From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Making Life Cheap: Population Control, Herd Immunity, and Other Anti-Humanist Fables
Date May 24, 2020 12:05 AM
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[The death drive at the heart of the now discredited herd immunity
strategy has morphed into a straightforwardly “eliminationist”
scheme, presenting the slaughter of those most at risk from the
coronavirus as a form of heroic, wartime sacrifice. ]
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MAKING LIFE CHEAP: POPULATION CONTROL, HERD IMMUNITY, AND OTHER
ANTI-HUMANIST FABLES  
[[link removed]]


 

Aaron Timms
May 18, 2020
The New Republic
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_ The death drive at the heart of the now discredited herd immunity
strategy has morphed into a straightforwardly “eliminationist”
scheme, presenting the slaughter of those most at risk from the
coronavirus as a form of heroic, wartime sacrifice. _

The Dalits of India are forced to work in the most unsafe conditions.
To the dollars versus deaths brigades, those caught outside the
tattered social safety net are expendable. , National Dalit
Watch/National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights

 

Even in an age of social distancing, you’ll still find the strangest
people getting into bed with each other. In mid-March, the U.K.
government’s behavioral insights team—known as the “nudge
unit”—unveiled its response
[[link removed]] to
tackling the novel coronavirus. Its plan, as is well known now,
involved allowing
[[link removed]] the
disease to run through the population in order to develop local herd
immunity. The nudge unit’s rationale
[[link removed]] was
that most of those infected would recover and develop a natural
resistance to the virus, which would slow the spread of the disease
among the most vulnerable as the search for a vaccine continued. The
British nudgeocrats did not flinch at the implication that this
strategy, given the virus’s known mortality rates, could eventually
kill between a quarter- and a half-million people: effectively a form
of state-sanctioned mass murder.


In response to the predictable outcry, the U.K. government
eventually changed course
[[link removed]]and
embraced social distancing and other mobility-limiting measures to
flatten the viral infection curve. But the death drive at the heart of
the herd immunity strategy did not fade with the defeat of the
nudgeocrats’ preferred approach. As lockdowns took hold and the full
economic toll of the pandemic grew apparent, calls across the
developed world to “get back to work
[[link removed]]” and more
carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of social distancing
increased. At the start, this was usually framed as a choice between
lives and dollars: “No society can safeguard public health for long
at the cost of its economic health,” editorialized
[[link removed]] _The
Wall Street Journal_ on March 19, while an opinion column in
Australia asked
[[link removed]],
“Lives matter, but at what cost?” Eventually, these calls became
more straightforwardly eliminationist, presenting
[[link removed]] the
slaughter of those most at risk from the virus as a form of heroic
wartime sacrifice. In an emblematic exchange, 70-year-old Texas
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson
[[link removed]] he
would be prepared to risk death if it would allow the economy to
return to normal.


This strain of eliminationism is not simply a derangement of the
political right; the notes sounded by the dollars versus deaths
brigade come straight from the liberal hymnbook. Cass Sunstein, Obama
administration regulator and patron saint of the nudgeocrats
[[link removed]], got
in early with his own gratingly contrarian pandemic take.
“Probability neglect,” he announced
[[link removed]] in
late February with a characteristic cod-social-scientific flourish,
meant “a lot of people are more scared” about the coronavirus
“than they have any reason to be.” Libertarians quickly followed
suit, among the most prominent of them
[[link removed]] law
professor Richard A. Epstein and economist Robin Hanson, who pushed
[[link removed]] for
the adoption of strategies centered around “voluntary infection”
and “variolation” as alternatives to social distancing. A common
thread united these approaches: the idea that, sometimes, life is
simply not worth fighting for. “It is not always unacceptable to
cause death knowingly,” Sunstein wrote
[[link removed]] in one of the four books
he published last year. “When government allows new highways to be
built, it knows that people will die on those highways.” For a
liberal cost-benefit fanatic like Sunstein, policy is always about
trade-offs, even when the costs can be measured in lost lives; do we
really want to stop building highways just because some people will
die on them? Since the value of a human life can be quantified—at $9
million to $10 million, according
[[link removed]] to major federal
agencies—death is acceptable, and lives expendable, when more
valuable goods are involved. The coronavirus pandemic has breathed new
life into this old utilitarian chestnut, and it is precisely the
life-reducing mindset of cost-benefit analysis that has driven the
resistance to social distancing.


