Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-2010, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

Nationalism worldwide
Foreigners and the problem they represent

Everywhere, there’s trouble with foreigners — more so than has been the case in a long time: in Germany and Austria, the United States and Canada; in France, which is deporting Rumanian Romanies; in England, where a British National Party is organizing campaigns to ban the employment of East European EU-citizens; and in a lot of other European countries, where xenophobic parties are winning elections. More and more often, and ever more strongly, political parties and governments are bothered by the existence, the number, or the state of parts of their population that they identify as not belonging and differentiate from their own people. This differentiation and exclusion comes from a distinction between two sorts of people that none other than the state brings into being. There is the one kind that belongs to it and is completely subject to its exclusive sovereign power, and so is required to serve its demands — as citizens, they enjoy the interesting right to be allowed to live within the territory of this sovereign. And there is the other kind: all those who belong to other states and who have no business being in the country, unless the state has particular reasons to permit them to live there — because and as long as it can make use of them. Whether and when they are a bother therefore does not depend on them.


States that have globalized their capitalistic economy treat the entire world’s sources of wealth, which their foreign rivals have under their command, as means for their own national enrichment: not only commodity and capital markets, but also foreign human material, which is interesting as a potential workforce. A government opens its borders for citizens of foreign countries in order to expand the available reservoir of workers as a mobile reserve when the economic growth in its national territory makes it necessary; when local employers voice their demands for a particular kind of industrious and inexpensive workforce; and when there is a general shortage of workers, which raises wages and restricts growth. When it has sufficient numbers of them, the government says, “enough!” and closes the borders. When there are too many of them, either because workers have been successfully made redundant due to the technological progress of profit production or because of a crisis, then their duty is done and they are sent off again — harassment plus repatriation grants are common methods. If they are expected to be kept for good, their families or certain parts of their families are generously allowed to join them, provided they keep to the petty but legally indisputable conditions by which the state differentiates between them and citizens and by which it discriminates against them as foreigners in comparison to citizens. If they can no longer make themselves useful, they are treated as a bothersome expense and pestered for being a social burden. The more the immigrants settle down, and the less they are needed by capital, the more unwieldy they become as the flexible pawns they were brought into the country to be.

Neither Western Europe nor North America, the centers of world capitalism, can complain about a lack of poor and impoverished, and therefore cheap and willing, applicants; Anatolian peasants no longer have to be enticed to come as guest-workers. Capital’s hold on the entire world has made life impossible for a great number of people in their home countries. The ruin of traditional living conditions, which the superior competitive power of western conglomerates causes around the globe, ensures that even the most miserable wages are, and remain, an attractive offer for Africans, Latinos, Eastern and Southern Europeans, and many others. These refugees from poverty are definitely too numerous; they are nothing but a nuisance. So they are kept off the national territory with the help of all the instruments of military border control. The fact that thousands die every year in their attempt to overcome walls, barbed wire, and oceans speaks only for perfecting border control — making inhumane reception centers in Greece and elsewhere superfluous, at least within Europe. The many who succeed in crossing the borders all the same are, depending on the ruling calculation, tolerated for some time because as “undocumented,” i.e., illegal persons, they are especially attractive for reputable local businessmen; if they get lucky, they are even temporarily or permanently legalized; or they are tracked down, locked up as criminals, and deported.

While the leading capitalistic countries use all means necessary to keep out the poorest of the poor who are looking for a way to survive, they cannot get enough of a particular kind of immigrant. They compete with each other to attract to their territory as many as possible from the global pool of scientists and experts down to the less qualified staff, and to make them available to their economy as ‘human capital.’ To people who are expected to contribute to technological advance or at least to the productivity of the economic base, they offer attractive packages and an immigration process without the usual bureaucratic red tape so that “we” don’t get behind in the race for attractive immigrants. After all, it is fitting for a globalized republic to steal the elite of other states, redirecting their education and training for its own growth.

Still other foreigners are let into the country for political reasons and are assigned a corresponding legal status. Now and then, “dissidents” who are persecuted in a country declared to be an enemy are readily welcomed. They are granted asylum in order to emphasize the illegal character of the regime there. Others come from war or civil war zones in which one’s own nation is militarily involved or has “vital” interests. A few specimens of the favored war party’s human basis are permitted to find safety from killing and death. In humanitarian acts such as these, a state asserts itself as a protective power for the supported political forces. It grants residence to refugees from war and civil war as long as it corresponds to its imperialistic calculations. That comes with the necessary regulations, of course, like not granting them permission to work in order to prevent them from settling down, which aggravates the burden the existence of refuges represents for the national budget. As soon as the government decides that the war is concluded, or simply loses interest in it, this category of foreigners, namely, political refugees, is nothing but a problem. The solution is certain. As formerly useful human instruments of national foreign policy, they are sent back to their country ruined by civil war, regardless of what kind of misery or persecution is awaiting them there. After all, it’s their home country, and they want to return to it, don’t they?!

