The rising tide fills all boats
Why, before we even arrive at the conflict between capital and labor, are we caught up in the conflict between those who don’t have and those who don’t have shit? Are there so many “social strata” of have-nots?
Each relatively privileged caste fears its social inferiors. The brahmins can rule as long as the workers despise the pariah more than them. Serbian people who fled to their “homeland” during the Yugoslav war now oppose refugees living in the same derelict barracks they once lived in. The battered East-German Volkskörper marches against refugee detention centers – which often house refugees from the Balkans.
In Germany, Ex-Yugoslav citizens, whether Roma or Balia are both discriminated – but not equally. There is inequality even in oppression. If oppression is not equal, does it mean that the oppressed are not equal? That they have no common interests?
Take a fictional PhD student and a first-grade dropout, both Serbian citizens. Both are horrified of overstaying their visa and being deported back to where “people are so poor, they can’t even afford teeth.” The visa options in Germany, from least to most preferable, are: stay illegal, apply for refugee status (usually denied), marry a German citizen and depend on their moral integrity, or win the jackpot and become chattel property of a German corporation.
The academic will have better chances to find an official job or a spouse and his papers will be viewed more favorably by the authorities. The shared experience of discrimination in Germany does not eliminate the gap between them – the doctoral student has his tidy flat and cosmopolitan friends, the first-grade dropout lives with relatives in an overcrowded tenement of the lowest quality available.
Their absolute living standard might have risen and they might have increased their chance of relative advancement, but the class difference remains. In the long run, the uneducated migrant is likely to be deported, while the academic will soon have a residence permit and may become naturalized. In the rare event they both are naturalized, the academic will disappear into the German middle class, while the her compatriot might disappear in the trunk of a car for upsetting his employer.
As long as there are individual ways out, we are not united in poverty. As for the unemployed pilot in Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwuan,” legal insecurity and lack of income is just a temporary phase for the excommunicated academic, driving him to the brink of suicide (or murder), while for the pauper it is past, present and future.
“Salad bowl politics” are not helpful. The issue of German citizens vs. non-Germans is not an “ethnic” one, as the conflict between German residents of different “cultural backgrounds” is often staged, and it is not a conflict between whites and “PoCs,” the academic acronym for “coloreds.”
It is a turf war for between workers for jobs controlled by employers controlled by banks controlled by governments controlled by banks. If you imagine the <> signs to be little crocodile heads with their jaws open, the predatory caculation looks like this: W<>W>J>E>B<>G<>B
When interest groups are not united as movements, they disintegrate. Not all bankers must work for the same bank, but banks are highly monopolized at the upper end and bankers are very class conscious, even if they work for individual profit and have patriotic feelings for their company.
In the German labor market, the direct competitors of new immigrants may not even be “Aryan Germans.” “Arab-German” doctoral students and “Alevi-Turkish” bottle collectors are also horrified of competing with people on the brink of the abyss. Even white anti-racist activists and “anti-ziganists” get uneasy when “their” victims take over “their” business and defend their own interests.
National and subnational identities increase competition, so it may not be a good strategy to strengthen them, if your goal is to increase equality. Interest groups demanding “advancement” for a delimited minority often have little effect on the majority and only gain privileges for a minority of “their” minority. A friend once said: “The Turks demand improvement for the Turks, the Arabs for the Arabs, the Germans for the Germans. To me, that’s racism.” As long as the “one-stop government” is the chief arbiter, resistance will end in collaboration.
One migrant identity is usually “worth more” than another in the German national-social hierarchy, and plenty “migration backgrounders” willingly play along by exalting their “heritage.” Ironically, they end up trying to prove to the Germans how “unlike the others” they are. When you start from the gutter and the sky is the limit, solidarity is failure.
The fear of the relatively oppressed is not unfounded – employed workers feed the bosses and the unemployed. Most “economic migration” occurs into economically isolated immigrant communities, not into “German society.” A Turkish German has more to “fear” from Familiennachzug, the influx of poor relatives, than the legendary “German tax payer.”
The “migrant solidarity networks” were there long before no border activists came up with a word, although they aren’t always pure “solidarity networks” – the family is the nucleus of the business corporation.
Activists tend to forget the real-existing social structure and even their solidarity targets when enflamed with their holy cause. University students from educated families, the majority of political activists, do not fear economic competition from immigrants, because their future jobs are fairly well protected. The language barrier to academia shields their monopoly, their cultural industry can’t just outsource to China.
Even if the state collapses and all social worker jobs are cut, the intelligentsia can easily regress into a comprador bourgeoisie or go into party politics. In many liquidated states, Afghanistan or East Germany, you find thwarted academics who became traders, communists who turned into nationalists or pietists. Everything is negotiable. Large and by, the intelligentsia support the ruling class. This is why they are a middle class: They broker between capital and labor – or between the dictatorship and the proletariat.
So those who say “we’re all in one boat” mislead just like those who say “the boat is full.” The temporary poverty of the scholar-activist is a self-imposed, purely financial poverty. It is not a lack of options or of networks, but self-constraint: “I’m never going back to the corporate world!” Should she still decide to liquidate her options in the market, they will fetch a higher price than the hands of the day laborer.
Only when the salary of a lawyer approaches that of a bricklayer do we see “revolutionary situations.” That is why rulers protect the wages of “professionals” by tax breaks, government positions and certification monopolies.
Even the anarchist sociology post-grad, who is also a consumer, will profit from neoliberal migration. Any reforms to Europe’s migration law will pursue capitalist objectives of pushing down wages, increasing intra-class competition while making humanitarian concessions.
We don’t demand free migration just to have cheaper tomatoes and a 24 hour weed market, we fraternize (theoretically) with farm workers and illegalized pharmacists. Yet, ironically, the “rising tide” of migration will raise the boats of the native elites, including activists. So while we activists demand more rights for migrants, we implicitly demand more privileges for ourselves.