What’s remarkable is how voices conventionally thought to occupy
opposite ends of the political spectrum have latched on to the cause
of acceptable death. Cheering for the elimination of humans is now an
authentically pan-political concern. “Wow,” a Silicon Valley
product designer tweeted
[[link removed]] in
mid-March. “Earth is recovering. Air pollution is slowing down.
Water pollution is clearing up. Natural wildlife returning home.
Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.” That
catchphrase (“We are the virus”) has been widely mocked and memed
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and while there are many in the environmental movement who take issue
with its basic premise—that humans, rather than resource use or
consumer capitalism, are the problem—plenty of others have responded
in vigorous agreement. In one of the more interesting contributions to
this school of thought, Canadian ecologist William E. Rees connected
the pandemic to climate change
[[link removed]],
characterizing both as the result of a single factor: rampant
population growth. “There are no exceptions to the first law of
plague dynamics: the unconstrained expansion of any species’
population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the
expansion, thus triggering collapse,” Rees wrote in early April. The
only way to “salvage global civilization,” he insisted, is by
reducing “the human ecological footprint” through a “controlled
contraction of the human enterprise.” In other words, we must
depopulate or perish. Fewer people will be our salvation.


This is not a new idea. The argument that the world is
overpopulated—and that control of birth rates holds the key to
reversing climate change—dates back to Malthus, and remains
a stubborn presence [[link removed]] in the
climate change debate today. “We cannot hide away from human
population growth,” primatologist Jane Goodall told a climate
change session
[[link removed]] at
the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, a few weeks
before the global Covid-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. “It
underlies so many of the other problems. All these things we talk
about wouldn’t be a problem if there were the size of population
that there was five hundred years ago.”


"The human is reduced to a price or, in the environmental metonymy, a
footprint."

Under the strain of eliminationist thinking, the pandemic has emerged
as a struggle for human life—both literally, since there are
billions of individual lives on the line, and figuratively, as a
contest to determine the real importance of life to policy and the
public sphere. Eliminationists of all stripes—whether of a
conservative, liberal, libertarian, or environmental
hue—conceptualize the human as an agent of quantifiable destruction.
The human is reduced to a price or, in the environmental metonymy, a
footprint. The human becomes the main unit of negotiation in an
economic game whose structure goes unquestioned and whose rules are
presumed to be natural rather than the product of conscious
deliberation. Eliminationist thinking, in other words, makes the human
less than human. What should we do about people? Whether facing a
pandemic or climate change, eliminationists have a simple solution:
Let them go, we don’t care.


AND YET CARE IS PRECISELY THE FEELING—AND THE ACTION—THAT THE
coronavirus pandemic has revealed as most essential to human
flourishing. Think of all those nurses, doctors, medical technicians,
and hospital janitors who have tended to the needs
[[link removed]] of
the most vulnerable, or the delivery people, pharmacists, and
supermarket shelf-stackers who have put their bodies in harm’s way
to meet the daily needs of the uninfected. These care workers
have kept society whol
[[link removed]]e
throughout the pandemic, even as the back-to-work crowd’s calls to
abandon the vocation of care and endorse the manslaughter of millions
have multiplied. What’s been revealed, in the process, is a sharp
demographic split: between those most vulnerable to the virus, who are
overwhelmingly elderly, and those tasked with looking after them, who
skew young.


Across the developed world, countries have had to contend
with critical workforce shortages
[[link removed]].
The U.K. assembled an extraordinary volunteer army to deliver food and
essential services to the elderly in self-isolation and issued an
appeal to retired doctors and nurses to help meet the shortfall in
care workers exposed by the pandemic, while, in early April, cell
phones in New York City lit up with a similar call for medical workers
to join the fight against the virus. As the pandemic progressed, a
jarring contrast set in: between the carnage spreading through
aged-care facilities and the grim uptick in the death count of older
patients, on the one hand, and the astonishing energy, commitment, and
youth of those called on to save the lives of those most in need, on
the other. Disappointing the eliminationists, people in the countries
worst affected by the virus have flattened the curve by caring for,
not killing, one another.


