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Notes from a Silo Nation

By Max Dunbar.


Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis, Philippe Legrain, Little, Brown 2010

During the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a lot of buzz about an economics writer called Thomas Friedman. Friedman was the Pangloss of globalisation. His books and journalism constituted one breathless paean to global free markets – an endless parade of twenty-year-old dotcom millionaires interviewed in Singapore coffee houses. There’s one passage where he has his shoes shined by an elderly beggar woman, and then speculates on her pride at being able to contribute to the global economy – written in prose so self-satisfied that Francis Wheen wondered how the woman restrained herself from punching him in the face.

Post-crash, Friedman’s work seems strikingly naive. In the protectionist backlash people are increasingly suspicious of globalism. The average UK citizen wants more immigration control, troops pulled out of Afghanistan, withdrawal from the EU and locally sourced food. Read the comment threads on any national or regional newspaper website and you’ll find our collective dream is of a silo nation: nothing gets in, nothing gets out.

For localism has a dark side. As well as Prince Charles’s babble about British cheese subsidies and supermarket regulation it has produced a fierce hostility to migrants. People think of economics as zero sum. Let too many migrants into the UK, they reason, and soon there won’t be enough food or money for the rest of us. If a migrant gets a job, someone else must lose theirs. If a migrant applies for housing benefit, it goes straight out of your paycheque. It is fair to say that loathing of immigrants has become a national pathology.

In his essential book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, the economist Philippe Legrain demolished the case against migration in both its economic and what he kindly terms its ‘cultural’ form. In that book he also made the argument for freedom of movement of labour to match the freedom of movement of capital. It’s an indispensable text, and Legrain’s is a voice of sanity that is badly needed. In Aftershock he returns to the theme. After the crash instincts tell us to pull up the drawbridge. Surely the devastated British economy can’t continue to absorb yet more foreigners?

Yet we are looking at an international issue through national blinkers. The word ‘immigration,’ Legrain points out, reflects the parochial nature of what passes for debate on this: we assume that everyone in the world wants to live in the UK. Remember the neuralgics over Eastern Europe’s entry into the EU. This was marked by apocalyptic warnings of Britain being stormed by battalions of Polish layabouts and Lithuanian cowboys. About seventy-five million Eastern Europeans became eligible to migrate into the UK. In the end we received about one million, many of whom have gone.

After all, how many people do you know who are willing to completely uproot their lives and settle in another country? Most people live and die within a few miles of the town they grew up in. Yet anti-migration demagogues would have us believe that people all over the developing world weigh up various nations’ welfare states the way British consumers compare prices when buying online.

Immigration, Legrain emphasises, is not a one-way street. There are more British people living abroad than there are foreigners in Britain. He travels to the buzzing British expat community in Shanghai and the buzzing Chinese migrant community in Canada. Often, migration is simply a temporary thing. People work in rich countries for a few years and return when they have saved enough money to start businesses in their homelands.

It will be said that the capitalist crisis makes Legrain’s argument irrelevant: in fact it is more pressing than ever. With a rising pension bill and an understimulated economy we are more in need of bright young workers and entrepreneurs than ever. The child refugee Sergey Brin co-invented Google: how many Brins are we turning away? It would be a mistake of cataclysmic proportions to slam the barriers down – and yet that is what we are doing. We elect a government that campaigned on a migration cap (to be fair, it has rowed back on this after being told by City advisors that such a policy would be laughably impractical). Still, we give far too much time to ‘a disparate group of conservatives, nationalist, left-wingers and environmentalists with a shared distaste of globalised modernity, while the farmers and small-business owners whose narrow interests such an agenda serves are happy to go along for the ride.’

I’ve been told that a purely economic argument for migration neglects the human element. Certainly people who leave their country normally have an urgent reason to do so, and the horror stories from the developing world’s refugees take us into a level of darkness that is almost beyond comprehension. Yet there is a compelling humanitarian case for freedom of movement, in and of itself. Legrain gives a hypothetical of the African genius and the American waster. The African can work twenty-hour days and employ his talents to the absolute limit, but he won’t come close to the level of opportunities and freedoms enjoyed by the American who spends most of his life on benefits. How can this be justified? Legrain hopes that ‘[e]ventually, restrictions on people’s freedom of movement might come to be seen as an unacceptable violation of their human rights.’

Or as the radical journalist Greg Palast put it: ‘It’s not where you come from that counts. It’s where you’re going.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 27th, 2010.