The article below is taken from issue #3 of revolution magazine, August/September 1997. The issues around immigration which it raises continue to be essential for a real workers’ movement – a movement which fights for the class as a class rather than subordinating workers to their exploiters. The introduction to the article when it first appeared declared, “Although immigration has been the focus of much attention, the right and left share so much common ground on the issue that there has been no real debate.” Sadly, almost 18 years on, we still have people on the left helping blame immigrants for some of the problems caused by the economic system.

imagesby Phil Duncan

The debate on immigration over the last couple of years has shown again the racist underbelly of New Zealand society. The fact that the attack on Asian immigrants has been led by Winston Peters, who is now deputy prime minister and treasurer – and that his party’s popularity skyrocketed in early 1996 when he was at the height of his immigrant-bashing – shows that the real racist danger comes not from a handful of skinheads but from within mainstream politics.

Labour and National’s racism

Although leaders of the National Party, such as (prime minister) Bolger criticised Peters and NZ First’s anti-immigrant line, Bolger himself was a member of the Muldoon government which in 1976 carried out massive dawn raids against Pacific Islanders, picked people off the street because they were brown-skinned, and deported thousands of ‘overstayers’. In the early 1980s, Muldoon, with the full support of Labour leader David Lange, deprived thousands of Samoans of NZ citizenship. (It was also Labour which began the dawn raids – PD, 2015.) Both Labour and National are totally in favour of racist controls, especially when applied to the poverty-stricken Pacific Islands exploited by NZ capitalism.

Successive National and Labour governments have, after all, operated immigration controls against Asians and Pacific Islanders for a hundred years.

The ‘first peoples’ argument

Reactionary attitudes to ‘foreigners’ have been strengthened by another political development of recent years, the rise of Maori nationalism and the idea of a special status for Maori as ‘tangata whenua’. According to this view, some people should have more rights in this country than others, based on supposed cultural identity and length of ancestral residence. These are, of course, the very arguments being used against Asian, Pacific Island and other ‘non-white’ immigrants.

Moreover, despite the left’s uncomfortability with MPs playing the race card, they themselves have been instrumental in setting up this card in the first place. Nationalistic ‘left’ groups have for years campaigned against ‘foreign’ control, thereby promoting the idea that power is somehow slipping out of the hands of ordinary New Zealanders – when did workers ever exercise real power in this country? – and into the grasping claws of dreaded foreigners. Our own capitalist class is presented as preferable to other capitalists (especially ones who don’t look like ‘us’). Nationalist ‘left’ groups have even allied with Peters and had him speaking on their platforms in recent years.

All that this sort of campaigning has done is strtengthen xenophobia and anxiety among people in this country. It has reinforced the racist political consensus that ‘foreigners’ are a problem. This has extremely dangerous consequences in conditions of ongoing slump, social breakdown, decay of public services, growing anxiety and frustration.

With most people worse off than they were ten years ago in terms of jobs, real wages, and access to health and education services, and yet still accepting a capitalist framework, they will understandably focus their anger on scapegoats and vulnerable targets. Asians and other migrants end up being blamed for health waiting lists, deteriorating education services, high house prices and so on.

Demonisation of Japan

There is an additional aspect to anti-Asian racism, which gives it a particularly virulent side. This aspect goes to the core of more general ideas of white supremacy and fears of imperial decline.

When the (white) colonial powers enslaved much of the world, they presented those they conquered as inherently inferior by dint of skin colour. White supremacy was a key product of, and legitimisation for, imperialism. One of the countries the white powers ran into problems with, however, was Japan.

For particular reasons, Japan was able to preserve its independence and emerge as an imperiaist power in its own right. It emerged as a significant challenge both to US and European interests in Asia and the Pacific in the 1920s and 1930s and to their notions of the inherent supremacy of whites. The Japanese have never been forgiven for disproving that there is anything superior about white-skinned people.

