The modern Fordist paradises of the industrial world have seen their birthrates crater to the point that mass immigration is the only thing that can keep their economies staffed. This is riskier than it looks. The industrialized West is undertaking a historic experiment in real time: by allowing and even encouraging mass immigration from countries with vastly different cultural foundations, Western societies are testing whether people with deep cultural roots and few if any common loyalties can build cohesive and coherent societies in the 21st century.
For countries like the United States, Canada and Australia, this is a less risky experiment than for others. The English speaking societies of the British diaspora have a long history of receiving and assimilating millions of immigrants. The process has rarely been easy or without costs, both to the hosts and to the new arrivals, but over time it has largely been a success. Those societies are wealthier, wiser, and intellectually and culturally richer because of their immigrant populations, and tension between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic “first settlers” and immigrants from later waves tends to disappear after one or two generations.
Pessimists worry that immigrants from Mexico and other Spanish speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere will change America’s cultural balance, and/or that Muslim immigrants will fail to assimilate, becoming a permanent liability. But the hopeful signs outweigh the negative indicators, at least where I sit. The fashionable residential borough of Queens where I live is ground central for immigration in the Greater New York area, and Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Colombians, Mexicans, Ecuadoreans, African Americans, and Anglos all seem to be getting along reasonably well. That isn’t a scientific survey, I acknowledge, but the opinion pollsters and others supplement my unscientific sampling of the streets of Queens. The American assimilation process still seems to be in pretty good shape.
Europe’s problems with immigration, though experience differs from one country to the next, are much deeper. A commendable desire to avoid inflaming tensions and setting one group against another largely inhibits the establishment discourse about the nature and severity of Europe’s immigration issues, but driving this issue out of the respectable mainstream only empowers groups like the National Front in France and much uglier parties in countries like Hungary and Greece to exploit a hot button public issue that the mainstream parties do their best to ignore.
Much of the discussion of the problem focuses on the difficulty of integrating immigrants, particularly those of either Muslim, Roma or sub-Saharan African origins. There is much discussion of the perceived incompatibility of Islamic theology with the beliefs and practices of the postmodern, post-Christian and postindustrial West. Roma and sub-Saharan African cultures are, for different reasons, seen by some as too far removed from the social norms of contemporary Europe to allow for easy assimilation.
While it is difficult to construct a public discussion around these issues that steers a course between the Scylla of bigotry and the Charybdis of bland political correctness, there are important issues to be addressed. As one example, many (though by no means all) of the Roma seeking to take advantage of European Union mobility guarantees to escape the poverty and discrimination they face in their eastern homelands lack the skills and education to get and keep decent jobs in western Europe. Western Europe is not exactly a job creating dynamo for low skilled positions; many who move there will live on the fringes of society rather than carving out a comfortable, secure place in their new homes. For many of the immigrants, that’s an improvement: if you must live by your wits on the margins of society it is better to live on the margins of a rich country than of a poor one. Better France, Germany and Denmark than Bulgaria and Romania. It’s important for mainstream politicians to be able to discuss and address issues of this kind because they are very much on the public mind and will not go away.
There are other problems that arise from the nature of immigration into Europe. In France for example, immigrants from North Africa make up a very large proportion of the immigrant population. Their proportion is so large, and their difficulties with integrating into French society are so similar and so acute, that in a significant number of cases they are developing a North African or Islamist identity that is cohesive enough to form a rival pole of attraction. Instead of assimilating into a French identity, there is a tendency among some to assimilate into a permanent minority identity that could pose long term problems for the French state.
The biggest problems that Europe faces, however, stem less from the nature of the immigrants than from the nature of Europe’s social order. Since the 19th century, Europe has moved toward the creation of the ethnic nation state. The central demand of European democrats going back to the era of the French Revolution was for the right of each people to construct a state of their own. Every people had the right to live under a government of their own choosing, under laws that reflected their own cultural values and goals, and under policies that would promote the culture and well being of the gens that constituted the foundation of the state.
