Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Yes, Labour Should Be Wedded To Free Movement. No, Immigration Is Not Too High

Labour's message on immigration is indecisive.  The answer's to journalists questions should be clear and decisive.  Yes, Labour is wedded to the principle of free movement, as should be any self-respecting civilised person.  No immigration is not too high, and the arguments behind the suggestion that it is or might be are based upon fallacious economic concepts such as there being some fixed number of jobs etc.  Those that argue for controls on immigration may not be racists, but the demand for immigration controls is itself a racist demand.

In previous societies such as the slave societies of Ancient Rome and Greece, or in the feudal societies of the Middle Ages, individuals had no freedom, unless they were a part of the tiny ruling elite.  Everyone else was controlled by those elites in what they could do, where they could live and so on.  One of the great achievements of the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century, which was made possible by the bourgeois ideas developed in the previous two centuries, was to sweep away all of these restrictions on the liberty of the individual, that meant, for example, that serfs were destined to live the whole of their lives in the same village, serving the same master, unable to step out in search of a better life somewhere else.

It meant, for example, that ordinary workers could set out for America, and create a new, more prosperous life for themselves.  Even the ability to find better paid work in a different occupation, or in a different town or village was an improvement for many workers and peasants compared with their previous position.  As Marx put it in "The Communist Manifesto", it rescued millions from the idiocy of rural life.

It is not just socialists or social democrats that should support the principle of free movement but every self-resping civilised person, every consistent bourgeois democrat, because the right of free movement is a basis human right that every human being should enjoy, the right to move across the planet unhindered in your lawful activities, free from restrictions by any state or other power.

In the 1980's, during the miner's strike, we had a glimpse of what a denial of that right of free movement means.  It saw an oppressive state apparatus, seal off mining villages, impose police roadblocks and stop miners moving from one area to another, so as to prevent them giving support to their comrades.  Similar restrictions on free movement were imposed to prevent protesters going to demonstrations and so on, over nuclear disarmament etc.

The 1980's also gave another example, of why workers should oppose restrictions on free movement.  The support for immigration controls and restriction of free movement stems from a feeling that somehow there is a restricted number of jobs, and or resources available, and that in times of economic distress, allowing foreign workers to come to Britain means that these jobs and resources are thereby spread out more thinly.  The economic basis of this idea is fallacious.  There is no fixed number of jobs or resources, and, in fact, both grow as the population grows, whether that growth comes from natural growth of births over deaths, or from immigration.  In fact, the latter more quickly creates additional jobs and resources than the former, because immigrants are generally adult workers who immediately put additional value and surplus value into the economy, whereas a natural growth of population involves a long period during which children suck value and resources out of the economy without putting any back in.

But, the idea itself depends upon a situation in which, for the last two hundred years, Britain has been one of the most prosperous economies on the planet.  The idea involves a perception that foreigners are coming here to take some of our prosperity from us.  But, if you are a worker in Sierra Leone, for example, you might view things differently.  You might see the need for free movement as essential to your right to seek out a better life for yourself, and what applies to the Sierra Leonian worker today, could just as easily apply to a British worker tomorrow, if Britain's economic status in the world changes.

Indeed, there was a period in the 1860's, when unemployment in Britain was rampant, due to the US Civil War, which restricted the supply of cotton to the textile mills, and when workers sought to escape to the US and elsewhere, just as Irish workers sought to escape the famine by emigrating to the United States.  As Marx describes in Capital I, the bosses at that time sought to restrict workers free movement, despite the massive unemployment, fearful that when things changed, they would no longer have available workers.

Marx quotes from a letter to The Times by Edmund Potter, the grandfather of author Beatrix Potter.  Potter represented the interests of the textile manufacturers.

“He” (the man out of work) “may be told the supply of cotton-workers is too large ... and ... must ... in fact be reduced by a third, perhaps, and that then there will be a healthy demand for the remaining two-thirds.... Public opinion... urges emigration.... The master cannot willingly see his labour supply being removed; he may think, and perhaps justly, that it is both wrong and unsound.... But if the public funds are to be devoted to assist emigration, he has a right to be heard, and perhaps to protest.” 

