Open Borders Is Socialism

“I think the vision is, you know, you have this kind of right-wing populism, which really is socialism, that says we should close our borders, not allow unconstrained immigration, and then take better care of our own working-class people and not allow this kind of transnational, global, corporatist elite to take everything for themselves under the guise of neoliberalism.” — Glenn Greenwald

Are we slipping past the point of no return? Where the resistance to the neoliberal order is the fascist order and the resistance to the fascist order is the neoliberal order? I don’t think so. I think in some ways the left still has a say and one has to look in the right places (on the ground) to find it.

Zizek’s formulation is that fascism does not arise to stop neoliberalism (its fake rival) but rather to stop socialism. I am going to argue that neoliberalism also emerges to stop socialism. In fact the whole game being played is one to stop socialism. What actually happens is inconsequential in comparison to this.

While I will continue to maintain that the left has shaped a lot of our past and will shape a lot of our future I want to look at how fascism is emerging to stop the left specifically. This is not a sign of the left’s lack of power but to the contrary, a sign that the left is a threat to the ruling class and they are dialed into a specific way to stop it.

Glenn Greenwald got in some trouble for calling Tucker Carlson a socialist for no other reason than xenophobia, but this is a debate that goes back further than Greenwald. I never get too upset by Greenwald for a couple of reasons. The first would be that no one has tried harder to get canceled than Greenwald, and yet he remains a mainstay on America’s most watched network, primarily for promoting an idea that he’s censored. Giving in to the outrage would be exactly what he wants.

This is different than giving in to outrage against serious fascists like Trump, who not only want to get “canceled” but also want to be king. Greenwald doesn’t give us a lot of useful analysis, but I think we would be falling into a trap by framing him as an enemy. For Trump, I think we are falling into his trap by proclaiming him the enemy, but we must do it, because he is powerful. One can see how he has a successful strategy.

Trump aside, my main point here is that the debate around open borders should be taken more seriously and reacting against Greenwald as a sort of fascist is in a way relevant but also plays into his formulation of power, which doesn’t seem fascist, just alienated. Angela Nagle is someone I find more compelling, and she made the case against open borders that sparked viral criticisms. This of course created a mysticism of a certain truth around her argument, which is why being more level-headed is a better way to react.

Nagle quotes Marx in her case against open borders. Of course a lot of people around the world quote Marx, Richard Wolff makes the case the only comparable influence are those of religious figures. Such a ubiquity doesn’t make Marx any less correct in his superb analysis of capitalism but it does make us admit that he likely has a variety of interpretations across many texts.

In the quote used by Nagle, of Marx, he calls the antagonism between the citizen and the immigrant artificial, proving a post-modern attitude on race, however, he also shares the same obsession with the Other as the secret force behind capitalist power: “This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.”

This is why some people call Hitler a socialist, or why Greenwald might say the same thing about Steve Bannon types. If this is the analysis, that the capitalist gains its power through the Other, the immigrant especially, then we have essentially a right wing alternative to capitalism. We have to be fair to Marx and say that obviously, there’s a lot more going on there. I’ve certainly written things I’m not proud of saying. The same is true of Nagle and Greenwald, I want to be fair.

Yet it is also important to say that Marx is wrong here, and that we should read Marx within the class he was in. I won’t weigh in on the Helene Demuth debate now but I think it’s worth noting Marx is best read as an analyst of powerful capitalists and their structures, not as a psychoanalyst of the “working class”. Most of the modern left commentary (supported by patrons like Engels supported Marx) of course also relies upon a clean provocative analysis. From a Marxist perspective, the necessity to be clean and provocative is in order so the person making the analysis can feed themselves. So I have no problem with the problematic analysis just as I have no problem with drug dealers making a living. The problem remains with capitalists, owners of production, etc.

However just as we would be right to be honest about the drug dealer’s product, we should be honest about the product of the alt-left. If it seems I’m focusing too much on the left, being too hard on the left, it’s to the contrary: the right must be defeated and this is not an attempt to squash anyone on the left, but to make their arguments stronger.

In this way I am not against Nagle, because I think she makes people interested in the right ideas and that there may be no other way to do this than by framing it in a cultural way, and that this cultural framing is of course problematic, but how else would such an analysis even be sustained at all?

