U.S.-Mexican border between Nogales, Arizona & Nogales, Sonora. CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mexican-American_border_at_Nogales.jpg">Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde (CC/Public Domain)</a>
U.S.-Mexican border between Nogales, Arizona & Nogales, Sonora. CREDIT: Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde (CC/Public Domain)

Migration & Citizenship in the Capitalist State, with Lea Ypi

Jul 31, 2018

"In both political debates and academic debates on migration the question of class is often missed," says London School of Economics' Lea Ypi. "When we reduce migration to a problem of open-versus-closed borders, of accepting or under what terms we accept or exclude migrants, we forget that borders are and have always been and will continue to be, at least under the current regimes, open for some people and closed for other people."

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello, and welcome to another episode in our Ethics & International Affairs (EIA) interview series, sponsored by the Carnegie Council. My name is Adam Read-Brown, and I'm the managing editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council's quarterly peer-reviewed journal, published by Cambridge University Press.

With me by phone today is Professor Lea Ypi, here to discuss issues of social class and migration. Dr. Ypi is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an associate professor in philosophy at the Australian National University.

She is the author of Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency and The Meaning of Partisanship with Jonathan White. She also co-edited the volumes Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership as well as Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives. She recently published an essay in EIA called "Borders of Class: Migration and Citizenship in the Capitalist State."

So let's dive right in. Thanks very much for joining us.

LEA YPI: Thank you very much for having me.

ADAM READ-BROWN: There has been plenty of discussion in the news lately about issues of migration both in Europe and in the United States. Why is it that social class should be part of this discussion, and why is it so often left out?

LEA YPI: It's important that it's part of these discussions for more practical reasons and for more theoretical reasons. From a practical point of view, we see a dimension that migration debates are often emphasized in the media as one of the axes of cleavage and conflict between citizens of host societies and migrants. Of course, hostility to migration is often cited as one of the main issues that drive the conflict of our time, whether it's Trump's election, whether it's Brexit in the United Kingdom, and so on.

The idea that migration is a real concern for citizens of Western societies is picked up both in mainstream political and academic debates, but also in debates among scholars of migration who discuss issues of closed-versus-open borders. On the one hand, there are defenders of open borders who say that there is a human right to immigrate and that, for reasons of moral equality amongst human beings, everyone should be entitled to travel freely and visit freely other countries.

On the other hand, there are critics of the open borders argument who say that we should be more sensitive to the concerns of citizens of liberal democracies and that we should think about a more critical approach to open borders and we should think about the terms under which particular migrants are admitted or integrated.

It seems to me that both in the political debates and in the academic debates on migration the question of class is often missed because when we reduce migration to a problem of open-versus-closed borders, of accepting or under what terms we accept or exclude migrants, we forget that borders are and have always been and will continue to be, at least under the current regimes, open for some people and closed for other people. So we forget that borders are often open if you are white, educated, and rich, and they are closed or much less open if you are not.

It seems to me that the same applies to discussions on integration, not just admission. If we focus on integration and civic participation and its implications for border control, it seems to me that we are unlikely to focus on a question that matters from the point of view of the politics of migration because it's time to start recognizing that there are class injustices that are at the heart of debates about both distributive conflicts with migrants and cultural conflicts.

ADAM READ-BROWN: You mentioned that there are two poles, advocates of freedom of movement and open borders and then those who advocate more restrictive policies, a right to exclude. In that camp there are a couple of arguments that you take aim at in your essay for the journal, one of which is this idea that immigration and the surrounding issues are framed as a problem of limited resources, that immigrants will take jobs, housing, and healthcare away from native citizens.

How does a class-based analysis or framing add to our understanding of the claims that are being made there?

LEA YPI: It seems to me that class is relevant to when we are trying to understand distributive conflicts and cultural integration conflicts because it seems to me that what both critics and defenders of freedom of movement tend to forget is that the burdens of both admission and integration are actually not shouldered equally by all immigrants and by all natives.

Just to give you one example, under the United Kingdom's Tier 1 visa program, the people who have the ability to invest ₤2 million in the United Kingdom can come and stay in the country for more than three years, and the people who have the ability to invest more than ₤10 million can apply for indefinite leave to remain after only two years of residence compared to five years for people who have other reasons to naturalize.

And so it seems to me that all the usual bureaucratic inconveniences of assembling paperwork, waiting times, living with enormous uncertainty as an immigrant, all of the trouble that we associate with immigration and border-control bureaucracy, are completely unequally distributed across the immigrant populations. If you are wealthy, you have much more facilitated access to citizenship, to leave, to remain; and if you are poor, you have to wait for much longer, you are the mercy of border control, there is much more insecurity.

