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Sweezy on the rise of fascism Posted Feb 20, 2019 by Fabian Van Onzen
In recent times, fascist movements have emerged around the world. They have mobilized thousands of people around racist, reactionary ideas, and in some cases have directly won political power. The most recent fascist victory was in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election. Besides Brazil, fascist politics have taken hold in the United States, Britain, Hungary, Poland, and other parts of Europe. To make sense of contemporary fascism, new literature on the subject has proliferated, including John Bellamy Foster’s Trump in the White House, Michael Joseph Roberto’s The Coming of the American Behemoth, and Enzo Traverso’s New Faces of Fascism.(1) Old books on fascism, such as Nicos Poulantzas’ Fascism and Dictatorship, are also being republished and studied. Although all these works should be read, Paul Sweezy’s theory of fascism in The Theory of Capitalist Development remains the best place to begin a study of fascism. In clear and accessible language, Sweezy’s analysis explains what fascism is, how it comes to power, and its class dynamics.
Sweezy wrote the Theory of Capitalist Development in 1943, when fascism was in power in Germany and Italy. The book was designed to explain the basic principles of Marxism in accessible language, while retaining its theoretical complexity. Sweezy was in the United States when he wrote it and its audience was primarily those who had participated in popular front organizations against fascism. This was a mass movement led by communists to defend democratic institutions and prevent fascism from coming to power. Sweezy’s account shares some of the same principles put forward by Georgi Dimitrov and R. Palme Dutt, two major Marxist theorists on fascism. At the same time, Sweezy developed his own unique theory of fascism, which connects the emergence of fascism to the development of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. To demonstrate how Sweezy builds on existing theories of fascism while further elaborating them, I will begin by briefly discussing the main Marxist theories of fascism that existed at the time.
Georgi Dimitrov on Fascism
One of the primary theorists of fascism in the thirties was Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist who served as secretary of the World Committee Against War and Fascism. While he was in Berlin in 1933, he was arrested by the Nazis, who falsely claimed he had helped set the Reichstag on fire. Dimitrov had assigned counsel present at the trial but insisted that he would be his own counsel, which German procedure permitted at that time. He was acquitted of the false charges the fascists brought against him. At the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International, Dimitrov gave a speech about the rise of fascism and how the working class can fight it. This speech is important because it contains not just the Comintern’s main theoretical positions on fascism, but also important self-criticism on its previous positions. In this speech, Dimitrov defines fascism as “as the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.”(2) Fascism is identified by Dimitrov as having its ideological origins in the middle class (that is, the petty bourgeoisie), but only becomes dominant by receiving political support from the capitalist class.
According to Dimitrov, a defining feature of fascism is its large mass base, which actively carries out the reactionary policies of a fascist government and consolidates its power. This mass base is composed primarily of the middle class/petty bourgeoisie, which includes small shop owners, peasants, small-time merchants, and some professionals. During an economic crisis, the middle class is most devastated, often going bankrupt and joining the ranks of the working class.
According to Dimitrov, the middle class are the ideological representatives of fascism in its early stage, blaming the economic crisis on national minorities, trade unionists, and communists. Lacking the class solidarity of the working class, the middle class develops fierce nationalism and racist views, demanding a strong state to resolve the contradictions of capitalism.
Fascism only becomes a real danger in society when the capitalist class actively supports it and provides it with financial assistance. Because fascism generally creates political instability, the capitalist class will only resort to it during an economic and political crisis. Dimitrov identifies three major reasons why the capitalist class would support fascism and bring it to power. First, there must be a strong working-class movement, which significantly challenges the rule of capital over labor. In the thirties, the Communist Party of Germany was a major political force, winning millions of votes and having tremendous influence in German trade unions. To counteract the influence of communists, the capitalist class will support fascists and help make fascism a hegemonic political trend. Second, Dimitrov points out that there must be a serious economic crisis, which makes the continued existence of capitalism itself unlikely. Although fascism has never eliminated the contradictions of capitalism, the bourgeoisie perceives a strong fascist state as a temporary solution to an economic crisis. Third, Dimitrov demonstrates that fascism will generally only receive support from the bourgeoisie when there is a political crisis. Such a crisis involves the inability of the capitalist class to come to any agreement, making democracy itself insufficient for the bourgeoisie to rule.