Even the material analysis of the present days I think wrongly frames the state of the society within vaguely ethnic terms like globalization. Richard Wolff is a rather remarkable analyst because he is as clear as he is smart. I want to push back even against the way we consume Wolff because again I think globalization, like neoliberal, is not a term without its own contradictions.

For Wolff the 1970s, the so-called neoliberal turn, was a technological one. Airplanes and computers now made capitalism easily global and this in turn helped capitalism move from places of more organized labor to countries that could pay their workers less. Workers had rights in the United States because of how profitable capitalism was for them in the past in this region. Wolff notes slavery and natural resources as two reasons for the historic success of profitable capitalism in the United States Tempting it would be to draw on another Marx idea; the TRPF, or the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.

For Marx, the rate of profit declines (as a tendency) because, not in spite of, technological advances in production. Here I would agree more with Steve Keen than Marx in his idea that TRPF assumes within its own framework another Marxist theory (labor theory of value). And that if we accept Keen’s argument that profit is not only tied to labor but also to capital accumulation than we have a more complicated picture.

To take a step back TRPF is deeply Hegelian in its contradiction. Because technology makes production more efficient, more output of the product could occur. But in the long run, despite modern claims of consumers gone wild, the demand wouldn’t change all that much, meaning there would be not more products sold on the consumer side, so we would have to turn to the other side (labor) for our answers. For Marx, labor creates value, so a decline in labor would mean a decline in value.

But this makes no sense, really. Everyone knows that if one has money it is easier to make money. It’s very idealistic to think that this money is only tied to the people the capitalist is making money off of. A more charitable reading may be to read the decline in profit from the starting point of the specific technological advance to the ending point of increased demand from this advance.

The disruption to increasing profit it seems would come from the underbelly of who this profit leaves behind. Who will pay for the increasing climate disruptions, for example. The coronavirus is a sign of things to come, where business as usual is interrupted because of forces within the natural world, outside of our economic formula. We see how labor stopped, but the rich only got richer during the pandemic.

Let’s journey back to the arc Wolff is tracing from globalized labor leading to a decline of labor within the United States. There is nothing bigoted about this argument per se, but I think we should avoid it, because it locates the rate of profit on the body of the Other. This assumes the labor theory of value of course but here I want to tie it back to another one of Wolff’s points.

Another thing Wolff talks about is how we now live under “capitalism” as opposed to other periods of organization like feudalism or slavery. He makes a convincing case that the primary relationship today is between employer and employee and that this holds a lot in common with the past relationships of master and slave or lord and serf. But here is where again I don’t exactly understand most of the left which says the problem is capitalism.

I then try to ask what is capitalism and besides Wolff, I don’t get much of an answer besides what The Joker might call “society”. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be nostalgic, nor do I think it’s a good idea to be antagonistic to the entirely of the present moment. Todd McGowan charts a more encouraging course by arguing, through Hegel, that we have to embrace contradiction.

I don’t know where the proof is that the world today is primarily defined through the relationship between employer and employee. Unemployment is basically only a useful statistic in times of changing employment because it measures people who are actively looking for work, a sort of purgatory. However, we should be more interested in who is actually working at all.

A statistic like labor participation rate measures employed and unemployed (looking for work) together as a percentage of the working-age population and even by that metric India is hovering around 50%, per Trading Economics. What is happening to the 50% of the population not looking for work, but who are at working age? What about the old and young, not at so-called working age? How many of these 50% looking for work are employed in relation to the profit model of the company, rather than say a model of ownership of bodies akin to slavery or ownership of territory akin to feudalism?

Sticking with India, per, the income per month is 177$. If the primary relationship is that of employer/employee, what explains this? We have to take this seriously. Way more people live in India than in the United States. The fact that people still want to come to the United States proves that in many ways capitalism, in its ability to even provide any wage at all, is still somewhat rare.

So is Bernie Sanders right that open borders is a Koch Brothers argument? Am I making an argument for capitalism here when I say that much of the world still lives in feudalism or slavery and that wage labor simply isn’t an option? I am more trying to problematize this notion of periodization, where capitalism develops and now is totalizing and explains each thing. My argument here is that time and space are connected and that not all regions are in the same point of what would be called capitalist development.