Depending on whether you have a lot of money to pay—if you have, for example, in the United Kingdom again, more than ₤10,000, as opposed to the regular fee of ₤1,500, a courier will visit and collect your Home Office application for biometric leave to remain.

So it seems to me that, again, if you're rich, then all of these obstacles are not really obstacles for you, and if you are poor, then the poorer you are the more they become difficult and the more they become barriers to integration. The distributive concerns of both critics of freedom of movement and also those who defend freedom of movement acknowledge affect only people who are migrants of particular social classes, and the poorer they are, the more vulnerable they are, the more they are affected.

Also, when we look at it not just from the point of view of the migrants but from the point of view of citizens of host societies, if we think about natives and what kinds of grievances they often cite in public debates about migrants, they often talk about competition with regard to public healthcare, with regard to housing, with regard to schools. But of course, not all immigrants will make claims on these public social goods. There will be wealthy immigrants who will go to private hospitals, who will go to very expensive private schools, who will buy property instead of making claims on public housing, for example, that will instead be considered welcome immigrants precisely because they have the ability to make an investment, to bring returns to the host society. These immigrants will tend to not attract resentment. In fact, they will be very welcome.

So it seems to me that the kind of competition that leads to resentment is typically between working-class poor natives and poor immigrants.

ADAM READ-BROWN: That certainly makes some good sense.

The other argument that I want to give you an opportunity to dissect a little bit is this idea that, in addition to the distributive resource question, there is this idea that there is a right of the destination states to protect their culture from undesired outside influences, that these immigrants will change the cultural landscape in ways that are perhaps counter to what the native population would like.

But, as with the resource question, how does class play into this idea of cultural control?

LEA YPI: Again, here the barriers to cultural integration for immigrants are reminiscent of an age in which citizenship was restricted to only access by some people who had means, who were rich and had property qualifications and so on. There was a time in which access to the franchise was conditional on wealth.

It seems to me that when it comes to integration, it's the same thing that is going on right now, except that the targets are no longer domestically vulnerable members of the political community who are native citizens, but are newcomers or immigrants who have been residents for a long time but don't have full access to citizenship. So what is the problem there? The problem is that access to citizenship becomes a good that is bought and sold.

When we make citizenship conditional on overcoming certain barriers through civic participation, like linguistic barriers or cultural barriers, first of all we are reifying the political community, we are turning it from being a vehicle of political emancipation for members of the community who are disenfranchised, who are vulnerable, and who are typically at the mercy of rich elites. We are doing the same, except that instead of making it a vehicle of political emancipation, we turn it into a vehicle of oppression whereby denying citizenship to some members of our community, or by making it conditional on paying a lot of money to have access to citizenship, or on passing certain tests, we are turning citizenship, as I say, from a vehicle of emancipation to a tool of oppression of the poor. That is one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin is that by making citizenship conditional on overcoming certain barriers through linguistic or cultural participation, what we do is that we reify culturally the political community that should instead be much more inclusive and that is typically empirically much more diverse. So we condone a reading of the state whereby the state serves the nation understood as a sort of homogenic entity with a past and a destiny and a state that is shared along ethnic lines to another way in which we might read the state, which is a kind of old-fashioned Marxist way, which says that the state is just a sphere in which class struggle takes place and where if the rich succeed in having their say, typically use the political power that they are given by the state to oppress the poor.

By making citizenship conditional and overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, we, as I say, legitimize a particular understanding of the state at the expense of another understanding of the state that seems in politically troubled times equally relevant to take into account.

ADAM READ-BROWN: It seems to me perhaps just worth pausing to note that these arguments that we're talking about seem to resonate across the spectrum. It's not simply with academics or certain less-informed portions of the population. I mean the cultural argument, for example, resonates with less-well-educated Trump voters or Brexit voters and economically disadvantaged voters as well as folks who are making these arguments from academia. It really cuts across the spectrum.

It's striking to me that what you're describing certainly is a powerful critique of this, but that it is not simply one type of voter or one type of academic that we're talking about here as far as the resonance that these arguments hold and the difficulty with which one might try to critique and refocus these arguments.

LEA YPI: Yes, I agree with that. In a way, the implication of the argument that I am making is an implication not just for citizens, for members of the public, for Trump voters, and so on, but it's also an implication for the way in which we think about migration and what kind of problem migration is, if it is a problem.