Environmentalists such as Rees are correct when they paint the
coronavirus pandemic as a crisis driven by climate change.
It’s argued
[[link removed]] that
the destruction of natural habitats, itself a by-product of the rich
world’s irrepressible material and energy needs, has driven wild
animals into unprecedented contact with humans, feeding the exotic
fauna trade suspected
[[link removed]] to
be at the heart of the virus’s origin in Wuhan and creating a web of
unpredictable zoonotic consequences. Meanwhile, the
very modernization initiatives
[[link removed]] that led the Chinese
government to encourage the development of a domestic wild animal
industry in the first place are themselves of a piece with the
expansionary, acquisitive processes of resource and energy use—the
lust for consumption and growth—that drive the ongoing destruction
of our planetary ecosystem. As many have already pointed out, all the
planetary stresses exposed by this epidemiological crisis apply to the
larger ecological crisis that’s already unfolding: the permeability
of borders, decaying state capacity in the global north, the rapid
globalization of atmospheric harms. What has been discussed far less
is how much more fragile and unsustainable the demographics of
countries in the developed world have yet to become, assuming current
population trends hold, as the earth grows hotter, more climatically
volatile, and less comfortably survivable.


In a future where the populations of rich countries are even older and
more care-dependent than they are today and the world faces rolling
crises born of the fallout from anthropogenic destabilization of the
climate, who will answer the calls for help? The coronavirus pandemic
points the way to a looming, slow-motion collision between the aging
populations
[[link removed]] of
the West and climate change. The real problem is not that rich
countries have too many people, but too few: too few, specifically, of
the young people who will be needed to repel the worst effects of
global heating, care for the old, and supply the dynamism and
creativity that offer the surest path to unlocking solutions to
stabilize the climate. Regrettably, however, the institutions of
liberal capitalism are wholly unprepared to address the demographic
challenges ahead. Throughout the developed world, the same
rationalizing cost-benefit mindset that drives eliminationist
responses to the coronavirus pandemic plagues political approaches to
demographic rejuvenation. Absent a more humane, care-centered approach
to population policy, Western nations are bound to live an
ever-worsening cycle of labor shortages, sickness, economic
disruption, and death, even as the earth grows hotter and life becomes
less tolerable for all.


CONTROL OF POPULATION WAS AMONG THE FIRST ARTICLES OF STATECRAFT. An
early Chinese manual of governance recommended that “if the
multitudes scatter and cannot be retained, the city state will become
a mound of ruins.” The literature of the first states, in both
Europe and Asia, was littered with similar homilies. Since “the
state with the most people was generally richest and usually prevailed
militarily over smaller rivals,” James C. Scott writes in _Against
the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
[[link removed]]_, “the prize of war was
more often captives than territory.” This basic assumption of
statecraft—that more is better—remained essentially undisturbed
until the late eighteenth century, when Thomas Robert Malthus
wrote his famous essay
[[link removed]] on the
principle of population. Experience has convincingly disproved the
“law” Malthus isolated—that population grows exponentially while
the means of subsistence grow only linearly—and more recent
contributions in the same tradition, most notably entomologist Paul
Ehrlich’s 1968 book, _The Population Bomb
[[link removed]]_,
have been similarly discredited.


Though the heyday of the populationists has passed, their ideas live
on, in academia and among the professional policy influencers, usually
dressed up in the neoliberal language of individual choice. A recent
paper written by three male academics, for example, argues
[[link removed]] that
“population engineering,” pursued through a tripartite strategy of
“choice enhancement,” “preference adjustment,” and
“incentivization,” is a “practical and morally justifiable means
to help ameliorate the threat of climate change.” Many environmental
NGOs talk a similar language; Population Connection has endorsed
[[link removed]] the
idea that “the epicenter of all of our problems in the environment
is runaway population growth,” while the Sierra Club, recognizing
that “population pressure causes environmental harm,” calls for
“policies that will help women choose the timing and spacing of
their children.”


We can all, I hope, agree that giving women the freedom and security
to make reproductive choices on their own terms should be a paramount
policy objective for sane governments everywhere, as should access to
the medical care needed to facilitate those choices. But women’s
empowerment needs no environmental crutch to clear the threshold of
good policy. Indeed, embodying ecological virtue in this manner and
consigning climate stabilization to the realm of private
choice—relying on women to act as “sexual stewards,” to borrow a
phrase from gender and environmental scholar Jade S. Sasser, for the
planet’s well-being—is precisely what is not needed to address
global warming. Climate change is a problem of collective action, not
individual will; as Barry Commoner, a biology professor who was among
Ehrlich’s first critics, once put it
[[link removed]],
“Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate
boardroom.” It’s obviously true that a planet with far fewer
people on it than our present 7.6 billion would emit far less carbon.
But there’s no nonviolent way to reduce the world’s population
with anything like the urgency required to make a meaningful
contribution to stabilizing the climate. What matters is how we all
use resources, not how many people use them.


