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June 3, 2011 10:16 pm

Immigrant Nations

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Immigrant Nations, Paul Scheffer, Polity, RRP£19.99, 300 pages

 

Do indigenous citizens have any special rights compared with newcomers? Why should a country belong to its inhabitants? Are we not all newcomers to the countries in which we are born? Paul Scheffer’s Immigrant Nations is full of such intriguing reflections on mass immigration.

Scheffer argues that society does, indeed, belong to its inhabitants; it is a contract between generations that requires borders and boundaries. He is a leading figure in the reaction against the “immigrationist” narrative of liberal Europe – that we have always been mongrel nations and that mass immigration is a desirable, and unavoidable, enrichment of our grey and ageing societies.

But he is no reactionary. His critique is based on social-democratic anxieties about the future of mutual obligation and how we have not asked enough of new citizens in increasingly fragmented European societies. As a member of the Dutch Labour party, he published a famous essay in 2000 attacking multiculturalism, opening a debate that came to be dominated by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim populists.

This book makes Scheffer significant in another way – he is leading immigration writing out of its ghetto. There is a vast, mainly academic, literature on immigration, much of which is anodyne and constrained by fear of causing offence. It tends to reflect the assumptions of the anti-racist left of the 1960s and 1970s and sees things mainly from the immigrant’s point of view. Yet it is often strangely uninterested in the cultures of real-life immigrants, explaining their successes and failures in terms of the attitudes they encounter in the host society.

By contrast, Immigrant Nations – a mix of reportage, memoir, analysis and history first published in Dutch in 2007 – is bursting with curiosity about the immigrant condition. Scheffer is a professor of urban studies at Amsterdam University but he brings a literary imagination to this vast subject, together with a psychological insight and aphoristic style not found in the academic tomes. Immigration studies has found its Nietszche. Scheffer is, for example, sympathetic to the immigrant fate of always being judged in terms of your origins, yet also aware of a self-pitying ambiguity in the response: “Don’t judge me by my background but never forget where I come from.”

Many chapters can be read as stand-alone essays – on cosmopolitanism, on contrasts between the big European countries, on the Netherlands story. But there are also some big themes that weave through the book: how immigration represents loss and alienation for everyone concerned and how conflict can be a step on the road to accommodation; how integration has become harder thanks to welfare practices and transnational identities (especially Islamic ones) that make it easier not to join the host society; how European and American immigration has more in common than we assume; and how the embrace of “diversity” has nurtured conservatism in immigrant cultures struggling to adapt to western freedoms.

Scheffer provides no policy solutions. But he worries about the gulf between European elites who increasingly regard themselves as world citizens and the masses who remain emotionally tied to specific places. Moreover, as ordinary citizens have acquired more rights and social protections in recent decades, the logic is for stronger, not weaker, border controls. Such controls may be harder to apply than during the great American immigration “pause” between 1924 and 1965 but they may be a necessary condition of democratic continuity, especially in northern European countries with strong senses of social solidarity.

One of the genuine enrichments of immigration, Scheffer argues, is that it forces us to reflect on citizenship. He proposes the “no more” principle – native populations cannot ask of newcomers any more than they themselves are prepared to contribute. And though he is more sceptical about the benefits (including economic) of immigration than most modern liberals, he remains subtle and balanced throughout. As a fellow Dutch liberal sceptic, Rene Cuperus, has put it, he is “tough on populism and tough on the causes of populism”.

Immigrant Nations is an important, ambitious book. It rambles in places, and Scheffer ducks the big issue of what national identity should look like in open, rich societies. But as the revolt against mass immigration and multiculturalism shows no signs of weakening in Europe, it is timely to have a rational and liberal defence of the new scepticism that ranges with such confidence across so many countries – and is a damn good read too.

David Goodhart is editor-at-large of Prospect magazine

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