For Dimitrov, fascism does not arise overnight with the election of a fascist politician. Rather, fascism comes to power in stages, beginning with attacks on the democratic rights of working people, the imprisonment of communists and trade unionists, hostility to national minorities and immigrants, and the gradual erosion of democratic institutions. It relies on its mass supporters, mostly from the middle class but also including workers and intellectuals, to carry out these policies. Once fascism has consolidated power, it begins to build up the fascist state and engages in expansionary imperialist wars. The terrorist dictatorship of finance capital is only fully established when all opposition has been outlawed and a fascist state machinery has been completely developed.(3)
Dimitrov points out that although a fascist like Hitler or Mussolini might get elected, their success is not inevitable. In his speech, he calls upon trade unions, communists, and social democrats to work together to fight every attack on the popular masses. He points out that when fascism receives the support of the bourgeoisie, the progressive forces must defend the basic institutions of bourgeois democracy to prevent fascism from destroying them. This was the theory of the Popular Front, a government of progressive forces that build a mass anti-fascist movement.
Sweezy on Fascism
Dimitrov’s ideas about fascism were held by most communists during Sweezy’s time. The main weakness of Dimitrov’s theory is that most of his writings are in what Louis Althusser calls a “practical state,” but lack theoretical elaboration. This is not Dimitrov’s fault, but is the result of pressure to produce theory for the practical struggle against fascism. In his Theory of Capitalist Development, Sweezy builds on Dimitrov’s theories, but gives them a more theoretically precise form. He makes an important contribution to the theory of fascism and incorporates it into the larger horizon of Marxian economics.
Sweezy adds a layer of historical analysis to the Comintern’s theory of fascism. He does this by defining it as the product of imperialism, which can only develop in the era of monopoly capitalism. Following in Vladimir Lenin’s footsteps, Sweezy views militarism and wars of redistribution as an integral part of imperialism. In the era of monopoly capitalism, the capitalist class must find a profitable outlet for their surplus capital. This capital generally does not yield a high rate of profit in the imperialist metropolises, as the workers have a higher level of trade union organization and higher wages. The solution to this problem is to export capital to the colonies, where the cost of land and labor is cheap and the rate of profit is high. This generally results in wars of redivision, in which imperialists struggle to conquer as many colonies as possible in order to secure an outlet for investment. In their later Monopoly Capital, Sweezy and Paul Baran research and discuss the specific dynamics of imperialism, coming to the conclusion that it cannot resolve the contradictions of capitalism.
Sweezy’s analysis of fascism articulates the emergence of fascism within the context of imperialism and war. After an imperialist war, some countries are economically, politically, and morally devastated. There are extreme food shortages, housing crises, high levels of unemployment, divisions in the military, and serious political crises of the bourgeoisies.
Furthermore, the defeated countries lose a significant amount of their colonial holdings, and are thereby weakened internationally. In Russia, there was a strong revolutionary movement, and a socialist revolution that addressed these contradictions. When these objective conditions do not result in a socialist revolution, Sweezy argues that a fascist movement will emerge to address the contradictions of capitalism. Instead of a new socialist state, some post-war countries in Europe developed a transitional state form that appeared ultra-democratic, with high levels of worker participation. Sweezy points out that these transitional states create a temporary class equilibrium, in which neither the working class nor the bourgeoisie play a dominant role. Although there is a strong workers’ movement that challenges the bourgeoisie, the working class does not hold state power. The trade unions and workers’ parties are able to advance significant progressive legislation, such as expanded welfare, food subsidies, and some forms of social housing. The same officials, however, continue to occupy the major departments of the capitalist state as before and there is no qualitative change in its functioning.
