Didem Danış

6 June 2024

In this insightful interview, GAR member Didem Danış talks with renowned Hungarian scholar, Attila Melegh to explore the intricate intersections of socio-economic factors, cultural dynamics, and anti-immigrant sentiments. Delving into the systemic crises of neoliberal capitalism, Prof. Melegh emphasizes the need for a radical rethinking of economic models and the importance of solidarity between migrant and local workers. The conversation sheds light on the paradoxes and challenges faced by contemporary societies, offering a critical analysis of global migration trends and their implications.

Attila Melegh is a distinguished sociologist and historian with extensive international experience. Currently serving as a senior researcher at the Hungarian Central Statistical Office and holding positions as an associate professor at Corvinus University and professor at Pal Tomori College, he has taught in multiple countries including the United States, Russia, Georgia, and Hungary. With a focus on population discourses, migration, migration statistics, and global social change, he has led major international projects and currently presides over the European Network of Global and Universal History. In addition to his three books and over a hundred scientific publications in English and Hungarian, Melegh has recently published a book called “The Migration Turn and Eastern Europe: A Global Historical Sociological Analysis”.


Didem Danış: Let’s start with a general question. How has globalization and neoliberalism impacted the landscape of migrant labor, particularly in regions such as eastern Europe where anti-migrant nationalist sentiments are on the rise?

Attila Melegh: Globalization and neoliberalism have profoundly transformed migration dynamics, particularly affecting regions like Eastern Europe. These changes stem from the increased mobility of capital, which has dismantled previous barriers and facilitated a radical shift in economic landscapes.

The neoliberal era has witnessed unprecedented freedom for capital movement, radically altering the global economy. This shift is characterized by the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, aligning with capital interests, and China's mixed economy opening specific sectors to foreign capital. These changes have driven debates in migration scholarship about the macrostructural reasons behind rising migration, emphasizing the impact of economic factors like income and GDP growth on migration capabilities.

A critical factor in rising migration is the economic upheaval caused by the intrusion of foreign capital and the shift to neoliberal capitalist systems. This shift has marketized various social spheres, including education, care, and public services, leading to the breakdown of traditional living methods. For instance, in Hungary, a country of 10 million people, over 1.5 million jobs were lost between 1990 and 1992, due to the transition from a socialist to a capitalist economy. This job loss and subsequent economic instability uprooted people, compelling them to seek new opportunities elsewhere.

Technological advancements have also contributed to the displacement of certain job types, exacerbating migration trends. As economies evolve, specific jobs become obsolete, prompting workers to migrate in search of new employment. This technological displacement is a global phenomenon, reinforcing the trend of rising emigration from countries undergoing rapid economic changes.

Globalization has not increased the number of immigrant countries but has dramatically raised the number of emigrant countries. This results in a bottleneck effect, where more countries actively send migrants to a limited number of host nations. The rising income in sending countries positively influences migration, but the willingness to migrate also depends on factors like economic uprooting and job displacement.

The neoliberal expansion has extended market relations into areas previously untouched by capitalism, such as public services. This marketization uproots people by disrupting their customary living methods. For example, land grabbing in Africa illustrates how investors buying up peasant land for industrial purposes displace thousands without providing alternative employment, leading to forced migration.

Anti-migrant sentiments in host countries often overlook the role of their own economies in contributing to migration. Western economies, through their capital investments, significantly uproot populations in sending countries. This dynamic highlights the hypocrisy in political discourses that demonize migrants while ignoring the economic policies that drive migration.

On occasions like Labor Day, it's crucial to recognize that the neoliberal capitalist framework, with its emphasis on free capital movement and marketization, has a significant impact on migration. These economic transformations uproot populations, creating new migration trends that are often misrepresented in political debates. Understanding this connection is vital for addressing the root causes of migration and developing fairer economic policies.

DD: My second question is about anti-immigrant climate. How do socio-economic factors intersect with cultural and social dynamics in shaping anti-immigrant sentiments, and what role does migrant labor play in this complex equation?

