The Fascist Underpinnings of Anti-Immigration Politics

by Benjamin Studebaker

Throughout the developed world, we’ve seen a resurgence in recent years of anti-immigrant, nationalist politics. Donald “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” Trump is still leading in national republican polls in the United States. In Europe, parties like UKIP, Front Nationale, and Golden Dawn have increased support and in some cases pushed mainstream conservatives parties into adopting stricter immigration controls. In Japan, the government continues to oppose immigration despite a population that is rapidly aging. In Australia, refugees are effectively detained in concentration camps. This is happening despite an increasingly strong research consensus that shows that working age immigrants contribute to economic growth, strengthen national pension systems, reduce government deficits, and commit crimes at a lower rate than the rest of the population. Those of us who acknowledge that research often feel that there is something xenophobic, even deeply sinister about anti-immigration politics. But when we point this out, we are often unable to satisfactorily defend the point–there seems to be an immense gap between the relatively modest claim that we ought to improve border security and outright fascism. But despite this difficulty, the connection does exist–anti-immigration politics and fascism are deeply interrelated, and I intend to prove it to you as best I can.

Much of Fascist political theory consists of work written by conservative German theorists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This conservatism was quite different from what we see today or what would have been seen at the same time in the United States–instead of defending free market capitalism, it primarily concerned itself with defending the autocratic structure and immense coercive power of the imperial German state. Rather than exalt individualism as the liberals did in Britain and America, the German conservatives emphasized the centrality of nation-states and the role of the sovereign in determining and defending the national interest. While liberals in America and Britain were advocating for every citizen to share in political power and were dividing power among different offices and branches of government, German conservatives were trying to consolidate the power of the German state. To some degree this is understandable, because the German Empire had only recently been constituted (it formed in 1871). The regime had an interest in promoting theory that cultivated a sense of German national identity. But just as surely as nationalism can build a sense of identity within a state, it can cultivate hostility to foreign elements, and Germany became bellicose and expansionist. World War I resulted in the destruction of the German Empire and its replacement with the Weimar Republic. But liberal democracy was never truly embraced by the conservative German intellectuals, and these conservatives continued to provide the intellectual rationale for the Nazi regime’s eventual seizure of power and the horrors that followed.

One noteworthy conservative theorist from this period was Carl Schmitt. In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt argues that politics is fundamentally reducible to the distinction between friends and enemies. On his view, states exist for the sake of communities of friends, and these friends determine who is entitled to be a member of their communities based on whatever criteria they decide is pertinent. It can be racial, religious, ideological, ethnic, cultural, anything at all. Schmitt does not raise normative moral objections to any of these criteria–it makes no difference to him if the friend/enemy distinction in a given society is racist. Once a community of friends exists, that community creates a state to determine, protect, and advance its collective interests. Schmitt objected to liberal democracies, accusing them of trying to eliminate the friend/enemy distinction and of trying to subsume all peoples under a liberal democratic paradigm.

Carl Schmitt

There is something to Schmitt’s critique of liberalism, which is part of what makes it so dangerous. Because liberal theorists often assert that liberal values are cosmopolitan, liberal states often find themselves attempting to impose liberal democratic values on countries even when doing so may not be in the interests both of the liberal state and of the people upon which the values are imposed (e.g. Iraq, Vietnam). It’s also true that because liberal states attempt to advocate for neutrality among different cultures, religions, political ideologies, and languages, it is sometimes possible for immigrants in liberal societies to not integrate, creating cultural and linguistic divisions within liberal societies that make it more difficulty for groups to mutually empathize with one another. It can also be pointed out that liberalism is itself a political ideology, so liberalism can never really achieve true neutrality–there are many social, cultural, and religious groups that find they have core areas of fundamental disagreement with liberalism.