Such a transitional state existed in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom after the First World War. During this time, many social democrats and communists thought that such a transitional state was a necessary stage preceding the seizure of power by the working class. Sweezy argues that this was a mistake, as these transitional states actually contained a heightened level of class struggle that was hidden underneath the surface. The apparent class equilibrium was just the form taken by class contradictions and disequilibrium operative in the postwar conjuncture. Sweezy points out that the gains won by “the greatly strengthened trade unions and the enactment of social legislation under working-class pressure put burdens on capitalist production which it is ill prepared and even less willing to bear.”(4) In the immediate postwar situation, there was temporary employment insofar as it involved massive investments in the production of the means of production.
Workers everywhere were employed to rebuild the factories, machinery, and housing that were destroyed during the war, creating an outlet to absorb the economic surplus. However, Sweezy observes that once the reconstruction was achieved, the absorption of the surplus through the sale of consumption goods became a necessity. There was increased inflation and neither the middle class nor the proletariat could afford high levels of consumption.
The countries that came out of the imperialist war with more colonies, such as France and the United Kingdom, could simply send capital abroad and find outlets for productive investment. However, in countries that lost the war, such as Germany, there was a weakened military, no colonies for capital export, and no immediate solution in the domestic market. To resolve this problem, the capitalist state tried to fund consumption through taxing the middle class—the small shop owners and businesses, independent farmers, and merchants. As postwar impoverishment prevented the middle class from saving their income, they felt attacked by these measures. Sweezy demonstrates that the middle class in the defeated countries felt alienated from the state: they were neither represented by the trade unions, nor were the bourgeois parties able to address their grievances. Furthermore, the inability to absorb the economic surplus resulted in inflation and high levels of unemployment a few years after the war. Whereas the working class could use their trade unions to make demands on the state, the middle class lacked class representation. Hence, Sweezy observes that “it is precisely these groups which are most disastrously affected during the period of class-equilibrium.”(5)
In a similar way to Dimitrov, Dutt, and Togliatti, Sweezy argues that fascist ideology arises in the middle classes that have been devastated by an unsuccessful imperialist war. Ideologically, they lack the class solidarity of the working class and tend to identify with notions of racial superiority and a strong nation. They are extremely hostile to finance capital, the organized working class, and national minorities, which they blame for their economic devastation. The middle class imagines that the contradictions of capitalism can be resolved by a strong nationalist state. They use violence fueled by racism and nationalism to attack communists, social democrats, and trade-union leaders. Although fascism ideologically arises in the middle class, Sweezy points out that they are able to win over unorganized workers, many of whom are unemployed, do not have contact with the trade unions and lack political education. The fascists use anticapitalist language combined with racism and nationalism to explain why the unorganized and unemployed workers are impoverished. They also win over young people, who have few opportunities in the crisis-ridden postwar situation, as well as criminal elements who later form the paramilitary wing of fascist organizations. Sweezy views fascism as a mass movement led by the middle class that receives support from some workers, students, and sectors of the lumpen proletariat.
Sweezy and Dimitrov share the view that fascism becomes a serious danger when the capitalist class embraces it politically. What makes Sweezy unique is that he relates the capitalist response to fascism to the transitional period of apparent class equilibrium. He points out that in the defeated countries, the capitalist class is unable to fully respond to the demands of the workers, nor is it able to start a new imperialist war. At the same time, workers constantly make democratic demands and the capitalists are themselves encircled by hostile imperialist countries. The bourgeoisie is reserved and reluctant to support fascism, mainly because of its attacks on finance capital. However, seeing that fascism is extremely hostile to communists and trade unions, the bourgeoisie provides it with financial subsidies, supporting fascist politicians in the elections and encouraging the growth of the fascist movement. Sweezy says that once the fascists are in power, the bourgeoisie “sets out with ruthless energy to destroy the class equilibrium which underlies the indecision and paralysis of the people’s republic.”(6) It relies on its mass base to carry out its policies, such as murdering communists, arresting trade union leaders, and criminalizing workers’ organizations. According to Sweezy, once a fascist state is thoroughly established and its mass base consolidated, the imperialists use their strengthened position to wage new imperialist wars of redivision. Although a fascist state might restore the class power of the bourgeoisie, Sweezy argues that it cannot resolve the contradictions of capitalism. Capitalism can only be abolished through a socialist revolution, such as the ones that happened in Russia, Cuba, and China.
