SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 160 - July/August 2012

Capitalism, globalisation and migration

What role has migration played in the development of capitalist society? What impact does it have in this time of savage austerity? How can socialists take up these questions in the face of tough-talking politicians and the far-right who aim to divide working-class people? Reviewing a new book, Exceptional People, HANNAH SELL looks at these important issues.

Exceptional People: how migration shaped our world and will define our future

By Iain Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan

Published by Princeton University Press (2011), £24.95

Order from Socialist Books

AS BOTH THE Tory party, and now Labour leader Ed Miliband, ‘talk tough’ on immigration, this book puts the other side of capitalism’s two-sided attitude to this issue. Historically, the capitalist world market developed in a contradictory fashion, from the nation state. At some stages, the importance for capitalism of ‘freedom of trade’ was to the fore. At others, the importance of national barriers. Today the productive forces have long outgrown nation states, and yet still remain partially constrained by them. Capitalism’s attitude to migration reflects this contradiction.

Written by three Oxbridge academics, Exceptional People argues on the side of ‘freedom’, specifically for "the idea of freer movement". They summarise their case: "Even modest increases in the rate of migration would produce significant gains for the global economy. Both rich and poor countries would benefit from increased migration, with developing countries benefiting the most. As increased migration has a more dramatic impact on the incomes of poor countries, it serves to reduce inequality between countries".

In a chilling condemnation of the inequality created by capitalism they point out that 250 years ago, "the income gap between the richest and poorest countries was about five to one, whereas today it is around 400 to one". However, that increased migration narrows the gap is not backed up by the facts they give. They describe the last 30 years as "a dynamic age of global integration" including a significant increase in migration, with 33 million more people moving from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ countries between 1990 and 2005 alone. Yet they also show that "inequality between countries has risen by about 20% since 1978", while "it remained relatively stable between 1960 and the mid-1970s".

Capitalist globalisation over the last decades – extolled by the authors – developed the productive forces, but in an extremely contradictory fashion. Although facilitated by new technology, it developed primarily as a consequence of the relative decline of industrial production in the economically advanced capitalist countries. Searching for new, more profitable fields of investment, capitalism turned to gambling on the world finance markets creating huge speculative bubbles, completely out of touch with underlying economic reality.

At the same time, multinational companies increasingly relocated industry in countries with lower wages. The economic crisis which began in 2008 brought to the surface all the contradictions of the boom that preceded it. We are now in the midst of a prolonged crisis of capitalism. However, Exceptional People does not recognise this. Although published in 2011, it refers to "the 2008-2009 global recession" as if was merely a blip and that the pre-2008 era of globalisation will return and continue to develop indefinitely.

Consequences in the neo-colonial world...

THE FREER MOVEMENT of labour is one aspect of globalisation. It is the freedom of capitalism to increase exploitation through a race to the bottom, maximising profits by holding down wages. Other campaigners for freer labour are more honest – and crude – about this than the authors of Exceptional People. The Economist, for example, evangelises for open borders, bluntly arguing that increased immigration means lower wages. In 2002, its survey on migration stated: "The gap between labour’s rewards in the poor and the rich countries, even for something as menial as clearing tables, dwarfs the gap between the prices of traded goods from different parts of the world. The potential gains [profits] from liberalising migration therefore dwarf those from removing barriers to world trade".

No capitalist government has implemented completely open borders, which would be too politically destabilising for them to contemplate. However, while severe repression of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America remains the norm in every advanced capitalist country, many have also consciously loosened border controls, in most cases covertly.

For migrant workers it is a very limited freedom to be able to travel the globe if that is the only way to feed your family. What kind of freedom is it to hand your family’s savings to people smugglers and then, if you are lucky, after an often dangerous journey, end up working without papers for less than the minimum wage?

The authors of Exceptional People accept that migration is not a painless process. They liken it to the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s description of capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’. But any problems, they assert, are largely short-term or secondary, with the long-term consequences overwhelmingly positive for migrants, and for the countries they move to and leave.

However, the statistics in the book do more to prove the ‘destruction’ than the ‘creation’. The argument that increased migration benefits migrants’ countries of origin is repeatedly undermined. The exodus leaves some of the poorest countries completely denuded of skilled workers: "More than 70% of university graduates from Guyana and Jamaica move to developed countries, and other countries have similarly high percentages of graduates leaving". Malawi, a particularly horrendous example, "lost more than half its nursing staff to emigration over a recent period of just four years, leaving only 336 nurses to serve a population of 12 million. Meanwhile vacancy rates stand at 85% for surgeons and 92% for paediatricians".

