Last year, the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union delivered a victory to the Leave Camp. The result may have been clear but the effects are still uncertain; the relationship between the UK and the EU’s free trade zone, the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, and the whole immigration policy of the British state are open questions. These are discussed behind the closed doors of government offices in all member states and board rooms of international capitalism.
The EU vote is one symptom of a growing nationalism, world wide, which has seen the rapid growth of far-right. There is a increasing number of populist anti-immigration parties that seem to stand on the precipices of power: Austria’s Freedom Party only narrowly lost the presidential election last year, Marie La Pen and Gert Wilders are now among the most prominent faces of European politics. On top of this, ‘strong men’ presidents have come to power in India in the form of the Hindu Nationalist Narendra Modi; and last but not least, Donald Trump will ride into the white house at the end of January. In the UK alone, we have seen a nearly 50% rise in racist hate crimes in the aftermath of the vote last June.
While most of the established media and political elite saw this and other votes last year as bolts from the blue, the political, social and economic situation has really been driving these forces forward for years.
The politics of chauvinism and xenophobia had been whipped up by all main parties in the UK. Gordon Brown took up the British National Party’s slogan of “British Jobs for British Workers“, while David Cameron referred to refuges, often fleeing from his government’s bombs as a “swarm“. The establishments racism hasn’t just stopped at rhetoric, with tens of thousands of deportations every year since records began and the Home Office’s immigration enforcement vans becoming a regular site in some communities. The immigration detention centres are nightmare for those trapped inside, where suicides and hunger strikes are a regular occurrence.
Even those who the left have championed as radical have changed tone. Jeremy Corbyn who said in a speech earlier this week:
“Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle… Labour supports fair rules and the reasonable management of migration as part of the post-Brexit relationship with the EU, while putting jobs and living standards first in the negotiations.”
While couched in terms of protecting living standards, it is a climb down from his previous defence of immigration. He offers the rights of a section of workers as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Europe. His speech lays the basis for further betrayals and strengthens those inside and outside of the Labour Party who want to use the whip of the state against foreign workers.
This is the pattern of reformist parties coming to power. In Greece, Syriza promised to close the detention centres that imprisoned those refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. Years latter, the government of Tsipras are expanding their detention program.
No defence against the undercutting of wages can be achieved by a capitalist government restricting immigration. Any such measures would simply allow bosses to drive down the conditions of immigrants already working in the UK. Immigration controls are an attack on workers on both sides of the border.
What drives anti-immigrant feeling and actions?
Real term wages have fallen by over 10.4%, the joint lowest in OECD countries since 2007. Casualisation of vast swaths of the economy has been in full force. With Social care, education and the service sector leading the way in short term contracts and sham self employment. We’ve seen a return of the ‘company store’, with delivery drivers renting the vans they drive and carers buying the uniforms they work in. Not only are workers forced to sell their labour power, but be forced to buy the tools of the job. A massive increase in self employment has meant bosses dodging inconvenient employment laws like the minimum wage and contracts of employment.
The worsening conditions of British workers has coincided with the collapse of the traditional trade union movement. Not only has this meant workers being next to powerless in defending their working conditions, and even the idea of struggling to improve conditions seems alien to many. Social solidarity, something formally inherent in many working class communities has been eroded. This is at a time of massive cuts in public spending which has left many without the safety net of benefits and welfare, or even the support of fellow workers and their community.
People have turned against immigrants in response to a working class crisis in confidence, while at the same time, traditional routes of struggle are being lost. The ossifying of the workers parties and unions, has meant rather than a struggle against capitalism, we struggle amongst ourselves.
Why do capitalists lean on racism?
As Marxists, the divisions in society are clear. We live in a system geared towards profit; workers sell their labour power to bosses to survive. Bosses thrive from exploitation: a commodity produced by an immigrant will be sold at the same price on the market. Race doesn’t appear on a balance sheet.
So why have capitalists states turned to racism? The capitalist class, including the politicians, Judges, Police etc., are numerically small. To increase the social basis of capitalism lines of demarcation must be used to cut across class lines. Racism, and other oppressive ideologies employed by the capitalist state are political expediency. While not directly increasing profits, these policies create social ‘peace’ and distract workers from the real divisions in society.
“Your boss isn’t the problem, the polish worker who’ll replace you if you complain is.” “Austerity ain’t the problem, the Somali family getting a home before you are.” “The problem isn’t capitalism, it is the foreigner.”
The nation state is a construction of capitalism, built to defend its ruling class. Any defence of border controls places you firmly on the ramparts of capital’s walls. And by dividing ourselves along lines of race and nationality we play the capitalist game.
United working class action is the only solution!
Super exploited immigrant workers make up a significant proportion of our class. In 2014 non-British born workers made nearly 50% of unskilled factory work and over a third of cleaning and housekeeping jobs.
They’ve also proved to be some of the most combative elements in the trade union movement. Cleaners at SOAS won the living wage despite the university and cleaning company using tactics that included UKBA raids at meetings with management. New unions like United Voices of the World Union and the Independent Workers of Great Britain have lead militant strikes in predominantly immigrant workplaces. Demanding restrictions on immigration only strengthens the bosses hand.
But how we go from a situation of record low industrial action and huge alienation and isolation amongst workers to a mass and militant workers movement is an open question. But the answer to that question is unequivocal on the questions of defending every member of our class, to see that all of our struggles are ultimately against the same enemy.
A revolutionary tradition of defending migrants
Those on the left who bemoan the “Neo-Liberal” demand of freedom of movement should pay attention to the history of the workers movements response to immigration. If immigrants are used to drive down wages as a weapon against other workers, then that weapon must be snatched out of there hands. During the 2nd International’s Stuttgart Congress of 1907 the congress adopted the following motion:
“The congress does not seek a remedy to the potentially impending consequences for the workers from immigration and emigration in any economic or political exclusionary rules, because these are fruitless and reactionary by nature. This is particularly true of a restriction on the movement and the exclusion of foreign nationalities or races.
Instead, the congress declares it to be the duty of organised labour to resist the depression of its living standards that often occurs in the wake of the mass import of unorganised labour. In addition the congress declares it to be the duty of organised labour to prevent the import and export of strike-breakers. The congress recognises the difficulties which in many cases fall upon the proletariat in a country that is at a higher stage of capitalist development, as a result of the mass immigration of unorganised workers accustomed to lower living standards and from countries with a predominantly agrarian and agricultural culture, as well as the dangers that arise for it as a result of a specific form of immigration. However, congress does not believe that preventing particular nations or races from immigrating – something that is also reprehensible from the point of view of proletarian solidarity – is a suitable means of fighting these problems.”
Lenin fully supported the motion and saw it in a context of a battle between the social democratic right, who went on to support their own narrow national interests in WW1 while the left of the social democratic movement defended the principle of internationalism.
Eugene Debbs, a revolutionary member of the US Socialist party, made clear that no compromise could be made for short term gains.
“Let those desert us who will because we refuse to shut the international door in the faces of their own brethren; we will be none the weaker but all the stronger for their going, for they evidently have no clear conception of the international solidarity, are wholly lacking in the revolutionary spirit, and have no proper place in the Socialist movement while they entertain such aristocratic notions of their own assumed superiority.”
There can be no question that being a revolutionary socialist means defending the rights of workers crossing borders to better their existence. The same way that there would be no question of defending and supporting strike action. But the struggle cannot be limited to defending and extending rights under capitalism.
Freedoms under capitalism are not free; most migrants will flee poverty, war and repression. The only true freedoms can come from the abolition of class, the dissolution of borders and the establishment of a society free of want and deprivation; a Communist society.
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!