I think one of the implications of my argument is that migration-related conflicts, whether they are of a distributive kind or whether they are of an integration/cultural kind, shouldn't be analyzed as injustice in their own right. This is, I think, where even those who defend open borders, who are much critical of current trends in migration policy, tend to go wrong because they see these as injustice in their own right. Whereas, instead, I think we should analyze and interpret migration-related conflicts as part of a larger account of social injustice that focuses on common sources of oppression for both vulnerable native citizens and immigrants, and to see the problem of injustice in migration as part of the problem of the injustice of capitalism.

When we think about access to citizenship, when we think about the purchase and the sale of passports, or when we think about the difficulties with distributing certain groups that advanced liberal democracies face—like access to housing, healthcare, and so on—all of these problems are problems that are connected to the crisis of traditional social democracy as we know it.

So it's not likely that a solution will come from responses that consolidate the divide between native citizens and immigrants. When we think about migration in the context of the injustice of capitalism, we have to think about solutions that emerge from efforts to build political alliances across the constituencies, across the native-versus-immigrant divide, across the ethnic divides, and thinking about strengthening networks of solidarity and institutions that foster joint bargaining at both the national and the transnational levels.

I think this is the greatest challenge and why migration is such a difficult debate also for the left because the challenge is for progressive political agents, whether movements or trade unions or political parties, who are in theory committed to university democratic representation, to then take up these issues also at an electoral level and not to leave them out because they don't necessarily pay electorally; they are not winners necessarily when we think about how can we win elections.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hearing you talk about this cross-border solidarity among the underprivileged classes, I immediately think that the inverse is you've actually got—and as you have been describing and as you describe in your essay—a much larger degree of solidarity between members of the world's elite upper class. They've already got solidarity. They've put in policies that allow for their own movement freely about the globe and have the resources to do so. So certainly, as you say, the greater challenge is how do you foster that solidarity in less-privileged classes where it doesn't already exist. Certainly, it seems an open question.

LEA YPI: Yes. I think for that it's very important to understand that the conflicts that we emphasize as conflicts, that we cite as conflicts related to migration, that we cite as cultural conflicts, are also not cultural conflicts, they're ideological conflicts and they have a class-based nature. That's why it's also important to challenge, for example, cultural integration and civic access policies because to require that immigrants identify and accept certain norms as the correct interpretation of a particular national culture runs the risk of reifying consent around the conservative side of the political debate and obscuring the class-based dimension of the injustices that the state perpetrates.

As I say, there is an alternative interpretation of what the state is and what the state does, as the stage in which conflicts of ideology and social class play out, where shaping the development of political norms is a matter that both immigrants and citizens should develop together where they are, as it were, part of the same side because they are both vulnerable citizens and vulnerable migrants, are both oppressed, are both losing from the capitalist system.

ADAM READ-BROWN: If we were to embrace this class-based understanding, as you say, and reframe the issue and our understanding of immigration, where does it point? You started to hint at that, but where does it perhaps point us policy-wise? Does it not move us in the direction of open borders? You started with some critiques for that side of the debate as well. But does it move us in that direction? Is it something different? How should we be thinking about that practical outcome?

LEA YPI: I think it points us in the direction of advocating for a U-turn on the way in which we frame citizenship policies to begin with. Currently, social democratic, or even left parties, have been silent when it came to thinking about under what conditions we admit and integrate migrants. This is very interesting because, while coming from a history of enfranchisement, from a history of fighting for a universal idea of citizenship, current social democratic left parties, progressive political movements, find themselves complicit with right-wing conservative understanding and interpretations of citizenship when it comes to the way in which we access citizenship, just setting the terms of membership. So it seems to me that it is really important to campaign, for example, for the abolition of practices that reinforce the class basis of contemporary liberal states.

There are a number of measures in which we could take a U-turn and abolish. Think, for example, about the abolition of means-tested admission practices, the idea that you have to show that you have a certain amount of money in order to obtain an entry clearance visa in a certain country. Another thing that we could campaign to eliminate is the elimination of selective citizenship where we make citizenship very easy to obtain for very rich people but very, very difficult for poor people.

Another thing I think we ought to be campaigning is scrapping cultural integration tests and eliminate practices to commodify citizenship, because if we believe in this universal inclusive ideal of citizenship, then citizenship should be unconditional because, as I said, it should be a kind of tool for political emancipation rather than something that you show yourself to be worthy or not worthy of depending on whether you comply with the norms of the host state.

