Immigration: ignoring the problem
Fighting for open borders means facing up to the reality of mass migration, argues Paul Demarty
Buried among reports of all the more significant goings-on at the present moment, we find a few stomach-churning items in The Guardian.
Britain’s most cowardly paper - the liberal rag that reminds us why liberal politicians favour the colour yellow - is taking it upon itself to deliver a great torrent of musings on the rise of ‘populism’, the ogre neoliberal shills find crouched under every bed. A starry cast of disgraced centrist politicians have swung by Kings Place to displace some blame. Tony Blair is one of them: he has recently shifted from stellar achievements in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East to ‘fixing’ the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe - an appointment which ought to strike fear into the heart of every Jew west of the Urals.
Another is Hillary Clinton, as she tries to glue her shattered political career together again. Can she be thinking of running again in 2020 - can she really? Of course she can, for if she has one thing in common with her victorious opponent in 2016 - apart from a high-baseline level of viciousness - it is a tendency to see what she wants to see, rather than what is actually there. Mr Tony and Ms Clinton sing from the same hymn sheet. “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” says she; “You’ve got to deal with the legitimate grievances and answer them, which is why today in Europe you cannot possibly stand for election unless you’ve got a strong position on immigration,” says he.
There is something especially malignant about the sight of these self-styled ‘progressives’ taking this sort of line. There is an obvious contempt for the people with such ‘concerns’ at work, a sense of there being a great tinderbox of crude hatred just waiting for someone to ‘light the flame’. Such great confidence in Schlesinger’s “vital centre” on display here! At its first real reckoning, the functionaries of the liberal bourgeoisie have no better idea than to throw meat to the oiks in the hope of keeping them quiet. We can well imagine the grimace on the faces of Blair and Clinton, as they condescend to touch the “legitimate grievances” of the people they despise, but the stench is only of their own hypocrisy.
Such is also the opinion of comrade Alistair Farrow over at Socialist Worker, who is agreeably nasty about Clinton’s “blaming anyone for her loss to Donald Trump but herself”. Yet we cannot simply stop at ‘shooting the messengers’, however richly they deserve it. Migration is a live political issue among broad masses, which is one reason why these decadent opportunists wade into it. Comrade Farrow wheels out the traditional Socialist Workers Party line:
There is no evidence that migration has a negative impact on wages, housing costs, or any other of the “legitimate grievances” he thinks people have. The people responsible for low wages are the bosses, who have slashed and held them down for a decade of austerity.
This means that “When Blair, Clinton and the like point the finger of blame at migrants, they are fuelling the far right, not undermining it.”1
On the face of it - at least among those of us on the left who hew to the traditional Marxist position of categorical opposition to immigration controls - this argument seems easy to swallow. It is the sort of thing we hear from the podium at any given well-meaning protest march in solidarity with migrants of one sort or another.
We have been on very many of those marches, and a lot of them have been organised by Farrow’s comrades in the SWP; yet it seems the idea that migration has a “negative impact” on various quality-of-life metrics for native workers is more entrenched than ever. Anti-migrant chauvinism is clearly on the march in the entire imperialist world, and its immediate periphery in eastern Europe and the like. Are all these people just stupid, as Clinton’s remaining fans and the centrist fighters against ‘populism’ seem to believe - or perhaps blinded by racism or other prejudices?
In truth, comrade Farrow’s argument is a false one. Worse than that - it is false in a way that renders his article contradictory, for, while he aims his fire at establishment liberals, he lets their worldview in by the back door.
Supply and demand
Understanding why will require a closer look at his claims.
The source he cites for “no evidence” is … himself, when he did a little myth-buster piece for the same paper back in February. This turns out to be a rather scattergun affair.2 We have firstly a discussion of agricultural wages, with an attempt to rebut the claim that a reduction in the number of seasonal migrant workers on farms has led to a rise in pay. Farrow claims, first of all, that the “tiny” rise in wages dates back to 2014, before the purported cause of the labour shortfall (the Brexit referendum). He seems to have gotten a little tangled up here - or is he really claiming that a huge labour shortage has no effect on wages in an industry?
There follows a series of shorter items, which are all of a piece. First of all, workers have faced a real-terms pay-cut across the board, so any such effects of migration are minimal at best. Next, a “study” - by the department for work and pensions (DWP), though Farrow does not mention it - of the results of the expansion of the European Union in eastern Europe and the corresponding wave of migrant labour found that there was no negative effect on native workers. Finally, “Research based on four reports commissioned by the home office in 2003 found that immigration has ‘if anything, a positive effect on the wages of the existing population’.”
The trouble with these studies is that they are inherently counterfactual. Suppose that wages went up and migration decreased in a given period - correlation is not causation. Wages might have gone up more if migration had increased; the two quantities may be completely unrelated. We cannot rewind history, dispatch a few extra thousand jobseekers across the Channel and see what happens. The devil is always in the detail: what assumptions are made? What is the underlying theoretical model of employment? Is it perhaps assumed that there is large-scale unemployment (here including fiddles like putting people on the sick)? The authors of the DWP study, for example, include a lengthy section on their statistical assumptions (§5.7).3 From Farrow’s presentation, you would never know there was any ground for disagreement.
