Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies was a modest attempt to engage a question which the left should be interested in answering: why was the on line alt-right succeeding in swelling its ranks by appealing to economic and social insecurities now more than ever experienced by students and those entering the labor market. It should be the left which reaches out, speaks to their needs, and provides a welcoming environment for new recruits. Why have so many been driven away?
As it turned out, the left didn’t want Nagle’s answer. Or, more likely, it didn’t want any answer at all as this would require taking a hard look at the institutions and leaders which have consigned it to generations of irrelevance. As is often the case for those bringing the bad news to those who didn’t want to hear it, Nagle was barraged with attacks which, even allowing for the tendency of on line exchanges to privilege brainless ad hominem pile-ons, were not only rampant but unusually toxic.
The reception of Nagle’s recent piece “The Left Case Against Open Borders” reprised the earlier appearance in eliciting a high volume of high intensity attacks. On several occasions she was referred to by commenters as a Nazi. Others claimed that she “want(s) people dead or erased.” Others went in for Zombie-like repetition of the mantra “Angela Nagle is not a leftist” as if each iteration magnified the truth of the proposition.
Probably most common was a lower octane smear based on Nagle having published her piece in American Affairs, a journal with a problematic lineage having made its initial appearance promoting Donald Trump’s candidacy. What escaped Nagle’s critics’ notice was that the same issue featured contributions by James Galbraith criticizing Keynesian economics from the left as well as Heiner Flashback’s demolition of E.U. enforced neoliberal austerity. Previous issues featured political theorist Nancy Fraser whose piece touched on the hot button issue of the left’s dysfunctional relationship with identity politics.
These were granted an exemption from the excommunication which was demanded of Nagle for reasons that remained unexplained. The asymmetry constitutes a de facto admission that Nagle’s critics were dismissing a position based on its packaging. In other words, they were advocating that you should judge a book by its cover. As this was a lesson contrary to what most of us learned in kindergarten and haven’t seen any reason to revise since, Nagle’s critics’ rejection of it provides a good indication of the intellectual level on which some were operating.
That said there is a limited sense in which a writer’s associations can be fair game for criticism. The basis for doing so was hinted at, albeit unintentionally, by those critics who targetted Nagle’s decision to publish where she did claiming that it was “all about the money”.
No doubt this was so. Journalists write for money.
What made this criticism in bad faith was that many of those attacking Nagle do exactly the same, placing their work in sufficiently remunerative outlets often with equally problematic lineages. For example, the New Republic now one of the go to publication for aspiring left journalists was, under the stewardship of Martin Peretz one of the most odious and destructive voices of neoliberal orthodoxy. Those who don’t write for established media outlets have succeeded or are succeeding as media entrepreneurs attempting to monetize their brand via “disruptive” platforms such as Patreon targeting the left market.
The latter, as noted here and most recently here, are capitalists, the former are employees. All are functioning within niches which capitalism provides and are subject to the pressures it exerts to manufacture consent for the elite agenda. It is therefore entirely reasonable to suspect that Nagle’s views on immigration might signal a cultivation of potentially lucrative media contacts on the establishment right.
While granting that, the same skepticism needs to be applied to those promoting their variant of a “free borders” ideology. This was, after all, a virtual sacrament of Clintonite neoliberal orthodoxy for decades paying dividends in the form of massive corporate profits accrued from off shoring of jobs at the expense of working class communities of the flyover states. Are those denouncing Nagle’s protectionism currying favor with the neoliberal center with an eye to establishing themselves as media commodities, as numerous left journalists of the past have done?
No doubt most are not. But the same scrutiny which they are demanding of Nagle is reasonably applied to them and it is revealing that there has been no effort to do so.
The above is background relevant to where the focus should be, namely on the substantive criticisms of Nagle’s position which have appeared since its publication a few weeks back. While recognizing that these have varying degrees of merit, it is worth noting a striking characteristic of most which is that they concede Nagle’s central claim. Thus, for example, Benjamin Studebaker observes that, “unfettered immigration can be bad for workers.” Marianne Garneau and Nate H recognize that “employers can sometimes use migrant labor to lower the floor in the labor market.” Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson do not dispute “the empirical observation that immigration is used to drive a wedge between parts of the working class.”
