By spring 2020, the coronavirus pandemic had led to the sudden recognition that a diverse body of precarious and underpaid workers on the ‘frontline’ is essential. Nearly three-quarters of undocumented immigrant workers in the US, an estimated five million people, are doing jobs ‘essential to the nation’s critical infrastructure’. In the EU, up to one-third of cleaners, helpers, and labourers in mining and construction, categorised as key workers, are foreign-born. Workers in the food supply chain, significant numbers of whom have migrated, have been hard-hit by outbreaks of the virus. Exempt from pandemic border restrictions, agricultural workers in cramped accommodation have been exposed to high viral doses, while the wealthier strata go into isolation.
Contemporary left-liberalism tends to ignore or downplay the role of migration in capitalism. Post-neoliberal visions of more collective societies are not looking beyond the dynamics of over-exploited migrant labour in successive capitalist orders, from the slave trade through to colonialism, post-war reconstruction, and apartheid-like conditions of movement in the neoliberal era. Whether approaches to migration are hostile, treating migrant workers as a renewable economic resource or as a liberal cause, the idea that migration lands in capitalist countries from far away, unconnected places and that migrant workers are separated from the national working class is often reinforced.
Left-liberal programmes are creating ‘empty utopias’, to use Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase, if they do not pay attention to the violent processes of displacement, militarised borders, racialised labour markets and super-exploitation that constitute the international migration regime. This regime is intimately connected with the national chauvinisms and racialised global hierarchy of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries that sustain the social relations of labour and production in an integrated capitalist world economy. Internationalism has been drained of its progressive content and this makes impossible any change in social relations, not only internationally but also on a national level.
This is because the migration regime is intrinsic to the workings of capitalism with the effect that diverse groups of working people are pitted against each other within and across borders. In the world’s centres of production and wealth, wages are depressed and working conditions degraded in socially useful but grossly undervalued parts of the labour market, by means of migration control and capitalist-led divisions of people in the workplace and wider society. This gives migration an important class character, which means that the crucial starting point for analysis is not the interests of nations, nor of foreign-born versus native-born workers, but instead it is rooted in the common interests and actions of the labouring classes being suppressed in capitalist development. To deepen this understanding, we need to look at the work and analysis of classical radical thinkers like Karl Marx and Luxemburg, or more recent ones such as Walter Rodney and Samir Amin.
Migration Beyond Capitalism is a political intervention which draws on Marx’s analysis of England’s domination over Ireland to present 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.
The book is structured following the logic of Marx’s 1870 letter on the ‘Irish question’, which linked processes of land eviction and forced emigration from Ireland with immigration in England, the lowered position of the English working class, and antagonisms between English and Irish workers. The ruling class intentionally aggravated these antagonisms using all means possible, allowing it to gain even more from cheap labour than from the imported meat and wool that had been produced on expropriated Irish land. Such connections between imperialism, racism, and labour exploitation are deeply resonant with the contemporary global realities of work and production, where the vast majority of working people, forced into such competition that they are treated as dispensable, face exhaustion or abjection and economic insecurity.
The ‘simple’ strategy for worker solidarity within and beyond the nation-state that my book is arguing for also poses the ultimate struggle. As Marx identified, the success of capitalism is based on the destruction of this solidarity. The book opens up a difficult dialogue at a time when the ideological forces of the Right and the imperialist nature of global production have been disconnected from each other and mystified in social democratic programmes. My hope is that it contributes to an enlargement of debate about how to imagine a society beyond capitalism, in which cheap labour is no longer a mainstay of wealthy economies.
Hannah Cross is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster. Her book, Migration Beyond Capitalism, is available from November 20th in Europe and from January 15th in North America.