From Marx to Migration: Debating Identity Politics in the West

| by Sumantra Maitra |

Here’s what happened recently: Lily Allen, apparently a singer, went to the notorious migrant town of Calais in France, found a strapping lad, and somewhat preemptively apologized on behalf of Britain. She also cried, took a viral video, posted it on Twitter with some hashtags, and was finished, having completed what she considered her social duty towards the single biggest random migration happening in Europe since Angie Merkel’s siren song in 2015.

No one gave her any right or mandate to apologize on behalf of an entire country, nor does she have any expertise on the geopolitical or economic ramifications of uncontrolled and mono-gendered mass migration — but celebrities never seem to care about expertise.

Britain, in response, agreed to take in some “child migrants” from the camp. They were supposed to be women and children, but instead came lads who were mostly not from Syria, and almost all of them over the age of 30. In fact most of these men were Afghans and Pakistanis.

For some reason, perhaps because I am one myself, I recognize a middle class South Asian when I see one.

The differences between a Syrian Yazidi girl child fleeing ISIS persecution and these Afghan lads looking for jobs was so glaringly obvious that it was hysterical to watch the British Left trying to defend this travesty. Here’s an example, from London Review of Books, hub of the postmodern urban Left.

This debate is not over by any means. France goes to vote in one of the most pivotal Western elections ever, where we test the Anglo-American populism spreading across the continental mainland, and whether the EU is, for all practical purposes, toast.

What has led to this madness? Surely there are actually worthy victims of ISIS atrocities, women and children, Yazidis, Kurds, Christians, and Muslim refugees? Surely there are sensible people on both sides of the political spectrum who understand the need to give them refuge, and also simultaneously understand that every social backlash that is happening in Europe can be attributed to this one single causality? But this situation is seemingly incomprehensible, unless one charts how progressive Leftist politics has changed in the West in the last quarter century.

Slavoj Žižek is arguably the greatest intellectual giant alive, still flying the banner of philosophical Leftism in the West. I directly quote him here, from his article in response to the Paris attacks of 2015.

It is a fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights. Tolerance as a solution (mutual respect of each other’s sensitivities) obviously doesn’t work: fundamentalist Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humor, which we consider a part of our freedoms. Western liberals, likewise, find it impossible to bear many practices of Muslim culture… Did we already forget that the entire idea of Communist emancipation as envisaged by Marx is a thoroughly ‘Eurocentric’ one? In a gloomy prophecy made before his death, Col. Muammar Gaddafi said: ‘Now listen you, people of NATO. You’re bombing a wall, which stood in the way of African migration to Europe and in the way of al Qaeda terrorists. This wall was Libya. You’re breaking it. You’re idiots, and you will burn in Hell for thousands of migrants from Africa.’ Was he not stating the obvious?

The condemnation to this was swift and devastating. Žižek turned from post-Soviet saint to sinner within days. Žižek is not the only one. From mildly Left to severely liberal, from Sam Harris to Richard Dawkins to Bill Maher to Hirsi Ali, one issue that has proved to be beyond discussion for the postmodern Left is the issue of immigration.

No matter how sensible a critique one can make of uncontrolled migration, this conversation has reached a state of taboo in civilized circles. It is an issue so sacrosanct that individuals dare not speak about it.

You cannot point out that the breakup and disintegration of borders will collapse rules and laws and essentially every brick that holds together civilization — or that there will then be no incentive for legal fruitful migration. Students, Scholars, who are spending their time contributing intellectually and paying taxes, and taking the legal pathway to immigration will not be able to logically understand why they are made the actual victims of anti-immigrant sentiment and lumped in with some random man who broke open a lorry from France to the UK and hid in it.

Already, there is documented evidence of what befalls a country or an entire continent when it falls for an emotional response. But none of these matter, none of these make sense.

To understand this postmodern Leftist reaction and the illogically mindless support for migration, one needs to understand the causality. For good or bad, the Bolshevik Marxists stood for two distinct traits that differentiated them from postmodern/postcolonial Leftists.

