8 May

The Scandal of a System

Jürgen Habermas draws a central distinction between our ‘lifeworld’ and ‘systems-world’. The lifeworld is said to be rooted in society’s collective subjective perception, its shared values and influences, as opposed to fully-rationalized systems which favour the quantifiable realm of ‘efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control’. Habermas proceeds to argue that the crisis of modernity is rooted in bureaucratic systems ‘colonizing’ the lifeworld at the expense of reasoned ‘communicative action’.

This overarching crisis, though, is only rendered visible to us through episodic crises: moments in which a cleavage appears between these two worlds and the extent to which our lifeworld has been overrun by these systems becomes tangible.

In 1976, Richard Selzer describes such a moment when on a midsummer stroll, after the garbage trucks had come and gone, he took a ‘step on something soft’. To his horror, beneath him he found ‘a tiny naked body, its arms and legs flung apart, its head thrown back, its mouth agape, its face serious’. He hoped it was a prank, a toy, or a bird but, in fact, it was ‘a baby … dead’, along with other aborted bodies strewn about the vicinity. The authorities clambered to close the proverbial curtain: the hospital director reassured everyone that it was ‘a freak occurrence’, whilst the police matter-of-factly explained how the ‘fetuses got mixed up with the other debris’. Selzer’s closing reflections capture the cognitive dissonance induced by this juxtaposition of officialdom’s imposed order and its underlying moral disorder:

“Now you see. It is orderly. It is sensible. The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society… But just this once, you know it isn’t. You saw, and you know.”

The recent Windrush scandal shares all the same hallmarks of a colonizing system in crisis. A whole era of paperless Commonwealth migrants, decades after having taken up the offer of an indefinite leave to remain in Britain, were all of a sudden required to present paperwork after ‘a bureaucratic bolt from the blue’, resulting in case after case of legally residing Caribbean-born pensioners fighting for their most basic rights.

The very nature of the ‘scandal’ is that the mask has now slipped and behind it we see the unmediated human cost with ‘its mouth agape, its face serious’. Again, though, the authorities find themselves stuck viewing the event through the prism of the system: details of the bureaucratic slippage are explicated ad infinitum and labelled anomalies that future systems will rectify, whilst the critical need to reintegrate the intersubjective experience of a suffering world is missed entirely.

Amber Rudd’s subsequent resignation itself exemplifies the affair. After falsely denying signing off on deportation targets, Rudd stepped down and apologised for the technical charge of having ‘inadvertently misled the Home Affairs Select Committee’. But there was no accompanying apology or critical self-reflection relating to the ‘ambitious but deliverable’ deportation target of ‘12,800 enforced returns in 2017-18’. Like Tony Blair’s previous ‘tipping point’ target, which demanded that deportations outweigh the number of asylum applications, a quantitative administrative target has been applied to our legal systems which is foreign to their concrete case-based practice. Such arithmetic models necessarily distort the pursuit of justice but the political class persist with them in order to superficially resolve a more fundamental dilemma.

Naturally, human societies desire both material security and social stability. Modern empirico-mathematical rationality dictates that this must be resolved by increasing gross domestic product per capita and decreasing net migration. However, studies show a ‘1 percentage point increase in the share of migrants in the adult population increases GDP per person in advanced economies by up to 2 percent in the longer term’. Governments attempt to resolve this contradiction by restricting poorer migrants and encouraging the inflow of high-earners because of the greater net economic benefit of the latter population. Even when judged by its own quantitative criteria this approach to British immigration policy has failed to control mass migration (net migration under the Conservatives since 2010 has averaged almost 100,000 more per year than under New Labour, despite the claim it would be 100,000 less) but viewed in terms of the common good its effects have been graver still: providing one of the ‘most flexible ‘citizenship by investment programmes’ in the world’ to the global superrich whilst offering refuge to just 0.2% of the 5.4 million Syrians fleeing the ‘worst man-made disaster since World War II’ is, simply put, contrary to natural law itself.

Controlling mass migration is neither impossible nor intrinsically immoral but attempting to control it whilst receiving all of its measurable economic benefits is necessarily both. Countries must firstly review the legality of specific cases concerning residency and asylum independently of the pressures of their overall immigration policy, as well as provide proportionate material and political support to global refugee crises in order to fulfil their basic duties to the global political community. Governments, though, must also resist the desire to siphon off global wealth and talent through liberal immigration policies which only serve to dissolve the social and political bonds that communities today are so anxious to maintain. Ultimately, then, the only measure of the systems surrounding immigration that matters in the last analysis is the lived experience of migrants and the communities which they move to and from.

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