Hannah Cross’s analysis of the role of migration in capitalism is a guide for the left on how to set an agenda for the global emancipation of all workers, argues Yonas Makoni

Hannah Cross, Migration Beyond Capitalism (Polity 2021), x, 202pp.

In Migration Beyond Capitalism, Hannah Cross expounds a Marxist analysis that takes seriously the importance of migration in capitalism today. Rather than base her assessment in value judgements that would force her into a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’-migration position, she draws her conclusions from an in-depth analysis of the actual economic and political function of migration. In this way, Cross’s analysis succeeds in going beyond many of the mystifications prevalent on the contemporary left.

On the one hand, a ‘post-material left’ attempts to wish away the issue by repeating the same-old platitudes of liberal multiculturalism: ‘we should be open and tolerant to different ways of life’, ‘we need migrants to do the jobs we don’t want to do’, etc. While admirable in their defence of migrants’ rights to live free of discrimination and state oppression, these leftists often take too rosy a view of migration, failing to understand the role it plays in subjugating the global labour force and depressing wages. They are also particularly likely to ally with the liberal middle classes and bourgeoisie against their prejudiced conception of a ‘racist white working class’.

On the other hand, a ‘nationalist left’ attempts to connect with peoples’ ‘reasonable concerns’ by emphasising the negative economic role of migration. They argue that migrants depress wages in their host countries and that the mainstream left has neglected this because of its focus on culture wars rather than class issues. While often accurate in their critiques of neoliberalism, these currents tend to reinforce the hierarchy between domestic and migrant workers and are particularly prone to regurgitating the right’s racist myths about migration.

The task of Cross’s analysis is to dispense with the obfuscations of each argument, while preserving their truth. In order to do this, she returns to Marx’s 1870 letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt on the ‘Irish question’. For Marx, British imperialism in Ireland sustained British capitalism in two ways.

First, the profitability of British capital depended both on the extraction of natural and human resources from Ireland at low cost. Raw materials and primary goods were shipped en masse to Britain at the expense of the impoverished Irish peasantry, while the stream of migrants created by the Potato Famine and land clearances provided British industry with cheap labour. Secondly, the capitalist class maintained this system, at home and abroad, by pitting British and Irish working classes against each other.

The domination of Britain over Ireland became a justification for capitalist rule at home, and British workers were divided against Irish immigrant workers, based on the fact that the inflated labour supply pushed down wages. This conflict was:

‘artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this’ (c.f. p.27).

Marx lays out this argument in a short passage with striking contemporary relevance. He concludes that the task of socialists is to ‘make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation’ (c.f. p.26-7).

This is the starting point of Cross’s analysis. She takes this short but crucial passage, and uses it to develop an excellent analysis of the role of migration within the global capitalist economy, and the political and ideological means by which this system is kept alive.

Migration and the labour force

For Cross, migration under capitalism is a two-sided process. First, a surplus labour force is produced by means of ‘primitive accumulation’. In the neoliberal era, this has often been enabled by trade deals and ‘conditional lending’, which have privatised public services and abolished trade barriers and state subsidies. For example, migration to the US rapidly increased after NAFTA allowed large agricultural corporations to crowd out small farmers. This ‘primitive accumulation’ is motivated by the rate of profit’s tendency to fall, forcing capitalists to continuously seek out new, more profitable markets.

This surplus labour force is then directed to the capitalist metropoles, where it serves as a source of cheap labour. In some countries this labour enters the manufacturing sector, while in the West it is usually directed to low-paying sectors that cannot be outsourced, such as food-processing and agriculture. The surplus labour force functions as what Marx called an ‘industrial reserve army’, i.e. the permanent maintenance of an excess supply of (often very desperate) labour-power pushes down wages and reduces workers’ bargaining power.

Cross’s assertion is that migration thus pushes down wages both on the global and national scale. A lot of Western leftists would take issue with this view, arguing that empirical evidence shows that immigration in fact benefits the national economy. This is an aspect, Cross argues, where good intentions might lead to counterproductive arguments.

On the one hand, while Western economies might benefit from it, excessive migration acts as a drain on poor countries, drawing out a significant proportion of the working populations (and often the more highly educated and skilled). In response to this, Cross argues that the left should affirm migrants’ ‘right to stay home’ in a safe and stable environment. This, in turn, would require a radical shift in Western foreign policy and economic imperialism.

On the other, the claim that immigration benefits Western economies does not take into account its class basis. Cross claims these studies often do not take into account the informal sector in which many migrants work, often in conditions of near (or actual) slavery.

More significantly, while the macroeconomic effect of migration may be a net positive, these gains tend to be concentrated in the middle and upper classes, while the lower-paid working class loses out. Thus:

‘the outsourcing of services such as cleaning and catering to a low-paid, flexible and economically insecure migrant workforce, which does not share freedom of movement that EU citizens have had, enables the UK to sustain a low-wage economy’ (p. 104).

As Cross argues, there is no ‘economy’ as such; the economy is a capitalist economy and we should never resort to arguments that prioritise capitalist profiteering over the well-being of both migrant and domestic workers.

