Justice across borders

Hannah Cross outlines the key arguments in her new book Migration Beyond Capitalism (Polity), ahead of its launch on Wednesday 24th March(details below)

The ideas for Migration Beyond Capitalism emerged in the events of 2015-16 – Europe’s panic over migrants and the rightward turns of many governments. The EU referendum vote and Trump’s election were associated with the rise of anti-immigration movements and looming fascism. There was the sense of an ending to the neoliberal consensus, with new conversations about what would come next. I had a longer-running concern with the way migration was being framed, not only in public debate, but also in left-liberalism and the broader left.

In the previous decade, I had examined migrations between West Africa and Europe, combining life history research among migrants and communities in Senegal, Mauritania and Spain, with Marxist political economy, while also analysing historical patterns of migration and labour mobility within the African continent. The question of ‘what is to be done’ about an apartheid-type global migration regime emerging in vast displacements and ecological destruction, overexploitation of labour, racialised labour markets and militarised borders had seemed insurmountable.  The political space opened up by the left in 2015 allowed new thinking on the question.

In Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, there were new debates about the possibility and urgency of another world which encouraged bold initiatives and programmes. However, the book argues that “empty utopias”, to use Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase, were being created in many of these programmes, and this is largely because of the ways that the globalised nature of production and its social relations are being mystified.

The anti-imperial and antiracist interests at the heart of the reinvigorated labour movement needed to address this gap, rather than lean on bourgeois national economics to create ‘post-capitalist’, ‘fully automated’, ‘post-work’ etc. visions, which treat global South countries either as competitors, or with a paternalistic attitude that presumes continued inequalities. Such interventions imply that, if they succeed, the contradictions of labour and capital will remain, as will the national chauvinism, the racialised global hierarchy of so-called developed and developing countries, and the roots of fascism created by this world system.

There is also utopianism in arguments for more open borders or free movement that are contradictory and unable to address the underlying causes of border repression. Such utopianism, which Luxemburg saw in anarchic revolutionary movements, “measures strength by intention, not intentions according to strength” and amplifies the intention with various justifications that risk contorting reality and making alliances with opportunistic and harmful forces. There is a contradictory mixture of humanitarianism and the argument that migrants are ‘good for the economy’. It is contradictory because people become such useful workers, in massively undervalued and degrading jobs, as a consequence of displacements that should worry humanitarians, whether by conflict or in capital’s struggle against the natural economy.

The migration of labour is not comparable to the international travel opportunities enjoyed by the world’s middle classes, even if there are times of success, mobility and agency for migrant workers. They are being treated as a resource, not people, by bourgeois economics that look at migration from a national perspective and do not adequately capture precarious and outsourced work.

There is the maxim that migrant workers do the work native-born workers don’t want to do and therefore should be celebrated – but this plays into divisions. Why is it acceptable for racialised ‘others’ to do undesirable jobs, and why would it be acceptable that useful work, often known as ‘unskilled’ work, should have such a low value and become so undesirable in areas like agriculture, food production, care, cleaning, etc.? All of this work could be more rewarding or at least less burdensome on individuals in an economy oriented to the needs of society.

There was also a fixation among liberals and leftists on free movement in the EU, as though defending this at the time of Brexit may naturally lead to more free movement globally. But the EU framework is racist and exclusionary, and free movement within the EU came at the expense of immigration from outside it, historically shutting down established migration channels from Africa at a time when African economies were struggling with debt and structural adjustment.

When Jeremy Corbyn talked about cheap labour and undercutting, he faced disapproval from his underlying social movement and there seemed to be a fear that talking about these things will stir up anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism. There is truth in that because of the way immigration debates have played out and been polarised to the benefit of capital, but if the labour movement cannot deal with the concrete problems of cheap labour in its international dimensions, what is it for?

It has been proven in numerous workplaces around the world, from British oil refineries to US farms and meatpacking plants to Indian automobile manufacturers and more, that working people are perfectly capable of separating the groups they are pitted against from the regime that forces them into competition. Racism and antimigrant sentiment is largely a top-down phenomenon of the capitalist, imperial state and exists in the middle classes at least as much as the working classes. There are also “the traditions which haunt human minds”’ as Walter Rodney put it. At a time of empowerment for the left that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime, I felt that we needed to stop worrying about what the right thinks or does, or what the media will say, develop our own concrete analysis and go forward with it.

Both Marxist analysis and empirical research of migration regimes and workers’ struggles show that deeper questions need to be asked, beyond focusing on the protection of rights and being ‘pro-migration’ in the face of ‘anti-migration’ perspectives. Migration debates in the US have advanced in this respect, from scholar-activists like David Wilson and Suzy Lee. There was the need for a ‘revolutionary theory’, without which, Amílcar Cabral argued, no liberation movement can succeed. Only this could destroy the logic of borders and repression.

Karl Marx’s 1870 letter on the Irish Question provides the starting point for this theory and informs the structure of the book. In this letter, he argued that the only way to wrest power from the English ruling class was through the emancipation of Ireland, and that this required a social revolution in England that sided with Ireland. Migration was at the centre of this strategy because colonial land evictions in Ireland forced people to migrate to England. This movement of labour lowered the position of the English working class and created antagonisms between English and Irish workers. The ruling class aggravated these antagonisms using all means possible, including through the media and entertainment, allowing it to gain even more from cheap labour than from the imported meat and wool produced on expropriated Irish land. This division of people was the secret of ruling class power in England as well as in Ireland, and agitated international working class cooperation too.

By this logic, and central to the argument of the book, the defence of migrants’ rights and of workers’ rights more generally requires an internationalism shared by all workers in oppressing and oppressed countries, against the domination of the ruling class in countries that both send and receive migrants.

The book therefore asks what kinds of political alliances, programmes, policies and arguments do – and do not – work in the interests of global worker solidarity and progression out of cheap labour as a mainstay of wealthy economies? Capitalism maintains its power by actively dividing the labouring classes. The promotion of worker solidarity within and beyond the nation-state poses the ultimate struggle for the left. It is filled with radical meaning precisely because the destruction of this solidarity remains the secret of capitalism’s success, as Labour Party members will know. Politicians, journalists, academics, factory managers, farm owners and other employers reactivate these divisions from one day to the next ideologically and socially in the workplace. Yet, the book argues, this struggle is not beyond conception.

The book analyses the relationship between migration and imperialism today, found in capital’s destruction of the natural economy and the creation of racialised patterns of labour mobility. It then examines, in turn, the relationship between borders, militarism and inequality, the nature of today’s bitter labour conflicts, the ways that class antagonisms have been produced through racial ideologies and other social oppressions, the existing modes of internationalism and labour struggle, and finally ideas for a socialist approach to migration. Learning from visionaries in the global South like Walter Rodney and Samir Amin, from Ben Selwyn and those analysing the inspiring labour struggles around the world in a globalised labour force, the book seeks an alternative way of thinking about migration: a labour-friendly, anti-imperialist and anti-racist left internationalism capable of meeting human need and producing justice across borders.

Details of the book launch with the Review of African Political Economy and the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, on Wednesday 24th March at 5 pm, here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/book-launch-migration-beyond-capitalism-tickets-143967734369

Hannah Cross is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster and is Chair of the Editorial Working Group of the Review of African Political Economy.

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