Free the migrants without arresting capital? Political suicide

Revolting Europe, 10 October 2013

by Emiliano Brancaccio

Published in the Financial Times on September 23, the “economists’ warning” denounces the unwillingness of European leaders to break with current economic policies, and identifies this failure with “waves of irrationalism that are assailing Europe” and “gasps of ultra-nationalist and xenophobic propaganda.” The recent tragedy in Lampedusa is a terrifying example of the consequences of this blatant political cowardice. I refer not only the appalling attempt by the European Commission President Barroso to put a lid on this story using European alms. The problem also lies in the way in which the Left has launched itself into a battle for the abolition of the crime of illegal immigration under the Bossi-Fini law.

Of course, no one here denies that it is right to try to intercept the wave of outrage that has crossed the country, faced with the news that the survivors of the disaster of Lampedusa also suffer the insult of being accused of the crime of illegal immigration. But one must realise that now more than ever the policy cannot be made only of disdain, or examining one’s own conscience. Especially in times of crisis, politics is fuelled primarily by the desire of individuals and groups to defend their interests, to voice their demands.

The Left should remember that we are in the midst of a jobs catastrophe – since the onset of the crisis unemployment has risen by seven million in Europe and a million and a half in Italy alone. For the political forces that are hostile towards immigrants this is a godsend, fertile electoral ground. If you do not want the fight against the crime of illegal immigration to turn into an electoral boomerang, then you need to put that fight into a more general analysis of the crisis and an effort to identify policy responses really able to deal with it.

To do this, we should start to come to terms with the new “pragmatic liberalism” of recent times, which on the one hand defends financial deregulation and the relative, complete freedom of international movement of capital, and on the other side favours alternately, opening to, and repression of migrant labour. The problem is that as long as capital can freely move from one place to another in the world, the share of the social product attributed to profits and rent will be independent of, and therefore higher priority than the share allocated to workers. Before they can seriously dent profits, any wage or tax pressures are headed off by the threat of capital flight abroad. For the local workforce, therefore, under these conditions there will not be many opportunities to influence the distribution of the social product. They will be forced to share with immigrants the residual part of production.

The distribution of this residual part of production obviously risks triggering the classic war amongst the poor, especially at a time when production is falling or stagnates. The aim of criminalising illegal immigration and repressive controls at our borders can then be seen as a means to keep this war at a low level of low intensity. These measures assume the role of “buffer” between locals and foreigners, which can be varied depending on the circumstances, and which allows the management of the clash between local and foreign migrant workers in accordance with the priorities of the reproduction of capital.

Someone will perhaps note that in the above reasoning no room is given to some of the typical clichés of current policy, for example that “immigration is essential to our economy” or “immigrants, as they are young are the only ones able to prevent the collapse of our social security system.” These statements are rooted in the theorems of dominant neoclassical economics, from which comes the imaginative conviction that unemployment does not exist, and so the immigrant automatically contributes to the growth of (social) production. It constitutes one of the favourite alibis of European policymakers, but this argument is without foundation and is contradicted by empirical data and historical facts. The same goes for the thesis of more recent mainstream theory, according to which labour markets are segmented, that is the work done by immigrants complements and will not ever replace that of the local workforce.

The truth is that under the conditions of free movement of capital – and its dismantlement of public production – it is not the will of the individual, it is the mechanism of capitalist reproduction, with its instability and its crises, which decides the distribution, composition and level of output and employment. In such a context, immigration does not in itself constitute a factor wealth creation. Rather, it is the capitalist dynamics that determine this, ie the use of migrant labour in addition to or instead – and therefore in competition – with local workers.

In short, we need to face reality and abandon both the alibis of the dominant theory or the imaginative representations of the conflict suggested by the last followers of Toni Negri. The migrant, in fact, represents neither a “productive force” nor a “complementary strength” nor a “subversive force”, but it can prove, to the contrary, in spite of himself, a tool of repression of social demands.

In light of the above, the demand should be clear: for the just mobilisation against the crime of illegal immigration there should be a parallel mobilisation for the revival of proposals aimed at political control over capital movements. Where by control we mean the downscaling of the financial markets and reabsorption, as part of the political discourse, the crucial question of the balance of external accounts. The restoration of a network of capital controls is one of the conditions necessary to prevent the clash over the distribution of wealth and jobs continuing to be staged only among workers, in particular between locals and migrants.

We could say, then, that if the intention is really to “liberate” migrants then you must begin to”arresting” capital, that is to harness it in a system of checks and balances similar to that which existed until the 1970s [1]. Unless the conditions are met to place the battle for more civilised immigration laws in a more general challenge to economic policy, the prediction of the “economists’ warning” will be confirmed: an ever larger consensus underpinning the rising tide of xenophobic movements.

Translation by Revolting Europe. Original version here.