Globally, anti-migrant sentiments have remained stable between the 1980s and late 2010s, despite variations across regions. In Africa, anti-migrant attitudes have declined slightly. Latin America, historically open due to its immigrant population and unique role in the colonial system, has seen increased negative attitudes recently, especially towards migrants from Haiti and Venezuela. The West (North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) has seen a slight increase in anti-migrant attitudes, but overall, the trend remains relatively stable. Asia, however, exhibits strong anti-migrant sentiments, driven by political leaders like Modi in India and general societal anxieties in countries like Japan and China.

Eastern Europe provides a model case to understand the intersection of material, cultural, and traditional factors in shaping anti-immigrant sentiments. Historically, this region has experienced high emigration and dramatic border changes. Countries with small populations and unique languages opened their economies to foreign capital after the collapse of socialism, creating economic instability. During socialism, migration was a taboo subject, and the state claimed demographic control, which influenced public perception and reaction to migration.

Labor migration in Eastern Europe has triggered a population panic due to low fertility rates, declining population sizes, and significant emigration since the 1990s. Interestingly, countries with higher emigration rates, like Bulgaria and Romania, show less anti-migrant sentiment compared to countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Estonia, which have lower emigration rates. This paradox can be attributed to several factors. The first is about the economic history. Hungary and the Czech Republic were relatively well-off under socialism, experiencing "goulash communism" with higher stability and prosperity. This made the transition to neoliberalism and the subsequent economic crises more difficult for these populations. Secondly, we can talk about welfare systems. These countries retained some welfare benefits, leading to less emigration but creating a sense of welfare competition. People feared losing their benefits, which fueled anti-immigrant sentiments.

The fear that migrants would take away jobs and welfare benefits has been a significant factor in anti-immigrant sentiments. Surveys since the 1990s show a strong belief in Hungary and the Czech Republic that foreigners take away jobs. Political elites, both neoliberal and populist, have exploited these fears. For example, during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, Hungarian authorities used propaganda to stoke fears about migrants taking local jobs, despite the refugees merely passing through Hungary.

Eastern European political elites have effectively used anti-immigrant rhetoric as a political tool. Populist and right-wing governments, as well as neoliberal centrists, have capitalized on public fears, using migration as a political card to gain support. This has led to a heightened sense of national insecurity and identity crisis, further entrenching anti-immigrant sentiments.

The situation in Eastern Europe reflects broader global trends where migration intersects with the major contradictions of global capitalism. Similar patterns of anti-immigrant sentiments can be observed in other regions, such as Turkey, highlighting the universal nature of these dynamics.

Understanding the interplay of socio-economic and cultural factors in shaping anti-immigrant sentiments is crucial. Eastern Europe's experience illustrates how economic transitions, historical legacies, and political exploitation contribute to these attitudes. This case underscores the importance of addressing the root causes of migration and the socio-economic insecurities that fuel anti-immigrant sentiments.


DD: You talked about the main contradiction of global capitalism. What is its connection with migration debates?

AM: The main contradiction of global capitalism lies in its push to create a complete global labor market to boost economic growth and productivity, arguing that migrant mobility increases productivity. However, this clashes with rising issues of redistribution, welfare instability, labor market insecurity, and exploitation. People sense this imbalance, leading to reactions against it.

Karl Polanyi described this as a "market utopia" that inevitably leads to a backlash, which can be either socialist or fascistic. A key example is the care crisis: declining fertility rates and an aging population increase the need for care, but redistribution is decreasing. Countries like Austria address this by attracting migrants to provide care, offering cash incentives while reducing welfare benefits.

The migrants are going abroad because they don't get the care at home. Once an interviewee in Hungary told me that, “oh, my husband got very sick. Therefore, I went to take care of elderly in Austria.” Thus, migration becomes entangled in these contradictions, highlighting the paradoxical relationship between globalization and migration, where economic growth objectives conflict with social stability and equitable resource distribution.