“Some time ...,one, two, or three years, it may be, will produce the quantity.... The question I would put then is this — Is the trade worth retaining? Is it worth while to keep the machinery (he means the living labour machines) in order, and is it not the greatest folly to think of parting with that? I think it is. I allow that the workers are not a property, not the property of Lancashire and the masters; but they are the strength of both; they are the mental and trained power which cannot be. replaced for a generation; the mere machinery which they work might much of it be beneficially replaced, nay improved, in a twelvemonth Encourage or allow (!) the working-power to emigrate, and what of the capitalist?... Take away the cream of the workers, and fixed capital will depreciate in a great degree, and the floating will not subject itself to a struggle with the short supply of inferior labour.... We are told the workers wish it” (emigration). “Very natural it is that they should do so.... Reduce, compress the cotton trade by taking away its working power and reducing their wages expenditure, say one-fifth, or five millions, and what then would happen to the class above, the small shopkeepers; and what of the rents, the cottage rents.... Trace out the effects upwards to the small farmer, the better householder, and ... the landowner, and say if there could be any suggestion more suicidal to all classes of the country than by enfeebling a nation by exporting the best of its manufacturing population, and destroying the value of some of its most productive capital and enrichment .... I advise a loan (of five or six millions sterling), ... extending it may be over two or three years, administered by special commissioners added to the Boards of Guardians in the cotton districts, under special legislative regulations, enforcing some occupation or labour, as a means of keeping up at least the moral standard of the recipients of the loan... can anything be worse for landowners or masters than parting with the best of the workers, and demoralising and disappointing the rest by an extended depletive emigration, a depletion of capital and value in an entire province?”

Even the Times wrote a reply criticising the ideas that Potter had put forward, but Marx concludes that the public opinion was with Potter.

"The Times’ article was only a jeu d’esprit. The “great public opinion” was, in fact, of Mr. Potter’s opinion, that the factory operatives are part of the movable fittings of a factory. Their emigration was prevented. They were locked up in that “moral workhouse,” the cotton districts, and they form, as before, “the strength” of the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire.” (p 539-41)

“Parliament did not vote a single farthing in aid of emigration, but simply passed some Acts empowering the municipal corporations to keep the operatives in a half-starved state, i.e., to exploit them at less than the normal wages. On the other hand, when 3 years later, the cattle disease broke out, Parliament broke wildly through its usages and voted, straight off, millions for indemnifying the millionaire landlords, whose farmers in any event came off without loss, owing to the rise in the price of meat.” (Note 1, p 541)

And anyone who lived through the 1980's would have been familiar with a similar situation, represented in the series "Auf Wiedersehen Pet", about unemployed Geordie building workers enjoying the benefits of free movement to escape the misery of Thatcher's Britain, and chronic unemployment, to find work on building sites in Germany.

As Britain's economy continues its long relative decline, a decline which will be rapidly accelerated by Brexit, British workers may again soon come to see the right to free movement in a different light, as they face falling living standards and unemployment at home, whilst economies in Europe, and elsewhere around the globe experience more rapid growth.

And Labour should say clearly that immigration is not too high.  In the last year, or so, Germany has taken in over a million refugees.  Yet, Germany is now at near full employment, and its economy is growing strongly.  That is not despite the 1 million immigrants during that period, but because of it.  The argument against immigration is nonsensical, and can be seen to be so when the two contradictory strands of it are put side by side.

On the one side, the argument is, immigrants take our jobs.  On the other side the argument is, immigrants are a strain on our resources, such as schools, houses, healthcare.  But, these two arguments contradict each other.  Firstly, if immigrants put a strain on resources that means an additional demand for those things arises.  That additional demand means that more of those things need to be supplied, and bringing about that supply creates additional jobs - hence Germany's economic growth, and full employment on the back of large scale immigration.  In other words, the immigrants create a demand for commodities and services, and that demand creates additional jobs.  The immigrants can then fill some of those jobs, and so rather than being a strain on the country's resources they add to them - they dig coal, build houses, etc - and because capital only employs workers if they produce profits, those workers by creating those profits also create the basis for the accumulation of additional capital, which then employs additional workers.