Nor can the authors argue that ‘remittances’ (money sent home to family and friends) develop the economies of migrant workers’ countries of origin. Remittances have grown dramatically "from about $31.1 billion in 1990, they are estimated to have reached $316 billion by 2009". While they can have a major effect on the lives of individuals and communities, Exceptional People concedes that "there are a very small number of countries, however, for which remittance flows are substantial relative to GDP, and in only eleven countries are remittances larger than merchandise exports".

... and for advanced capitalist countries

WITHIN THE ECONOMICALLY advanced countries the period of globalisation has seen a dramatic increase in inequality. In Britain, for example, the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) that goes on wages has been shrinking for 30 years. If the share was the same today as it was in 1978, workers would be taking home £60 billion more (in today’s money). The situation is the same in the US, where in July 2011 wages accounted for the smallest share of GDP since 1955 – 54.9%. Meanwhile, corporate profits had the highest share since 1950 – 12.6%.

One factor in this process was the tendency for capitalism to move production to lower wage economies. Another factor, to varying degrees in different countries, was the use of super-exploited migrant workers alongside younger workers, agency workers and so on, to hold down wages in sectors, particularly services, which could not be moved abroad. That is not to suggest an automatic link between increased migration and the lowering of wages. If the workers’ movement was strong enough – ideologically and organisationally – to launch an effective struggle to fight for a living wage for all, then increased migration could not have had such a severe effect in holding down wages.

Exceptional People asserts that the effect of migration on wage levels is largely neutral. Once again, however, its evidence contradicts this, when it points out that "foreign born employees at all levels of education earn less per week than native-born colleagues. Migrants earned about 23% less than native-born workers in the US in 2007".

The only contemporary example given of an ‘open borders’ policy is Britain’s decision not to impose restrictions on workers coming from the A8 accession countries that joined the EU in 2004. Between 2004-08 one million workers arrived. The only comparable scale of immigration to Britain took place from 1870 to 1920, mainly of Jewish workers fleeing pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe. Over that time, however, there was a net outflow of 2.6 million as a significant section of the middle class, and some workers, left the UK for Canada, Australia and South Africa. Today, the same escape routes do not exist, so increased immigration has been a major factor in the UK’s population increasing by an unprecedented three million over the last decade.

New Labour’s approach to the A8 countries was backed fully by big business which, as Exceptional People remarks, has "long been a constituency pushing for fewer restrictions to cross-border movements". On its effects, Exceptional People states that "the UK experience of opening borders to A8 countries provides evidence of the economic gains promised by theorists: it has reduced inflationary pressures, lowered unemployment, and boosted the economy".

Unemployment did fall during the boom but, even in April 2007 at the end of the boom, 1.69 million people in Britain were out of work. At the same time, real-term average pay increases remained at the historically low level of 1%, with average pay rises of 4% while inflation was at 3%. Overall, Britain led the world in terms of the dominance of the finance and services sector and growing inequality. The US was the only advanced capitalist country with a bigger gap between rich and poor.

Exceptional People tries to disguise the real reasons employers often preferred to take on migrant workers: "Although foreigners make up about 10% to 15% of the workforce in the UK, about half of all new jobs are filled by migrants, either because they are in areas requiring particular skills (like plumbing or banking) or because natives do not want them (such as fruit picking and elderly care)".

It is a condemnation of British capitalism that, on top of the demise of manufacturing, with 3,400 jobs being lost every week, young people are not even being trained to acquire essential skills like plumbing. And Exceptional People omits to add that ‘natives’ do not want certain jobs because employers do not pay a living wage for back-breaking labour. Caring for the elderly, for example, is a demanding and important job, yet the average hourly rate for a care worker is £6 – less than a checkout operator.

Miliband’s speech belatedly recognised that the increased immigration that took place under New Labour has affected wages. He has no solution, however, opposing Gordon Brown’s slogan of ‘British jobs for British workers’, not because it was nationalist but because it is utopian to promise workers in Britain jobs! In fact, Miliband is repeating Brown’s attempt to win support on a nationalist basis. His threat to cut the extremely minimal benefits to which some migrants are entitled reveals this clearly. Ineligibility for benefits is a major factor in forcing migrant workers to work for slave labour wages.