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Vladimir Lenin, who lead the Bolshevik uprising

Firstly, for them, the primary determinant of society was economics, not culture, religion, or tribal identity. Of course, none of the old Leftists could get over their narrow tribalism and almost inevitably were seduced to the forces of majoritarian exploitation, whether it was Russian nationalism dominating Soviet space or Han Chinese nationalism. But rhetorically at least, there was anti-identity/anti-tribalistic grandstanding. Any force that opposed attempted economic equality was considered reactionary.

The second important Leftist trait was a reverence for Science. The Soviets and the Chinese were envious of Western scientific progress, and were determined to achieve parity at any cost — even when it meant the forced displacement of thousands of people to have industrial superiority and the decimation of religious forces.

Religion and tribalism were specially considered forces which hindered progress. The Soviets, for example, never cared about their member states’ populations, what religions they followed, nor whether they took millions of Afghan, Cuban, or Vietnamese migrants.

Instead they crushed any movement that wanted to go back to old-fashioned tribal and religious ways. No matter what one thinks of the old Left’s economic efficiency and state controlled heavy industry based policies, their faith in social change towards a more scientific future was unshakable. As Žižek pointed out, Marx himself was a product of Western Renaissance and Cultural and Industrial revolution, and Leninism as an emancipatory concept was therefore completely Eurocentric.

Similarly, opposed to the Marxist Left, which wanted unity based on economic class consciousness, the Western Liberals were Smithsonian and believed that two distinct traits guided Liberalism: freedom of expression and freedom to own.

Both the Left and center-Right, therefore trace their ideological roots to Science and the Renaissance enlightenment — to facts not feelings.

There is a framed letter, in the Victoria Memorial Museum of Calcutta, from Raja Rammohan Roy, to the then British Viceroy of India. Roy, was one of the first Western educated, liberal, progressive local Kings, a scholar who rallied against orthodox Hinduism and was a pioneer of Indian social reform movements during the 1860s.

To cut a long story short, Roy wrote to the Viceroy, reprimanding (as politely a subject is allowed to reprimand his colonial overlord) and reminded him that the British Empire needed to stand up for democratic, liberal, secular ideas and start more science schools to counter orthodox Hindu and Islamic education in India.

Eventually that led to the establishment of science colleges and similar places of higher education, which in turn produced more Indian scholars and scientists and led to a nationalist awakening and independence movement. It’s rather curious information that is now lost in all the revisionist postcolonial history. Roy and his compatriots, were not Leftists in the traditional sense, rather they were upper class Smithsonian liberals. And they faced extreme opposition from reactionary and orthodox forces within the country, from both Hindus and Muslims. Fortunately for them, they had the backing of the Empire.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the dream of revolution and a violent overthrow of capitalism became dormant. A post-Soviet ideological vacuum inevitably resulted in a latent loathing for Western decadence and capitalism.

The vacuum then took an identitarian turn towards a hatred for the West as the destructive agent which ruined the Marxist utopia. It became hidden, manifesting in a perma-narrative of victimhood due to an arbitrary combination of patriarchal hegemonic capitalism as focus continued to shift from economy to identity.

If one studies current postmodern scholarship, whether poststructural, feminist or postcolonial, one distinct theme comes out prominently: that identity is the premier determinant.

The victims are already predetermined and the oppressor is marked. The victims are the brave tribes in Africa or Eastern India, or Papua New Guineans fighting against land grabbing industrialists, or GMO opponents, or oil fracking protestors, or automation objectors, or you name it. Progress is the oppressor.

Every social ill per this narrative originates from colonialism, and the dominant European/American social forms are almost always inevitably the aggressor — especially when it comes to patriarchy or homophobia or Islamophobia or racism. In the dialectic, therefore, it is not a debate between two equal narratives, but always between a majoritarian oppressor and a victim.

Economic success is the ultimate enemy, as nothing kills the narrative as much as individual or group success. Indians and Chinese who are successful are also therefore part of the global bourgeoisie, Middle Eastern and Sub Saharan Africa are almost always the victim. This demarcation is of course completely random, but it makes sense to postmodernists.

After all, India and China were also colonized, but turned their economy and went on to be successful, and nothing is hated by postmodern Leftists more than economic success, because it defeats their primary narrative that oppression is not a predetermined destiny and competition can be even won by the weak.

And that is precisely what explains this mindless zeal. If one is unbiased, one needs to admit that it is not colonialism that is the root cause of all evils in the world, because by that logic, Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indonesians would be bombing the entire planet.

