Roundtable on Social Democracy, Borders, and Novara Media

MATT: In astronomy the term ‘nova’ – derived from the Latin feminine of novus or ‘new’ – refers to the event of an explosion on the surface of a star that gives off a sudden burst of light preceded by a gradual return to its original state. An interesting detail in the origins of the astronomical concept is that it is based on a sixteenth-century assumption that these flashes of energy that seemingly appeared out of nowhere signalled the birth of a new star. While this was eventually found to be incorrect the gap between the invention and the subsequent revaluation of the concept was enough to allow for convention to take hold and legitimate the ongoing circulation of a false signifier.

In this light, it seems to me that a question worth asking with respect to Novara Media is why are all these social democrats pretending to be libertarian communists? And, further, what impact is this having on the politics of the border?

In my own case this questioning arises from having followed the Novara project since the period following the convulsions of the UK student opposition to university cuts and a tuition fee hike. The slogan from around that time, “No Future, Utopia Now!”, struck me as a refreshingly clear-eyed rejection of the pragmatics of austerity. Cut to 2017 and, in the wake of Corbyn’s proposal to abolish tuition fees, we find Aaron Bastani imploring his followers to regard “no borders” as a horizonal proposition that, as such, lies beyond the existing terms of the political proper.

The argument here is that “no borders” is horizonal because it lacks a “how.” This distinction is curious considering that millions of people at this very moment are quite seriously engaged in questioning the border on precisely these terms: how to obtain documents, how to leave, how to cross, how to evade detection, how to escape detention, how to stay in touch, how to keep it all together etc. From the perspective of those who confront them as an obstacle, the question of overcoming borders has an inherent pragmatics to it, one that is no less real or non-political than any other issue. In this sense, placing “no borders” in the category of the “horizonal” is less a description of the reality of cross-border politics than a devaluation and deferral of the work to support it.

So what gives? In short, the question of how people might cross a border in safety and sustain a life beyond it is not the same as the question of how to win the consent of a populous defined and shaped by that same border. In this case the question of whether the apparent contradiction in these propositions could be resolved is less significant than the question of which side of the equation tends to win out whenever they are set in conflict. The stakes of allowing this dynamic to slip from view are clearly born out in an analysis that demonstrates the function of an electorally interpolated British left to the interests of a party whose immigration policy is more draconian than that of New Labour.

As Angela noted in a previous discussion, the politics of pragmatism (the how), turns less on a distinction between utopia and the “now” than a politics of work, i.e. what works (or doesn’t), and for whom. It seems to me that this is a useful basis for posing a few direct questions. What is the point of Novara Media and what place does it have engaging in a liberal-pluralist obfuscation of “no border” politics? Why is there such insistence on including someone like Paul Mason who continues to circulate nonsense arguments about immigration, wages, and political necessity? Why are people who stand for something other than a politics of populist nationalism regularly compelled to justify and explain the basics of this position? Moreover, why do such individuals continue to perform this role of supplementary counterpoint to the “how” of social democrats?

ANGELA MITROPOULOS: I wanted to briefly pick up on two points here.

The first is the claim that migrants bring down wages or drive up unemployment, implicit in Mason‘s argument that is it necessary to “meets the objections of low-paid workers to wage suppression” with the suspension of freedom of movement. It is remarkable that anyone on the Left gives this idea any credence at all, let alone a platform. They are not just false views; they are racist. Population increases do not decrease wages or increase unemployment. A fixed number of jobs or work is never how any economy has operated, ever. The difference between the effects on the labour market from population increases through birth-mortality rates and those of migration are, within the scope of a single country or area, at most short-run impacts restricted to a narrow band of occupations where substitution is in play. That has to do with time, not migration. And, it is border controls which decrease the wages migrants can expect and which makes some instances of worker substitution tempting for employers – leaving aside that much of this involves a turn-over between migrant workers in some sectors.

The second is that the social democratic project is exhausted. If the role of the state is the regulation of money and labour, social democracy has been reduced to the project of controlling labour. For all the enthusiasm it has mustered around the revival of national-populism (and associated familial-racial personalities); for all the bombastic talk about regulating capital and finance, the only lever that social democracy has managed to press in many years is controlling the movements of people. This has been true of the Australian Labor Party since the Keating government (which also happened to introduce migration internment), and it’s been true of SYRIZA.

The British Labor Party seems to be pursuing a very similar course in ‘soft Brexit’ arguments for the retention of a single market (in goods and services) and the suspension of freedom of movement (by people). In putting this forward, Paul Mason cited Article 112, which in effect means defining freedom of movement as the cause of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.” Corbyn, Mason and others have also claimed that the end of freedom of movement is a necessary consequence of Britain no longer being part of the EU, though this is clearly untrue (Norway is not a member of the EU, but retains open borders with EU countries).

The amazing thing about a lot of this is the extent to which Mason and others claim to be against ‘neoliberalism,’ and that the revival of social democracy has been made possible by the collapse of said ‘neoliberalism.’ Because by my account, what a lot of people called ‘neoliberalism’ was in fact an increasing freedom of movement of things and money and, by contrast, an increasing control over the movements of people. A position that Mason is now promoting as ‘soft Brexit.’

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Roundtable on Social Democracy, Borders, and Novara Media