Friday, February 26, 2010

On ruling class anti-racism

Occasionally, if you open the Economist or the FT, you'll read an argument that runs something like this: people shouldn't be bigoted toward immigrants, because by they do jobs that British workers won't do for pay that British workers won't accept. In a similar way, you often hear members of the Institute of Directors or the CBI explain that 'globalisation' and international outsourcing is an excellent thing because it gives jobs to hard-working people in Third World countries who work much harder, and are much less demanding, than spoilt, recalcitrant Western workers. This is the zenith of ruling class anti-racism, and it's just another argument for exploitation. And it is, of course, deeply racist toward the recipients of its supposed benediction.

I mention this by way of introducing a popular BBC programme that aired the other day, called The Day The Immigrants Left. Featuring the economics commentator from Newsnight:

This programme begins with a series of vox pops involving working class, usually unemployed, white people regurgitating scaremongering headlines. The explicit remit of the programme is to challenge the racism of those workers by proving to them that they couldn't do the jobs that immigrant workers do. It essentially shares the purview of the employers of migrant labour, who explain that they would be out of business if they had to recruit from the local unemployed. Of course there's a heavy selection bias in the programme, because it can only feature those employers of migrant labour who are happy to have their workplaces filmed and have their practises discussed on air. And the programme backs up their claim that the reason they have turned to migrant labour is because, somehow and at some point, local workers just stopped being interested in such jobs and opted for the dole instead. Unemployment, in this light, is voluntary, and arises from some sort of psychic shift in the workforce. The truth behind this convoluted tale is much more simple: the politico-legal oppression of migrant workers makes the cost of their labour (ie, the cost of reproducing their labour) much less expensive, and it usually works to render those workers much more submissive. Employers like that.

Historically, systems of migrant and segregated labour work very similarly in that the costs of reproducing their labour power are reduced by the conditions of oppression. In pre-apartheid South Africa, for example, segregated and migratory labour were combined. African workers were imported from the rural economy, housed in cramped, collective living quarters, fed a standardised diet purchased in bulk, and transported collectively to the mineral mines (where they were admitted only to the most menial jobs on account of 'colour bar' policies). They may have had a family to support, but not in the city centre, and thus the remittance they needed to provide their family with was not elevated by city prices. All of this was much less expensive than the process of feeding, housing and transporting the white workers who lived in individual houses in the Witwatersrand core with high rents, ate in individualised units, had families to support and travelled individually. Hence, the politico-legal oppression of African workers meant that the cost of reproducing their labour was reduced, thus increasing profits.

In today's migration economy, similar principles apply. Migrants often have shaky legal status, even if they have documentation. The TUC points out that even where the legal status of migrant workers is insuperable, they are made unaware of their rights and are usually unable to enforce them short of high-risk militancy. This is a situation that is maintained on purpose as it provides low cost labour to both private and public sector institutions. Most migrants live in cramped, collective accomodation, are transported collectively, eat collectively, and any families they support are based in poorer countries where average incomes and prices are lower, thus reducing the amount of any remittance that needs to be sent. Hence, the cost of their labour is reduced. This means that more jobs are created that otherwise could not possibly have been created. The effect of the last big wave of labour migration in the UK, consistent with this outline, was to increase total employment without decreasing unemployment or job vacancies. New jobs were created because employers could afford the cheaper labour, but the old jobs were not filled because they weren't available to migrant workers and because a set of geographical and skill factors excluded local workers from taking those jobs.

What this means is that British workers could not, even if they were masochistic enough to want to, work in the same conditions that most migrant workers have to accept. To attempt it would be to attempt a perverse hoax in which one abandoned one's status as a British citizen, fled with one's family to a relatively poor country and gained citizenship there, accepted lower living standards, and then left one's family behind to try to get into the UK, legally or otherwise. Oh, and one would have to forget almost everything one had ever learned, because the first sign that one was socialised in the UK might alert any handler or employer that there's something awry. And the only thing that one would learn from such zaniness is that a worker's position in the global labour market is socially produced, maintained by politico-legal institutions and social forces much larger than any individual worker. The cost of labour is determined by all of these factors, and unemployment is not voluntary. The BBC's programme is an argument for exploitation.

One last point. Ruling class ideology on this subject oscillates between two mutually reinforcing poles. On the one hand, there is a patronising concern for the 'white working class', which scapegoats migrants, black people and 'politically correct' policies for the supposed alienation of white workers from politics. On the other hand, there is a condescending endorsement of the 'work ethic' of immigrants, as if their oppression and exploitation was a fact about their personalities or culture. From a different perspective, this attitude also blames immigrants, in this case for being more available for undignified, hyper-exploitative, low-paid labour than their local counterparts. What neither attitude can admit, what the ruling dogma can never allow, is that workers of whatever status have more in common with one another than with their bosses.