The concessions to Nagle’s main point are, of course, immediately qualified by academic studies which purport to refute the supply and demand common sense informing workers’ concerns that they are in the cross hairs of open borders policies and rhetoric. Academic economists’ sunny conclusions should come as no surprise given that they derive from a field which, as Richard Wolff never tires of observing, has shown a religious devotion to markets, routinely producing apologetics for efficiencies which reliably serve the interests of capital. One need only recall the unanimous support for jobs destroying free trade agreements of the eighties and nineties to uncover literally hundreds of studies of this type. While those cited here might represent exceptions to the rule, there is surely plenty of grounds for skepticism that their rosy picture of the benign effect of labor market competition is more of the same propaganda masquerading as academic research.
Whether or not I believe these conclusions misses the point. I am not, as was a former neighbor, employed on a construction site where immigrant laborers are conspicuous in their willingness to work longer hours and in more hazardous conditions. I did not suffer the fate of my former buillding superintentendent who lost his job when the real estate management imported a staff of Eastern European immigrants-whose virulent racism against the largely hispanic staff was exploited. Nor do I live in a community defined by the red line indicating diminishing life expectancy in the graphic below.
For those unfamiliar with it, it is from a widely ignored Case/Deaton Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study showing the consequences of open borders in the form in which it is most commonly encountered, namely as corporate “free trade”. It is now well understood that the latter has meant a decades long plague of factory closures, job outsourcing and devastated communities in all but a few zip codes which have claimed the spoils. Ultimately open borders/free trade/labor force competition plays out as the red line indicating diminishing life expectancy. In a word, open borders means death.
The same goes for proposals which are based on applications of an “open borders” philosophy as they will be understood. Among these is Garneau and H’s “demand that migrant workers have the same robust access to the same set of labor and employment rights that non-migrant workers have.” Garneau describes this as “very simple, conceptually speaking”-and indeed this is so, a characteristic her proposal shares with other left such as prison abolition, termination of the defense department or withering away of the state. But just as these have not the slightest constituency advancing them within even on the periphery of where they might influence policy, so too is the expectation extra-planetary that proposals along these lines will have any influence anywhere outside of an academic left study group.
That is not to argue against Garneau and H’s proposal which with sufficient preparation might eventually find a place within a left agenda. What is not serious is when “Open Borders” is performatively issued as a slogan on twitter, often by those with as little skin in the game as would be possible to imagine. Particularly instructive among those lecturing Nagle along these lines was an Ivy League professor benefitting from iron clad job security, a six figure salary, not to mention working conditions in pristine climate controlled offices where the only workplace injuries are those claimed to be triggered by an indecorous description of a sexual encounter in a mid 20th century novel.
The professor in question was probably not among those who provided the ideological ammunition for the policies which obliterated working class communities from coast to coast. But those who were on the receiving end will have no interest in making academic disciplinary-or interdisciplinary- distinctions necessary to determine which side we were on. And they have every reason to be suspicious of self-described leftists who have appropriated Clintonite denigrations of the victims of these policies as unreedemable deplorables addled by racism and sexism. When they now call for open borders, it will be obvious that the last thing on their minds is the red line in the graph above.
Any serious proposal on immigration needs to start with the recognition that Donald Trump won the presidency based on his successful exploitation of very real suffering.
While Nagle’s piece is by no means faultless it starts from the right place in recognizing the key to the left’s success is being able to speak to the “outrage among individuals who have been cast aside as state-corporate programs close plants and destroy families and communities” and to the “acute sense of betrayal” of those “who believed they had fulfilled their duty to society in a moral compact with business and government, only to discover they had been only instruments of profit and power.”
Shrill, moralistic pronouncements for open borders are a non-starter if the left has any chance of constructing a real alternative.
Attacking Nagle as the bearer of this bad news might provide a temporary rush of self-righteous catharsis for those who are impressed by them.
But it won’t get us anywhere near to where we need to be.