One assumption shared by all bourgeois economic studies of the matter - both those that find a correlation between native workers’ living standards and net migration, and those that do not - is that, all things being equal, massively increasing the supply of a commodity will reduce its price. There is no reason for any Marxist to demur from the bourgeois economists on this point. Yet Farrow gets a bit sniffy about it: “assumptions involved in supply and demand economics” ignore the “reality in which markets are rigged and can be altered”. He cites the example of nurses - in short supply and grotesquely underpaid by government fiat. Yet the argument he objects to, when it comes from union leaders like Len McCluskey - that large numbers of cheaper workers are imported in order to drive down wages and conditions - is hardly a denial of such initiatives to rig markets. It relates precisely to a mechanism by which markets are rigged.
Farrow, quite correctly, writes a great deal about the importance of workplace struggle in setting wages and, of course, poses the united workplace struggle of native and migrant workers as the ‘real’ answer to stagnant and declining wages. What he misses is that the class struggle is not limited to the workplace, and precisely involves attempts by both sides to systematically distort the labour market in their favour. He misses therefore the essence of effective trade unionism, which is that it wins for the labour movement some limited ability to ‘rig’ the labour market.
Adding these two things together gives us the contradiction at the heart of trade unionism in embryo. For it must build a fortress around the conditions of union members; but one of the attacks against which it must defend is the continual attempts of the bosses to replace expensive, restive union workers with cheaper, more pliable alternatives. Great floods of such workers may be obtained both from an ‘internal’ reserve army of labour, or by means of migration; alternatively, the ‘mountain may go to Muhammad’, in the form of moving production away.
The temptation of sectionalism, then, is ever-present - ‘we’ must defend ‘our’ jobs, for a suitably exclusive definition of ‘we’ - the participation of the United Auto Workers in ‘buy American’ campaigns in the 1980s, to defend themselves at the expense of Japanese workers, is a case in point. That somehow never seems to work, however - just take a look at Detroit. By accepting the division in the class, the result is quite invariably that offshoring, social dumping and the like become more effective, as union density declines (in part because sectional hostility to incomers has cut activists off from the super-exploited sections of the workforce). Making something illegal, meanwhile, does not make it impossible. What often happens is that migration continues, but the lives of migrants are far more precarious, and thus their conditions of labour far worse, and the downward pressure on the surrounding labour market becomes even more acute.
It is this dimension that is missing in comrade Farrow’s articles. The falsity of sectional working class hostility to migrants is not in its formal premises, but its conclusions. Of course, influxes of lower-paid workers exert downward pressure on wages and conditions, and no amount of statistical voodoo in the DWP will change that. That is why the capitalist class and its agents keep on bloody doing it (note that the Confederation of British Industry’s sole explicit objection to Theresa May’s speech to them a few weeks ago was that she proposed to limit migration from the EU). But tighter immigration controls invariably fail to deliver the desired result, and instead make things worse.
There is by the same token the potential reaching-out of the trade union struggle in the opposite direction, towards unions becoming the “schools for communism” envisaged by Marx and Engels, if good enough political leadership is on hand to get out of this vicious cycle. It is presumably this which is the objective of the SWP. It argues, in Farrow’s words, that “fighting for higher wages means stronger unions, organisation and strikes over pay that can unite all workers”. However, ignoring the reality that differences in labour-market clout among the workers are actively exploited and exacerbated by the ruling class acts as a barrier to achieving such unity. Instead, it unites the SWP with the official ideology of the liberal bourgeoisie. (How close it comes to arguing that a rising tide lifts all boats!) It chides the reprehensible servants of the same - Blair and Clinton - basically for not holding the line.
This is the contradiction. The SWP divides its activity between increasing, to the best of its ability, the number of strike days and likewise increasing the number of protestors on the streets of major British cities - in which regard it has focused ever more monomaniacally on the fight against racism. In the former activity, it must find allies in the union bureaucracy; in the latter, among bien-pensant liberals; in both, alliances are secured with the maximum of diplomatic politesse. Here is the point at which they divide. “Strikes over pay” are deemed good enough - indeed, the main objective - when it comes to union activity. But when that sort of sectional struggle rubs up against the concrete methods of the class enemy, the very arguments of the class enemy are employed - migrants are in some serene manner ‘good for the economy’. And our fire must be directed at ‘the bosses’, but without reference to those of the bosses’ tactics that demand any subtlety of argument and agitation to fight.
Suitably oppressed and superexploited, migrants certainly are good news for the economy - so far as the CBI is concerned. However, suitably absorbed into combative battalions of the working class as cadres and leaders, migrant workers are an incomparable boon - the living embodiment of the international nature of our class and a living link from one ‘national’ movement to the next. This is a salient point, to which the whole history of our movement attests.
But we cannot have the best of this battle by denying altogether that the other side is fighting, or by restricting our industrial objectives to ‘more pay’.