• Contribution to Debate
  • Immigration is Good, Immigration is Bad, Migration IS (A Fact)

  • Por Ulrike Kruh | 08 May 12 | Posted under: Austria , Antiracismo/Migración
  • This contribution to debate from our 2012 journal describes how the European discourse on migration (as a fact that has always been happening) can and should be understood in the broader context of class struggles, instrumentalised for identity politics.

    You can find more recent analysis and comments on the migration debates of today » HERE «



    Immigration is bad – that is what the propagandists of populist politics are blazoning, in unison with their primitive media set on singing the same tune.

    The social and economic problems of our economic system are projected onto immigrants, and those still unaware “aliens” cannot easily defend themselves against what is happening.

    Immigration is good, say the left, the greens and NGOs. They refer to human rights or to the findings of European demographers who know that “our” continent needs immigrants in order to maintain the population development necessary for prevailing in global competition.

    I share the human-rights concerns and the socio-economic analysis of the second position, but would like to add a third and more fundamental one:

    Immigration IS happening. Immigration is what is human, because only through migration could humankind spread from its places of origin in Eastern Africa to the entire globe. Only if we remember this can we tackle the phenomenon of migration adequately and develop an immigration policy suitable for human beings.

    1st Act: Immigration is bad

    Amir Kassaei, one of the most successful managers in the world of advertising, recently said on TV that in the world economic crisis the advertising industry had to be aware of its social and political responsibility and might even partly be blamed for the current situation.

    What place does the voice of a representative of an economic branch so explicitly serving capitalism have in a leftist journal?

    Kassaei, as he said when asked, is an immigrant. From his twelfth year on he had had to serve as a child soldier in the Iran-Iraqi War, has probably shot people and, when still a child, experienced his best friend dying next to him. Kassaei comes from a wealthy Iranian family who did everything to save their son’s life. His family succeeded in smuggling him across the Turkish border; from there he ended up with relatives in Vienna, where he found initial hospitality, while only a short time later, when still at school, he had to earn his own living. Thus the son of bourgeois parents got to know Vienna from the very bottom. That he would finish his schooling was a matter of course to him. After that, he began his studies of economics at Fontainebleau. His first jobs as a controller of advertising agencies led him to Austria again. Meanwhile, he had acquired Austrian citizenship and moved to Berlin. After further jobs he made his way into the international advertising agency of DDB which transferred him to their New York headquarters. Today, he is said to be one of the three most important people in the advertising business. An exception, for sure. Or perhaps not?

    In the SWR Friday evening talk-show a few weeks ago, Kassaei earned general admiration for his story. Only his somewhat softer accent acquired in Vienna (and almost inaudible – and I know whereof I speak, since I am an Austrian) was carped at smilingly by the talk show host. Something had to be different – and thus somehow strange – about this successful man.

    Why do media and public opinion generally embrace immigrants like Kassaei, while at the same time ruthlessly attacking immigrants in general? For the latter purpose, the vocabulary of catastrophes and war is employed. Floods are said to be overwhelming us so that dams and walls have to be built against them, the fortress Europe will have to barricade itself. Worse comparisons are taken from the animal world or from medicine. We and them, we the good ones and they the bad ones, we in here and they, the enemies out there in front of the protecting wall – this image is endlessly being hammered home to us. Anthropologists call this the process of “othering” and thousands of their studies show that this phenomenon exists in many societies and cultures.

    Sebastian Kurz is 24 and a law student. More than in his studies he has been engaged in his political function as the president of the Vienna conservative-party youth organisation. Before the last elections for the Vienna City Government he tried to gather votes by riding through the city in a huge vehicle with the slogan “Black Is Sexy!” written on it. This quite good-looking but also wannabe sexy guy was made State Secretary for Integration by the Vice Chancellor and has for a few months now been sitting in the Austrian Home Office holding a highly paid job.

    The nomination of Kurz was strongly criticised, his lack of experience in particular being a point of controversy. That is why he had to work against his image. He invented a kind of “Kassaei-campaign”. By means of PR paid for from tax payers’ money the attention of the public was to be drawn to the usefulness of immigrants, with particularly successful ones serving as showcase examples. In this context the international catering entrepreneur Attila Doğudan recurs again and again, making skilful use of the identity debate for his own company and pointing to his Turkish roots and the good opportunities offered in Austria. What he rarely mentions in public is that his father lent him the money for founding his first company.

    At this point we have arrived at the political core of the matter. So-called successful immigrants, that is to say, those who are dedicated advocates of capitalism, as a matter-of-course do not present a problem to the economic system and are consequently never even called immigrants in public and by the media.

