The reality of American mythologies is always based on the binary, and so the idea that our nation represents a successful melting pot of people from different countries and has welcomed immigrants to our shores is undercut by the hatred and exploitation that capitalism uses to exploit people.
To be sure, the United States throughout its history has welcomed immigrants, but primarily as a cheap source of labor under the fundamental framework of capitalism. It has given refuge to some people fleeing their countries under political persecution, but not everyone, and this refuge has always been granted in an extremely calculated manner. Then there’s the country’s sordid history of slavery and removing indigenous people from their ancestral homes, which undermines and remains incongruent with the rosy depiction of our melting-pot mythology.
We should be reminded of all this after Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday in which he decried undocumented immigration and, in stark terms, placed the issue in capitalistic terms. In the speech, he took a shot at the Dreamers or the DACA program, which he has ended based on a timeline, by arguing “Americans are dreamers too.” Then Trump said, “It is time to begin moving towards a merit-based immigration system — one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country.”
Trump’s first statement about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a rhetorical sleight of hand.The DACA participants, or Dreamers, whose families brought them to this country when they were children through no choice of their own, make up a specific group and got labelled under a specific pronoun as symbolic nomenclature. Anyone can dream about their future, of course, but no American citizens are dreaming and hoping they won’t get deported in a couple of months. Most of Trump’s base won’t understand this problematic rhetorical nuance or won’t care, and his statement is just another one of his numerous distortions. Trump’s main point, it’s clear, is to create anger against The Immigrant in general.
But Trump’s statement about merit immigration—and this is not to diminish the cause of the Dreamers—encapsulates the capitalistic and monetary factors that drive immigration in most industrial countries. The question for the capitalist is never one of basic humanity, but whether the immigrant can make money in the current social configuration for the richest people on the planet. Control of immigrants and their exploitation in the process is a distinctly capitalistic proposition. The immigration floodgates open up when labor is needed for profits, but immigrants are demonized when they are not needed. As Lenin writes, “The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited.” In this way, the richest one percent control not only the movement of people around the globe but, of course, their material being as well.
But Lenin makes another point when he argues that immigration becomes a progressive exercise as well when developed countries open their doors to workers who learn the newest methods of work. He first points out the obvious, “There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner.” But he also concludes immigration is, “ . . . breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.” The point is that capitalism works as a progressive force in this particular regard.
I’m thinking of those technology specialists from other countries working in Silicon Valley right now and paying unbelievably high rents in order to survive here. They are getting exploited based on the idea that their labor has special “merit,” as Trump might put it, and perhaps it does, but they, too, remain tools of the richest one percent despite their honed knowledge. What they can do, however, is connect with other people throughout the world and this, as Lenin says, is “breaking down national barriers and prejudices.” This has a revolutionary potential, and it’s a reason why California still stands out as a beacon for immigrants.
But Trump’s main appeal, of course, is to a base of people who are white, racist and angry. They misdirect their anger at brown-skinned coders instead of the world’s oligarchs who exploit everyone for their personal monetary gain. Trump, the embodiment of capitalism, pits worker against worker in his rhetoric, ensuring misplaced anger. Under the terms of late-stage capitalism, welcoming poor people without a contemporary skill set as immigrants to this country has become a radical act, especially as growing automation in the production of goods limits manual labor positions in all advanced cultures. This also undercuts the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, yet another American mythological lie, but this is what capitalism now demands.
Rising income inequality in this country, a broken, for-profit health care system and worker exploitation impact the citizen, the immigrant and the undocumented worker. Capitalism depends on a desperate, unhealthy work force in which people blame one another instead of the evils of an immoral financial system that dictates, in many cases, whether one lives or dies, eats or goes hungry. Trump’s rise to power—in all its authoritarianism, vulgarity and crassness—is capitalism’s triumph, and only the people of the world can change that by uniting as one social force against the tyranny.