"What matters is how we all use resources, not how many people use
them.
"

In the long run, demographics and development will likely render the
populationist case moot anyway. As countries get richer, their
fertility rates tend to drop. According to the World Bank, global
population growth peaked at 2.1 percent
[[link removed]] in
the late 1960s and has been on a steady decline since; in 2018 it was
1.1 percent. The idea that fewer people is the answer to impending
ecological collapse, and governments everywhere must work to reduce
populations, runs up against the simple reality that the world is
already creating new humans at a slower and slower pace—and has been
doing so for half a century. This is not cause for celebration,
however; quite the opposite. In the developed world, the defining
feature of populations today, thanks to decreasing fertility rates, is
that they are both aging and decelerating. The future of many
countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
with subreplacement fertility looks like Japan, where the
population peaked in 2008
[[link removed]] and
is projected to include more people over the age of 80 than under the
age of 14 by 2050, making it the world’s first truly geriatric
society. Across the European Union, the number of working-age people
(15–64) for every person over 65—commonly known as the “elderly
dependency ratio”—is on track to decline to two by 2050, from four
today. Population growth in Poland today is flat
[[link removed]]; in
Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, and Portugal, it
is already negative
[[link removed]].


THE AGING OF POPULATIONS IN THE WEST IS A SLOW-MOTION ECONOMIC
catastrophe, and climate change will only make it worse. Think of all
the unbearably sad and dystopian stories that have emerged during the
pandemic: the aged-care facilities turned into death wards, the
wrenching spectacle of mass graves
[[link removed]] being
dug for the unidentified dead, parks being considered as burial
grounds, elderly people seeking desperate solace
[[link removed]] from
smart home devices in their final living hours. The effects of climate
change on older populations will be exactly like this, only multiplied
many times over and drawn out over a longer span of time. Disability,
frailty, a lack of mobility, and impaired organ function are the lived
realities of many old people even in normal times—difficulties that
will only grow as heat waves, floods, and hurricanes become more
destructive, amid the general rise in temperatures, pollution, and sea
levels. The ecological crisis is also a crisis of aged care.


Old people who are more ill than usual because of climate change will
compound the structural stress that aging already places on a
country’s economic health. It’s generally accepted that as
populations age, the strain on the economy grows, as there are fewer
working-age people to support the elderly. Across the developed world,
aging is stretching welfare states
[[link removed]] to the breaking
point, and things will only get worse as the costs of adapting to and
mitigating climate change, especially for the elderly, climb. A
falling dependency ratio is a recipe for shriveling demand, a
shrinking tax base, and economic decline. Two recent papers
demonstrate that aging leads to lower GDP per capita, with the decline
attributable to slower growth in both the labor force and labor
productivity. A battery of research shows that companies in younger
labor markets are more innovative, and older economies more
monopolistic.


Nevertheless, the custodians of policy consensus in the West,
especially the United States, are usually fairly blasé
[[link removed]] when
asked to contemplate population aging and its potentially devastating
impact on domestic economic growth. Innovation and productivity
growth, they say, will be our salvation—a rosier Yangonomics. Given
the state of the literature on the subject, however, this complacency
may owe more to confusion than confidence. It may be true, of course,
that innovation (the AI revolution, robots, production by meme:
whatever you want to call it) will eventually render most wage labor
redundant. Innovation may even help rebalance the demographic deficits
that most countries in the West are running up. But there’s a
complicating factor at work here: time. And the precious little time
we have available to reverse global warming calls for more than mere
faith in our aging societies’ inherited (and contested) capacity for
innovation.


The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has famously
argued
[[link removed]] that
we have only a decade to stabilize the climate and prevent the planet
from heating to uninhabitable temperatures. Adherents of the degrowth
movement think that a rapid, mass contraction in economic life is the
most effective way to reverse climate change. But if you accept, as I
have argued elsewhere
[[link removed]],
that this solution is unfeasible or unlikely to materialize in the
decade we have available to set our ecological house in order, the
fastest, most humane path to climate stabilization probably looks
something like the Green New Deal
[[link removed]]—a combination of
investment to boost the development of renewable energy, welfarism to
address the economic inequalities that climate change renders deadly
for those most in need, and flexible new ways of thinking about how
best to rebuild social relations and relegitimize institutions for the
post-carbon age. Climate change, in this sense, calls not for societal
retrenchment but a flowering of thought and action across politics,
the economy, and civil society. It demands countries and workforces
that are dynamic, and creative, and willing to take risks. Countries,
in other words, that look nothing like the senescent, exhausted,
shrinking polities we find across the global north today.

