Commentary: Immigration reform — a dialectical paradox | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Immigration reform — a dialectical paradox

May 16, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Hegelian philosophy is not exactly on the cutting edge of contemporary political discourse. It tends to be relegated to ponderous tomes on the back shelves of libraries where it collects more dust than admirers. Undergraduates are sometimes taught that Karl Marx borrowed from it to develop his theory of dialectical materialism. 

If Marx is its most recent notable adherent, you can imagine how obscure the original school of thought has become. Despite the complexity of his overall work, Hegel’s basic idea provided a simple, yet intriguing, perspective from which to analyze history.

He postulated that a thesis breeds its antithesis. The dissonance between these polar opposites results in a new state of affairs called a synthesis. That synthesis, in turn, becomes the new thesis as the process repeats itself. Thus does history travel its tangled paths.

The unfettered capitalism of the 19th century, for instance, spawned the trade union movement. Those opposites subsequently synthesized into a hybrid economy of private enterprise tempered by workers’ rights that endured for much of the last century. The antithesis of that situation is still unfolding.

Hegel’s dialectic, then, is similar to applying Newton’s Third Law of Motion (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”) to the study of history, but with the concept of synthesis added to provide for progress. The paradigm is appealing because the convoluted twists and turns it predicts help to explain the paradoxical nature of human affairs.

The case can be fairly made that the Obama administration fathered the Tea Party movement. Tension between these extremes has resulted in the oft-mentioned ideological polarization that has now all but paralyzed Washington.

According to Hegel, if polarization is the new normal, then we should next look for its antithesis — consensus — to make an appearance. Though that commodity remains in short supply in the capital, there does seem to be emerging agreement that something needs to be done about the nation’s policy on immigration — an issue that has its own dialectical history.

Subsequent to the “discovery” of the New World, settlers from Europe began to arrive in North America. Some came for adventure, others to escape religious or ethnic persecution, but most were motivated by economic concerns — they wanted to make a materially better life for themselves and their families.

Originally, immigration was a virtue rather than a problem.  There was, after all, a lot of land to be colonized and the native population (a.k.a. “The American Indian”) had no immigration policy whatsoever — an oversight for which they would eventually pay dearly.

The generally laissez-faire attitude toward new arrivals adhered through the early years of the American Republic.  Though ethnic tensions occasionally gave rise to phenomena like the Know-Nothing Movement, the nation was nearly 100 years old before Congress got around to passing its first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875. By then, the Fourteenth Amendment had already been ratified, making persons born here legal citizens of the United States.

Once they became established, immigrants thus morphed into citizens. Among others, the Irish and Italians initially suffered discrimination, but eventually were assimilated by dint of sheer numbers. The process was largely a function of utility.

There was a frontier to tame and the burgeoning industrial revolution created a nearly insatiable demand for cheap labor. For most of the country’s history, unbridled growth was more virtue than vice.

Today, the leading immigrant demographic is Latino. As a group, they are poorer and less educated than the general population. Most lack health insurance and virtually none has a retirement plan. By historical standards, they’re pretty typical of first-generation immigrants.

But the economic situation is now reversed. The frontier is a distant memory, and there’s a surfeit of supply for the remaining domestic manufacturing jobs. And nobody’s complaining that we don’t have enough people to fill the welfare rolls.

Agriculture, on the other hand, has evolved from a family affair into big business. The modern corporate plantation welcomes the discounted services of immigrant labor. Unfortunately, there’s little room for growth in the roots of the produce industry. It doesn’t take too long to recite the roll call of fruit-pickers who made it to the penthouse.

Against this backdrop, both political parties struggle with internal dissent while seeking some sort of accommodation. Business interests in the Republican Party covet cheap labor but low-income workers tend to vote Democratic and the GOP’s right wing is virulently anti-immigrant. Democrats want the votes but risk alienating union support by depressing the wage scale and losing middle class voters by further draining scant public assistance resources.

A nation of immigrants thus grapples with the problem of immigration. Hegel would not be shocked.