So powerful was the drive for ethnic nation states in European history that millions were killed and many millions more driven out of their ancestral homes in order to create these states. The Balkan wars of the 1990s were only the latest example of the irresistible force of ethnic nationalism in European affairs. Kosovars, Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, and Macedonians could not bear to live under the rule of people who spoke a different language, had a different religion or cultural tradition. Now most of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia live in ethnically based states, statelets or proto-states and, after the usual atrocities and expulsions, things have settled down.
The Balkans are not unique. Poland and then-Czechoslovakia expelled literally millions of Germans in 1945 and 1946; today those parts of the world are peaceful, democratic and the dominant ethnic group is overwhelmingly the people for whom the state is named and whose cultural values it is intended to represent. Centuries of anti-Semitic hatred, accelerating dramatically all across Europe as nationalism became more powerful in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only abated with the wholesale murder or emigration of the vast majority of European Jews.
Even today, wherever serious ethnic diversity persists, states are in trouble. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia both broke up after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Many Catalans and Basques want to leave Spain. The Flemish and the Walloons keep Belgium poised on the brink of breaking up. The Scots are pushing to leave the UK. Tens of thousands have died in fighting between Turks and Kurds. Russia faces huge problems and tensions around many of its ethnic and religious minorities. Russian speaking minorities in the Baltic republics remain intensely problematic. The presence of Magyar minorities in Slovakia and Romania complicates Hungary’s relations with both of these countries.
In Europe, even as church and state increasingly separated in the last 150 years, nation and state fused. The multinational states of Europe’s past (the Austrian, Ottoman, German and Russian empires) began to break down into their component national subunits. In those new national sovereignties, the promotion of the culture and the language of the dominant ethnic group was an integral element of their political structure. You had to speak Polish to teach in interwar Polish universities or work for the Polish civil service—just as Estonia today wants to preserve jobs and privileges for people who are fluent in Estonian. From one end of Europe to the other, the legitimacy of states is bound up with the identification of the state with the national majority.
More than that, the solidarity that underlies European social safety networks is grounded in a sense of ethnic identity and cohesion. The nationalist movements across Europe aimed to resolve class conflicts between the elites and the masses within ethnicities by heightening a sense of solidarity. “We Danes,” “we Czechs,” “we Poles” had to stick together and take care of our own. (America’s looser ethnic bonds account in part for our weaker social safety networks; many Americans see the poor as other and different from themselves.)
Europe’s system of protecting middle aged workers by hanging the young out to dry is in part a system of ethnic protection. The middle aged are much more ethnically homogenous than the young. One consequence of high youth unemployment in countries like Greece, Italy and Spain is systemic social marginalization of immigrant populations, who not only tend to be much younger than the host population but who also sometimes lack the credentials demanded by the increasingly formalized and bureaucratized employment process in many European countries. This is not helping the cause of peaceful assimilation, and one suspects that, as European populations become less culturally homogenous, support for generous welfare states that primarily benefit immigrants will gradually erode.
In many European countries, France included, ethnic nationalism is a force that animates both socialist and conservative nationalist politics. One of the reasons the French Socialists fear the National Front so much is that many socialist voters support the party because they see socialist welfare policies and socialist opposition to “Anglo-Saxon capitalism” as a way to protect the interests of ordinary French people. And by ordinary French people they emphatically do not mean Roma immigrants from Bulgaria or Arab and Berber immigrants from North Africa.
Europe’s social engineers of the last generation seem to have assumed that the “dark forces” of nationalism and chauvinism had been left behind. That was partly true; the horrors of the two world wars have made many (though far from all) Europeans unwilling to fight anymore on ethnic grounds. But the subsidence of ethnic nationalism in European politics was also a function of the mass ethnic cleansings and genocidal killings that left most European nation states fairly homogenous. There was no “German Question” in Polish or Czech politics because there were no more Germans in these countries. The “Jewish Question” largely faded in postwar Europe, in part because of revulsion against Nazism, but also because the Jews were gone. Europe’s architects liked to believe that Europeans had transcended ethnic hatred, but much of Europe’s postwar peace came from the success of ethnic hatred in creating homogenous countries.