Sweezy’s Theory of Fascism Today
Both Sweezy and Dimitrov agree that fascism arises in the middle class and becomes a threat when the bourgeoisie embraces it, but Sweezy’s unique contribution is to demonstrate fascism’s relationship to the postwar transitional period of class equilibrium. This is a precise historical moment, characterized by complex class dynamics and structural contradictions specific to monopoly capital. A major question that arises is: Does Sweezy’s analysis of fascism apply only to fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain, or can it be used to make sense of fascism today? I will answer in the affirmative and briefly turn to Samir Amin to demonstrate how.
In his The Law of Worldwide Value, Amin points out that the principal contradiction in today’s capitalism is “the one that counterposes the peoples of the periphery (the proletariat and the exploited peasantry) to imperialist capital.”(7) The way this contradiction operates is through the emergence of fascist movements that are assisted by U.S. imperialism in the developing world, particularly in Latin America. In recent months we have seen the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, perhaps the most openly fascist politician to take power in contemporary times. In other parts of Latin America, such as Chile, Venezuela, and Argentina, there has been a rise of fascist movements and paramilitary organizations, which have received assistance from the United States. In these countries, a similar situation of apparent “class equilibrium” existed over an extended period of time, articulating similar class dynamics as those described by Sweezy. Here, I would like to use Brazil to briefly demonstrate how these dynamics structure political situations around the world.
In Brazil, the Workers’ Party (PT) held power for over thirteen years and made considerable improvements in the lives of working people. As Alfredo Saad-Filho shows in Brazil: Neoliberalism Versus Democracy, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (Lula) ascension to power was largely due to the economic devastation caused by twenty years of neoliberalism following the end of military rule.(8) While he was president, Lula created many new institutions in Brazilian society that reduced poverty, improved literacy, increased employment, and strengthened the position of the trade unions. Although not entirely anti-imperialist, Lula helped reduce imperialist domination of the Brazilian economy and helped build many BRICS institutions. Saad-Filho discusses the class dynamics operative in Brazil during PT rule, and they are very similar to those described by Sweezy. First, the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) cogoverned Brazilian society and occupied many important functions in the state. The trade unions, which make up the bulk of PT support, exercised considerable power in Brazilian society. At the same time, some large Brazilian companies, such as Petrobras and Odebrecht, received support from the state, which created some self-sufficiency for the Brazilian domestic bourgeoisie. In order to retain its support from the Brazilian domestic bourgeoisie, neither Lula nor his successor Dilma Rousseff challenged the neoliberal institutions created by previous administrations. In this situation, the Brazilian middle class often was excluded from the state, government ministries, and did not always benefit from Lula’s policies.
Saad-Filho points out that the PT did not abolish the contradictions of capitalism from Brazilian society, which were rather intensified while Lula was in power. In Brazil, only the domestic bourgeoisie, represented by Brazilian companies such as Petrobras, were united with the PT. The other sector of the capitalist class, the comprador bourgeoisie, aligned itself with imperialism and constantly conspired against Lula and the PT. The comprador bourgeoisie used its control over the media to create scandals about corruption, which began in 2005 and resulted in the impeachment of Rousseff in 2015–16. The comprador bourgeoisie sought alignment with the middle class and blamed the PT, trade unions, and other progressive forces for all the problems of Brazilian society.(9) It was this unstable class equilibrium that spurred the fascist movement in Brazil and helped Bolsonaro get elected. In his first month in power, Bolsonaro has set out to destroy this class equilibrium by destroying institutions created by the PT, attacking indigenous people, and reestablishing the class domination of the comprador bourgeoisie. Just as with any fascist movement, he is relying on his mass base to use violence and terror to enforce his policies. Although Bolsonaro is not waging a direct war of redivision, it is engaging in expansionary practices, such as eliminating environmental protection and cutting down trees in the Amazon. He has also aligned himself with the United States in supporting a coup in Venezuela against the democratically elected president, Nicolás Maduro.