For a hundred years, the white New Zealand elite has vented its supremacist bigotry upon Pacific Islanders and Asians, usually with the full connivance of the official labour movement. Chinese labourers here in the late 1800s/early 1900s were subjected to racist immigration controls, paid subsistence wages and regulated in even the most personal aspects of their lives by the state – with the support of much of the labour movement. Chinese males were even to be kept away from both Maori and pakeha women in order to preserve the ‘racial purity’ of the white and Maori ‘races’ and the ‘moral purity’ of the women.

In Samoa, the post-World War I New Zealand colonial administration was concerned to prevent relations between Chinese men and Samoan women, at one point in the 1920s gloing so far as to declare all Chinese-Samoan marriages null and void and discussing wholesale repatriation of Chinese labourers. This racism was not confined to the Colonel Blimp imitators who served as NZ administrators in Samoa; it was shared at least in part by militant Labour Party leader Harry Holland, still a revered figure on much of the left in this country.

For the past hundred years, the labour movement and the left have been riddled with the disease of kiwi nationalism. Their reactionary campaigns for import controls and against Asian capital and commodities cannot be separated from the anti-Asian atmosphere in which they take place or from campaigns against the people who produce those commodities. Meanwhile, of course, NZ capitalism is left free to expand into Asia to take advantage of cheap labour and raw materials, just as it has ripped off the Pacific Islands for decades, with little comment from much of the left.

Reframing the issue

The reactionary nature of so much of the ‘left’ thinking on these issues helps explain the limited framework of the public debate on the issue. For instance, just about everyone – liberal left, social-democratic left, Maori nationalists, even sections of people who would personally identify as anti-capitalist left – agrees that immigration is a problem and that some restrictions are needed. But why are they?

Firstly, New Zealand is hardly over-crowded, with about the lowest population density in the western world next to Canada and Australia. Secondly, the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of New Zealand society has made iot a far more interesting place to live than it was in the ‘good old days’, when it existed as a dreary hole at the end of the world, somewhere from which thousands of vibrant young people couldn’t wait to escape. Thirdly, in a world in which capital is able to move around the globe to wherever production costs are lowest and therefore profits can be maximised, why shouldn’t workers (or the middle class, for that matter) move to wherever they can achieve the best selling price for their labour-power and where they can most enjoy life?

Racist and anti-working class

Immigration controls are racist, anti-working class measures. They are designed to keep workers divided along national lines and to identify with their own capitalists against foreigners. In New Zealand, immigration controls are part of the nationalist ideology which coheres this society in the interests of the ruling rich.

Moreover, the fact that some – indeed, many – Asians, Pacific Islanders and Africans are kept out by such controls reinforces the idea that all non-kiwis are somehow questionable and only here on sufferance. Immigration controls, by discriminating over who can and cannot work and live in this country, legitimise discrimination aganst migrants once they are here. Hardest hit of all are Pacific Islanders, thousands of whom live in constant dread of dawn raids by immigration police.

Marx used to argue that until British workers learned to solidarise with Irish republicans against the British ruling class, they would never develop the political consciousness necessary to take on that ruling class. Bfritish workers would remain tied to their own rulers’ apron-strings on the key political questions. For exactly the same reasons, open immigration is a key demand to be fought for by people serious about social change in New Zealand today.

Workers and leftists who side with kiwi nationalism against people from other countries are basically lining up with their own exploiters; they will never be able to mount a serious challenge to the NZ ruling class until they break with them on the question of nationalism and all the issues, such as immigration controls and military intervention abroad, which flow from it.

In defending Asian, Pacific Island and all other immigrants, we can make no distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigrants. The ‘illegals’ are, indeed, the people in the worst position and most desperately in need of support.

There should be no restrictions on entry and work in this country, and full rights should be accorded to all, whether born here or migrant. Defending migrants means declaring war on all immigration controls and on the NZ nationalism which has been as much a staple part of the diet of the left as it has of the traditional right in this country.

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