DD: What insights do you believe are crucial for us to consider regarding the rights and the dignity of not only migrant laborers or local community, but both of them, the local and migrant laborers within the broader context of neoliberal globalization and anti migrant nationalism?

AM: To address the rights and dignity of both migrant and local laborers in the context of neoliberal globalization and anti-migrant nationalism, it's crucial to understand that neoliberal capitalism creates problems it cannot solve. These issues include labor migration and cultural conflicts, often exacerbated by large-scale wars. This systemic crisis demands careful consideration and a shift in perspective beyond the pro- or anti-migrant debate.

The current institutional framework of neoliberal capitalism is inadequate, fostering tensions and conflicts rather than resolving them. Therefore, it's essential to explore and implement more effective economic models. Workers and employees worldwide play a dramatic role in this transformation, necessitating a reassessment of existing economic structures.

Critical thinkers must regain faith in the possibility of change. Historically, significant changes have not occurred merely through idealism but through crises. As such, the impending crisis may force elites to acknowledge their inability to manage, creating an opportunity for substantial political movements and intellectual contributions.

Analyzing historical models that have worked and identifying new societal elements to leverage are crucial steps. This informed discussion can pave the way for viable solutions, ensuring the rights and dignity of all laborers are upheld.


DD: Do you mean that the models also are context dependent? Can we think about more universal models?

AM: We need to think about more universal models. However, historical processes are often misunderstood, leading to significant issues. For instance, the development of Eastern European socialism has been misinterpreted. Contrary to popular belief, it was never a monolithic system. Initially, during the Stalinist period, there were attempts to create such a system, resulting in significant political mistakes. Over time, these societies evolved into a mixture of social forms, combining market elements, state planning, and household economies.

This hybrid system had potential but lacked democracy, which was a significant flaw. The key takeaway is that we don't need to invent entirely new models; we can learn from historical examples. Stable mixed economies, where people are not uprooted and stability is prioritized, could be achieved with radical reforms in global market operations and financial systems.

I'm more optimistic than most because I believe there are viable models to consider. It's crucial for migrant and local workers to start communicating, as they currently compete against each other, which is counterproductive. Migrant labor is often exploited in various sectors. Workers need to understand they are not rivals but rather at the mercy of capital, and they must find ways to avoid this trap through solidarity and mutual support. But of course, it's very difficult to facilitate that.


DD: How about Turkish or Eastern European contexts?

AM: In the Turkish context, it's a catch-22 situation. Turkey is in an unequal exchange, which is why it needs cheap labor. To survive in global competition, it employs more unfortunate people for cheaper salaries. When you start bringing migrants into your country, there is going to be a local reaction to this as well. That's the problem. This is the Eastern European story as well. Eastern Europe should import immigrant labor massively, and now they are doing so with guest worker programs and by taking in people. But the reaction to that is the most horrendous. This is the trick of global capitalism. It’s a very bad game, where populations are thrust into a fearful competitive arena and can't find their way.


DD: Isn’t it the easiest way to divert attention from the real structural problems of inequality and poverty for politicians?

AM: In the short run, yes. But I wouldn't want to be a politician in these capitalist countries. They face unsolvable problems. For instance, in Eastern Europe, large-scale and foreign industrialists demand more immigrants, threatening to leave otherwise. Populist governments have to comply in a clandestine manner. It's a trap for everyone. This is why critical thinkers are needed to address the systemic reasons behind the crisis, rather than being pro- or anti-migrant.


DD: Is it possible to return to the pre-1980 nationalist developmentalist model with no mobility of capital, goods, or people, which is still the nationalists' ideal?

AM: No, we cannot go back to national capitalism. It's over. Nationalists underestimate the role of global capital. For example, in Hungary, we have strong nationalism, but fully open markets. The government heavily invests in multinational projects, showing the paradoxes again and again.