Although the historical context today is very different from when Sweezy wrote the Theory of Capitalist Development, the core of his theory of fascism is still relevant. His theory of class equilibrium was formulated in the aftermath of an imperialist war, but this does not mean such a structure only exists in a postwar situation. In the case of Brazil, it existed during the period when Lula was president and it was the result of economic devastation created by imperialist and neoliberal policies. Such an unstable class equilibrium may create improved material conditions, but unless it is fully resolved by the working class, a very dangerous political situation follows. In Brazil, the PT did not succeed in going beyond social democracy and left the basic institutions of neoliberalism intact. As a result, the comprador bourgeoisie aligned with imperialism was able to take advantage of the contradictions and successfully pushed a fascist to power. If one combines Sweezy’s analysis of fascism with his later work in Monopoly Capital, there is great theoretical potential to deepen our knowledge of fascist movements today.(10) It is important to study Sweezy’s work in today’s turbulent times—times in which fascists have become dominant again, both in the imperialist metropolises and the peripheral nations.
John Bellamy Foster, Trump in the White House (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017); Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018); and Enzo Traverso, New Faces of Fascism (London/New York: Verso, 2019). ↩
Georgi Dimitrov, Georgi. The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Struggle of the Working Class Against Fascism, available at http://marxists.org.↩
For discussion on the stages of fascism in the United States, see John Bellamy Foster, “Neofascism in the White House,” Monthly Review 68, no. 11 (April 2017): 1–30.↩
Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1942), 331.↩
Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 333.↩
Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, 334–35.↩
Samir Amin, Modern Imperialism, Monopoly Finance Capital, and Marx’s Law of Value (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018), 92.↩
Alfredo Saad-Filho, Brazil: Neoliberalism Versus Democracy (London: Pluto, 2017).↩
See Anthony Pahnke, “The Brazilian Crisis,” Monthly Review 68, no. 9 (February 2017): 43–54.↩ Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).↩
Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).
Immigrants Didn’t Kill Your Union
The white working class has every reason to be alienated and enraged by rising inequality and the disappearance of good jobs, but their anger has been profoundly misdirected. Ruth Milkman Spring 2019
A New York construction worker demonstrates in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling in 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Immigrant organizing stood out as a rare bright spot on the otherwise dismal U.S. labor scene in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. To the surprise of many observers, starting in the late 1980s low-wage foreign-born workers, including the undocumented, eagerly welcomed opportunities to unionize and infused the labor movement with new energy. Immigrants also helped to galvanize the “alt-labor” movement, flocking to worker centers across the nation that deployed new strategies to challenge wage theft and other employer abuses in sectors where obstacles to traditional unionism were especially formidable. Largely in response to these developments, union leaders abandoned their longstanding support for restrictive immigration policies; by the turn of the century organized labor instead had become a vociferous champion of immigrant rights.
Yet some unionists dissented from this stance, especially in the relatively conservative building trades, many of which are still overwhelmingly made up of U.S.-born white males. In 2010, the Pennsylvania building trades lobbied for a proposed state bill to penalize construction firms that hired undocumented workers. More recently, in upstate New York a carpenters’ union representative admitted that his union routinely reported undocumented workers on construction sites to immigration authorities. These unionists, like many ordinary Americans, were convinced that immigrants, and especially the undocumented, lowered wages and took jobs away from U.S. citizens.