But the far greater failing lies with Schmitt’s unwillingness to apply moral criteria to the basis upon which communities of friends organize. Calling someone of a different race or ethnic group an “enemy” on that basis is arbitrary and ridiculous. It is fundamentally morally repugnant, and it gave rise to many of the worst aspects of the Nazi ideology–the notion that the state could simply decide that Jews are enemies on a purely racial basis and act on that decision to devastating effect. The lives of non-Germans and Germans who were part of groups excluded by the Nazi state from German national identity were held by that Nazi state to have no moral value at all. Indeed, the very existence of people excluded from German national identity was considered by the Nazi state to be in and of itself a threat. Today, we feel that we have nothing in common with this ideology, but most nation states were founded on ethnic and/or religious bases. Even the United States, which was technically founded on ostensibly liberal democratic grounds, still has many citizens who believe on some level that the US is fundamentally Christian or white. And even ideological markers can be deeply disturbing–many of the most horrific regimes of the past century were nationally committed to communism, and there are still people around the world who resist the attempt to change ethnic or religious national identities into liberal ones, who find even liberal ideology totalitarian on some level.

It is clearly repugnant and objectionable when we try to exclude people from national identity on purely racial or ethnic grounds. But more often this exclusion is defended on ideological or religious grounds. Today many people who are hostile to immigrants claim to be so not because the immigrants are Hispanic or Arab but because they have fundamentally “un-American” or “un-European” political, moral, or religious beliefs–often Islam is blamed. But there is no obvious reason why a Muslim cannot be American or British or French or German. Muslim religious beliefs are not adequate grounds for refusing to admit a person into a community of friends. When we exclude people from the citizenry on this kind of basis, we are engaged in the same fundamental mistake the Nazis made–we are excluding people from our community of friends on arbitrary and repugnant grounds. So it is no substantive improvement to exclude people on religious or ideological bases rather than on racial or ethnic bases. Whenever we exclude people from the community on arbitrary grounds, we act in an irreducibly fascist way.

Is there any legitimate basis upon which we might exclude someone from entering the community? Some liberals would answer that there are no such grounds, but I am not prepared to make that move. There are some people who cannot be safely admitted to the community of friends because they are not prepared to reciprocate with other members of that community. They enter it for the purposes of exploiting it and its members, and the members of the community are entitled to defend themselves from exploitation. For this reason, states should be entitled to determine whether or not prospective immigrants are willing and capable of reciprocity–i.e. conferring some benefit of some kind upon the society they are joining. This benefit could be a hard economic benefit (e.g. working, paying taxes, contributing to aggregate demand) or it could be a soft sociological benefit (e.g. enriching the lives of friends, being a parent or grandparent, making other citizens’ lives go better in other ways that are difficult to quantify). Because the members of the community have something substantive to gain from adding a person who reciprocates and something substantive to lose from adding a person who is exploitative, this basis for determining who gains entry is not arbitrary and therefore not fascist.

A similar line of reasoning applies to independence movements. We act in a fascist way when we make separatist proposals for purely ethnic or nationalist reasons. To justify something like Scottish independence, it needs to be shown that the English, Welsh, and North Irish are not willing or capable of reciprocating with the Scots. It is not at all clear that this is the case, and this is a key reason why Scottish independence and the SNP more generally make me very uneasy, despite their ostensibly left-wing political convictions. The same goes for the Catalans, the Basques, and other separatist groups around the world.

Some immigration opponents will claim that they only oppose immigration for this non-arbitrary reason–they claim to believe that immigrants are not willing and capable of reciprocity and seek to enter our societies for the purpose of exploiting us. These people are either unfamiliar with the overwhelming evidence suggesting that most immigrants are willing and capable of reciprocity or they are using this argument to excuse or conceal a base hostility to a particular group of people for purely ideological, religious, racial, or ethnic grounds. There are some people in densely populated countries who claim that immigrants cannot possibly reciprocate because allowing them to enter stretches scarce resources too thin (e.g. housing). These people may not realize what this position implies. If resources are so scarce in a given region that even immigrants committed to reciprocity cannot successfully reciprocate, it follows that no person living in that region could justifiably have children, as those children would also themselves be incapable of reciprocity. So opposition to immigration on population density grounds necessarily implies tight state population controls. Most people who are anti-immigrant do not believe tight state population controls are necessary or desirable, so they should reconsider their stance on immigration.