 

What, then, offers the surest path to demographic
rejuvenation? Pro-natalist policies
[[link removed]] are
one way for states to boost their birth rates, but they often devolve
into an unfortunate “breed for the motherland” jingoism
[[link removed]],
and their track record of actually producing more babies in the
developed world is poor. In the OECD, there are a handful of nations
with subreplacement fertility rates (anything south of 2.1 births per
woman) whose populations are nevertheless growing at a fairly robust
pace. Australia’s population increased by 1.6 percent in 2018,
Canada’s by 1.4 percent, New Zealand’s by almost 1 percent. That
growth, of course, has been driven by immigration, which presents the
other obvious solution to the developed world’s creeping
senescence.


Out there in the land of the optimistic think tankers, hardly a day
goes by without some paean to the economic value of immigration.
Immigrants “play a disproportionate role in American
entrepreneurship
[[link removed]],”
they’re a “win-win
[[link removed]]”
for economic development in both the countries they migrate to and
emigrate from. All of which, of course, is true, but we don’t need a
blast of turgid position-paper prose (“refugees can move the needle
when it comes to integrating their communities in global markets in
robust ways”) to make that case; any sentient being alive in the
developed world’s many multiethnic democracies today knows from
lived experience that immigration makes countries far richer, more
diverse, more dynamic, and more interesting than they would otherwise
be. Immigrants are the developed world’s best hope to foster the
kinds of demographic replenishment and creativity that are sorely
needed to produce workable solutions to the climate crisis in the
coming decades.


As climate change accelerates, there’s also a strong argument
[[link removed]] to
be made for developed countries to increase their migrant intake on
the grounds of environmental justice. Ecological collapse, the product
of developed-world industrialization, will hit those in poorer
countries hardest. For centuries, Europe and the United States
plundered these countries, and now their reward is impending
obliteration by the ecological distortions that the rich world’s
self-interest has unleashed. In addition to aid and other channels of
economic assistance, significantly higher immigration intakes are one
effective way for the developed world to discharge the moral
obligation that this chain of cause and effect creates. This seems
especially urgent at a time when those displaced by environmental
degradation still have no formal refugee status under international
law.


And yet. Despite the obvious benefits, these are not hospitable times
for immigration across the developed world. Inspired by
[[link removed]] the Great
Replacement–inflected thinking of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor
Orbán, several countries in Eastern Europe are pulling up the
drawbridge to foreign migrants, their dim demographic prospects
notwithstanding. Even in nations with a healthy immigration intake
today, the story is not much happier, and migrants continue to attract
a xenophobic backlash. In some of these countries, such as the United
States, nativists have ascended
[[link removed]] to
the highest chambers of power. But even in those societies run by less
nakedly reactionary governments, the dog whistle and the
assimilationist value-grab remain sturdy tools of everyday
policymaking. There’s a hypocrisy at the heart of immigration policy
in the West today. On the one hand, immigrants are seen as useful
agents of growth; on the other, immigrant-bashing is now a reliable
vote winner. Openness to migrants is justified and encouraged as a
matter of policy, in order to boost a country’s demographic and
economic prospects, but the demands of electoral politics
simultaneously require that openness to be undercut. It’s not quite
the case that democracy dictates that immigrants _must_ be
demonized, but all too often short-term electoralism means they
are.