This is how political powers sort the foreigners of this world, either to them or out — depending on the useful or harmful role they ascribe to them. They treat them as human pawns to be pushed around as a global resource for their economic and political power. And they consider it a privilege they award when they grant foreign citizens the right to live and — this is regarded all the more as a favor — work within their sovereign borders, and even allow them to acquire citizenship. Those who are permitted to stay have to earn the status that is granted — with strong reservation — to them. They have to meet all the demands of their “host country,” even though they themselves do not decide whether they have done so, or how long they will do so. One thing is definitely clear: immigrants have to cope with all the living conditions that are imposed upon them; how they do that is — as always in a free society — their private affair. They have to cope, because failure not only threatens their income and social status, but even the right to live where they do. When they manage all the demands in the way that immigrants always do, then that’s a problem, too. They move to parts of the city where others from their country of origin live, stick together, run an unofficial economy within their own ranks, and nurture the customs and traditions of their old homeland in the diaspora. In doing so, they create another problem: they form a “parallel society.”


This accusation is a joke. A capitalistic nation consists of nothing but parallel societies that have and cultivate few commonalities. When do the really rich actually associate with the average Joe? When does the academic’s taste in entertainment correspond to proletarian pastimes, and when do country folk hang out on the gay scene? Even with all those more or less insular and competing subcultures, the authorities are so absolutely certain of one thing that they don’t even mention it: these subcultures belong to their nation. This is exactly what the foreigners’ community cannot guarantee, even if many of them can show a domestic passport in the meantime. Their otherness causes suspicion that doesn’t just arise when immigrants’ political disloyalty towards the country’s laws, foreign political alliances, enmities, and wars is feared. The claim reaches further. Immigrants are suspected of not reliably thinking of “America,” “Germany,” or “Austria” when they say “we.” Perhaps they spell “homeland” differently and might not automatically and first address their hopes and worries to the state power whose laws they obey; perhaps they don’t translate their discontent into the reproach of bad government and the desire for a good one. The authorities don’t have the same confidence in foreigners being fundamentally politicized for the nation as they assume for their native-born population like a natural property learned from the cradle. On the one hand, a globalized republic undermines the bigoted, traditional idea of an ethnic, national collective by gathering its populace from all over the world. On the other hand, it demands from its old and new inhabitants exactly this kind of partisanship for nation and state as the basis for all thinking and wanting. That is the content of the categorical imperative of “integration” imposed by politicians. The people under their sovereignty have to define themselves as individuals entirely according to the affiliation with the state in which they somehow ended up. That they do exactly that is, in principle, impossible for the newcomers to prove to suspicious authorities, despite conscious and deliberate records of their willingness to conform. Instead, they bear testimony to a dissenting, alien identity with the foreign language they speak among themselves, and with any last remainder of their customs, dress, and ways of life from their country of origin. In each case, politicians like to pretend that the evidence determining and revealing the newcomers’ unbearable marginality comes from convictions that circulate among the people.


They can rely on their people's xenophobia. It is the consequence of its national identity that the class society, forced together by state power, avows. Its inhabitants turn this relationship upside down: they regard themselves as a collective of people that the state power serves and see its entire raison d'être as contributing to their well-being. Foreigners are, from the outset, excluded from this collective, for they are not citizens who deserve state protection. After all, the national collective has to pursue and defend its welfare against the egoism and nationalist escapades of other states and peoples. The people, in particular the working people, whose ability to make a living is in constant danger, understands its affiliation with its state as a privilege and guarantee of safety, if not from their employers’ business calculations, then at least from foreign competitors who do not deserve the same privilege. Even though foreigners perform the worst and worst-paid jobs, one thing is for sure: they take advantage of “us” in their pursuit of happiness in “our” country. The relationship of trust between the members of a people and their politicians is fundamentally burdened by the fact that the latter allow foreigners to stay in the country and let them take away jobs, nursery school vacancies, apartments and what have you. That leads to office-holders coming under the suspicion of being disloyal to their people.


Politicians use and guide this resentment by responding to it. They take it as an honorable standpoint and the people’s right, neither banning it nor allowing it to interfere with their globe-spanning population policy. Only radical, right-wing parties say, “We (Germans, Americans, Japanese, …) come first!” But in practice, all politicians justify themselves in accordance with this standard. Whatever a state considers necessary regarding the treatment of immigrants, however it discriminates against them, unreasonably tests their loyalty, or subjects them to supervision, it presents each such meanness to the old-established citizenry as a service to them and can be sure of their approval. When they feel the need to do so, politicians can direct their people’s aggression against any nationally or ethnically defined group and then give themselves the task of dealing with the tensions and getting rid of the causes. If they think it opportune, they present the confirmation of nationalistic resentment in a way that appears moderate: “we” need the foreigners, and, after all, they are useful to “us,” too! This is supposed to hamper indiscriminate hatred and unauthorized assaults on foreigners.


