Contact: The Politics of Migration

Contact: The Politics of Migration

Mini Teaser: Impressive historical scholarship on migration cannot save Professor Hoerder from the miasma of current academic fashions.

by Author(s): Jeremy Black

Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 792 pp., $85.

Writing in 2002, it is all too easy to argue that terrorism is now and will remain for decades the most serious issue. This, however, is not only a very present-minded approach, but one based on a less than profound assessment of current pressures and developments. To start with the micro-picture, even in the case of American strategic interests and engagements, it is by no means clear that issues in Southwest Asia are or will be more significant than points of tension in East Asia or even in the Caribbean basin. Consideration of such issues also benefits from being located in a wider context. Over recent decades those on offer have been ideological (the Cold War and, now, the supposed culture clash with Islam) or resource-based (now presented in terms of globalization pressures). Both are noteworthy, but it is also worth drawing attention to the extent to which relatively large movements of people from country to country are having both a specific effect in particular countries and a cumulative impact on international and domestic politics.

Dirk Hoerder's new book, Cultures in Contact, provides a mass of information on migration patterns over the last century and beyond. Hoerder is professor of history at the University of Bremen, and his written style is naturally somewhat Germanic: lightness of touch is not a feature of his prose and there is scant humor on offer to lighten the load. Nevertheless, this is a formidable piece of work. It is of particular importance because Hoerder shows in great detail that it is necessary to move from a focus on the Atlantic migration system in order to give due weight to migration flows in Asia, Africa and the Pacific world.

Hoerder also shows the extent to which the modern range of migration phenomena was amply anticipated. Medieval migrations, too, spanned then-known worlds. Issues of economic need and opportunity co-existed with political reasons for movement then as now. Some migration was intended as temporary, other as permanent; assimilation was a serious issue for migrants and hosts; and women as well as men were expected to travel, although marriage played a greater role in their travels then.
Hoerder's cast is a fascinating one, with particular attention to peoples, such as Armenians and Jews, that have had high rates of migration, but also with due attention to others that are generally neglected, such as Central Asian peoples. There is also much here on slavery, although the balance of research ensures that Atlantic slavery receives a disproportionately large share of attention at the expense of slavery elsewhere, particularly in the Arab world.

Hoerder's arguments reflect now dominant academic assumptions that the identities of peoples were constructed as part of a process of "hierarchicalization", as nasty an academic term as one may be likely to find. He writes of "the construction of Others in ethnic or religious terms" and that: "Across the globe, the social space inhabited by workers and employers was contested terrain. It was divided by ascription of ethnic or racial 'characters' and positioning according to skin color and gender. It was policed by agents of the respective state paid for by public funds in the interests of some segments of the public."

Such a statement puts us in familiar territory. Racialism, linked with capitalism and Western dominance, provides the context and contents of a world with sharp inequalities that help encourage migration. This critique is linked by some writers to an attack on the state, in the specific form of the authorities that try to control migration flows. Thus, John Lonsdale has recently claimed that, in Europe, "by the mid-20th century, the imagined and then socially engineered monoglot community of the nation state appeared to have driven out other, less clearly bounded, political entities. . . . This nation-building conquest of Europe was an anomaly in world history, but became the modern norm."

There is not space here to contest this interpretation at length: suffice it to say that it provides an unsound basis for discussing migration and development issues in the modern world. The ascription of responsibility and guilt to Westerners in the shape of their supposed responsibility for racialism, expropriation and power politics is based on a limited knowledge of world history and a seriously flawed conceptual approach. It would ascribe blame before attaining understanding. It is also ironic that critics of the state frequently turn to government as a solution for problems; and, indeed, a few of the Western states over the last century and a half have been more successful than is frequently allowed.

To turn to the present, however, migration, like many other issues, does pose a challenge to conservatives. Aside from defining a coherent response, there is the question of formulating and implementing effective policies in response to the issue, and also avoiding the deleterious domestic political consequences to which they can give rise. The range of conservative responses is vast: from opposition to restrictions on immigration, variously stemming from libertarianism or a belief in the free movement of labor; to a desire to halt both immigration and, in the past, emigration, in order to preserve the ethnic identity of states or to enhance their strength. This variety is a reminder of the richness of conservatism as intellectual tradition, political culture, and set of assumptions and interests. It is also a reminder of the welcome absence of any directing ideological group or institution comparable to the dreary (and deadly) thought-policing of the Left during the last century. Yet ideological variety can also create problems if conservatives fail to appreciate its consequences.

The migration debate also showcases the various national strands of conservatism. This last is a point that tends to be underrated by ideologues committed to the notion that the world is an isotrophic surface and who are unwilling to accept that the particular contours and contents of national conservatisms involve more than "cultural relativism." For a while, the configuration of the debate appeared simple: the emphasis on ethnic constructions of nationhood and on nation-states was a dated if not an even worse aspect of a redundant racist nationalism. Instead, the emphasis fell on a melting-pot, or mélange, approach, as in the United States or in the prospectus for the European Union. This was thought to be progressive. Maybe so, but it is also clear that older constructions of nationhood, which are frequently challenged by migration, have a capacity to elicit popular support as well. There is an analogue here to trade, although the fit is far from perfect: while free trade is desirable, protectionism enjoys a ready purchase in democratic politics, as seen in both the United States and the European Union. At the risk of pushing comparisons too far, it is also possible to bring in international relations with the problems of selling the compromises of multilateralism contrasted with the simple clarities of unilateralism.