This was always the weakness of the Sanders left that it essentially was trying to protect a specific time and place and that situated capitalism’s problems in its expansion of free markets, rather than problematizing the market itself. What really was the alternative to globalization if the American way of life was going to be maintained? Was it simply more imperialism, more exploitation of the environment? Is the problem here, for anti-globalists, that a slave or serf could be a vessel for labor when they should have been asking only why the employer could also be a master or a lord? Is the problem, for critics of neoliberalism, that the employee is no longer distinguished in the eyes of his employer? That now, he or she, rather than producing value, profit, of being useful, now is too qualified to produce value?

I want to problematize this further, and we’re intentionally just stretching the surface here, challenging the sentiment of the fundamental antagonism between different groups of poor people. The perception of jobs being outsourced seems to be that there is no history of the outside world and that now that a plane or computer connects us we now lose our job to a person who simply did not exist before the technology. My broad point here is that the advance in technology here wasn’t in order to get cheaper labor but like every other advance in technology simply a way of making the work less labor value intensive.

It is not so much a shift from capitalism finding a new lower wage earner to create antagonism but rather an exploitation of an already connected dynamic. What does this mean? It means that something else entirely could mediate labor in a place where slavery or feudalism (for example) was just as primary as so-called capitalism. It is not so much that workers are in competition for the same work but more so that some workers have value within a work that appears similar because of an already connected relationship, mediated between the already existing exploitation of the political economy that supposedly provides more labor value.

How is this relationship exploited? Through imperialism, perhaps, not exploited but disproportionately damaged, through production itself and the damage it does to climate globally, even when the exploitation of climate is within a specific place. The silencing of women’s labor is one reason I remained skeptical of labor value. Domestic labor is not a value that calculated directly nor is it explained in any primary way despite it being half of the population. Similar questions could be asked of animals or prisoners, who make money for people, but don’t need to be paid.

Douglas Lain asked Margaret Kimberly if it would be beneficial to capitalists if reparations happened without class contradiction being overcome and everyone staying equally poor. She said this would not be good for capitalists and I agreed. However I want to problematize this question because the question I think is asking about antagonism and whether or not overcoming it in a material way would create it in a different way.

Yet it’s a false choice in which now I see the antagonism being formulated and for what ends? Could the pie really be divided up differently in a way that would save any one of us? It is here where I want to make an argument for universality but maybe people are tired of that. Ok, let’s go to something else that might be fun. I think basically the gamble that one will be saved by aligning with capitalists is inherently risky, for the problem the anti-identity folks seem to have is they can’t pin down capitalism and can’t decide who is in and who is out.

Many of my interactions with older leftists seems to be along the lines of returning to more stratified capitalism where there was still massive poverty but there was also a middle class. Rather than attack this in a politically correct way I want to stick with the question: who is to say we know who is going to be the privileged person in this scenario of class stratification? Maybe the capitalists will be kinky.

Is Trump still relevant here? Understanding Trump though the question of immigration seems to be important. In general, the leftist case for Trump was that he would accelerate contradiction and this would lead to revolution. Todd McGowan is vital again here because he points to how most people misread Hegel (and likely therefore Marx too, I think). Hegel’s solution is a contradiction, not synthesis. If neoliberalism is the thesis, Trump is the antithesis that leads to leftist synthesis, we are misreading Hegel because he doesn’t see two opposites resolving themselves in something new.

Rather from a Hegelian lens we should be looking for something that is tolerant of its own contradiction because everything contradicts, eventually. In this sense Trump is no answer, obviously. There was the same fear from the ruling class, to some extent and it likely was misguided. I’m sure they already miss Trump. Their panic was that Trump would inspire socialism because he would expose capitalism as a cruel joke. Especially this manifested in immigration as Trump threatened no tolerance on immigration, only encouraging people to rush to the United States before it was too late. The fear of Trump then wasn’t that he would stop immigrants but more so that he would make people have solidarity with them.

Angela Nagle’s now-famous piece “The Left Case Against Open Borders” is a useful challenge to us here. Nagle generally looks at why people go right and predictably blames a certain kind of left-liberal, although she’s more structural than most. I don’t think the pro-immigrant rhetoric, as hallow as it may be, is pushing people to the right. For better or worse, people are not that well versed in Marxism in America and I think the debate is genuinely on these grounds, to some extent. As it should be I should add. I don’t think it’s the right question to be asking: who to blame? I don’t think the alternative to the pro-immigrant argument is the right-wing, automatically. Certainly, we see some leftists making the case that globalization is all a way to funnel money downwards through pitting systems against each other.