The strain in resources such as for houses, hospitals, schools and so on has nothing to do with immigrants, and everything to do with the policy of austerity imposed by the Tory government.  All of those additional immigrant workers pay "taxes" most of which are actually the price paid for a series of goods and services sold by the state.  But, the state then swallows up these taxes, but does not supply the corresponding goods and services, instead funnelling the money into its own coffers.  It is not immigrants that are to blame for the lack of housing, hospitals, schools and so on, but the capitalist state, because of the policy of austerity, which has seen the money that should have bought those goods and services instead channelled into covering the bail-out by that state for the banks, and to keep the prices of fictitious capital, of bonds, shares and property astronomically inflated.

The vast majority of resources do not simply fall from the sky available for consumers to consume, but are produced by labour, and to the extent that more labour is employed, be it immigrant labour or any other, it increases the mass of resources available to consume.  Its not immigrants that are to blame for the shortage of houses, but the failure of successive governments to build to them, and of the policies of successive governments to keep property prices inflated, via money printing and government bribery, to a level where they become unaffordable for a large number of people, at prices that would allow builder to make average profits, and which thereby restricts private building.

Nor is the shortage of housing due to the old wives tale about Britain being a crowded island.  Residential property accounts for just around 1.5% of Britain's total land area!  In fact, a greater percentage of Britain's land area is accounted for by gold courses than is accounted for by residential property.  It is one reason that Britain has the smallest average property sizes anywhere in Europe.  The high prices and inadequate property sizes in Britain are a result of the ridiculous perpetuation of the idea that we are a small overcrowded island, whilst all residential building is restricted to within this tiny percentage of the land mass.

Even taking into consideration all urban areas, so including the land used for roads, and commercial and industrial buildings,90% of the land mass in Britain is rural not urban, and the rural land mass continues to be in the hands of a tiny class of landed proprietors, like the Prince of Wales, Duke of Westminster and so on.  The number of residential properties in Britain could be doubled without hardly any effect on the percentage of the land mass developed.

The problems of unemployment, of lack of houses, hospitals, schools and so on are not the fault of immigrants, but of capitalism, and indeed of specific conservative policies of money printing to keep asset prices inflated for the 0.001%, and of austerity to to pay for the bail-out of the banks, and to keep interest rates low so as again to keep asset prices inflated.  That is why calls for restrictions on free movement, or for control on immigration are racist.  They falsely accuse foreigners of being responsible for those deficiencies of capitalism, and of conservative policies, in just the same way that in the past Jews were blamed for a variety of economic ills.  It is scapegoating.

Any self-respecting bourgeois democrat would oppose limitations on  free movement, but both liberal democrats and social democrats have failed to hold a principled position.  That is because both buckle and compromise in the face of conservative and reactionary electoral pressure.  It is a fallacy to believe that racism is beneficial to industrial capitalism.  Racism arose due to the contradictions faced by mercantilism and colonialism.  The racist ideas that fermented have been carried forward into modern societies.

But, modern industrial capitalism actually requires free movement of labour, which is why it is enshrined in the principles of the EU.  The old racist ideas inhibit that free movement, because it is not the capitalists themselves, at least not the big industrial capitals, that seek to impede it, but all those sections of the working class, middle-class, and the small capitalists, still trapped in those old colonial dogmas that seek to restrict it, and who thereby put electoral pressure on parties accordingly.  That is why the policies of governments have been so contradictory for decades.  On the one hand they introduce anti-discrimination laws, whilst at the same time introducing immigration controls that send out the message that it is immigrants that are at fault, and thereby encourage discrimination.

Labour fudges on the issue, because here and now a clear statement of principle would risk losing electoral support.  But, ultimately, not only Labour, but all social democratic forces will have to tackle the underlying racist nature of calls for limitation of free movement, whatever the short-term electoral consequences.

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