The populist reluctance to accept immigration owes much to fear. The language is indicative: "floods" of economic migrants threaten to "swamp" indigenous cultures, "sponge off" a welfare system, and "provoke" racial tension. Tensions are certainly readily apparent. By 2000, thanks to immigration, nearly three of France's 60 million residents were of North African origin, with another 415,000 residents from Turkey and the Middle East, and 250,000 from sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of France and many other states, hostility toward immigrants is most frequently expressed by politicians on the far Right. This has marginalized the debate, not least among mainstream conservatives, who are understandably reluctant to be associated with such politicians. On the other hand, the welcome success of the United States, a state that continues to receive large inflows of migrants, as well as the general argument in favor of labor flexibility, leaves many conservatives unable to grasp the problems that immigration does pose in political, economic and social terms.

Cultural identity is also at issue. For weak states-in other words, for most states-ethnic nationalism provides both an identity and a raison d'être, helping to elicit public consent and also providing a reason to reject more powerful neighbors. Ethnic consciousness in Mongolia, for instance, induced concern about how best to sustain racial purity, leading to the expulsion of large numbers of ethnic Chinese in the 1960s; Chinese rule in Tibet and Xinjiang did prevent such a politics from emerging in those places, but it led to an ethnic imperialism that helps explain Mongolian anxieties at the time.

The orchestrated movement of ethnic Chinese into Tibet and Xinjiang serves as a reminder that some politically contentious migration occurs within states. In Indonesia, the 1990s brought a strengthening of ethnic tension and regional consciousness, as well as widespread violence. In Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), since 1997 native Dayaks have fought Madurans who have been immigrating with government encouragement since the 1950s. Thinking of Indonesia as a unit, the government sought to move people from areas of overcrowding without any consultation with the population in the receiving areas. And it is not only in Indonesia that ethnic rivalry is linked to tension over resources, especially land and jobs. The same phenomena can also be seen in less violent confrontations. In the central highlands of Vietnam, for example, long-established tribesmen resisted immigration by lowlanders who cleared the land they occupied for cash crops. This is the reality of politics across much of the world in an age in which conflict is too readily discussed in terms of clashing ideologies, broad-brush cultures and states. Hoerder points out that "vast rural-urban migrations transform all Asian societies"; "challenge" would be a more accurate term.

Aside from resources of a conventional type, particularly land and water, there are also disputes, not least between incomers and others, over resources of a more "modern" type: quotas in educational opportunities, housing, government jobs and the allocation of economic subsidies, for example. These disputes provide the lightning rod for ethnic, regional, religious and class tensions. Population growth drives these pressures, and migration is a major response to them. (A recent United Nations report, The Arab Human Development Report 2002, stated that a standardized poll conducted among Arab youths showed that an astonishing 51 percent expressed at least some desire to emigrate.) Although there has been a fall in population growth rates from the early 1970s, as well as a fall in annual additions to the global population from the late 1980s, the built-in pressures of demographic momentum will ensure that population will continue to rise to about 8.9 billion globally in 2050 (compared to 3 billion in 1960 and 6 billion in 1999).

Much of this growth will occur in countries whose economies are unlikely to provide desired standards of living, which will in turn produce serious problems not only for their citizens but also for those of other countries. By 2001, Iran required one million new jobs a year: a serious challenge. India's demographics pose the most significant problem. The rapid rise of its population, and the absence of birth control policies comparable to those in more authoritarian China, will ensure that India becomes the world's most populous state, on current projections, between 2045 and 2050. This will absorb India's resources, lead to a seriously degraded environment (including a major drop in artesian water levels and, as Hoerder points out, pressure to settle in illegally-deforested lands and newly irrigated dry lands), and create demands for imports-not least of which will be oil-that may not be realizable. Such tensions will probably lead both to volatile populist politics and to high rates of emigration. Across the world, countries that currently have a high percentage of young people will be the most volatile, both politically and in terms of migration. Thus North Africa and Nigeria will continue to provide large numbers of migrants seeking to enter Europe.

Given lower birth rates in Europe and the resulting concern about the future availability of labor (not least to service the social welfare expectations of aging populations), this can be seen as benign. There are also, however, serious risks of social and political disruption, with the rise of the politics of race being a particular challenge to the Christian Democratic parties that are the mainstay of European conservatism outside Britain. It is also readily apparent that assimilationist practices are not equally welcomed by all immigrant groups: exclusion can be a two-way process. This poses problems in terms of social cohesion and also the rule of law, as seen by the unwillingness of some groups to accept, for example, that girls should receive an equal and unsegregated education.

This problem varies with the religion of the immigrant group. It is particularly acute with Muslims, and ensures that the states of the European Union will be more severely challenged in this regard than will the United States. Assimilation is more successful in the United States in part because there are no large Muslim groups comparable to France's Algerians or Britain's Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, but more generally because of the far more diverse ethnic history of America and its more inclusive (and successful) politics and economy. This, however, carries with it the risk that Americans will find it difficult to understand immigration-related tensions within other countries, allies and opponents alike. While more important factors are at work, concern about the attitude of Muslim immigrant groups plays a role in present differences over Middle Eastern policy between the United States and Europe; although, looked at differently, American policy itself is affected, in part, by the understandable concerns of its Jewish population about the security of Israel.

So varied are the composition and circumstances of immigrant groups that it is unhelpful to envisage a similar trajectory of issues and challenges in different countries. Nevertheless, two common themes are at play: Immigration offers many advantages, not least in enriching cultures and enabling individuals to find freedoms and fulfil their potential; it also threatens to act as a spoiler in a world where the politics of access to resources and opportunities will be increasingly unsettled. Best, then, to approach this fateful topic with a practical rather than an ideological frame of mind.

Essay Types: Book Review