Borders and nationality

Following Marx, Cross is clear that there is no reason this analysis should result in an anti-migrant politics. That is because the mere fact that migration causes problems is not enough to justify hostility towards migrants themselves; for that to happen, this must be supplemented with the assumption that migrants cause these problems as individuals. Only this assumption, as Cross argues, allows us to treat migrants as a problem to be removed. Cross is clear that leftists should give no credence to such lines of thinking and should always stick firmly to the principles of socialist internationalism.

This leads her to an investigation of the role of borders and nationality. In search of new opportunities, this migrant labour army is forced eventually to confront restrictive national borders. The strength of Cross’s analysis here is how she interrelates the role of borders on the ground with their wider political function.

Border systems have intensified in the neoliberal era, and Cross connects this both with a tendency towards increased militarisation in general (e.g. Wars on Terror and Drugs) and with a tendency towards greater outsourcing and privatisation of state ‘security’ functions (e.g. privatised prisons and military companies like Blackwater).

Many aspects of the development of border security can thus be understood as the servicing of a growing migration industry, which encompasses everything from privatised detention centres and security companies to the people smugglers who profit from the criminalisation of immigration. This has been the driver of ever-increasing state brutality towards migrants and cannot be defended by any socialist.

On a deeper level, this border regime organises the flow of migrants globally in a way that preserves the imperialist hierarchy of nations, i.e. the hierarchy between rich countries, at the core of the capitalist economy, and dependent countries, whose resources (natural and human) are extracted on the cheap.

Western populations allow the management of migration to take this brutalised form due to nationalist ideology portraying migrants as threats to our identities, security or welfare systems. In her analysis of the EU’s migration regime, Cross shows how this ideology was a key component in the attempt to develop a European transnational identity. This made it possible to justify open borders internally in combination with an external border policy predicated on the need to protect Europe from ‘swarms’ of migrants. Similarly, this nationalism allows elites to justify hierarchies between the Global North and South as deriving from the superiority of Northern states and to scapegoat migrants for the effects of home-grown austerity measures that harm the working class.

Crucially, Cross uses migration-studies research to show that border regimes have very little effect on the overall volume of migration, which is primarily dependent on conditions in migrants’ home countries and labour-market opportunities in the host countries (p.176). Similarly, she shows that there is little to no relationship between the volume of migration to an area and anti-migrant attitudes in that area – rather, the intensification of border systems stimulates and legitimises xenophobic attitudes (p.145). These facts alone should be sufficient to rebut the right’s migration narrative.

A labour-centred approach?

This analysis of how capitalism breeds and feeds on the divisions between domestic and migrant workers allows Cross to avoid the temptation of approaches like the post-material and nationalist left, which, in one way or another, try to resolve the problem of immigration primarily by focussing on the ideological aspect.

For the post-material left emphasising our support for migrants and condemning detractors should be sufficient in fighting back against anti-migrant ideology. Often this approach leads to pessimism and despair, when far-right ideology keeps growing despite our impassioned defences of democracy and liberal values.

For the nationalist left, the main issue is the left’s ideological distance from the current mood of the working class (like with the post-materialists, this often entails a lot of condescending assumptions about working-class attitudes). Socialists, they argue, should not try to argue with workers about immigration and bring them to their side, because this stance only distances the left from the working class. Insofar as a working-class anti-migrant racism is believed to exist, it is not seen to be something that poses a real challenge to the construction of a coherent left project and should therefore not be combatted too ardently.

Cross avoids both of these options. Her analysis of how migration functions implies that, just as there is a material basis for the division between workers under capitalism, so must there also be a material basis for unity. It is, again, the capitalist system itself that provides this material basis. Capitalism gives workers common problems to confront and struggles to undertake, with these struggles often resonating across borders. Cross mentions the Arab Spring and the Black Lives Matter protests, movements which have resonated across borders even as their objectives and rhetoric have been tweaked to match domestic conditions.

However, while this working-class internationalism often erupts spontaneously, Cross argues that workers must consciously and deliberately work to foster, preserve and extend this unity, if they are to defeat capitalist division. This requires a struggle, as Marx argues, against all the vested interests who seek to preserve the system by dividing workers against each other.

Crucially, Cross argues that this struggle cannot just be conducted on the ideological front, but must come from uniting working people against their common enemy in workplace and community struggles. Here, she uses a range of examples of migrant and anti-racist organising, such as the Latin American Workers’ Association organising of low-paid, predominantly female migrant workers, Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition and the Communist Party’s (CP) struggle against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s. The CP, she argues, managed to push back against fascism by developing class consciousness in working-class communities, particularly through community organising initiatives like the Stepney Tenants Defence League:

‘While mainstream Jewish organisations focused on anti-defamation strategies, the [CP] moved beyond the ‘abstract level of ideas’, not only challenging fascist propaganda, but also … seeking to bring about concrete changes to families’ real lives that would weaken the appeal of fascism’ (p.141).

Movements like this, Cross argues, put in practice Marx’s prescription that socialists must make workers realise that the emancipation of migrant and ethnic minority workers ‘is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation’ (c.f. pp.26-7).

While the post-materialist and nationalist views on migration are both symptomatic of a left that has resigned itself to the established order, Cross’s analysis points towards the possibility of an independent left position. This left is not content with letting others set the terms of the debate, but is actively building an alternative to the non-choices the ruling class throws at us. This makes Cross’s perspective invaluable for the struggles ahead.

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