    It is the others who present the “problem”, those “unwilling to integrate” and living in the much criticised “parallel societies”, which they defend wearing head-scarves and visiting mosques, those who do not speak enough or only poor German and allegedly are not interested in “us”, the social majority. The father had been a labourer for years. The mother cooked excellent food at home and painstakingly kept clean the much too small flat. After her arrival here in the North she was busy with work and bringing up the children. In the beginning every single penny had to be turned twice, so that finding the money for a German language course for the woman was quite impossible.

    There is a decisive sociological difference between them and the successful ones such as Kassaei and Dogudan, namely their class-specific origin. They do not come from the middle or upper class but are children mostly of peasants from less developed regions in former Yugoslavia or the Asiatic part of Turkey.

    Today those people who by selling their cheap labour had made possible the Central European economic boom of the 20th century are stigmatised exactly because of their efforts. For more than 30 years the Austrian Federation of Industrialists ran offices in Ex-Yugoslavia and in Turkey for hiring “guest workers”. The people from Anatolia or Serbia were virtually lured to Austria with the promise that they would be able to quickly establish their own and their families’ livelihood.

    Integration measures which would have complied with the standards of sociological research were unheard of then, probably because they would have cost too much. The consequences of this human-rights monstrosity are used by right-wing politicians such as Thilo Sarrazin (and despite his SPD membership, he is of course a right-winger) or the Austrian Freedom Party’s Strache who is waving the huge wooden cross of Christianity on Vienna’s Ringstrasse and proudly pasting posters reading “Daham statt Islam” (“At home instead of Islam”).

    The use of the term “parallel society” with its reproachful and pejorative connotations is particularly insidious. What does an Austrian entrepreneur who likes being a member of the Lions Club have in common with an Austrian worker who is a fan of the Rapid football club? Both of them are actively involved in clubs, which after all are small “parallel societies”. What does a single mother of two children from Linz who is active in the parent teacher association at her children’s school have in common with a female Freedom Party politician organising a choir in Carinthia? All around us, including the “Austrian Austrians” (whatever that may be), there exist only “parallel societies”, exclusively.

    So why should this be different with people coming from somewhere else? And why is this phenomenon turned into a reproach against them?

    The so-called “immigration problem” or the “issue of integration” (in politically more correct terms) is the good old class issue. Wealthy immigrants from a bourgeois background, quickly arranging themselves with the prevailing conditions and the economic system, are considered good, while those from poor social backgrounds, who have become workers here, are identified as bad. Their culture is called backward and it is forgotten that for a long time no institution of the destination country paid any attention to them culturally. It is blocked out that bourgeois immigrants even in their immigration situation can normally count on more social support than their much poorer, less educated counterparts, the “guest workers”.

    This discrimination of former workers and their different culture follows a clear political objective, since it can be interpreted as “a shot across the bow” of the native-born employees, who are thus kept silent by scare mongering and discouraged from raising their justified demands.

    Moreover, a wedge is thus driven into the workforce. If we, the “native” employees find ourselves in such a bad situation, this must be somebody’s fault, and if I am politically badly educated, I tend to think that it is not the fault of the conditions (which have to be changed), but of Savo, my Serbian colleague, or of Mesud, the Turkish man driving the forklift truck. This tactic fulfils a double purpose; it is clever and really devilishly ingenious.

    Since people no longer speak of class conflict in the public arena, the focus of the discourse has shifted: now we are dealing with “ethnicising” and “culturalising” the social consequences of the economic imbalance – which is structurally determining for capitalism.

    If people have never had the chance psychologically to come to terms with processes of immigration these problems are unconsciously shifted from one generation to the next. The fact that the guest worker father was despised and the mother was insulted might be the reason why the son of the second generation develops aggressive behaviour, and it might trigger the screaming behaviour of the daughter. The revolts in the Paris banlieues six years ago and the British revolts of 2011 originating in Tottenham show the deep “discomfort in the culture” of many immigrants. The EU’s fortress policy of recent decades has not contributed to any positive development but only triggered an additional and gigantic problem for all.

    Unfortunately, the postmodern fashion in social and cultural studies and research has only supported and co-created this trend.

    Classical sociological approaches, which spoke of phenomena such as chain migration (i.e. migrants go to countries in which other migrants from their country of origin live so that a chain is spanning the world; thus they can rely on support during the difficult first time of settling down in their diaspora), was oriented to the push-pull-model (push factors are the negative ones forcing people to migrate; pull-factors comprise the attractive characteristics of the new country), regarded migrants as factors of demographic development (thus taking up the ideas of the formidable Malthus) and clearly distinguished between emigration for work and flight.