But in order to admit that, the postmodern Left needs to admit the reason specific parts of the Middle East and Africa are falling backwards is not because of the pervasive Western free market, but rather the unique regressive cultural constructs of these regions, including tribalism and Islamism. It is the combined reactionary forces of tribalism and Islamism that has stopped any sort of growth and industrialization.

The reason I expand on this is because part of the post-Soviet left in Europe merged with postmodernist Liberal academe, and the result is what we see now in this rambling incoherent attempt at social engineering and the toxic backlash that results.

Migration is therefore considered good because it is simply the right fit for the narrative (of a mass of victims seeking refuge and heartless Western societies refusing to accept them; regardless of the fact that most of the people are not victims, most of those migrating are not even from warzones and are heavily skewered in gender balance, dominated by young, military age men, and most of the West itself is reeling under a heavy unequal economic burden and a continuously failing social contract).

This dogmatic worldview has naturally led to extreme complications. There are genuine war refugees who cannot compete with these men when it comes to reaching safe refuge. Legal migrants who are educated and socially liberal and who can actually contribute to the host society are often neglected as well. Not to mention the rise of nativist sentiments across the Euro-Atlantic which is a direct result of this social restructuring.

Just after Hillary Clinton lost, all hell broke loose in the US. Smart people noticed and tried to explain why Liberalism is failing and cannot even be called liberalism anymore as it’s completely based on toxic identity politics and incessant lecturing. They were promptly called racist, and white supremacist Nazis, thereby immediately proving their point completely.

We are seeing a different version of this in Europe and UK.

The debate against random mass migration, which is a much bigger problem on this side of the pond, needs urgent discussion. But it is skewered by similarly mindless allegations of “racism and xenophobia” from the urban dwelling, pink haired elites, or academics living in their university bubbles. One cannot raise any question, no matter how logical, against this established conventional wisdom about refugees and migrants, without being dubbed a racist.

Inevitably, this mentality is pushing a lot of regular middle class people who are quite rational and worried about the preservation of their culture, their future, jobs, economy, and the rapid social changes around them (not to mention the rise of rape, crimes, terror attacks and the increasing burden on social care directly resulting from mass migration) towards swelling ranks of more xenophobic groups, the actual number of whom are often quite minimal. The only difference in Europe, unlike the United States, is that it is the Left and not the liberals per se, who are in a civil war with the postmodern identitarianists.

We can’t liberate by ourselves a country that does not want to fight”; none other than Che Guevara wrote that about the incompetent Congolese rebels who lacked the will to fight and change their society and fled at the first sound of gunfire, a qualitatively similar sentiment echoed by Ash Carter with regards to Iraqis fighting ISIS and by the Russians about incompetent Syrian forces.

Now that the shallow, censorious internationalist postmodernists are in their death throes, these debates need to come to the forefront again, and there needs to be a broad scholarly agreement among Conservatives, Classical Liberals, and Leftists about the emetic legacy of identity politics including self-referencing poststructural and postcolonial scholarship in Western academe. The liberals in US, as cited above, are already debating the effects of toxic postmodernist identity politics. The Euro-Atlantic Left needs to as well, urgently.

Unless structural changes happen in Africa and the Middle East, there will be no end to mass migration, which is neither economically nor socially feasible, desirable, or achievable without provoking a stronger tribalistic backlash.

These young military age men, fleeing from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East in their thousands need to stay and fight in their own countries and bring about structural changes there, and the Euro Left needs to stop indulging them. Identity politics inevitably turns majoritarian, and the European Left, just as much as the Euro-American liberals, need to go back to their scientific, realist, Renaissance roots.

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Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in Great power politics and Neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra

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Header Photo: es-de-we Karl-Marx-Installation in Trier

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2 thoughts on “From Marx to Migration: Debating Identity Politics in the West

  1. Imperialist wars and intervention has ruined the middle-east and has neutralized progressive forces all across the globe. But i’m sorry was it Islamism that overthrew Mosadegh in Iran? Was it tribalism which enabled and supported Taliban in Afghanistan? Was it Islamism which propped Saddam Hussein (then overthrew him )and other corrupt and reactionary regimes all across the board?

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