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.                   

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