Friday, January 28, 2011

Europe, immigration and the Right.

For interesting reasons, some parts of the Left, who are otherwise consistently anti-racist, are amenable to the argument that migration drives down wages and, perhaps, places a burden on welfare systems and the public sector. This is an argument that many in the Labour establishment, and its supporters in the media such as Polly Toynbee, have been trying to popularise. It is accepted by Ed Miliband, and Ed Balls sank his leadership campaign early on with a stance on immigration that allowed the Tory leader to characterise him as Labour's Alf Garnett. The fact that Labour is behind many of these arguments means that they become much more widely accepted than they would among working class communities.

While most leftists would not accept the argument put out by some that migrant workers are today's equivalents of industrial scabs, helping the bosses break the 'indigenous' working class, there is a seemingly powerful motivation for (usually white) leftists to accept parts of the right-wing orthodoxy about immigration. Unfortunately, what this does is externalise a problem that is constitutive to capitalism: that being the necessity for a reserve army of labour*, and enforced competition for resources among workers**. It misreads symptoms of neoliberal capitalism as effects of migration. As it is particularly bound up in the British context with EU expansion, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of workers from A8 and A2 countries, it also involves a particular mis-reading of the EU itself, which has to be understood as part of the global regionalisation of capitalism which is also evident in North America and south-east Asia, for example. That regionalisation, its institutionalisation (the EU Treaty), securitisation ('Fortress Europe') and militarisation (through NATO expansion and various attempts at building an EU defence force to suitably manage crises like that in the former Yugoslavia), has been the basis for all of the elegiac tributes and militant screeds concerning Europe and its Enlightened legacy.

What has happened in the UK is that those frequently at the margins of the capitalist system have made for timely scapegoats for acute crises in employment and local services that in fact express chronic stresses. Though the evidence is overwhelming that migrant workers bring added growth, added value and thus greater tax receipts to any local economy, there have been attempts by politicians, locally and nationally, to blame an increase in the local migrant worker population for failures in service delivery.

In fact, the added demand on local services that is blamed on immigration has been vastly over-stated. A combination of legislative hurdles and reluctance to claim means that in the case of housing and benefits, most migrant workers don't claim. At the height of migration from A8 countries in 2006, less than 1% of social housing lettings went to those migrant workers - this belies the claims that immigrants are being placed at the front of the queue for such services. To the extent that the demand for public goods did increase in certain areas, the government had more than enough opportunity to anticipate what was coming and then adjust for the difference. The evidence shows that the increase in funds resulting from migration was more than sufficient to meet the challenge. The vast majority of immigrants, over 80%, are of the ages 18-35. They do not tend to bring dependents, and they offset problems posed by the ageing of the UK population. Were they to not here, the resources available for public services would be less, or national insurance contributions or other taxes would have to rise. Where there were acute problems, whether there was local immigration or not, this was the result of systemic under-funding produced by the endemic problems of capital accumulation and the reluctance of social democracy to add to the tax burden. The attempt to square that circle with the use of PFIs only stored up further fiscal problems.

By some, usually right-wing populist, accounts, it would seem that the EU just is a scheme to reduce labour costs by allowing unimpeded free migration and thus increasing the demand for jobs. But there are good reasons why migration does not simply increase the reserve army of labour. First of all, as I've argued before, migration can increase total employment in a country because the lower costs of reproducing labour mean it is feasible for an employer to open up a job that would otherwise not be available, and also because the increase in growth tends to result in an increase in investment. Secondly, migration in the EU does not flow in one direction. What happens is that people move where the jobs are, where their skills are most needed, and thus the employment of available labour is maximised within the constraints of efficient capital accumulation.

This is the whole point: the EU is a regionalised accumulation system, and the effect of immigration within it will not be greatly different from that of migration between Glasgow and Sunderland, which no one finds objectionable. The fact this spatial re-organisation of capitalism took place under a neoliberal regime where the aim was to reduce the bargaining power of labour, hold down public expenditures (and thus corporate taxation) and increase the rate of profit, means that there will be attempts to organise the system in such a way as to weaken labour. But there is not much evidence for any profound distributive effects of migration. Such effects as do exist are sectoral, not significant, offset by countervailing effects elsewhere, and contingent on a host of other factors such as the strength of trade unions in an industry and the enforcement of regulations like minimum wage laws. (See here, here, here and here). The growth effect, however, is significant, and all workers benefit from that. In fact, the erection of barriers to the movement of labour is the most effective way to undermine those advantages.

The blaming of immigrants, usually accompanied by scaremongering about there being too many people, is precisely a way of racialising a social problem produced by capitalism. This goes much deeper than the distribution of resources, and the rising level of unemployment required to make capitalism efficient. Rather, these are attributes partially of the hollowing out of parliamentary democracy, the whittling away of the franchise and of the ability of the working class to impose some of its interests on capital. Neoliberal capitalism was designed to exclude certain political options, to exclude much of the working class from the electoral system, and coopt its leadership on new, subordinate terms. What is happening is that this disenfranchisement is culturalised, expressed as the cultural and identitarian emasculation of this spectral 'white working class'. This gives the Right the opportunity to rephrase its political slogans. Its hostility to the EU is based on its preference for a national capitalism hitched to US-led 'hyper-globalisation' (Andrew Gamble's phrase) which, if anything, entails an even weaker position for labour. But it can articulate its demands in terms of democracy (usually interpreted as 'sovereignty') because the EU, while it isn't the cause of Britain's democratic nadir, is a profoundly undemocratic set of institutions. It can appear to offer something to the working class because while the EU did not produce high unemployment and low public spending, it has supported and bolstered this particular capitalist praxis.

The attacks on immigrants by those evincing concern for the working class, and often 'the white working class', are themselves an attack on the working class and the Left. It is tried and tested, effective right-wing political mobilisation. People on the Left, even the centre-left orbiting Labour, should not be tempted to reproduce the assumptions of the Right in this argument, because if they do they will lose. The most effective response is to mobilise within the working class, particularly the organised working class, to defend immigrants and combat the racism which aims at their marginalisation and subjection.

*This is variously called the 'natural rate of unemployment' (Milton Friedman), the 'non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment', or 'structural unemployment'.
**This is called relative scarcity.