I guess my question to Nagle comes at her lowest point, in an otherwise fairly brilliant analysis: “With obscene images of low-wage migrants being chased down as criminals by ICE, others drowning in the Mediterranean, and the worrying growth of anti-immigrant sentiment across the world, it is easy to see why the Left wants to defend illegal migrants against being targeted and victimized. And it should. But acting on the correct moral impulse to defend the human dignity of migrants, the Left has ended up pulling the front line too far back, effectively defending the exploitative system of migration itself.”

To me, this raises fundamental questions about why people can be exploited and contrary to the formulation here it is exactly this potential distance between people. Now Nagle is making a better argument than most. She is saying that as long as current migration policy is in place we have a hierarchy based on the law of who is legally in the United States or not. Again we now have bigger questions than what the employer-employee relationship is because the central power is in the state.

However, the Koch brothers don’t actually want leftist open borders because it would erase the hierarchy Nagle is talking about. So Nagle wants to take aim at the employer: “Employers, not immigrants, should be the primary focus of enforcement efforts.” But how would this play out? The employer pays domestic worker, makes less of a profit, reverts to slavery, feudalism, imperialism abroad, whatever one wants to call non-20th century USA, because that’s what we’re romanticizing, sadly.

So then more migration happens, and yet this position implies we won’t be keeping people out, we just won’t give them a job, keeping them out of employer-employee. I suppose it really depends on the goal but this all seems naive. Like it or not global poverty continues to decline which isn’t a point for capitalism but merely to say that capitalism is still going and hitting individual groups with isolated upsurges with new markets but collectively the world’s resources are being run to the ground and this will kill everything as we know it.

So is the rise now, out of poverty, different than a rise to middle-class life? Yes but it’s still the same thing going on which is the private advancement of technology through the exploitation of labor and the state which temporarily raises living standards before new markets, new areas of growth emerge until nothing is left. Although it’s the same thing, more or less, where a sustainable way of life is industrialized, carbon emissions go way up, so does a standard of living in a relative isolated way, but then the rate of profit in the region declines not because labor is shorted but because there is nothing new. In this way I don’t think of the globe as competing with each other but more so at different stages in capitalism.

There is a really good case for localism in which transactions aren’t running through huge companies nor using the pollution of transport. But again I don’t know how that’s connected to closing the border. If a community cannot maintain itself internally through localism (ideal setting) then there must be some external force already acting upon it. From here we can either open the border to the people from the struggling society as part of the local group resisting large globally operating companies or in some way facilitated through global systems help this struggling community exist on its own. Unfortunately, people can’t really be reduced to economic theory and if we can’t establish either of the first two solutions then open borders, the erasure of the middle class, probably is the only way to abolish class as a whole.

Of course, we want to abolish the existence of ruling class strata of wealth first but as long as people are satisfied being middle class it appears that poverty is generally tolerated by the powers that be. We also may want to abolish the existence of a lower class but how could we when most people are still barely hanging on to wage labor? Then the only way forward is to abolish the middle-class bracket and create a universal organization of anti-poverty.

Now, this is not to say we would ever want to accelerate the so-called race to the bottom. We want to resist that too. But we do want to recognize that no border will save anyone from the plot by the ruling class to get rid of the middle class. No one is chosen. We must choose now, before we die of poverty, which side we are on? Are we on the side of class abolition? Or are we going to hang on to nativism alienated from local organizing?

In the immediate sense lives will be saved by opening the borders and if the Koch brothers really wanted this, they likely would have accomplished it and hired Bernie Sanders to run the program. Open borders may not be socialism in the traditional sense but the state is no longer the state, it can extract wealth and military power from far more than its own labor or its own resources.

Saving the middle class shouldn’t be the goal and in this sense, globalization creates the potential for a universal and therefore a society committed to abolishing class hierarchy. If we want to close the borders we still have poor people and even if we see these people as the Other and don’t fall into depression because of their fate than we still are counting on the capitalists to love us more or something. I just don’t think that’s how it works and I’m surprised people still are capable of nostalgia for their oppressor. If the capitalists really don’t believe in borders defining their power then we would be wise to recognize how little our walls mean in the modern world.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at