On the surface, their view may seem plausible. Construction has suffered severe deunionization over recent decades, leading to lower pay and degraded working conditions, especially in the residential sector of the industry. Employers launched a vigorous anti-union assault as the residential industry recovered from the recession of the early 1980s, using a variety of tactics to expand the non-union segment of the industry. When that happened, U.S.-born building-trades union members abandoned the jobs affected, typically moving from the residential to the commercial sector of the building industry—the latter was booming in the 1980s and remained heavily unionized. Meanwhile, employers recruited immigrant workers, both authorized and unauthorized, to fill the newly degraded jobs in residential construction. Thus the employment of immigrants did not cause the labor degradation in the industry; on the contrary, it was the result of the employers’ anti-union campaigns. Similar processes unfolded in many other industries as well. But rank-and-file workers, as well as some unionists, unaware of this dynamic, often blamed immigrants instead for the degradation of jobs.
Such scapegoating has become even more widespread since the rise of Donald Trump and the aggressive attacks on immigrants that propelled him into the presidency. Not only did his 2016 campaign, with its gratuitous attacks on birthright citizenship and “chain migration,” as well as unfounded claims that “illegals” raised crime rates and committed voter fraud, famously arouse the latent xenophobia and racism of many white workers. In addition, after taking office, the Trump administration systematically promulgated an array of draconian anti-immigrant initiatives: the Muslim travel ban, new limitations on refugees and asylum-seeker admissions, family separations at the border, large-scale ICE sweeps, and increased arrests and deportations.
Some on the left point to continuity in regard to the last of these: not for nothing had Obama earned the moniker “deporter-in-chief.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests were up 42 percent in the first eight months of the Trump administration, compared to the same period in 2016, but the numbers were even higher in 2010 and 2011, under Obama. Yet most deportations in the Obama era involved new arrivals apprehended at the border, or immigrants with serious criminal records. By contrast, under Trump ICE prioritized “internal removals” of the undocumented, often sweeping up those with no criminal records and others who had resided in the United States for many years. ICE agents became increasingly aggressive, apprehending undocumented immigrants in courthouses and outside schools, locations it had avoided under earlier administrations. Workplace raids, rare in the Obama years, were revived. Trump has also taken steps to curb legal immigration, for example, seeking to end “temporary protected status” for Haitians, Central Americans, and others. All these policies are relentlessly trumpeted in the president’s speeches and tweets, along with his beloved border wall proposal.
As detentions and deportations became increasingly arbitrary and unpredictable, fear and anxiety in immigrant communities spiked to levels not seen for half a century. In California, the state with the largest undocumented population as well as a much-vaunted sanctuary law (introduced immediately after Trump’s election and signed into law in 2017), “thousands exist in a cordon of terror,” as Michael Greenberg reported in the New York Review of Books in November. “Paranoia has infiltrated every aspect of life. Civic activity [among the undocumented], such as attending town meetings and other public events, has ground to a virtual halt.”
Not surprisingly, despite his populist rhetoric, the president is no friend to organized labor. Still, many unionists welcomed (albeit warily) his posture on trade, resonating to the critique of NAFTA and the “tough” approach to trade with China. Labor leaders also harbored hopes that Trump’s stated commitment to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure (which soon proved to be “fake news”) would generate a raft of new union jobs. Yet there has been no retreat from the AFL-CIO’s or the Change to Win (CTW) federation’s support of immigrant rights, with the notable exception of the unions representing ICE agents and border control officers, both of which endorsed Trump in 2016 and ever since have been cheerleaders for his “zero-tolerance” immigration policies. Indeed, organized labor mobilized in support of immigrants threatened with deportation, for example in the Working Families United coalition, formed in 2017 by the Painters union, the hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Teamsters, LIUNA, as well as the Bricklayers and Ironworkers. That same year the AFL-CIO developed a toolkit to assist unionists threatened with workplace immigration raids. Several individual unions launched their own training efforts to educate members about how best to respond to raids or the threat of deportation.