The situation is different in regard to the official xenophobia that has emerged in Western countries in the last decade and which is aimed at a category of immigrants who are not considered to be foreign because of their nationality, but because of their religious creed. In France it is the North Africans who are affected, in England the Pakistani, in Germany the descendants of Turkish immigrants, all of whom used to be perceived as members of their respective nation and had been treated nastily enough already; today these nationalities blend into the figure of the Muslim. Here, religion is the disturbing difference that makes integration difficult or impossible. The countries that fly the flag of religious freedom do not hold Islam to be a private affair, at least not as unconditionally as they do other religions. They doubt that this faith restricts itself to being a well-behaved, private religion, which nobody would take away from anybody, and nourish the suspicion that it is more; namely, a practical-political will that is incompatible with Western society.

The way this religion is characterized resembles the concept of an enemy. Nothing but a list of its offences against modernity and freedom is mentioned. First of all, Islam missed out on the painful period of Enlightenment that has done the Christian world so much good; it is literalistic, intolerant, and kills. Secondly — this is what the triad of headscarf, forced marriage, and honor killings accomplish — in the seventh century, Mohammed decreed the submission of women, which has been officially banned here for decades. Free thinkers enthusiastically engross themselves in this wrong religion and engage with Koran interpretations and Islamic Studies in a critical examination of it, thereby making their contribution to objectifying the concept of the enemy.. As a result, the monstrous invention of a foreign religious fantasy is subsumed under the category of crime and oppression, a judgment that in turn suggests that the suppression of this evil conviction is necessary and justified. Islam deserves perhaps not direct persecution, but at least the mistrust that the West shows for it.

In this case, too, it is the concept of an enemy that justifies political hostility, which has different grounds than the moral disapproval of foreign morals. Indeed, it is an unusual hostility, when in the 21st century a religion defines the concept of an enemy: the USA, Germany, and most European states are waging war against “Islamic terror,” for which they invoked the NATO mutual defense clause after September 11th. They are fighting in Afghanistan, but not against Afghanistan. They are fighting there, in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and wherever else they know of or suspect Al Qaeda nests and like-minded persons. The enemy is not a state, but a radical movement and the political powers that shelter them. The actual objects of the Western nations’ enmity, their incompatibility with the prevailing world order of capital, are thus not defined by a state, but as non-state terrorists, who take their radical motives from Islam. Hence, the great world-order powers include the Islamic religion as the object of hostility insofar it is identified as a breeding ground and weapon of the enemy. In the Hindu Kush, the Taliban use Islam to justify their anti-American and anti-Western struggle; and the West justifies its commitment to its governor Karzai with its battle against Islamism, against the burka, and for girls’ schools. The critique of a religion that does not reliably prevent anti-Western radicalization justifies every strike by civilized world of states.

On the other hand, their battle is not aimed at Islam; they are careful not to make an enemy of the entire Islamic world from Morocco to Bosnia to Indonesia. Their enemy is “only” political Islam, the rebellion against Western penetration and domination of the East. It is telling that leading politicians constantly feel compelled to clarify this: the United States, so President Obama assures, is not waging a war against Muslims; Islam, too, is part of Germany, adds the German president. In their denials, they illustrate how deep this concept of an enemy has sunk in, which they and their media have established in a decade of anti-terrorist war. They take great diplomatic pains to portray a differentiated concept of the enemy, which in principle runs against the nature of such things. An inhuman monster just doesn’t have bad and good sides.

The struggle of statesmen to distinguish and separate an actually tolerable Islamic religion from fundamentalist crime falls with full force on the immigrant Islamic population in America and Europe. Muslims with an immigrant background become victims of this concept of an enemy that is as indispensable as it is selectively applied, and not just for the first time when mosques are suspected of being recruiting grounds and hideaways for Al Qaeda, even though that has happened and still happens now and then. The incompatibility with this religious culture, identified as Anti-Western, is more extensive. Even when they stay apolitical, these people do not fit into the West unless they credibly prove to “us” that they are willing to subordinate their Allah to our secular state that stands in solitary splendor over every other god. A fundamentalist dispute is flaring up everywhere about whether and how such proof of genuine loyalty can be delivered in a way that satisfies “us.” In Germany, it is called the debate on integration.

© GegenStandpunkt 2011