    In contrast, postmodern theories do without socio-economic explanations of social problems, but instead try to interpret the world in “turns” such as the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the anthropological turn or even the iconic turn, etc. These attempts at explanation focus on the surface of the phenomena, resorting to Marxist writings only to disembowel them like a cow, while the core of the (to them earlier) matter, the explanation of the socio-economic conditions and the analysis of the system, is tabooed. It would, they claim, be old-fashioned, unnecessary and not in line with cultural sciences.

    These “cultural” scientists have a penchant for examining all cultural and social phenomena linked with migration. In the cult of difference and variegation they practice, the difference is factually cemented, with migrants being typecast in rigid roles and – in the most negative case – their subordinate and disadvantaged positions in society being confirmed scientifically.

    Thus the sciences have abandoned their claim to promote emancipation; at the universities a postmodern mainstream has established itself, with migrants being its popular study objects. That they have now long been subjects in “our” society is not a concern of this school of thought.

    In the face of the structural imbalance and its human-rights consequences under which most immigrants are suffering, the left, the greens and many NGOs, as a rule, defend the cause of the immigrants.

    2nd Act: Immigration is good

    Many true believers and leftists as well as many concerned with the human-rights situation are dedicating themselves to this task in organisations such as Caritas, Amnesty International, Asylkoordination, IOM, Zara, etc. Many of their concerns are supported by UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Organisation. The bravest among them have gotten themselves into trouble with their ministries of the interior; they study the laws which are constantly and endlessly being amended and write commentaries on them, etc. As a consequence of this structural injustice an entirely new branch of law developed, and even curricula were adapted. The legal situation has become so complicated that today only a few lawyers can claim to be real experts in the jungle of immigration law.

    Only the most blatant cases of human-rights violations make it into the public. When in autumn 2010 two 8-year-old twin girls from Kosovo were to be deported in the early morning hours in an armed special security action, an outcry of protest could be heard throughout Austria. 100,000 dedicated and committed citizens signed a petition against this deportation. The pressure had become too big even for the resolute State Secretary Fekter, who, after applying a myriad of juridical manoeuvres, eventually had to give in and allow the re-entry of the Kosovan Komani family.

    The public’s positive attention goes to the cases that from a humanitarian point-of-view are extreme, while negative attention is given to the majority of migrants, the migrant labourers who have been residents for a longer period of time.

    Let me provide some information about the Austrian context. The EU-27 has got 491 million inhabitants, with 41 million of them (8.4%) being migrants. 1.3 million of the 8.4 million of Austria’s inhabitants were born abroad (i.e., 15% of the population), with 760,000 of them being foreign citizens (about 9% of Austria’s population). The number of naturalisations has been drastically reduced due to the impact of the black-blue government (i.e., the right-wing and conservative government coalition of the “Christian” Democratic People’s Party [ÖVP] with the Freedom Party [FPÖ] between 2000 and 2006), when immigration laws were tightened so that in the year 2010 only 6,135 persons could be naturalised, most of them in socially more liberal Vienna.

    400,000 are “foreigners” employed in the Austrian labour market – this is a percentage of 12%. They mostly come from Germany and former Yugoslavia, with the Turks (among them many Kurds) making up the third largest group among the immigrant population.

    In political discussions of migration one fact is always ignored. There are also Europeans who are “fed up with” Europe, Austrians who migrate. They consider this over-aged country too rigid and encrusted and cannot stand living here any longer. Of course, politicians know better than to mention this group, since they would have to ask themselves a self-critical question: “How have we driven away these people – what did we do wrong?” They would have to rethink their own contribution to Austrian politics, which is something that would require a high degree of self-reflection only to be expected from exceptional politicians.

    3rd Act: Migration IS taking place

    Let us pause for a while: How could humanity spread from its place of origin in Eastern Africa across the entire globe? How did “we” manage the development from Australopithecus afarensis (the famous Lucy) to the skyscrapers of Shanghai and New York? The answer is clear: by migration.

    2.4 million years ago, the genus of homo split from the Australopithicines, with the development of the homo sapiens being completed only about 250,000 years ago, which is a very short time span in relation to the entire history of the earth. According to the Southern Dispersal Theory the “great migration” of homo sapiens across the planet began only about 70,000 years ago from the Horn of Africa and took place in several waves.

    In Europe, homo sapiens encountered his genetic cousin, homo neanderthalensis, who had migrated earlier, and partly interbred with him. The last great human settlement is considered to be the American one after the then dry Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska had been crossed, which means that – according to some scientists – humans have been on the American continent only for about 15,000 years.

    This makes migration the human activity par excellence, the terms “humanity” and “human migration” really constituting synonyms.