While most segments of the labor movement have continued to support immigrant rights, if less vocally than in earlier years, the liberal consensus on immigration policy has begun to weaken in the wake of Trump’s success (and that of right-wing populists in Europe) in winning working-class support by demonizing immigrants. For example, Hillary Clinton warned in an interview shortly after the midterm elections that “if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.” And in his 2018 book, The Nationalist Revival, John Judis confessed his sympathy for Trump’s nationalist agenda, arguing that low-wage immigration inevitably reduces the leverage of the U.S.-born working class. “Enormous numbers of unskilled immigrants have competed for jobs with Americans who also lack higher education and have led to the downgrading of occupations that were once middle class,” he declared. This type of left-wing nationalism is even more widespread in Europe.
Similarly, Angela Nagle’s provocative essay, “The Left Case against Open Borders,” published in the pro-Trump journal American Affairs, harkened back fondly to the days when organized labor embraced restrictive immigration policies, pointing out that the main supporters of open borders have been free-market ideologues like the Koch brothers, along with employers reliant on cheap labor. Historically, she added approvingly, trade unions took the opposite view:
They [unions] saw the deliberate importation of illegal, low-wage workers as weakening labor’s bargaining power and as a form of exploitation. There is no getting around the fact that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced. Open borders and mass immigration are a victory for the bosses.
The attack on the left for supporting “open borders” is a red herring; this stance remains on the margins of the progressive mainstream—but most progressives do oppose the restrictive policies favored by Trump and his acolytes. Moreover, the labor movement abandoned the perspective Nagle articulates two decades ago. Despite their painful awareness that many rank-and-file union members voted for Trump in 2016, the AFL-CIO leadership and that of the CTW federation, as well as the vast majority of their affiliates, have not wavered from the pro-immigrant rights stance they adopted at the end of the twentieth century.
There are compelling economic reasons for progressives to align with labor in this regard, as Eric Levitz has noted in New York Magazine. Immigration obviously does expand the labor supply, but it also creates additional economic demand; and in the context of an aging population, the immigrant influx, disproportionately comprised of prime-age workers, contributes to the fiscal sustainability of programs like Social Security and Medicare. This is the consensus among most experts, as a 2017 National Academy of Sciences report documented. But as Levitz observes, the case for restrictionism put forward by commentators like Judis and Nagle is “primarily an argument about politics, not economics,” pivoting on the susceptibility of U.S.-born workers to right-wing populist appeals.
The fact that proposals to support immigration restriction have surfaced among liberals and on the left in the wake of Trump’s success is remarkable in its own right. But Levitz makes a compelling case that adopting them would be politically disastrous for the Democratic Party and the wider progressive community. Given the seemingly irreversible demographic trends toward a majority-minority society, he declares, “The Democrats are going to be a visibly multiracial party in a browning America,” adding that on both moral and pragmatic grounds “there is no way for Democrats to avoid the liabilities of that position—they can only strive to capitalize on its benefits.”
To meet that challenge, for progressives and the labor movement alike, the most urgent task is to push back against the right-wing narrative that blames immigrants for the reversal of fortune suffered by white U.S.-born workers over the past four decades. Progressives need to promote instead a counternarrative that highlights the ways in which business strategies from the 1970s onward have reduced wages and undermined the labor movement—strategies that have been rendered invisible or irrelevant for the many U.S.-born workers who have been persuaded by Trump and his supporters to scapegoat immigrants. In a nutshell, the task is to redirect the entirely justifiable anger of those workers toward employers instead of the foreign-born.
The case that immigration was a key driver of working-class distress does seem plausible at first glance, especially in regard to timing. Not long after the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act ended four decades of highly restricted immigration, the economic status of white male non-college-educated workers, most of whom had prospered in the postwar years, began to spiral downward. In the same period, inequality surged as well.
