1920s >> 1926 >> no-263-july-1926

Shall we emigrate?

A World Migration Congress met in London on June 22nd, having been convened by the International Federation of Trades Unions, and the Labour and Socialist International, in order to discuss the problem of migration from the standpoint of the workers. As the problem is full of pitfalls, is the cause of much racial hostility between workers of different nationalities, and can easily lead to a dangerous waste of working-class energies, it is worth while considering the arguments of those who organised the Congress.

The lengthy report submitted to the Congress (“World Migration of Labour”) is a useful collection of interesting information concerning movements of population in every part of the world, but it fails completely to grasp the essentials of the problem, its attitude is throughout anti-Socialist, and despite the no doubt good intentions of those responsible, the effects of the policies advocated would be almost wholly pernicious from the workers’ standpoint.

The initial error—common enough with rash enthusiasts too hasty to digest their material—is the innocent acceptance without preliminary definition of terms which bristle with obscurities. We need only consider one of these because on its meaning depends the greater part of the arguments used. What, for instance, does “overpopulation” mean? It is not a simple question of arithmetic. It would be absurd to suggest that the uninhabitable arctic regions are under-populated as compared with, say, the U.S.A.; obviously natural factors must be taken into account. It is equally obvious that the same natural resources in succeeding ages with improved means of wealth production can support larger populations. Again, it is true that, as industry is organised to-day, it will be found generally that dense populations can more conveniently be maintained in manufacturing and mining areas than in agricultural areas. These simple qualifications are seen by the author of the report, but what he fails to see are the additional and even more important reservations necessary to justify the definition he finally accepts, without examination, from the economists. Over-population exists, he says, when the number of people in a given area exceeds a so-called optimum density. The optimum, in the sense used by the economists, is that number which gives a maximum productivity of wealth per head of the population. Any addition to or subtraction from that number will lead to a decrease in productivity. Now we can admit that the idea, although abstract and incapable of wide application, has its uses within certain well-defined limits; it does help to introduce some kind of order into chaos. But the writer of the report has forgotten to observe those well-defined limits and has never realised that the conception is useless for the solution here and now of the economic problems of the workers.

Why is it inapplicable? The definition in question relates to productivity per head of the population in a given area; but it does not concern itself with asking whose productivity, or how the product is distributed among the population. Adam Smith, 170 years ago, made a very true and simple statement, so true and so simple that it is beneath the notice of our instructors to-day. He pointed out that the amount of wealth produced over a given population depended on two factors—the productivity of the producers and the proportion which the producers bore to the whole population. Again, while it is true, of what use is it to be told merely that the wealth produced in this country or that, is so many pounds or dollars per head, unless we know who consumes that wealth ? The average wealth of any millionaire and any pauper is £500,000, but this, while statistically correct, does not help us to understand the real relations of the two individuals. In fact, in every capitalist nation we have a property-owning, non-producing class which nevertheless enjoys a very large share of the wealth which it has not helped to produce. The report goes into stupid raptures about American prosperity “unexampled in the history of the world” (279), and informs us that “skilled workers can demand—and obtain—wages that sound fabulous in the ears of the European” (p. 17). It does not mention the various factors which make a simple comparison of money wages in U.S.A. with money wages elsewhere invalid, and what is of more importance, it does not point out, as does the recent U.S.A. Federal Trade Commission Report, “that 13 per cent. of the population own 90 per cent. of the wealth.” It overlooks the fact that the proportion of the wealth they produce actually consumed by the American workers is probably lower than in any European country and that the proportion is not increasing. The 1925 United States census of manufacturers discloses the fact that in the motor industry, one of the most prosperous of all industries, in 1925, “only 32.4 per cent. of the value created in the industry went to wages, compared with 40 per cent. in 1923 and 38.6 per cent. in 1919” (American Appeal, June 5th).

The above shows the objection to applying this definition of over-population to working-class problems inside capitalist society, because it assumes that high productivity benefits the workers by increasing their income, whereas, in fact, no such result need follow. Another fatal objection is that it entirely ignores the cost of production in terms of human labour. From the point of view of the slave-owner, the horse-owner or the exploiter of wage-workers, the production of wealth by others than himself is an end in itself—the more produced the more for him without any cost. But what of the slave, the horse, or the worker? If they get no more, their interest is plainly to have increased leisure and ignore increasing the production of wealth. But it is also against the workers’ real interests to increase wealth production, even when they do get an increased income, if—as in America—that increased income largely represents a mere increase in the supply of fuel to maintain a human machine which is being worked at a greater speed. In this connection it may, too, be as well to point out that opinions are not quite unanimous on the question of American prosperity.

Sir Leo Chiozza Money (Daily Chronicle, March 24th, 1926) raises some pertinent objections. He points out that, among American miners, although mining is technically much easier owing to natural advantages, the death rate is much higher—which may not matter to those who live on mining profits, and which does not appear in statistics of wealth production, but is surely a point of interest to the miners. He says, “It is clear that, at least in some cases, they enjoy less than the standard of life which obtains in Britain,” and quotes the report of the U.S.A. Coal Commission, 1925, to the effect that “Too many of the American mining camps and towns are dreary and depressing places in which to live . . . heaps of manure within a few feet of the dwelling, garbage and other refuse awaiting collection for days, showers of flies and clouds of dust.” It is also curious, in view of the worker’s “fabulous prosperity” that, in the words of this official report, “sullen hostility prevails to an astonishing extent among the American mine workers.”

