Yesterday I asked whether those people who feel uncomfortable hearing foreign languages on the bus will also feel uncomfortable watching Ola Jordan and Kristina Rihanoff tonight. My question was a serious one. What I was hinting at is that concern about immigration is often not directed at specific people. When people say they dislike immigration they are not - except for a handful of outright racists - thinking of Ola Jordan, or Mo Farah, or the guy who owns the corner shop or the girl who works in the chippie or their work colleagues, but rather some amorphous mass over there that they read about in the papers.
It is this that explains a paradox - that worries about immigration are greatest where actual immigration is lowest: Ukip has big support in Clacton and (I regret) Rutland rather than London or Leicester. One poll (pdf) for Mori found that whilst 76% of people think immigration is a very or fairly big problem for Britain, only 18% think it is in their own area. As Mori says:
Readers of the print media were more worried about immigration than nonreaders, as were particular readers of titles that have had a heavy negative focus on this issue.
What's going on here is, perhaps, the reification fallacy - when an abstraction is treated as if it were a concrete, real thing with real effects.
I emphasize "perhaps", because one might reasonably be disquieted about immigration not because of its observable effects - which are benign in the economic sphere - but because it might in future have adverse effects upon social cohesion. But this surely doesn't warrant the high profile immigration has: why worry about potential problems rather that actual ones?
This, I suspect, is not the only example of the reification fallacy. If you were to ask those who want to leave the EU "what is the EU stopping you doing now?" I fear you'd often be met with silence or error. And, I suspect, managerialism contains an element of the fallacy; it attributes real effects to what is sometimes a mythical quality of"leadership"*.
Now, I am not saying here that visual evidence is all we need. When Marx said that "all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided" he was making the important and non-partisan point that social processes are often hidden from us. But there is a big distinction between uncovering things that exist and worrying about things that don't.
Even so, this raises the question: what would politics be like if people only relied upon the evidence of their own eyes? I suspect that economic issues of low wages and unemployment would be much more important.
However, it doesn't necessarily follow that there'd be a big shift to the left. Even in the days before the mass media workers were often quiet or conservative even though they had good reason for grievance - as Robert Tressell famously described. And this warns us that reactionary impulses shouldn't be blamed solely upon the media.
* I'm not saying this fallacy is confined to the right. When rightists ask: "what harm is inequality doing given that the rich are invisible?" they are accusing the left of the same fallacy. Personally, I think their question can be answered satisfactorily, but it's possible that some leftists are committing the fallacy.