Post-Capitalists Must Understand the Role of Migration in Global Capitalism

November 5, 2019

This article is part of ourEconomy’s ‘Decolonising the economy’ series.

Following a decade of the global financial crisis, the unravelling of neoliberal centrism and the hardening of right-wing immigration politics, the urgency and renewal of socialist politics have brought its core ideas to the centre of mainstream debate in many high-income countries. There is a popular appetite for alternatives to disastrous capitalism. Yet as it stands, post-neoliberal or even post-capitalist visions of society tend to ignore or take for granted the role of over-exploited migrant labour in successive capitalist orders. Without this understanding, socialist transformation will not be possible.

Migrant labour and neoliberalism

The character of the globalised labour market challenges the idea of emancipating workers only on a national level. It is not that all migrants, and migrations, are driven by the market under oppressive conditions. Fundamentally, migration has always been, and will always be, a part of human development. There is no use in casting it as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ phenomenon in itself: the notion of being ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ migration is a useless hook for popular debate and undermines the dignity of people who have migrated. It makes no more sense than being ‘pro’- or ‘anti’- women or any other group of humans that forms a constant part of society. Migration represents the diversity of humanity and human experience in all its turbulence, complexity and wonder.

What does need recognition, however, is a global regime of labour mobility which overly determines the character of migration as people finds themselves constrained by the destruction of livelihoods at home, narrow and unstable channels of migration, arbitrary and violent border and detention systems, and labour markets that are structured to enable firms’ ‘bottom line’ at any cost to working people. The vast majority of economic migrants have not become so by choice.

In capitalist production, unending demands for natural resources, land and labour at lower costs creates structural migration as people are compelled to move from one place to another for work. Concerted labour policies such as, historically, the slave trade, colonial or apartheid-type labour regimes, and now many guestworker programmes and selective immigration regimes with varying restrictions on citizenship and legality, are a constant feature of capitalist development in wealthy economies.

Legal-bureaucratic structures control discriminatory mobilities of racialised groups of people with an impact far beyond the individuals who confront these constraints directly as they travel and work. It amounts to an apartheid-type system in which geographical regions contain impoverished people who are forced to migrate for household survival and whose labour is exploited in the service of dominant capitalist interests. In a world where as much as 88 percent of people are struggling against poverty, many are forced out of their communities and into the unknown as ‘surplus labour’, while 70 million people have also been displaced by conflict and persecution. This sustains capital’s power over labour as a whole.

Migration in imperial development

Migration is not only a consequence of imperial development but is also at its foundation. Samir Amin, the late Marxist political economist who was based in Dakar, Senegal, wrote about distinct patterns of development and coercive labour migration within regions of Africa, starting by the end of the nineteenth century. He observed that mobility of labour was a core feature of West and Southern Africa’s regional patterns of colonial development, which were based on agricultural export crops and extraction of mineral wealth respectively. In the Congo River Basin, the colonial economy was based on plunder, forcing societies into a vicious labour regime that many resisted by escaping.

The underlying patterns of trade that generated labour migration dynamics have persisted within the uneven development created by the system of global capitalism. Labour migration has created and reproduced regional paradigms of uneven development and has aggravated inequalities, ultimately sustaining the global hierarchy of so-called developed and developing countries.

Amin’s theorisation has proven useful for understanding other regional patterns, including contemporary migrations from Mexico to the US in agricultural labour – where activists demand ‘the right to stay home’ as people’s livelihoods and land have been destroyed by corporate farming, and with some food imports from the north cheaper than the cost of production. 1994 was a pivotal year in both migration systems: a devastating currency devaluation in West and Central Africa’s franc zones, and the establishment of NAFTA in the Americas, created enormous displacement, instability and forms of migration and remittance dependence in entire communities.

Overcoming global divisions

It is common to look to people in oppressed countries to fight for their own emancipation, but socialism cannot exist in one country alone – it needs transformations elsewhere and in particular in advanced capitalist countries where economic power and influence is concentrated. Samir Amin, in assessing popular movements towards socialism, hence reflected on the lack of succession to the Paris Commune or to Russian, Chinese and Mexican revolutions in Asian and African countries. For him, the tragedy was not in the “inadequacies – then, the fatal deviations – of the peripheries’ nations” but in the pro-imperialist alignments of the peoples of the centres.

Not only was this imperialist alignment unhelpful to the liberation struggles of the global south, but also, as Rosa Luxemburg argued from the socialist perspective, ‘no nation is free whose national existence is based upon the enslavement of another people’. This internationalism is not just about having sympathies with oppressed peoples. It also demands recognition of the basis of that oppression and an understanding that the position of working people in imperial centres is also weakened by segmented and divided labour markets.

Illustrating this, in 1870, Karl Marx had written a letter to German-American correspondents that focused on Ireland’s national question but also presented an extensive picture of migration from Ireland to England. He argued that the secret of the power of the ruling class in England was found in its use of tools such as the media and entertainment, indeed any tools at its disposal, to aggravate antagonisms between English workers and those who had been evicted from Ireland. The way to upend the ruling class was found in English workers’ recognition that their own emancipation would be realised in the national emancipation of Ireland. Hence there should be no real class division between migrants and native-born people.

Accordingly, the most radical route to empowerment for all working people is found in their alliances. Such alliances, whether between outsourced cleaners, activist groups, trade unions, students and left-wing politicians in London, or between racialised local communities in US cities who are coerced into competition and hostility, must be vigorously reported and supported by the left as their fierce capacity for transformation is met by violent counter-revolutionary force.

Impoverished communities and punishing workplaces of the global north are a battleground for dignity and survival. Such communities find themselves excluded by what Walter Rodney described as the ‘imperialist worker elite’ that dominates northern labour movements in politics and the media. Such description needs a concrete class analysis in the present day as working classes have been destabilised by runaway neoliberalism, which expands the importance and scope of heightened transnational solidarity.

Learning from Marx

Marx’s letter was not only about understanding the position of migrants, who had been evicted from the land to make way for the export of cheap meat and wool to England, but also about liberating territories and workers in both oppressing and oppressed nations. He considered that there would be a decisive victory for labouring classes both in the overthrow of the English aristocracy in Ireland and in the advancement of the Chartist movement in England.

To conclude, when reading and hearing of ambitious programmes for social transformation, it is our task to consider whether or not such programmes have a sense of the ‘real’ determinants of economic development that Marx recognised: international relations of production, the international division of labour in a world market, exploitation of resources and emigration of displaced people, and at the forefront of these processes, the inner structures of middle and working classes and relations between them.

The fight for the dignity of working people and for the abolition of the racist and imperial structuring of the world is inextricably linked with the fight for an ecologically viable system of production. The displacements exemplified above emerge in environmental as well as economic devastation. Nostalgia for the Keynesian welfare state and aims to ‘improve’ this model in the UK and elsewhere lacks this sense if it neglects the state’s historical reliance on the imperial exploitation of resources and labour to grow. Visions of universal basic income or full automation risk doing precisely the same in the post-colonial world unless they fully acknowledge the social relations of globalised labour and production.


Teaser photo credit: By Tarquin Binary – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

Hannah Cross

Hannah Cross is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster and is chair of the Review of African Political Economy's editorial working group. She has a book in progress on Migration Beyond Capitalism, due for publication in 2020 with Polity.

Tags: capitalism, migration, new economy, post-capitalism