These trends are indeed interconnected, but the line of causality runs in exactly the opposite direction from what Trump’s and Judis’s anti-immigrant narratives imply. Immigration was not the cause of the neoliberal economic restructuring that began in the 1970s or of the accompanying explosion of inequality and labor degradation. On the contrary, the influx of low-wage immigrants was a consequence of these developments. U.S. employers’ efforts to externalize market risk through various forms of subcontracting, and at the same time to actively undermine labor unions, generated a surge in demand for low-wage labor. That, in turn, led millions of immigrants, both authorized and unauthorized, to enter the bottom tier of the nation’s labor market to fill “jobs Americans won’t do.” As I documented in my 2006 book L.A. Story, in many sectors immigrants entered low-wage jobs in substantial numbers only after pay and conditions had been degraded to such a degree that U.S.-born workers exited the impacted occupations.
The primary driver of labor migration, past and present, is economic demand. While “push” factors in sending countries do spur emigration, it materializes on a significant scale only in response to employers’ search for new sources of labor. The 2008 financial crisis is revealing in this regard: as the U.S. economy imploded, and jobs in sectors like construction and manufacturing evaporated, the number of unauthorized migrants crossing the border decreased dramatically. Prior to the Great Recession, immigration grew in direct response to rising employer demand for cheap and pliable labor. Starting in the late 1970s, new business strategies drove down labor costs through expanded subcontracting, deregulation, and efforts to weaken or eliminate labor unions.
In industries like taxi driving and trucking, where deregulation led to union decline and wage cuts, as well as in deunionized construction, manufacturing, and service industries, many U.S.-born workers voted with their feet to reject the newly degraded jobs, and then immigrants were hired to fill the vacancies. If migrants did not arrive on their own in adequate numbers to fill the demand, employers routinely sent recruiters to Mexico and other parts of the Global South to find them, often in blatant violation of immigration laws and regulations. In short, immigration was the consequence, not the cause, of declining labor standards.
Demand for immigrant labor also expanded in the domestic and personal services sector in this period. Here the key driver was not employment restructuring and job degradation but instead a combination of demographic changes and rising income inequality. As maternal labor force participation grew, the nation’s increasingly prosperous professional and managerial classes devoted a growing part of their disposable income to purchasing services from housecleaners, nannies, and eldercare providers, as well as manicurists and other “personal appearance workers.” Many affluent households now included two adults with long working hours, thanks to the feminist movement’s success in opening the professions and the corporate suite to upper-middle-class women in the 1970s, even as changing expectations of parenting and the aging of the population stimulated growing demand for care work inside the home. Yet in the same period, the traditional labor supply in domestic labor occupations was evaporating, as the civil rights movement opened up lower-level clerical and service jobs and other options to African-American women. Black women thus began to shun domestic work just as demand for it began to rise, leading many households to replace them with immigrant women, who were increasingly available in this period as permanent family settlement came to dominate over the earlier pattern of male-dominated circular migration.
Some of the biggest concentrations of Trump’s U.S.-born white working-class supporters in 2016 were in the Rust Belt. No one can seriously suggest that immigrants should be blamed for the massive wave of plant closings that swept across the Midwest starting in the 1970s. In this context jobs were not degraded, they simply disappeared. Yet as Linda Gordon showed in her recent study of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, immigrant scapegoating does not necessarily have to be rooted in reality. Native-born “anger at displacement, blamed on ‘aliens,’ sometimes rested on actual experience but more often on imagination and fear stoked by demagoguery,” Gordon points out. “We know this because the Klan flourished in areas with few ‘aliens.’”
The right-wing anti-immigrant narrative has in effect distracted attention from the actual causes of declining working-class living standards. The white working class has every reason to be alienated and enraged by rising inequality and the disappearance of good jobs, but their anger has been profoundly misdirected. It should focus not on immigrants but on the deliberate actions of business interests to degrade formerly well-paid blue-collar jobs and to promote public policies that widen inequality. Rather than following the lead of Judis and Nagle (fortunately still a marginal position on the left) in opportunistically jumping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon, labor and progressives hoping to regain support from the white U.S.-born workers who supported Trump in 2016 should devote their energies to shifting the public conversation in this direction.
Ruth Milkman is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Her most recent book is On Gender, Labor, and Inequality.