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.

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