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Why is Naomi Klein uncritical of mass immigration to the First World?

Naomi Klein was interviewed on 16 July 2008 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) TV show "The Hour", for 15 minutes, about her book, The Shock Doctrine, Penguin 2007. Her biography and her family background show a deep concern for social justice and human rights. Unfortunately there seems to be an environmental naivety which could cancel out many of her efforts and her family's on these issues.

Klein was born in 1970, two years after Ehrlich's book, The Population Bomb, Ballantine Books, 1968, was published. Her husband is Avi Lewis, son of Stephen Lewis, former NDP leader of Ontario and the man devoted to feeding Africa and preventing death in Africa. Lewis seems, however, to have failed to look at African land-rights and rights to family planning in a continent where Western interference with long-term settlement patterns and local economies, has caused appalling overpopulation, hunger, environmental devastation and species loss, in a country which for centuries had the richest biodiversity and no major population, hunger, or environmental problems.

Klein's brother Seth is a member of the left wing Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Vancouver. This is a think tank dedicated to economic and social issues. It challenges free market solutions, school vouchers, privatisation and what it considers "right wing" immigration ideas. Unfortunately, it considers 'right wing' any opposition to open borders.

It is clear that Naomi Klein has been very careful on the issue of immigration and open borders in her book, The Shock Doctrine. Nonetheless, throughout her book, she criticises policies of invasive development and their accompaniment by the importation of foreign workers - for instance in Iraq and in Sri Lanka. She recognises the problem of the alienation of public and village land by multinationals, and through international gentrification in the service of rich tourists, although she does not overtly link this to immigration, but to class and exclusive exploitation. There is therefore a danger that some readers may miss the connection between the buying up of real-estate by foreign individuals and corporations and the migration to those sites by large quantities of first world immigrants. Closer to home, her book flags opposition to immigration in the 'developed world', but she is obviously uneasy with the legitimacy of this. For some reason she fails to identify as strongly with the lower classes in the US, Canada and the UK, as she does with those further from her own home range. So she, or her staff of writers in these chapters, talk about how the people of the first world should be criticising the corporate take-over of land and government everywhere, and they warn against people displaced in the developed world targeting incoming immigrants with their resentment. It seems to me that she thus does a disservice to the disempowered of the West, who exist alongside its fabled and rightly deplored affluent upper classes. If the people of Iraq, Sri Lanka, South America etc., have her blessing to resent the stealing and repopulating of their regions by footloose multinationals and the importing of foreign workers to service the projects of those multinationals, then why shouldn't those dispossessed in the 'developed' world, not have the freedom of expressing their right to control over what happens locally and to their countries, including control over borders?

Psychologically, Klein is firmly ranged against the evil corporations who are waiting for the next disaster to impose their free market agenda on the next helpless victims. On the ground, however, she is strangely reluctant to sheet home the way the evil corporations benefit financially from the open borders policies they lobby for whilst they prone a committment to human rights. What is stopping Klein from seeing - or if she sees it, what is stopping her from expressing - that the impact on the poor in North America, Canada, the UK, Australia etc of the transfer of cheap labour from desperately poor developing countries, is just as damaging and unjust when it happens in the West as it is when applied to developing countries? In the West, wholesale import of labour destroys hard-won working class conditions. In the West, the sale of property overseas and the importing of cashed up immigrants to stoke up demand for US, UK, Canadian, Australian, etc real estate, puts basic shelter out of the reach of people on low wages. It also pushes infrastructure further out into the fragile ecosystems bordering the intensive conglomerations in those countries, trashing the environment and accelerating climate change in the process.

Is there, I wonder, some way to get Naomi and her staff and publishers to see that the disempowerment of the modest middle classes and the poor in the industrialised world, is only extending the third world into the Richworld, and shoring up the exploiting classes and their corporate servants - the banks, property developers, international tourism, the military, the mass-media - the whole globalisation machine?

In the interview, Klein was exercised by the fact that Hurricane Katrina allowed the rich an opportunity to finally gentrify a devastated housing project long denied the poor. The poor who might have benefited from that housing project had been wiped out by the cyclone.

The bigger issue of climate change and what was behind it - the intensity and huge scale of our activities and populations - was not considered. Economic growth and the population growth it markets as inevitable and necessary, were never questioned.

Klein rightly highlights the growing inequities of the already starkly imbalanced distribution of wealth across the regions and classes of the world, except in the worlds of the readers she is writing for. She minutely documents crying injustices in a manner more effective than has hitherto been achieved. But why does she not stand back for just a moment to see the role that overpopulation and mass movements of people has in disorganising communities and networks, the better to be exploited by those who push for this and benefit from it?

And why does she not stand back and see that, if the great writers of the world fail to also dramatise the terrible conflicts between human population growth and the environment and food production and human rights, then all her work is for nothing?

By Sheila Newman, from an idea and notes by Tim Murray