What we now see in Europe as the Great Immigration Experiment continues is a steady drift toward a new politics of ethnicity. Nationalist sentiments and movements are gaining force throughout the region. (In this respect, Putin’s Russia is moving in the same direction as its neighbors, though in an even rougher way.) Europe’s remaining multiethnic unions (especially the UK, Belgium, Russia, and Spain) face strong secessionist movements. Throughout Europe, the new nationalism is in revolt against the cosmopolitan projects of the European Union, and it is also in revolt against mass immigration and the threatened loss of ethnic cohesion and homogeneity. We don’t know how effective the European mainstream parties will be at suppressing the growing power of the neo-nationalists, but it looks as if so far the trend over time is for the center, left and right, to decline and for the nationalists to rise.
In America, these problems are not as severe. Our nationalism is not quite as ethnically focused as nationalism tends to be in Europe, and our past history of successful assimilation conditions both the newcomers and the host population to believe that our current waves of immigrants will ultimately settle in just as past waves have done. What also limits the effect of anti-immigrant populism in American politics is that the two groups most powerfully and negatively affected (low income and working class African Americans and whites) have historically been at odds with each other. Each major American political party is an uneasy coalition in which pro-immigration forces on the whole outweigh anti-immigrant ones, and African American and Tea Party-like immigration opponents are unlikely to form an effective coalition on this issue.
Nevertheless, it would be foolhardy to believe that there is no practical limit to the ability of the United States to absorb new immigrants; there is some annual number x between zero and ten million at which anti-immigration feeling would likely reimpose some contemporary version of the 1920s quota system. Illegal immigration is particularly costly and divisive; thoughtful immigration proponents need to pay much more than lip service to the goal of policing the borders, or anti-immigration sentiment could become much more powerful in this country.
But if America is running some risks in going ahead with mass immigration, Europe is playing with fire. It is not primarily because many of the immigrants are from Muslim backgrounds; it is not because of their skin color. It is fundamentally because they are foreign: “not us.” Modernization in Europe was a process of creating ethnically homogenous nation states and, on the far side of the murders and expulsions necessary to create that new status quo, building institutions in which the homogenous states could work together.
Europe forgot that hard truth, and partly as a result, the health of the multinational European Union and the political stability of many of its ever less homogenous nation states are increasingly under threat. The contrast in living standards between Europe and its neighboring regions makes immigration attractive; the implosion of Europe’s birthrate makes mass immigration economically necessary. But the resulting diversity in nation states whose identity is closely tied to ethnicity threatens to summon up the dark demons of past ethnic conflict.
Bad economic times intensify these tensions—just as the hard economic times of the 1930s exacerbated the hatreds and rivalries of the day. Europe today is simultaneously creating depression-like conditions through the euro austerity drive, rekindling intra-European animosities as northern and Club Med countries squabble over whose fault the catastrophic euro situation really is, and, to throw gasoline on the fire, experiencing accelerated immigration from the east and south.
It is not at all clear that Europe’s leaders fully understand the risks they are running. Polls putting the National Front ahead in France should serve as a wakeup call; mass immigration poses a serious danger to Europe’s social peace.
[Image: Members of the Pakistani community in Athens stand on January 19, 2013 in front of a banner with the portrait of a 27-year-old Pakistani migrant victim in the center of Athens. Hundreds of Greeks and other nationals marched peacefully against racism and fascism. Nearly 3,000 people joined the rally that was set up by municipalities, organisations, migrant communities and main opposition party radical leftists Syriza. This week, authorities arrested a 29-year-old firefighter and another Greek man aged 25 for the murder of the 27-year-old Pakistani migrant in Athens. Courtesy ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)