A socialist approach

A SOCIALIST WORLD would be one without passports and borders, never mind detention centres and deportations. It would also be a world without what Exceptional People describes as ‘push’ factors pressurising people to move to different countries: war, environmental disaster and poverty. A democratic socialist world plan of production would be able to harness the enormous science and technique created by capitalism, and the world’s natural resources, to meet the needs of the population in every part of the world. Those deciding to move to other parts of the world would therefore do so out of genuine choice.

Under capitalism, immigration will always be a tool of the capitalists to maximise their profits. This has not always taken the form of encouraging freer movement. Sometimes it has meant the opposite. For example, in Capital, Karl Marx refers to the Lancashire cotton manufacturers successfully preventing starving cotton workers from emigrating to the colonies, to keep them as a ‘reserve army of labour’ and thereby hold down wages. (Capital, Volume 1, chapter 13)

As already stated, the extent to which the capitalists can succeed in using immigration policy to lower wages depends on the strength of working-class organisation. On London Underground, the militancy of the RMT union meant that the predominantly migrant cleaning workers won the London living wage of £8.30 an hour. Potentially, a powerful workers’ movement could successfully demand the right of democratically-elected committees to scrutinise the government’s immigration procedures, to try and limit or at least expose abuse by the gang-masters, racist practises, and so on. However, as long as the capitalists hold power, immigration laws, like other aspects of the state, will ultimately remain a tool for the capitalists’ interests.

The struggle against the ‘race to the bottom’, therefore, is intrinsically linked to the struggle for socialism. This requires unifying the disparate elements of the working class – skilled and unskilled, young and old, black and white – around a common socialist programme. What should such a programme put forward on immigration? It has to stand in defence of the most oppressed sections of the working class, including migrant workers and other immigrants. It has to staunchly oppose racism. It has to defend the right to asylum, and argue for the end of repressive measures like detention centres. Crucially, it has to argue for the rate for the job for all workers, regardless of what corner of the world they originate from.

At the same time, given the outlook of the majority of the working class, it cannot put forward a bald slogan of ‘open borders’ or ‘no immigration controls’, which would be a barrier to convincing workers of a socialist programme, both on immigration and other issues. Such a demand would alienate the vast majority of the working class, including many more long-standing immigrants, who would see it as a threat to jobs, wages and living conditions.

Nor can we make the mistake of dismissing workers who express concerns about immigration as ‘racists’. While racism and nationalism are clearly elements in anti-immigrant feeling, there are many consciously anti-racist workers who are concerned about the scale of immigration. Previous generations of Marxists have had to grapple with these problems. In 1870, Marx described how Irish workers were used by British capitalism: "the English bourgeoisie has not only exploited the Irish misery to keep down the working class in England by the forced immigration of poor Irish men, it has divided the proletariat into two hostile camps… the average English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standards of life" (The International Working Men's Association, Confidential Communication on Bakunin, Marxists Internet Archive)

Involvement in the workers’ movement

THE ENTRENCHED DIVISIONS that Marx described began to be overcome as Irish workers were drawn into the workers’ movement, on a large scale for the first time in the Chartist movement, and then with the development of mass unskilled trade unions at the end of the 19th century. The same process took place in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s, for example, it was the railway workers’ union which played the leading role in getting rid of the colour bar in many London pubs. This flowed from a realisation that the only way to stop the capitalists using workers from the Caribbean as cheap labour was to unionise them and launch a common struggle for decent pay.

It is as a result of these traditions that black and Asian workers formed a strong bond with the labour movement even though the majority did not come from an urban background in their home countries. In the 1970s, black and Asian workers played a key role in many industrial struggles. Even today, after the general fall in union membership in the 1990s, it is still the case that African-Caribbean workers have a higher level of union membership (32.4%) than the workforce as a whole (26.6%).

Today, the labour movement must carry out the same kind of campaign to win migrant workers to its ranks. However, it is more complicated than in the post-war period, partly because of the sheer number of different countries from which recent immigrants originate. Initially, they are often more focussed on issues in their country of origin than in becoming active in Britain.

