structure of demand has been established in the imperial center, the imperial territories become the most practical source of supply, for reasons that are similar in both Europe and America.

There have also been some distinctive aspects about the U.S. relationship with its domains in the western Pacific that shaped U.S. immigration policy. In the early 1960s, South Korea and Taiwan were on the front lines of the Cold War, and they also suffered from poor and distressed economic conditions. They pushed hard for the abolition of restrictions on their U.S.-bound immigrants, and given their central importance in the Cold War conflict, U.S. policymakers complied. This was a major factor in bringing about the new openness embodied in the Immigration Act of 1965.

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