There are a number of implications that are sensitive to what category of people ought to be encouraged and what category of people we ought to think more critically of. So we have to think about what kind of immigrants.

Again, if we think about border control, the exclusion of vulnerable immigrants at the borders—the refugee practices, for example—this would point in the direction of the elimination of detention centers, or thinking about much more open refugee practices that show solidarity with vulnerable citizens and vulnerable migrants.

These are all, I think, measures that progressive political agents ought to put on their agenda, even though they might not in the short term promise any electoral payoff, because it is very difficult obviously to campaign for members who are not enfranchised, who don't have a vote. These are not the constituents. But this is what the left has been doing historically. This is what the left did when it campaigned for the inclusion of women, when it campaigned for the inclusion of workers, people who didn't have property qualifications. The question of whether this is going to pay off electorally was the secondary question at that point because the primary question was how to make the polity more inclusive and how to overcome injustice.

I think the exclusion of vulnerable migrants is the injustice of our time that the left should take up and campaign for transnationally without compromises with the right.

ADAM READ-BROWN: That brings us to an interesting point. I want to end by bringing us back around to some of the issues we've touched on, but specifically in relation to a couple of the in-the-headlines stories that have been much debated of late regarding immigration, and particularly here in the United States, but this would apply certainly to the issues in the European Union.

We've seen politicians and activists on the left—this is picking up, as you finished, with what the left can or should be doing to frame this issue—certainly right now what we see is politicians and activists on the left in the United States have really highlighted and honed in on racial aspects of the current administration's immigration policies here, whether it's the so-called "Muslim ban" or the zero-tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexican border.

How do you see the intersectionality of race and class playing out in this type of debate? Is the conversation focusing on race hindering this understanding of this as a class-based issue? Many would say this is a very integral and important aspect of what's happening, the racial side. How do these two things interact, and how should we understand that intersection?

LEA YPI: I think these exclusions are mutually reinforcing and they should be understood together. I don't think they should be isolated one from the other, because the moment they are isolated one from the other we, I think, run the risk of promoting a kind of tokenistic approach to issues of race and class.

It seems to me that it's important to analyze exclusion and the history of exclusion in an integrated way that takes into account all these three dimensions and that doesn't isolate one and turn these exclusions into a competition between which of them is more important. If we think about race, for example, in isolation from the issues of social class, wealth, and property, as I say, there is a risk that we legitimize a kind of tokenistic approach whereby what matters is that the person who belongs to a certain race or a certain gender is put in place and then we forget about the other cleavage, which is the class cleavage.

The really interesting example in this country is the example of the current Home Office secretary, Sajid Javid, in Britain, who is the first Muslim, the first Asian, and the first secretary of state of Muslim origin to hold on to one of the great powers of the state. Of course, on the one hand, this is a very important signal. It is very important and empowering for members of these communities that there is someone who can take up their cause.

But then, on the other hand, if we think about who Sajid Javid is and what he does and what he did before, well, he moved from being one of the directors of the Deutsche Bank, where he had earnings that were estimated at about ₤3 million a year, into a career in politics. If we uncouple these exclusions one from the other, then we end up with a kind of tokenistic approach that is less likely to help members of these communities that are vulnerable at many counts of overcoming their oppression.

Of course, race and gender are important, and of course it's important that if you are a member of the working class, it's worse if you are a black member of the working class than if you are a white member of the working class, and it's even worse if you are a female black working class than if you are a male black working class.

I think these exclusions reinforce each other, and they reinforce each other not just for contingent reasons but for historical reasons that have to do with the development of capitalism and that have to do with the ways the North/South divide were consolidated, that have to do with the history of colonialism, and with the way the West has benefited from exploiting other areas of the world.

So it seems to me that these are exclusions that support each other rather than exclusions that should be read, as I say, in isolation or in competition with each other, because if we do that, we end up promoting a tokenistic approach, which is not likely to achieve very much at the root.

ADAM READ-BROWN: This brings us to the end of our time today, but I highly encourage listeners to check out Professor Ypi's excellent essay in the Summer issue of the journal, "Borders of Class: Migration and Citizenship in the Capitalist State." You can find it online at www.eiajournal.org, along with other great material including more interviews, book reviews, back issues of the journal, and much more.

We also invite you to follow us on Twitter @EIAJournal.

Once again, I'm Adam Read-Brown with the Carnegie Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs. Thanks for listening.

Thank you again, Dr. Ypi, for this wonderful discussion.

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