This was also a problem faced by the labour movement in the past. Friedrich Engels, writing to an American socialist in 1893, made points on the difficulties of building a workers’ party in the US at the time, with immigration "divid[ing] the workers into two groups: the native born and the foreigners, and the latter in turn into (1) the Irish, (2) the Germans, (3) the many small groups, each of which only understands itself: Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians etc. And then the Negroes [sic]. To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives. Often there is a sudden violent élan, but the bourgeois need only wait passively, and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again". (Science and Society, Volume II, Number 3, 1938, Marxists Internet Archive)

Despite these difficulties, the main point of Engels’s letter was to emphasise that the US was "really ripe for a socialist workers’ party". And, for the workers’ movement, there is another, positive side to globalisation. Exceptional People draws a comparison between today and the period of increased integration of the world economy that took place before the first world war. Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution, commented on migration in 1913. Many of the points he makes apply today: "Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries. Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds of thousands of [kilometres]". (Pravda, 29 October 1913, Marxists Internet Archive)

He goes on: "There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to leave their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth".

When Lenin wrote he was describing peasants leaving the land to work in ‘huge factories and mines’, creating a powerful working class. Today, it is still true that many migrants are moving from isolated rural communities. However, the deindustrialisation of the advanced capitalist countries means that they are more likely to be competing for jobs cleaning offices. Nonetheless, globalisation and modern communications have had positive effects in ‘breaking down national barriers and prejudices’.

It has resulted in a greater internationalism among the working class than has ever been seen before. The worldwide character of the movement against the invasion of Iraq, or more recently the Occupy movement, stands in testament to this. Similarly, if the workers’ movement takes a correct approach to migrant workers, over time, workers from different countries will learn from the best of each other’s experience – whether of revolution in Egypt, general strikes in Greece, or Indian hartals – and strengthen the organised working class in the countries they have moved to.

Growing national tensions

HOWEVER, CAPITALISM IS not capable of overcoming the limits of the nation state. Only a year after Lenin’s comments, the national tensions between different capitalist states erupted into the mass carnage of the first world war, bringing the era of ‘global free migration’ to an abrupt and bloody end. Today, we do not face a world war. But the economic crisis is bringing national tensions to the fore as the different national capitalist classes are compelled to find a way out of the crisis that best suits their national interests. This is graphically demonstrated by the arguments at the recent G20 summit over the way forward for the eurozone and, above all, by the euro-crisis itself.

As national tensions increase, there will be greater room for racist and right-wing nationalist forces to grow. They can also have an effect on immigration policy. The Economist’s 2011 briefing, ‘After €urogeddon’, points out that, following a fracturing of the eurozone, "it is also quite likely that other member states would restrict free movement of labour, to avoid a huge exodus of workers to other countries in the EU". It was recently revealed that Whitehall civil servants in Britain are discussing emergency plans if Greece or other countries are forced out of the eurozone to prevent large numbers of workers from the ex-euro countries trying to come to Britain.

If, as is likely, the eurozone fractures completely, there could be a parallel breakdown of the ‘visa-free EU’ extolled by the authors of Exceptional People. A nightmare scenario could unfold with workers from other EU countries facing deportation or the loss of their legal status. Socialists would then have to campaign for the right of workers to continue to be able to stay and work legally in the country they were living in.

Greek lessons

WITH A SKILLED approach it will be possible to win the mass of the working class to a programme that defends the rights of immigrant workers. Nonetheless, this issue will continue to be a source of discussion up until, and even after, the working class is able to take power. Greece is a country where every issue is posed most sharply today. The attacks on the working class have gone furthest, as has the struggle against them. And now the search by the working class for a political alternative has also developed furthest with Syriza, the coalition of the radical left, receiving 27% of the vote. The only way out of the crisis for the Greek people is to break with capitalism and to begin to build a democratic, socialist society.

However, the struggle for socialism also requires dealing with the difficult question of immigration. On this issue, too, Greece is at the extreme. It is the entry point for up to 90% of the EU’s undocumented migrants who, in a population of eleven million, number an estimated 470,000. The growth of the neo-fascist thugs of Golden Dawn is a warning of the dangers. The left has to respond by organising in defence of the migrant workers and left activists facing brutal attacks from the Golden Dawn.

But this is only one side of the issue. Tens of thousands of immigrants are living destitute in the squares of Athens and other major cities. This is a nightmare above all for the immigrants themselves, many of whom do not want to stay in Greece, but are trapped there without any legal rights by the EU’s immigration laws. It is also a real problem for the Greek working class. So many people living homeless on the streets with no facilities, and the consequent inevitable social breakdown, have a real effect on the lives of Greek workers.

