Published On: Thu, Dec 19th, 2019

Socialism and immigration – a reply to Don Flynn

Don Flynn claims that I argued “that support for the right of migrants to freedom of movement is the same as support for the free movement of capital”. Readers of my article can see that I said no such thing. It is  possible to support one and not the other. Armed with this confusion he says that my argument is that in “curbing the right of people to move freely we would also be restraining the domination of capital”. Well yes, a constraint on capital to force the movement of population would be a constraint on capital. But that was not really my point. The main point, which Don avoids, is that uncontrolled large-scale population movements across national boundaries are incompatible with the social planning to which most socialists aspire.

Socialist fundamentals and capital movements

Don says that “in the world of actually-existing capitalism the gains that have been won for the rights of people to move across the world as migrants have to be counted as advances – limited and partial though they might be – for the working class”. Having wrongly criticised me for equating the free movement of capital with that of labour he then goes on to say “It is because capital has the right to move so freely that the right of wage earners to move within labour markets to position themselves for the available job opportunities has always been fundamental to the socialist cause”. In fact the free movement of capital is a development of modern neo-liberal capitalism. But again, it is what is assumed as a given that is most interesting. For Don the right of workers to move across national boundaries is a corollary of the free movement of capital which he doesn’t question. How can such a view be regarded as “fundamental” to the socialist cause? The post-war Labour Party, like Keynes, was committed to capital controls. That some socialists now accept the free movement of capital as a given is a major triumph for neoliberal ideology.

The analogy made with the urbanisation of the 18th/19th centuries will not withstand analysis. That movement was a consequence and not a cause of the ending of feudal bondage. By the 17th century bondage was over bar lingering traces (see for example The Decline of Serfdom In Medieval England by R H Hilton). The population movements of the following centuries supplied industrial capitalism with cheap labour. That the suffering of the urban poor later contributed to awareness of the need for social reform is true but is hardly a commendation for the ruthless economics of capitalist development which forced rural workers to exercise their “right” to move. It would be a strange logic that would see that as a justification for no controls on population movements across national borders. Socialist analysis would then be restricted to softening the effects capitalist economics. It should challenge the economics of capitalism.

Don agrees that the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ has a significant role in socialist analysis but says that early socialists using the idea never “responded to this challenge by saying that those who were being dispossessed of their livelihoods in rural areas should be confined to the parishes of their birth in order that their counterparts in towns and cities might benefit from this artificially induced shortage of labour”.

Of course they didn’t. But then no socialist in this debate is arguing that there should be no migration.
We could discuss the views of early socialists on immigration but what is plain is that the issue presented itself very differently when information about life in, and travel to, other countries was hard to come by and when international transport was more expensive and less available. Immigration did not present itself as a major political issue in the 19th century because it was on a small scale. The graphs below show an evolving situation. It should be clear that the increased scale of migration raises social issues of concern to socialists.

Denying advantage to others

Ignoring any possible negative aspects of immigration Don says that opposing totally free movement is contrary to socialist principle because it denies others the way out of chronic disadvantage and high unemployment. But then this apparent strong point is immediately negated when, in the discussion on his article, Don explained that the Labour Campaign for Free Movement is only about free movement within the EU Single Market (which is nowhere stated in their material). So much for the universal case. He says “… the LCFM is not in a position to extend the right of free movement to everyone in the world at the point when Brexit happens …” but then it is not in a position to extend it for the EU either. The LCFM is on the horns of a dilemma. The problem of advocating free movement as a matter of principle but then only seeking to apply it in Europe should be evident to all socialists.

It is apparent that this argument is anything but universal. Is it contrary to socialist principle to deny others free access to one’s personal savings and other facilities as a way out of their disadvantaged situation? No one would agree to that and most would say “I want to help the disadvantaged but it has to be done in a controlled way via taxation/benefits and other policies and not as a free for all”. At an international level all socialists agree that we should do more to help the poor world but would also believe that it has to be done in a regulated way and not by simply having an open house on our national wealth and resources.

The case for control

The idea of totally free movement across the globe is indeed so far-fetched that it is difficult to believe that anyone imagines that it is a serious political proposition. The essential socialist case for some sort of control can be simply stated.

  • Immigration can be a good thing and often is. No one of any stature on the right or the left is arguing that there should be no immigration. The socialist case should be for controlled immigration which benefits all countries involved. Some migration does this and some doesn’t. Socialists should be concerned to know the difference.
  • We live in a world of nation states and even with the development of supra-national institutions we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Crossing national borders obviously has many implications that do not arise for movement within national borders.
  • Moving beyond capitalism will require a higher degree of social planning of resources than exists at present so that it is used to maximise general well-being. That will require both national and international planning i.e. sovereignty exercised at different levels.

A “critical insight”

Towards the end of his piece Don tells us that the “critical insight” offered by the free movementeers is that “fifty years of neoliberal economic policies across the world have created labour markets in which the workers of different countries have been obliged to compete with one another in order to have access to a decent standard of living. This has come about not merely through the effects of migration, but as a consequence of access gained to labour markets abroad through strategies that hinge on the outsourcing of jobs, foreign direct investment and other approaches that aim at getting access to the labour of workers across the world”. Don says that I have “missed” this “insight” but far from being “critical” it is a banal statement of fact. Absolutely no one has missed the fact that modern technology facilitates competition between workers without migration. The problem is to know how Don thinks the intensification of labour market competition through communications technology is a justification for intensifying it through population movements. Besides, the possibilities are limited since hotel rooms can’t be cleaned, and vegetables can’t be picked via the Internet.

Don agrees that international competition tends to drive wages down to the lowest common denominator but he strangely concludes that international migration is a means of redressing this tendency. The idea seems to be that this is a redress because the downward pressure of the “predations of capital” is matched by a right to free movement “which is the equal to that claimed by capital”. This argument is so bizarre that it is difficult to know how to respond. It pitches free range for one social force (free movement of capital) with another (free movement of labour) while making no criticism of the system that creates the pressure for both. Whatever this argument is it is neither critical nor socialist.

Scraping the barrel

Don ends his article with distortion and abuse. He says “David Pavett prefers to sell us the idea that migrant workers are nothing more than agents of the neoliberal capitalism system”.

I am not “selling” anything. I am making a case. Migration is and always has been a fact of human existence. There are many reasons for it among which are neo-liberal economic pressures. That does not make all migrant workers into “agents of the capitalist system” and I suggested no such thing.

Don says that I am motivated by a “desire to promote the most grievous and deep divisions between the working class” and that this puts me “on the side of the most reactionary elements of global capitalism”. I leave the reader to judge this assertion about my motivation for him/herself.

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