Any attempt to understand the current political, social or cultural turmoil caused by immigration which does not include the capitalistic economic motive in its analysis, will remain incomplete and distorted. In most, if not all, the more recent media discussions between those arguing for and those arguing against immigration, the economic factor and the key role this plays in capitalist economic cycles has been either downplayed or missing altogether. Yet immigration, in its present form, (as the ‘free movement of labour’) is entirely a product of the capitalist mode of production. Strongly expressed opinions for or against the ‘free movement of labour’ cannot be fully understood until the costs of labour-power in the process of capitalist forms of wealth accumulation are openly recognised.
Those who own or control capital can only maintain or augment it’s value by using it to make profits or attract interest. If they do not use it in this way, they must live off it and see it decrease in amounts which are commensurate with how they choose to live. Furthermore, the class of capitalists can only maintain their capital or augment it if large numbers of them use it to employ workers to make things or do things which are valuable and can be sold. To do this they must use the capital they control to supply the workers with the tools of production, the means of production and pay them wages or salaries which the workers then use to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. The trick the capitalist engage in to produce sufficient value in production to produce huge profits is simple, but not immediately obvious.
They pay the workers an amount (in wages or salaries) which is of considerably less value than the value the workers create during their employment. The difference between these two values is the surplus value which is contained within the products (commodities or services) and will be realised in monetary form when these commodities or services are sold. It is obvious that in this production process, the installments of profit accruing to the capitalists will be greater the lower the amount they have to pay to their workers. Therefore, cheap labour has always been the sought after golden goose that has helped the employers of labour-power to amass their past and present fortunes. The free movement of labour is the current method of ensuring the golden goose constantly migrates toward capital.
Low pay equals big profits.
So it is in the interests of those who employ workers to keep wages low, and it is in the interests of those who work to try to keep them at a level which they feel is appropriate to how they want to live. This is the economic basis of what became known as the class struggle. In the past, (as now) the employers invariably had the upper hand and used many means to keep wages low. They would lay individual workers off until they were starving and would agree to work for wages the employers thought gave them enough profit. In response the early workers formed unions and associations and defended their wages and conditions by negotiating and if necessary striking. In such circumstances, the employers then introduced a method of strike breaking by bringing in workers from elsewhere who were able and prepared to work at the wage or salary levels the employers insisted upon.
Cheap labour-power from outside (or occasionally within) the immediate area was used to replace local organised labour-power. It was known as strike – breaking and the workers who in this way were undermined or defeated gave those strike-breaking workers the unpleasant name of scabs. It was their name for this early bourgeois form of the ‘movement of free labour’. That is labour which was ‘free’ to starve or free to be used to replace other workers in dispute. These new imported workers who in this way took the jobs from other workers were despised and hated because they had effectively taken the food from the mouths of the strikers and their wives and children.
Very little consideration was given to the fact that those who took their jobs were also victims of the same capitalist system. Capitalism is a mode of production which had in many such cases rendered them so desperate to feed themselves and their families, that they were prepared to leave their place of origin, risk their own wellbeing and suffer the hatred of those whose jobs they had taken. Poor workers were being moved around in order to undermine other poor workers – and they still are. That is the essence of the ‘free movement of labour’. It was a cynical case of ‘divide and rule’ and was a process which eventually took two major forms – emigration and immigration.
Capitalist inspired Emigration.
When the capitalist mode of production reached a certain stage of industrial development the numbers of workers needed to saturate the home market with commodities was much reduced. This created two problems for the capitalist class and their supporters. The first problem was an economic one – where to sell the surplus production pouring out of the factories and workshops. The second problem was a social one – what to do with the growing numbers of unemployed workers who had by this time no other means of earning a living. Britain as the dominant capitalist nation in the 19th century, solved these two problems with one solution – Colonial/Imperial inspired emigration! Others would follow. For example;
“My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, ie in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for goods produced in factories and the mines. The empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war you must become imperialists.” (Cecil Rhodes. Quoted in ‘The Third World.’ Worsley M. page 28.)
It is rare these days to find such a clear and honest statement of the capitalist purpose behind Imperialist emigration and the other side of this bourgeois coin – immigration. Yet the stages of Imperialism and Colonialism – served exactly this purpose. The purpose being to obtain the essential components of capitalist production – raw materials, cheap labour and markets. Where cheap labour was unavailable as in the new world colonies of North and South America, the the forced emigration from Africa of slave-labourers supplied the deficiency. In this case it was a ‘less free’ movement of labour, but a movement of labour nonetheless.
The captured slaves became the forced emigrants from Africa arriving as the enslaved immigrants to this ‘new world’ of capitalist exploitation. They became slave workers and were forced at a minimal cost to produce surplus-value in the cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations of North and South America and the Caribbean. We can see from this and what comes next that under the capitalist mode of production, emigration and immigration are terms used for regulating the international flow of ‘free’, cheap and/or desperate labour to where it is needed by the owners and beneficiaries of capitalist accumulation.
Capitalist inspired Immigration.
