It has become commonplace to associate populism with racism and xenophobia. This is certainly true of right-wing populism. However, for left-wing populists xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments are obstacles to the unity of the people against the real causes of poverty and misery: the oligarchy which rules according to its own interests. Written by Raffaele Bazurli and initially published on June 23rd, 2017 in the Italian periodical Senso Commune. Translated into English by Thimothée Brunier.
During the last French presidential elections, in April 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s ‘France Insoumise’ (‘Unbowed France’) campaign broke many traditional left-wing taboos, including those on immigration. Whilst Melenchon claimed his intention to tackle the direct causes of immigration (such as wars, starvations and climate change), he also raised the issue of national borders. Likewise, although he emphasised the humanitarian duty to rescue war refugees, he nevertheless sustained the idea that France could not afford posted workers (so-called “economic migrants”) anymore. This marked a radical shift against traditional left values, and, as a result, Mélenchon suffered important attacks from other parts of the left, which flagged his rupture with the pro-immigration stance he himself supported back in 2012.
Figures in hand, however, Mélenchon’s choice seems more symbolic than practical. In 2016, the number of residency permits delivered by the French Government to economic migrants represented less than one tenth of all permits delivered, so Mélenchon’s stance was fairly irrelevant to the issue of immigration as a whole.
The Mélenchon furore provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the political position democratic-populism may take on immigration. We must delineate between reactionary populism and left populism— exclusive and inclusive populism. On the one hand, chauvinism is used to represent the foreigner as a threat to national sovereignty. On the other hand, a ‘people’ which comes together in an inclusive way should not identify migrants as its enemies, but the elite(s) and their rapacity. In this second case, views on immigration should be softened into a wider discursive solution, avoiding its over-politicisation.
Several populist movements have capitalised on xenophobia and fear of diversity. In Italy like elsewhere, an important part of the working-class favours political formations which make borders-shutdown policies their top priority. By gaining such ground, reactionary forces have disarmed the left. Right-wing populists won many battles by portraying their opponents as selfish, moralising, gentrified elites overlooking the insecurity and distress coming from the bottom of society. Although it suffers from such attacks, the left, so far, has done little to counter the right-wing narrative.
How can we break this stalemate? How can we respond to reassure the worried elements of society without giving way to anti-immigration positions. First, one must face the problem instead of ignoring it. This means that we must face every question with honesty, especially those which deal with immigration flows. Let me attempt a very short analysis of two determining cases —among others.
The first topic is jobs. In Britain, UKIP does well even in areas where you would never bump into migrants – which proves the importance of political constructions over factual truths. Such areas, especially in the North of the country, are specific, however, because they have been through decades of deindustrialisation and destruction of living standards. What matters there is to reverse the right-wing discourse by giving a face to those who are responsible for the destruction of jobs and industry. Those are politicians whose industrial policies went against the interest of their country. The same thing applies for big CEOs and large multinationals who made profit without paying taxes.
The second case concerns the situation of semi-urban areas – here again, a real political emergency. Paradoxically, the destructive consequences of globalisation are circumscribed to very specific areas. Little by little, people have fled city centres and the countryside to move into suburban areas that have often become inhospitable. These areas are more susceptible to cause tensions on topics such as schools, transports, hospitals — social welfare. Newcomers in these places are often regarded as illegitimate ‘benefit seekers’, profiting from a more generous social system. Such views must be radically challenged. Inequalities and the weakening of welfare are the direct consequences of Tory and New Labour policies which aimed to redistribute the national wealth to the upper section of society. It is essential to fight back, by making local institutions of social welfare fairer, more welcoming and more altruistic. A bolder welfare state is the solution to both inequalities and racism.
Our creed is that of solidarity and internationalism. Our populism must face issues raised by immigration whilst remaining inclusive. Daily news of tragic deaths in both the Channel and the
Mediterranean Seas calls into question our sense of humanity; we cannot leave an inch of ground to the right on this topic. In Italy, just like in France or in Britain, there still is a popular common sense which can lend itself to international solidarity —a common ground based on the remnants of religion and trade unionism. We must build on that.