    The idea of the nation-state coming into being in the beginning of the 19th century contradicts this knowledge on a political level. In this ideal nation-state, one people speaking one language, with common traditions, folk dances and even clothes (costumes) would live. This nation state – which in reality has ever existed anywhere in the world – would be a kind of gigantic family, in which those who allegedly are the same could live together in peace. Hence, everyone coming “from outside” would present a potential threat to this assumed peace, an alien, and in consequence even an enemy.

    Apart from the fact that the family is a social cell extremely susceptible to risk (after all, most murders are committed in the family unit), the family model can for reasons of size not simply be transferred from a tiny group to a number of several millions of people. Sociologists know this, right-wing politicians, unable to perceive the difference between society and community, prove quite resistant to such insights. The advocates of the right who like to stand up for the privileges of the “native” population, and by that mean the succession of Celts, Romans, Germanic peoples, Slavs and ancient Bavarians in Central Europe, have to have the wider historic perspective pointed out to them. Their arguments are too short-fetched, in the truest sense of the word.

    In English, where conferring citizenship on somebody is called “naturalisation”, the immigrant is in this process gaining a natural status. This is true insofar as the immigrant becoming a citizen of the new country is finally able to move about freely, settle down, take a job and vote in elections. Already in 1993, Hungarian sociologists Agnés Heller and Ferenc Féher claimed that the concept has to be supplemented to incorporate not only “naturalisation” but also “culturalisation”. In this context, culture does not mean German or French culture; it means human culture, something greater and culturally shared by all of us, the possibility of participation.

    Identity politics is only adopted when identities are allegedly endangered. Those who do not know exactly who they are, have to reassure themselves of their identity/identities. Therefore we have to find a way of dealing with migration which does not put identities under pressure but supports and underpins them.

    Epilogue: What would be reasonable to do?

    For one, the idea of the “denizens” could be further developed, which the jurist and migration researcher Rainer Bauböck from the European University Institute in Florence has so committedly been advocating. Denizens are citizens / inhabitants of a certain place. They come from somewhere else and still possess their “old” citizenship. They are located between aliens and citizens and have the right to settle down where they want. Already in the Roman Empire and in early common law in England there existed a similar legal status.

    I could imagine neither placing denizen-ship lower in rank in relation to citizenship nor to subordinate it, but to explicitly place it above citizenship. So one would not be a European because one is French, but one would be French, because one is European. De Gaulle’s Europe of regions would be replaced by the idea of the European region. This is not futile verbal hair-splitting but makes a huge difference from a human-rights point-of-view.

    Thus every person would have a two-part passport:

    Part 1 – something like a UN passport – would allow him/her residence and affiliation to the big whole, to Europe, grant him/her the right to settle down and the right to work and acquire possessions at the place of his/her residence.

    Part 2 would guarantee him/her the affiliation to a European nation which obliges him/her to keep the laws and rules of this country but also makes it possible for that person to participate in the culture and language of the country chosen. Part 2 would change in case of migration; part 1, however, could never be taken away from him/her.

    The individual nation-states would be relieved of the burden of exercising the political pressure of assimilation and freed from the discourse of closed doors, since they could stick to their rules and traditions and develop them further at their own discretion. The question German TV journalists always ask immigrants, “And what do you feel yourself to be, more of an X or more of a German?” and their intention to discriminate would lose force. This idea is relevant to European migration and does not consider migration from other continents.

    Trade unions would act in reasonable and solution-orientated ways if they eventually could see that migrants stand for ALL employees, that they are a kind of avant-garde of employees in the sense that they are the ones examples have been made of for years.

    What migrant workers show is how the class antagonism has been shifted and culturalised, i.e., neutralised, so that from the employees’ perspective the socio-economic struggle can only be fought with great difficulties. A broad trade union representation of these employees – and not only a few information centres like today – would politically and constructively adopt this conflict.

    It would also make sense and be politically more sustainable if the left and greens in the information centres, the many activists motivated by human rights questions, always asked themselves what exactly it is from a political point-of-view that they are doing. Do they understand the culturalisation of a socio-economic antagonism and do they perpetuate it thereby, or do they see that with their commitment (which is right and necessary) they are helping some people, but that what’s at stake is a much bigger confrontation?

    Experts are debating about what Freud really said. “The voice of reason is a soft one”, say the ones. No, “the voice of the intellect is a soft one”, say the others. The fact is that reason prevails only with great difficulty. This is so everywhere and always has been, but it is particularly true in the migration debate. So we continue to hope.


    Sources (among others)

    • Rainer Münz: Migration in Europa und Österreich [Migration in Europe and Austria], Vienna 2007.
    • Ferenc Féher, Agnés Heller: Naturalization or “Culturalization”, Paper presented at the Workshop: “From Aliens to Citizens”, Vienna 1993.

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