SHEDDING IMMIGRATION POLICY OF ITS XENOPHOBIC SKIN IS ESPECIALLY hard
when it comes to climate change, since environmental destruction has
long been associated, in the popular political imagination, with the
libidinous, foreign Other. Indeed, there’s a direct line connecting
the thinking of post-Malthus populationists and those who oppose
immigration in the developed world today. More important to the
history of U.S. policy formulation than Ehrlich’s _The Population
Bomb_ was a pamphlet of the same title
[[link removed]] published
in 1954, 14 years before Ehrlich’s book, by Dixie Cup co-founder
Hugh Moore. Moore’s pamphlet paralleled the Eisenhower
administration’s approach to international aid policy at a time when
the Unites States’ major concern was to limit the spread of
communism. Containing population growth in the global south—a place
to be exploited for its natural resources and cheap labor but feared
for its fecund and potentially Marxist billions—became a major
priority
[[link removed]] for
U.S. administrations during the Cold War. When an adviser to Lyndon
Johnson suggested increasing relief to India in advance of a visit by
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Johnson replied
[[link removed]],
“Are you out of your fucking mind? I’m not going to piss away
foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own
population problems.” Before long, the international development
community had joined this misguided effort to tie aid to reproductive
suppression. The full horror of postwar population control
measures—forced sterilization, infanticide, the state invasion of
women’s bodies, whole countries left demographically distorted for
generations to come—rested on this basic, orientalizing notion: The
real danger to social order, not just globally but also at home, came
from the irresponsible, untrustworthy foreigner incapable of
controlling basic human urges.


This is to say nothing of the more general historical links between
environmentalism and race science
[[link removed]],
which are plentiful. California’s Save the Redwoods League was
founded in 1918 by eugenicists who explicitly linked
[[link removed]] the
protection of the environment with the preservation of racial purity.
In 1974, Garrett Hardin, a eugenicist and self-styled “human
ecologist,” published “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping
the Poor
[[link removed]],”
in which he compared the United States to a lifeboat with little space
to spare and argued that admitting more people would cause everyone to
drown. “World food banks move food to the people, hastening the
exhaustion of the environment of the poor countries. Unrestricted
immigration, on the other hand, moves people to the food, thus
speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich
countries.” Hardin’s anti-immigration environmentalism paralleled
the U.S. government’s campaign against undocumented workers from
Mexico. “By the late 1970s,” environmental policy scholar Robert
Gottlieb has written
[[link removed]],
“population control was becoming synonymous with efforts to control
the flow of Mexican migrants.” The heirs to Hardin’s xenophobic
brand of environmentalism today are organizations like the Center for
Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration
Reform, both of which continue to push the line that curbing
immigration will help reduce carbon emissions. The United States is
not the only country where powerful interests employ a veneer of
environmental concern to decorate the caravan of bigotry. In
Australia, for example, a loose coalition of electronics store owners,
ecologists, mining profiteers, and parliamentarians (with some overlap
between these categories) has assembled to push the agenda for a
smaller, whiter country. The Hardinesque slogan critics have
mockingly tarred them
[[link removed]] with:
“Fuck off, we’re full.”


Governments attempting to head off the reckoning between climate
change and population aging by boosting immigration run up against the
cultural wall amassed by centuries of explicitly racist policymaking,
in which the undocumented Mexican, the refugee arriving by boat, and
even the lawful airport entry have always been cast as a threat. In
Trump’s language
[[link removed]],
“They are taking our jobs. China is taking our jobs.... India is
taking our jobs.” So why regard the Chinese or Indian immigrant as
any different? From there, it’s only a short conceptual step to
children in cages: “The United States will not be a migrant camp,
and it will not be a refugee holding facility.... Not on my
watch.”


Even the countries regularly lauded as immigration success stories
leave much to be desired, their schemes often amounting to little more
than indentured slavery (the migrant worker programs of the Persian
Gulf states) or a form of neocolonial demographic resource stripping
(the “skills-based” migration systems of Canada and Australia,
which target sending countries’ best and brightest). Policies built
around skills entrench, within receiving countries, a purely
utilitarian vision of migration, and encourage the belief that
immigrants are valuable exclusively as units of economic production.
The same cost-benefit tyranny that reduces the coronavirus patient to
an expendable unit of economic value turns immigrants into mere
vessels of productivity. Migrants are valuable to the economy, of
course, but that is not their only value, and forcing them to justify
their existence by submitting to a rationalizing calculus of worth is
both dehumanizing and counterproductive, since it sows the seed of
social conflict by defining migrants as competitors in the labor
market. As migration scholar Liav Orgad has written
[[link removed]],
“states want to have it both ways—enjoying the economic benefits
of migration, while not [being] willing to fully accommodate the
cultural changes brought by it.”

