Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud

Usually right-libertarians don’t come right out and say that robust bargaining power on the part of labor is directly opposed to capitalist interests, and that reduced bargaining power of labor as such is good for capitalism. And they sure don’t admit that they consider bigotry a good thing when it’s a useful weapon against labor.

But in a commendable display of honesty, Alex Nowrasteh and Benjamin Powell say the quiet part out loud (“How Mass Immigration Stopped American Socialism,” Reason Aug/Sept 2021 issue). 

They make it plain, in so many words, that they view labor unions as such as hostile to capitalism or morally equivalent to socialism, and are predisposed to see anything that makes them harder to organize as good. “American government grew slower when the stock of immigrants was high, and union membership was lower when immigration was greater.” They explicitly celebrate the facts that xenophobia made it easier to demagogue against “socialism,” and that language barriers made it harder to organize unions.

It’s ironic that the authors, in the process of their argument, inadvertently confess that the old right-libertarian argument that capitalism undermines racism is nonsense. They go so far as to quote Engels as an authority, in arguing that racism and xenophobia serve capitalism by dividing workers amongst themselves.

Friedrich Engels wrote that immigrants in the United States “are divided into different nationalities and understand neither one another nor, for the most part, the language of the country.” Furthermore, the American “bourgeoisie knows…how to play off one nationality against the other: Jews, Italians, Bohemians, etc., against Germans and Irish, and each one against the other.” He argued that open immigration would delay the socialist revolution for a long time as the American bourgeoisie understood that “‘there will be plenty more, and more than we want, of these damned Dutchmen, Irishmen, Italians, Jews and Hungarians’; and, to cap it all, John Chinaman stands in the background.”

Indeed, American meatpackers and steelmakers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries intentionally hired workers from diverse national, ethnic, and racial backgrounds to inhibit their ability to form labor unions: More diverse backgrounds increased transaction costs among organizing workers.

In other words, they essentially confirm the argument of Marxist Harry Braverman, in Labor and Monopoly Capitalism, that labor market segmentation based on race, or any other factor that divides workers against each other, will increase the bargaining power of capital at the expense of labor by undermining labor solidarity.

Nowrasteh and Powell also celebrate the anti-immigrant bigotry of the native-born because one of its practical effects was to undermine support for socialism. 

Although immigration increased the number of socialists in the United States, it also increased the perception that socialism was an alien and foreign ideology that was distinctly un-American.

Prior to America’s entry into World War I, the Socialist Party secured its highest share of votes in states with low foreign-born populations, like Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana, and Arizona. 

This is incredibly 1) stupid and 2) morally bankrupt, even for Reason. Nowrasteh and Powell explicitly celebrate xenophobia and racism because of their strategic usefulness to the capitalists in fighting labor on both economic and political terrain. 

There’s no reason whatsoever to doubt, based on their explicit support for the strategic exploitation of bigotry in this article, that they would also celebrate Jim Crow culture and anti-black racism in the south, if they (for example) caused the fragmentation of sharecroppers’ unions or otherwise made organizing more difficult.

For that matter, it’s quite suggestive that they also mention the prevailing xenophobia after the United States’ entry into WWI. The anti-immigrant hostility whipped up by the Wilson administration caused labor unions and socialism to be attacked as seditious foreign doctrines. It’s a pretty short leap from celebrating xenophobia because it undermined support for unions and socialism, to supporting the wave of “Old Glory,” “Loyalty,” “100% Americanism” authoritarianism that similarly equated radicalism to foreign influences. And the wave of xenophobia that undermined unionism and socialism, remember, gave us not only “liberty cabbage” but also mass imprisonment on sedition charges of anyone who opposed the war or resisted the draft.

Frankly, I have no trouble whatsoever imagining Nowrasteh and Powell celebrating Mussolini’s blackshirts for their effectiveness against the factory occupations in Turin, the Klan in the south and the death squads in Central America for their similar employment against radicalism, or Hindenburg’s appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. If they do draw the line short of those things, I’m glad. But such a line would be completely inconsistent with the ethical principles implicit in their article.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory