Monday, 27 October 2014

"Swamped?" - the Tory crisis over immigration and the European Union

Just a few days ago I argued on this blog that the British ruling class is deeply conflicted. The UK Conservative Party, currently in "disarray" over immigration and the European Union, is at the time of writing proving that argument right in glorious fashion.  

This conflict can be summarised as follows. On the one hand, the wider ruling class holds a sceptical faith in the power of free markets to help develop society as a whole; on the other, it maintains an ideal commitment to the "national economy" (both territorially and commercially homogeneous) as the relevant entity on which to focus developmental efforts. The tension between these two poles is now exploding around the two political flashpoints of immigration and the European Union.

Last night the Conservative Defence Minister Michael Fallon told Newsnight that parts of Britain were at risk of being "swamped", their residents "under siege" by waves of migrants. Fallon is not alone in his fears, despite the obviously enforced speed of his retraction. The UK Conservative Party has recently been committed by David Cameron to a renegotiation of the "principle of the free movement of people" within the Union as part of Britain's future continued involvement. Reports immediately seized on this as further evidence of the Tories moving further to the right under Ukip pressure.

One should be wary, however, of blaming the fiasco of the Tories' EU policies, and of their attitude to immigrants, on Ukip. The latter does not represent any clear shift to the right of the UK electorate. The Tories are not bowing to "popular pressure" as represented by the Ukip insurgency on their right flank. This tirelessly rehearsed explanation assumes that without a popular anti-EU backlash or Little Englander racism, the government would be formulating perfectly consistent and coherent policies on either. The reality of the problem runs deeper for Tories (as it does for all of Britain's historic rulers, bearing to some degree also on capitalists themselves and even the leadership of the Labour Party). The Tory Party is a composite of ideas extracted from a broad array of class roots (from a faded aristocracy to privileged layers of the working class), which rely for their coherence on a careful balancing act by Party officials. On the one hand, the interests of capital as a class must be assured. On the other, the interests of the nation as a whole. Practically, in the building of Conservative culture and in the formulation of Party policy, this is felt in the aforementioned division between developing the "national economy" and preserving the "free market."( The reality of a capitalist society is, of course, that the two are mutually interdependent and conflicting, the nature of their relationship requiring constant renegotiation ).

In short, then, the Tory Party is in a position of grave weakness over both its attitude to the EU and to immigration. On the one hand, many Tory politicians, party members, and voters recognise immigration's vital function in securing returns to capital, with fewer (though a significant minority) acknowledging the positive role played by the EU in securing regional markets (both of commodities and labour). On the other, there is widespread fear of the threat to the "national economy" posed by EU regulation and external competition from low-skilled workers. This is not a purely economic matter, however. Conservatives are by nature deeply committed to the Union of the British Isles. Through precisely its regulated free trade regime, the EU threatens UK sovereignty. The "free market" - which the EU undoubtedly supports in practice - stands less for any unchanging theory of virtue inherent in deregulation, than for what the British ruling class believes will in practice best serve British capital at a given time. The EU impinges on sacred Tory notions of sovereignty and the inner collective coherence of the UK; immigration undermines the social and territorial homogeneity of the British state. Though both the EU and immigration are, in a sense, symptomatic phenomena of free markets, the Tory Party discovers in practice that they threaten their other intellectual commitment to the national economy.

The Conservatives will struggle in the short term to reorganise their political culture so as to incorporate both immigration and the European free-market bloc (in the historical long term, they stand perhaps to gain from both anti-democratic EU tendencies and the loosening of nationally regulated labour markets). This gives the British Left a rare opening: an opportunity, for once, to fight a battle it can actually win. How? While the Tory Party struggles to reconcile itself to a world of permanently diminished stature of the British state, the Left can start organising its own counter-hegemonic bloc. The social forces it can win to its side in forthcoming battles range from the progressive, democratic wing of the middle class to migrant workers themselves. For it to do so, however, will require a reformulation of the terms of the argument in which anti-immigrant sentiment presently dominates (as previously explored, the British working class also suffers from a culture of conservatism when it comes to immigration). This reformulation of terms - made possible by current Conservative weakness - must then be used to formulate concrete proposals. In short, the Left must argue:

- the "free movement of people" doesn't threaten democratic sovereignty; the "free exploitation of labour" does

The Left could demand greater protection of workers' and democratic rights as a condition of Britain's continued EU membership. The €2.1 billion bill dumped on David Cameron by the EU this week could also be used progressively. The Left could challenge European elites to explain the use of these contributions to the electorate, as opposed to addressing themselves exclusively, and clandestinely, to the government ("Play by the rules," was the collective instruction of Barroso, Hollande and Merkel to Cameron this week). This would also form a starting point for addressing British concerns about accountability and democracy within the Union. This would take the form:

- fundamental democratic reforms, including deepening the power of the European Parliament, not withdrawal from the EU

This could be the centrepiece of a progressive Labour platform in a future EU-membership referendum.

Concretely, the Left in Britain could organise around the issue of a strictly enforced, universal living wage to protect migrants from super-exploitation and to strengthen the wider British working class. To those who argue that such a policy would cause unemployment, the Left can argue simply that it is growing consumption (fuelled by wage increases) not profit rates or returns to capital that drives productivity and economic growth in capitalist economies. Higher wages for both British and immigrant workers would help the economy as a whole.

This is a popular-democratic strategy, not a strictly "socialist" one, which draws on a long tradition of Keynesian demand management and social labour-market protection - a shared British and European heritage of the postwar era - whilst deliberately driving at a new, progressive social gain: a universal living wage. I see no reason that the current Labour Party leadership could not be pushed to make such an argument, especially if the Tories and the wider ruling bloc remain divided. The eventual goal would be a European living wage (adjusted for GDP or some other index of national wealth) to energise the renewal of a specifically European working class, to help strengthen its institutions and to create the space for its political culture.

If intellectual and working-class forces to the left of the Labour leadership fail to nudge it in the right direction on immigration by, at the earliest, the May elections or, at the latest, by the time of the proposed membership referendum, the Tories will almost certainly regain the upper-hand. I am inclined to think this outcome even more likely if the Tories are in office when Europe begins a significant economic recovery. Crucially, this could be well under way during the referendum campaign, resulting in renewed membership of an unreformed EU, a growing economy still fuelled by very cheap labour, and the further disenfranchisement of the British and European working class. The benign Tory attitude to the free market, and to European authorities as the regional guarantors of capital circulation and labour movement, will have resurfaced in more assertive form. The Left cannot afford to miss this opportunity.                         

Thursday, 23 October 2014

"Dealing with the Problem": European Immigration, the British Working Class, and Ruling-Class Ideology

There is constant confusion within British culture about immigration because it touches upon some of our society's key contradictions. As confused as the masses often seem (telling Ipsos Mori they believe that immigrants make up 31% of the population; in fact it's 13%), our rulers find it no less problematic. Among them we find an intellectual zig-zag movement between celebrating the cultural, social, and economic benefits "over all" of the "free movement of people" while wondering aloud if borders need to be tightened in order to maintain "social cohesion." Thus, in the same breath that calls for "humane" government intervention to help illegal immigrants into Europe, the Economist - the intellectual home of English free traders - notes, "the logic of the free movement of people is that the more open the borders internally, the more tightly external frontiers must be managed." (Needless to say, this makes "free movement" a drastic bit less free) This is partly explained by the fact that, whatever the ideological bon mots of laissez-faire, capitalist markets must always be embedded in complex, carefully delimited social infrastructures. Bound up with this is the only half-complete conversion of the British ruling class to free trade itself. In other words, the Smithian virtues of the market have only ever been sceptically or cynically deployed by the majority of our rulers (the Tory party only coming round to Whiggish notions of free trade in the time of Margaret Thatcher). Free trade is one, partially-integrated, ideological element among others in the wider "articulation" (to use Chantall Mouffe's concept) of the British ruling class. Suspicion of immigration is connected to this wider suspicion of the perils of opening up the "national economy" (sustained historically by prising open other regions and building trade relations favourable to the British) to the convulsions of the free market.

The Economist reveals itself less in the logic of the argument than in its fluffy phrasing: "openness" for a sort of hermetic aristocracy of Schengen labour; the genteel euphemism of "management" for those outside it. On the Labour side things are no more enlightened. Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, recently turned immigrant sage for the Daily Mail: "Labour can no longer ignore immigration." Danczuk's message was entirely contained in the posture: he wanted to look hard in the Mail, an understandable if misguided fetish for one from a party so thoroughly harassed by them. Yet as with the Economist, in place of either fact or policy there was euphemism. This didn't stop a New Statesman editorial of the following week placing a more humane spin on essentially the same incoherent list of popular "grievances", public "perceptions" and vague threats. In all cases, immigration is not condemned per se. Indeed, it is regarded as a vital source of replenishment for labour markets and British national culture. It is seen, however, as getting "out of control" - though not as a result of market pressures themselves but rather because of the specific aspects of the European Union that erode sovereignty. "There's a sense that we can no longer get rid of criminals in our country," Danczuk says. "It would be foolish to deny that immigration from within the European Union and outside brings pressures on housing, schools, maternity units and other public services," the New Statesman says. (Why, if immigration "pressures" are universal, the need to acknowledge the EU separately?) Immigration is flawed in execution, they say, not in nature. The "free movement of people" must, it's assumed, be a good thing. It's only our capacity to "deal with" (in the Economist's vaguely seedy wording) the influx that matters.

Contradicting the established view are two related phenomena, the first objective and the second subjective. Firstly, the constant drive of capital to overcome all spatial, social, and political barriers to circulation rubs up against the institutional, social, and political infrastructures necessary to instigate its "limitless" accumulation in the first place. During intensifying phases capital must draw labour from its periphery into its core regions, generating, as Marx described, a "surplus army of labour" which is quickly and cheaply deployable in new and productive branches of industry. The creation of national - or supra-national - sovereignties is not a secondarily or merely coincidentally simultaneous process: their development in the core is a crucial stage in securing returns to capital and with them market expansion. Undergoing their own crises of "underdevelopment" peripheral regions inject their own, low-paid, hard-working labourers into newly opened production streams in the core. Then, in periods of crisis in the core, capital releases itself from production and floods the market, often in highly damaging speculative financial waves. Importantly, workers are thrown out of work and old, unproductive branches of industry are shuttered or relocated. Thus the territorial and accumulative contradictions of capital structure migration flows, as well as the social conflicts that inevitably arise from them. While capital plays a key part in the development of national cultures, it has absolutely no qualms about abandoning them to their own fates whenever it needs to and the conditions are right. Immigration is one process among others that "de-centres" national development, pushing it down new, contradictory paths. Thus, to Marx's fundamental division within the working class - that of employed and unemployed - we can add the division between privileged workers from the core and those thrust into core labour markets from the periphery. These divisions needn't necessarily take a national form (as evidenced in the case of the Economist's attitude to the EU), but, owing to the relatively few global proletarian experiences of federal or supra-national sovereign systems, they are preponderately national.

This brings us to the second way in which the prevailing view of immigration is contradicted, this time by experience: the general "native" working class opposition to immigration. In a previous article I addressed how the cultural conservatism of the British working class - and of British society generally - developed during the 19th century. There was nothing historically necessary about this: it hinged, as E.P. Thompson wrote, on the coincidence of the Industrial Revolution with the counter-revolution of the Napoleonic Wars. In Gramscian terms, the growth of class consciousness was channelled in conservative directions by this specific and contingent tipping of "the balance of class forces." This moment affected the whole history of the British working-class movement. The truisms relentlessly espoused about immigration's "ups and downs" - from the depression of wages to the mass importation of doctors; from the erosion of the "contributory" welfare principle to the cultural vibrancy of immigration - fail to impact upon popular perceptions. This is because, for all their supposed empathic power, they contradict lived experience. From the perspective of the long-term unemployed bricklayer who expects at least the minimum wage, "foreign labour" does indeed pose a direct existential threat. This simple fact is what escapes so many public figures - with all their qualifications and reservations; with all their unevenly buried xenophobia. The reality is that the Labour tradition in Britain - with its patrician commitment to the "national economy" and the "benign" imperialism that once supported it - has no convincing answer to the threat posed by free capitalist labour markets to a workforce that lives under the constant threat of further de-industrialisation. Free labour markets are a necessity for capitalist development; closed industrial and trade regimes vital for the spread of national prosperity within a limited and predetermined social framework. Immigration - as a necessary part of capitalist development - ploughs violently into this web of social contradictions, undercutting pre-established labour and national sovereignty. 

Again, E.P. Thompson's depiction of the Irish immigrant impact on the skilled English working class during the Industrial Revolution is devastating and revealing in equal measures. Thompson quotes a Blue Book report of the 1830s entitled 'Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain', which states:

The Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilized population spreading themselves, as a kind of substratum, beneath a more civilized community; and, without excelling in any branch of industry, obtaining possession of all the lowest departments of manual labour.

"An Englishman could not do the work they do," one employer marvelled. Irish workers flooded the industrial economy, filling any available position. They had few of the cultural aversions of the English working class and none of their developed sense of class consciousness. According to Thompson, the Irish had "escaped the influence of Baxter and Wesley" - in other words, they were lacking in spiritual self-discipline, disregarding of moral qualms around dignity and self-abasement. They did not so much undermine wages (the key obsession of anti-immigration ideologues today) as absorb vast sectors of the economy and make them their own. The important point here is to acknowledge the specifically cultural underpinnings of this development of the Industrial Revolution: abject in Ireland, they were capable of "great feats" in England. Still, despite the obviously unintended intensification of proletarianisation wrought by Irish immigration, Thompson says, "it is not the friction but the relative ease with which the Irish were absorbed into working-class communities which is remarkable." The saving grace of the British working class - the key ingredient in its ability to stave off barbarism in the depths of extraordinary privation - was its collectivism. "By the early years of the nineteenth century it is possible to say that collectivist values are dominant in industrial communities," Thompson says. This collectivism was developed in the factory system and in the towns and villages being drawn into the "devouring jaws" (as Engels repeatedly put it) of industrialism.

In an interview with the New Left Review, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that the mass immigration of the Twenty-First Century was constitutively different to its Twentieth Century equivalent because - with the fluidity of postmodern identities - living in a European country no longer entailed the possibility of "assimilation" (as it had quite successfully in both the USA and France). One moved to England to work as a Polish citizen and a few years later simply transferred this new wealth of experience back home. This betrays a lack of awareness of the effect Polish communities have had on British society, and vice versa. National communities - much like capital markets - are not permanently constrained by strict cultural limits. Their evolution, not given by ethnicity, is open to peculiar permutations. If they are in part determined by the channels of culture which develop through capitalist technologies and social relations, their real limits must remain for now unknown. It is only particular interests within national states that are threatened by capitalist market expansion. The European Union may yet prove an unintended transformer of national or working class identity as opposed to their full stop. This, perhaps, is the lesson for the Left in Thompson's account of Irish immigration to England: even in such extraordinarily adverse circumstances, the industrial proletariat - still unsure of itself and of its capacities - proved capable of building real solidarity with new arrivals. This not because of its relative level of "enlightenment" along bourgeois lines, but precisely because of its own (flawed but, in its own way, highly successful) "collectivism". The future of the working class - indeed, of "humane" approaches to immigration - lies not with EU policymakers, but with new solidarities built up among the new and old elements of those whose lives and livelihoods are constantly threatened by capitalist accumulation.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Immigration as a Political Factor

Immigration helps form the deepest cultural division within the working class. Deeper perhaps than the distinction between "honourable" and "dishonourable" work (which it plays into), and unemployment and semi-employment (which it also plays a part in reproducing), the divide created by immigration among workers is no mere ideological dupe of the ruling class, used simply to divide the movement from the outside. The division is essential to capitalist processes of expansion and development; and essential to the formation of working-class consciousness. From the earliest days of capitalism - well before the industrial revolution, when the crisis of feudalism, and its attendant class struggles, drove the development of capitalist social relations - the owners of capital have always required fresh waves of low-paid labour to drive productive expansion and subsequently to undermine existing forms of working-class privilege. Despite the purely economic unity of the working class (that is, its lack of ownership of the means of production and of the means of circulation), the cultural and political unity of the working class in Britain has inevitably been hampered by the movement and subsequent incorporation of "external" populations into the expanding centres of capital accumulation. One sees attempts throughout the earliest phases of artisanal organisation against big capital to control the exploitation of immigrant labour and to steady its impact upon pre-existing skilled labour forces (with the idea of guaranteeing basic wage-rates across industries). Though hardly always "exclusivist" or racist, advanced workers have often sought to consolidate their own positions by patronising the less fortunate.

What, however, explains the acute suspicion of immigrant labour in Britain today? Clearly the current wave of market and institutional globalisation plays a major part in animating prejudice. Yet the argument that, by undermining "native" workers' rights, capital has engendered an accidental civil backlash, is too mechanistic and also plays into the hands of right-wingers who believe that all "aliens" must necessarily be perceived as a threat to the "self-interest" of local populations. On the contrary, the whole national debate about immigration in Britain in recent years has its roots in the particular conservative culture developed in British society as a whole since the industrial revolution. The labour movement, for all its remarkable strengths, has formed an essential part of this conservative culture. Yet this fact does not explain the endurance of British national chauvinism; it merely points to its popular, working-class element. To understand the strength and specificity of anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain today we must turn to the evolution of the working class's relationship to capital and to the social system of capitalism itself.

Capitalism's longue durée in England meant that class politics in this "most bourgeois of countries" over time developed the most peculiar anomalies. Many commentators have pointed to how the "Glorious Revolution" and the constitution of 1688 foreswore a bourgeois revolution on Britain. At least as important as retrospective cultural reference to that event, however, was the coincidence of popular counter-revolution during the Napoleonic Wars with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. As E.P. Thompson put it in his The Making of the English Working Class, "As new techniques and forms of industrial organisation advanced, so political and social rights receded." The radical Jacobin and Dissenting Protestant traditions of the skilled artisans - with their commitment to the "rights of the free Englishman" were dissolved into reactionary national currents. This complex process of class incorporation into capitalism through both war and political reaction left democratic forces defeated. Although the radical traditions imported from France and from native skilled artisans were defeated, the period after 1790 also saw the development of properly national working-class consciousness. This consciousness was, however, marked by the prior defeat of the radicals along with the slow growth of new trade unionism. Strangely, the working-class insistence on a minimum of human dignity, of protection of wages and welfare, as well as traditional morals, found strange echoes among the Tory aristocracy. As Thompson put it, "Whenever the traditionalist Tory passed beyond mere reflective argument about the factory system, and attempted to give vent to his feelings in action, he found himself in an embarrassing alliance with trade unionists or working-class Radicals." Despite being predominantly bourgeois in terms of social relations, the historical accidents of British social development led its culture to be preponderately conservative, aligned with the forces of tradition. Any nascent alliance between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat against reactionary aristocratic landowners was curtailed by working class material and ideological incorporation into capitalist society.

In subsequent years, as Tom Nairn has described in his assessment of the British Labour Party, the trade union movement - the embodiment of the labour movement as a whole - developed piecemeal and empirically within the confines of British capitalist society. At no point did the union movement attempt to combat capitalism as such. Instead, due to the long-term incorporation of the most advanced elements of the British proletariat into the capitalist state (under the leadership of the Liberal Party), it sought a moral compromise with capital: in short, a "fair share" of the productive pie for its members. This naturally tended to favour the already-organised and well-integrated workers - the so-called "aristocracy of labour" - against those excluded from it. Owing to the "empirical" and purely self-serving nature of the labour movement's analysis - and the shortage of any radical ideas within the movement - the defence of privileged layers within the working class became the foremost priority of organised workers. A long history of gender and racial prejudice within the unions attests to this privileging of the already-organised. Without a radical democratic or egalitarian strand in English culture to draw upon, this meant sclerosis for the movement itself.

Immigration has always played a vital part in processes of capitalist creative destruction, allowing capitalist firms the flexibility to restructure and develop new lines of production quickly and efficiently, discarding older labour forces and defunct means of production in the process. Yet different labour movements have developed varying strategies for dealing with the introduction of new labour forces (despite or perhaps because of the historical weakness of organised labour in the US, the Democrats probably feel less compunction about being labelled the party of "immigrant and ethnic minority labour" than would any traditional European Socialist Party). Immigrants - either foreign or internal - hardly form the only new strands introduced into national economies. The introduction of women - a similarly discriminated group - into the labour force has always been met with fierce and contradictory reactions within the existing labour movement.

The organisational tensions between new and old strands within the wider labour forces of capitalist societies will probably not be definitively solved under a capitalist mode of production. Still, there are strategies labour movements can and should engage in to channel those tensions into gains for the class as a whole, as well as promoting a general anti-capitalist consciousness. In Dissent magazine this year, I examined at length the relationship between the international state system, immigration and human trafficking. Interviewing various activists and NGO workers, I was met with a similar line: human trafficking is a humanitarian issue, not a political one, and should be combated through civil pressure groups. I find quite the reverse to be true: only political mobilisation and sustained organisation - the type that fosters new ideas of democratic solidarity and how to enact it - can combat a system built around the exploitation of the weakest for the benefit of the few. Precarity and vulnerability - affecting both older and newer; local and global industrial workforces - are nothing new. Unions of the unemployed - operating beyond legal notions of citizenship or corporatist industrial sectors, not to mention employment as such - could reach outside of the traditional zones of labour organisation to reach the world's most vulnerable and indeed most important workers. There are already unions that seek to protect and defend low-wage, undocumented and precariously employed workers. Here renewed commitment to creating an anti-capitalist culture for all must be brought.