 

NONE OF THIS SHOULD COME AS MUCH OF A SURPRISE, SINCE ELECTORATES all
over the developed world have been conditioned by 50 years of market
liberalism to think of the economy in purely agonistic terms. Most of
the literature on the demographic crisis in the West is the work of
conservatives: good-vibes natalists like Jonathan V. Last or weary
cultural pessimists like Ross Douthat. In _The Decadent Society
[[link removed]]_, his recently published
volume of demographic aphorisms and film criticism, Douthat dismisses
immigration as the solution to demographic decline in the West,
characterizing it as a technocratic fantasy uninformed by political
reality. Mass immigration, he writes, “is a double-edged sword....
It delivers the promise of a more dynamic future, potentially, than
the future promised by low birthrates, but for natives who are aging
and whose communities aren’t thriving, it also suggests the benefits
of that imagined future belong increasingly to people who seem
culturally alien, to inheritors who aren’t your natural heirs, to
other people’s children and grandchildren rather than the dwindling
numbers of your own.” All of which is true, but that critique only
makes sense as long as you accept the world as it is—as long as you
don’t question an economic model that privatizes public goods,
leaves the state shriveled and impotent, and pits people against one
another rather than building bonds between them. The “immigration
problem” is nothing to do with immigration per se, but a reflection
of the way in which immigration has been instrumentalized within a
public sphere built on self-dealing. The immigrants have no share of
blame in this; nor do those threatened by their arrival. Rather, the
“problematic” nature of immigration today stems from its
mismanagement by governing elites, reflecting a basic failure of
political imagination.

"The economy is not exogenous; it does not exist in a state of
nature."

In 1910, Eugene Debs faced down an attempt by the right wing of the
Socialist Party of America to adopt a policy against Asian
immigration. In a letter, he wrote: “The plea that certain races are
to be excluded because of tactical expediency would be entirely
consistent in a bourgeois convention of self-seekers, but should have
no place in a proletariat gathering under the auspices of an
international movement that is calling on the oppressed and exploited
workers of all the world to unite for their emancipation.”
“Integrating” immigrant populations—the obsession of political
demography in the developed world today—would be far easier in a
society encouraged to view human existence as an exercise in
cooperation and solidarity rather than individual self-enrichment.
Moral clarity of Debs’s caliber is in desperately short supply
today, and the marketization of our political imagination—the
reduction of politics to a marketplace of domination and defeat—is a
big part of the reason why. Liberal capital demands profitability
above all. As long as immigrants are welcomed into an economic matrix
whose defining characteristics are competition, alienation, and
violence, the hospitality of receiving countries will remain
contingent, riven with conflict, and precarious, and the developed
world’s “immigration problem” will endure. It makes no sense to
speak naïvely of morality and justice—to make the obvious ethical
case
[[link removed]] for
immigration, regardless of the intervening urgencies of
developed-world demographics and climate change—while ignoring the
social distortions wrought by the atomizing nature of the economies
into which most immigrants today are absorbed. The demographic and
environmental arguments in favor of immigration will fail as long as
they refuse to reckon with this basic reality. Climate change will
accelerate, along with the demographic decline of the West. And
developed nations will limp on, their policies to extract themselves
from this double crisis hopelessly out of step with the times.


There is history to contend with here, but surely no path dependence.
The economy is not exogenous; it does not exist in a state of nature.
Our ability to transform patterns of human energy use is coterminous
with our ability to imagine a different economy, a different model of
human enterprise and togetherness. Resolving the paradox of
developed-world immigration policy—by, say, recentering liberalism
around creative freedom rather than the freedom to consume, or
embracing a reinvigorated left populism built around a culture of
cooperation and care, or whatever else is usually thrown up these days
as the grand solution to what ails capital—is work for the years
ahead. What’s at stake is the struggle to define the human. The
anti-natalist Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian ecological philosopher,
once wrote that human beings are “a noble vase in which fate has
planted an oak”: Hopelessly unsuited to our environment, we are
condemned to seek existential meaning while maintaining a dreadful
awareness of the futility of existence. This bind led Zapffe to
conclude that life was not worth living, and the best solution for the
human race was to simply die out. Those of us who still like being
alive might find this extreme, but the orientation of Zapffe’s
inquiry is probably correct. Reckoning with our future under climate
change will inevitably require much deeper thinking about what it
means to be human—about what gives human life value, what being
present in the world entails, and whether our present socioeconomic
configurations allow us to live truly as we want. We are indeed a
noble vase, as Zapffe wrote, but that does not mean we must accept our
fate as an oak. The power to flower is still ours.

[_Aaron Timms’s most recent article for The New Republic print
magazine, “Beyond the Growth Gospel,” appeared in the
January-February issue._]

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