To return to our general criticism of the method of approach to the problem, we can say that every generalisation applied to such abstractions as “the industry,” and “the nation,” etc., has the defect that it ignores the separate and usually conflicting interests of employers and employed. To accept such generalisations leads to the unconscious advocacy of capitalist as opposed to working-class interests.

When we examine some of the detailed suggestions we see the danger and the absurd contradictions such loose thinking produces.

Stress is laid on the alleged danger of the worker’s standard of life being undermined by immigrant workers. The writer just glimpses for one moment and immediately forgets the fact that it is not the immigrant worker who actually does or can cause this undermining. The only person who can and does is the home employer, to whom the immigrant merely serves as an additional weapon. It ought also to be obvious by now that if the low-standard Chinaman is a danger to the white man in, say, British Columbia, because he can produce more cheaply, he is just as much a danger whether he comes to British Columbia or whether he stays at home— hence the futility of trying to keep him out. Cheap labour is cheap labour everywhere, and if capital is looking for cheap labour and cannot get it at home it will simply go where the cheap labour is to be found, and the goods produced in China will compete just as strongly in the Canadian market as they would if made there.

Many of the Labour apologists for capitalism, having now discovered this, are busy advocating protectionist capitalism instead of free trade capitalism, which, again, does not solve the worker’s problems.

The report contradicts its own argument when it informs us (p. 9) that foreign competition is caused by the emigration of skilled workers to other countries, where they get a higher standard of living. By the time it is recognised that low-wage and high-wage production under capitalism have precisely the same effect, it is time surely to realise that capitalism is the enemy. But advocating the abolition of capitalism is just the one thing these Labourites will not do. We are told (279) that universal free trade will not solve the present economic evils because “the present economic evils of Europe are more deep-seated. Moreover, they are chiefly confined to Europe; the United States has no reason to complain ; it has entered upon a cycle of economic prosperity unexampled in the history of the world.”

The facts are distorted, but especially we must notice the extraordinary assertion that the evils of Europe are “chiefly confined (italics theirs) to Europe.” If America, the land of the most brutal capitalism, with the most violent contrasts of wealth and poverty, is exempt from these evils, plainly, in view of those who think on these lines, capitalism cannot be the cause of the evils. Logically, therefore, they do not advocate its abolition.

They see three alternative solutions (p. 986) for the less industrialised countries of Europe : (a) industrialisation, (b) emigration, (c) restriction of population—not a word about Socialism.

Throughout the report there is much insistence on the so-called principle that migration policy should be based on “solely economic” factors. What on earth is an economic factor? If a government with tropical possessions uses taxation as a means of driving natives off their land, they are then driven by “economic” pressure to seek other means of livelihood elsewhere. In short, they are compelled to “migrate.”

But the attempt to limit consideration to the so-called economic aspect is absurd. Political control enables the ruling class to achieve their purpose by imposing this taxation, and the removal of that ruling class is a political problem. This is the essence of the whole migration question as it affects the workers, and it is the essence of all the workers’ “economic” problems.

The statement is made, quite truly for what it is worth, that “the natural result of over-population is the lowering of the standard of living” (289). It is true simply because over-population has already been defined as that condition in which wealth production declines. Our muddled migrationists then convert this useless truism into the utterly unwarranted assertion that the existence of poverty and unemployment proves that over-population exists. If it were true that England has millions of poor people and of unemployed because of overpopulation, we should expect to find all the people of England poor, and particularly all the unemployed poor. Actually, only workers are poor, and only some of the unemployed. Those of the unemployed who are property owners and have never had to work, are not poor. In face of the fact that in every part of the capitalist world there are property owners, non-producers living at the expense of the workers, and in face of the admitted colossal waste of existing powers of production, to urge the workers to neglect the one essential problem in order to go cap-in-hand begging concessions for emigrants from the capitalist ruling class is disgusting, and, from the worker’s point of view, a suicidal policy.

The workers are not poor because of over-population, or low-wage immigrants, or foreign competition from high or low wage countries, or because America bars further immigrants, or because of protection or free trade, or because they don’t work hard enough, or because they work too hard, or because raw materials are monopolised by certain capitalist groups, the workers are poor because they are workers. They live in a capitalist world, where property in the means of life means wealth, and propertylessness means the necessity of working and its accompaniment economic subjection and poverty. There are no purely economic problems. The conditions of production and of the worker’s standard of living are set by the capitalist system. Ending exploitation, utilising existing powers of production to the full, eliminating waste, are all dependent on the solution of the political problem of the conquest of political power. Through Parliament, the workers, when they wish, can eliminate all obstacles which now prevent the solution of any of these problems except on lines approved by and in the interests of the capitalist class. The work our Labour migrationists are doing is the work of the capitalist class, whether thev realise this or not.


(Socialist Standard, July 1926)

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