Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

Why the migrant crisis is a self-inflicted catastrophe for the European political establishment

Why the migrant crisis is a self-inflicted catastrophe for the European political establishment
Photo by Jametlene Reskp / Unsplash
The mass importation of regime clients from the third world, under the pretence of high-minded liberal values, has become a runaway phenomenon threatening the very political order that authored it.

Some valued readers objected to my remark in yesterday’s post that the political establishment appears “completely powerless” to stop migration. They point out that the importation of foreign political clients furthers elite interests and suggest that the present wave of mass migration is desired, perhaps even deliberately engineered. Now that my internet is functioning again, I will risk repeating some old plague chronicle themes, in order to explain my thinking more fully.

First of all, I agree that our rulers have eagerly sponsored mass migration for a long time. They also collaborated in constructing the massive tapestry of NGOs, philanthropic organisations and human smuggling bands that continue funnelling the third world into Europe today. In theory, the political establishment could stop this nonsense tomorrow by any number of measures. Italy could stop fishing migrants out of the ocean, Germany could stop paying them money and EU member states could bin the egregiously dumb legal construct of asylum. Alas, the managerial state simply can’t turn on a dime like this. All policies are subject to powerful inertial forces, because of the sheer complexity of the institutional apparatus and the vast numbers of people involved. It takes years for the system to even recognise that what it is doing is stupid, and still longer for it to stop acting stupidly. The present influx, which reflects forces set in motion more than a decade ago, is a catastrophe of the regime’s own making, and one it is very ill-equipped to address.

Let us count the ways that the infinity refugees are bad for the powers that be:

1) They are inflaming unprecedented popular opposition from the long-demobilised middle, or (in official parlance) the “extreme right.” Alternative für Deutschland is now the second-strongest political party in Germany. This is an entirely separate political crisis in its own right.

2) Conversely, they are destroying support for the coalition government and draining enthusiasm for their policies. If elections were held this Sunday, it’s unlikely that the liberal FDP would even make the 5% hurdle for getting members into the Bundestag. The migration crisis is also driving a very awkward and uncomfortable political wedge between East Germany and the West.

3) Mass migration is unleashing forces that threaten the very postwar international order that opened the borders in the first place. The inability of the European Union to limit migration will incentivise member states to revive their own national borders, ultimately undermining the legitimacy of the EU and threatening the Schengen arrangement.

4) The advantages the regime hopes to realise from mass migration still lie many years in the future. In the meantime, the migrants are simply a liability. They offer no immediate upside to counter all of the bad in points 1) to 3).

The present establishment has a choice: They must either find a way to contain these negative consequences, above all by bottling up the opposition, or they must moderate migration. Those are their only two options, and so far they are failing miserably on both fronts. This, above all, is why I think this is a disaster for them.

In May, I wrote a piece summarising the thought of Bertrand de Jouvenel on the nature of power in modern political systems, and the importance of the high-low alliance for the administrative state. The problem for rulers, always and everywhere, is the emergence of prosperous semi-autonomous social groups in the middle or the upper-middle tiers of society, who have their own political vision and resist administrative interference. To undermine this opposition, elites forge alliances of convenience with political clients at the bottom. Under the banner of egalitarianism and equality, they promise to grant these clients the wealth and privilege that are unjustly monopolised by their betters. As the administrative state grows in extent and rapaciousness, its hunger for low-side allies deepens, which is why Western politics today is so eager to define new categories of underprivileged peoples and to import new foreign ones. However much social and cultural chaos this project unleashes, it is supposed to be stabilising for the regime, because that’s what it’s for. As we’ve reached a point where this strategy is actively destabilising establishment politics, we may safely conclude that something has gone wrong.

It is a mistake to construct our rulers as nothing but conniving, scheming Machiavellians. There are plenty of dark people with evil motives at the top, but the evidence of their incompetence is just as overwhelming. Most of the political elite probably perceive the forging of low-side alliances less as a cunning strategy and more as the pursuit of ideological imperatives. I can’t see any other way of explaining why their policies in this area are so ill-adapted to their interests.

Late-stage Western liberalism is the ideological form that the high-low alliance strategy has assumed. It is this ideological system, more than any single individual, that is at the helm, and it is badly out of balance. Before the great wars of the twentieth century, liberalism was boxed in both by the illiberal left and by powerful nationalist forces. These effectively constrained its universalising tendencies, and they also forced liberalism to compete with ideological rivals. The liberal West had to present itself as superior to communist regimes abroad and to authoritarian nationalists at home. The suppression of domestic nationalist ideologies in Europe after 1945 and the end of the Cold War in 1990 represented a great lifting of constraints, and liberal elites responded by developing a novel international programme that embraced, at least in theory, all of humanity. For the space of a full generation, our elites were free to pursue this programme, blind to its manifold internal contradictions and impracticalities. With the end of unchallenged American hegemony and the return of multipolarity, however, unbounded liberalism finds itself once again in a bounded world.

As long as this misalignment persists, between the unconstrained ideological vision on the one hand and constrained reality on the other, we’ll see only escalating dysfunction. It is far less certain in our new world that migrants will ever fulfil the client role envisioned for them. Because there is now a clear ‘outside’ to the Western political order, the foreign loyalties of our new arrivals will reach past their liberal patrons to rival unaligned states. Much of the lingering appeal of liberalism proceeds from the prosperity of the liberal West, which the grand political projects dreamed up in the unbounded era now threaten to devour wholesale. In those years when they thought history had ended, European politicians arrogated to themselves responsibility for everything from human poverty to viruses to the weather, elaborating a luxury politics oblivious to basic state functions like border security and national defence.

Our world has grave political problems, but I nourish limited optimism about the specific malignancies that emerged in the heady decades between 1990 and 2020. The preconditions that made all of this fashionable nonsense possible no longer exist, and sooner or later this stuff will die. The only question is how much damage it will still do in the lingering.

Support the author here