As noted it is undoubtedly a fact that with a few exceptions, under the capitalist mode of production, cheap labour is essential for maximising profits. Under developed capitalist systems, the free movement of labour serves the same economic purpose as strike breakers did in previous periods of union militancy. The economic purpose being to keep wages down and working conditions as basic as possible. Immigration and strikebreaking are just two different ways of using one set of desperate workers, against another group of workers who are struggling to maintain or improve their standards of living. Both strikebreakers and poor immigrants have been deliberately recruited and ‘moved’ around to where they are needed by capitalist employers for exactly that economic purpose and no other. Of course this is seldom openly admitted by those championing immigration.
In the UK, for example, with the final defeat of trade union militancy in the mid to late 20th century, strike breakers were no longer needed by employers but lowering wages was still desired by capitalists and their pro – capitalist supporters in politics and government. Immigration was therefore the obvious solution. In Europe, the EEC and later the EU with its clauses on ‘free movement of labour’ and capital were deliberately designed for that precise purpose. In the late 20th century and on into the 21st, the recruitment of cheap labour and the undercutting of wages and salaries in most advanced capitalist countries, has been achieved primarily through immigration.
It is this aspect of of the role of immigrant labour which is resented by many working people, not primarily the country of origin, ethnicity, culture, colour or religion of those being brought into the countries of Europe and North America. It is only immigration in its ‘free movement of labour’ guise which arouses large-scale opposition. Apart from a racist minority, most of the prejudice against immigration is because immigrant labour has become predominantly prejudicial to the wages and welfare of the indigenous workers. Being against immigration is primarily a prejudice against a capitalist tactic of lowering wages, salaries and conditions. Of course if some individuals from these immigrant communities, also introduce criminality or terrorism, then these factors become another additional reason for indigenous workers resenting or even fearing large-scale immigration.
The reason that the middle-classes are generally less prejudiced against immigration and some accuse workers of being racist is because their socio-economic conditions are less threatened by it. It rarely effects their access to housing, schools or health care. Some even gain from the free movement of labour – from cheap domestic labour, cheap service labour or cheap productive labour. In fact these self-serving middle-classes are often more prejudiced against their own working classes and their unions for being less docile and deferential than immigrant workers. For when workers strike, demonstrate or riot, it invariably does effect their socio-economic wellbeing. It also offends their petite-bourgeois ideas of social stability and order in which everyone knows their place and respectfully accepts whatever austerity is is handed out to them. Middle-class prejudice against workers is demonstrated when they blanket accuse anti-immigration workers of being motivated by racism.
Meanwhile, because the dominant capitalist ideology and narrative (supported and promoted by most of the middle-classes in academia, media and politics) ignores or covers up the insidious forms of economic exploitation and social oppression, workers are left with very little option but to oppose immigration (as free movement of labour) simply for existential reasons – as it severely and detrimentally effects their lives and their families. If there is no well publicised alternative perspective of going beyond private ownership and production for profit, then what other perspective is available to workers faced with rapidly reducing standards of living?
Will the workers of the world ever unite?
If there is no generally accepted clear perspective of a future economic system which is communal and produces for need instead of greed and which reduces hours of work so that everyone (regardless of colour or creed) can be economically active and live a decent life (and there isn’t – yet!) then there there are only two other options remaining. The first is to accept the capitalist inspired conditions resulting from the free movement of capital and labour and live with the injurous effects of unemployment, austerity, low pay, precarious employment and dwindling social resources. The second is to oppose the free movement of labour by voting for any radical right-wing pro-capitalist charlatans such as Farage, Le Penn and Trump who falsely claim they will regulate it. A more radical alternative is needed.
Fortunately one distorted and dictatorial perspective of a non-capitalist mode of production has been thoroughly discredited if not entirely destroyed by those Leninists, Stalinists and Maoists etc., who called themselves anticapitalists. In the past these so-called revolutionary leaders sought to replace the situation of privately owned capital dictating the wages and conditions of workers by state owned capital dictating the wages and conditions of workers. They too had their own enforced versions of the ‘movement of labour’. Theirs was not a socio-economic revolution, but a political revolution.
They merely replaced one oppressive and exploititive male ruling elite with another, a situation which they described as socialism or communism. However, in no place was a post-capitalist society established for not one of them tried to resolve the contradictions of wage-labour and surplus-value extraction by elites. Nor did they allow the institution of communal ownership and control of production. But this tragedy of the blind leading the short-sighted leaves a problem of what is to replace it. In the 21st century, the economic and social perspective of a free association of working people, minus a parasitic ruling elite, needs to be resurrected or rather re-discovered for it still survives in a few isolated places. Here is one such survival from the writings of that much maligned champion of the working class Karl Marx.
“Social progress cannot consist in the dissolution of all association, but in the replacement of the forced and oppressive associations of times past by voluntary and equitable associations……Perfection is found in voluntary associations, which by their union multiply the forces, without taking away the energy, the morality and the responsibility of individual authority.” (Marx. Grundrisse page 581 electronic version Penguin.)
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2016)