Golden Dawn is attempting to whip resentment against immigrants into a frenzy. Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) in Greece has done work in some of the areas where the issues are most acute and where Golden Dawn has been able to win some significant support. YRE’s programme lays the blame for the problems clearly at the feet of the capitalist system, and calls for a united fight by Greek workers, the unemployed, the poor and immigrants to defend living conditions.

Among other demands it calls for the housing and feeding of refugees, using the money given by the EU for dealing with immigration which is currently spent on expensive deportations. It calls for the right of residency to be granted without the current enormous obstacles (the cost alone is prohibitive at €1,000). Not a single right of residency has been granted since 2005! However, it also recognises the fears of the Greek population and calls for mass meetings of all residents, Greek and immigrant, and democratically-elected residents’ committees to discuss how to fight for more resources, but also to discuss the problems that exist, including how to deal with rising crime, the health hazards of overcrowded squares and so on.

This correct approach on a narrow, local level would also be necessary on a much broader scale, if a workers’ government was to come to power and break with capitalism, nationalising the banks and major corporations. Such a government would have to introduce an emergency reconstruction programme drawn up democratically as part of a socialist plan. Most urgent would be the provision of the necessities of life – food, electricity, decent housing, a job with a living wage – for the whole population, immigrant and Greek. The democratic rights for migrants – the right to asylum for all those fleeing capitalist persecution, the right to legal status, the right of families to be reunited – could all be implemented immediately. However, it would clearly not be possible for a new, small Greek workers’ state to provide the necessities of life for all workers who wanted to come to Greece from across the world. If socialists were to argue otherwise they would be rightly seen as utopian by the mass of the working class.

Immigration and a workers’ state

IN RUSSIA IN 1917, a far poorer, more undeveloped country than Greece, the issue was posed even more starkly. The leaders of the revolution - Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolsheviks - were internationalists to their core. They gave the highest priority to aiding the development of revolution in other countries, understanding the impossibility of building socialism in one country. However, it was not possible for the impoverished Russian state to open its doors to all the world’s poor.

There are several despatches from the period after the Russian revolution in which Lenin and the Bolsheviks have very practical discussions on the border controls of the world’s first workers’ state. These are primarily about keeping out the forces of counter-revolution. This was an infant workers’ state fighting for its survival and not necessarily directly comparable to what we will face in the future. Nonetheless, Lenin, for example, sends a note in 1922: "I have information about heavy illegal immigration at the present time (of Russians and Americans) through various border points, especially through the Black Sea ports. The SEC department of industrial immigration reports that up to 200–300 persons are coming in every month (among those coming in are profiteers, counter-revolutionaries and people of that sort). Please take the most resolute measures to stop such immigration". (Lenin's Collected Works, 6 November 1922)

Other documents, however, deal with whether supporters of the revolution should be allowed to enter Russia. It is a purely practical question of the material resources available. In 1921, Lenin writes about a debate on whether to allow a group of Americans to settle. He argues they need to bring $200 with them, adding: "In substance: I am in favour, provided the American workers and settlers in general will bring along with them: (1) foodstuffs for two years (you say that this has been done before, which means that it is possible); (2) clothes, for a similar period; (3) implements of labour. No.1 (and No.2) are the most important. The $200 is less important". (To LK Martens, Lenin's Collected Works, 22 July 1921)

A Greek workers’ state would not be able to harbour the world’s poor, but it could show them the way to overthrow capitalism in their own countries. By showing the superiority of a socialist democratically planned economy, taking steps towards providing decent housing, food and work for the whole population, and building a society where decisions were taken in the interests of the majority – the working class and poor – rather than a tiny capitalist elite, a socialist Greece would be a worldwide inspiration, including in those African and Balkan countries which many migrants in Greece originate from.

One of the advantages of globalisation is that a call by a Greek workers’ state for workers in other countries to take the same road would gain an echo internationally far more quickly than at the time of the Russian revolution. Above all, workers in southern Europe would quickly rally to such a call. The prospect would be posed of a democratic socialist confederation of ‘the periphery’ countries as a step to a voluntary democratic socialist confederation of Europe, and then the world. Only by fighting for a socialist world is it possible to overcome the barriers of the nation state and to create a world without borders.

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