2000s >> 2003 >> no-1186-june-2003

No asylum from the wages system

Following the May local elections in England and Wales, much has been made, by leftists and liberals, of the fact that the BNP – opportunistically shmoozing around in multiculturalist clothes – ended up with three more local councillors, bringing their total to eight. The pundits railed in helpless, speechless apoplexy against the fascist threat – their speechlessness, however, reveals how they have no good arguments with which to counter the nationalists; and that it is precisely the failure of their ideas that turn the workers towards hopeless fantasies.

The very idea they all try to spread, alike – that a given country is owned by some inclusive “we”, based on common descent or culture which “we” all have an interest in defending; that “we” owe loyalty toward, and toward our “fellow-countrymen” over folks from other lands – is the very premise that the nationalists latch onto and tout as their glorious cause. All the leftists and Liberals can do is whine that they have taken “legitimate patriotism” too far, that they are extremists.

Asylum seekers
The hold that such ideas have on the workers can be seen from the media treatment of the issue of “asylum seekers” – migrants looking for protection in safer lands. Whereas socialists have attended many demonstrations – to leaflet and counterpoise the socialist position to that of the usual raggle-taggle band of reformist organisers – comprising many thousands, of which barely a whisper is mentioned by the national media, all it takes is a handful of local residents protesting against an asylum seeker detention centre for it to make the national news. The editors and newsmanagers project their own expectation that many of their consumers are concerned by the “flood” of asylum seekers, by pushing the issue up the news agenda.

No ‘soft touch’ for this child

The professional politicians do their craven best to pander to this supposed collective identity. Government ministers seek to project the line that they are “firm but fair” in dealing with the asylum “crisis”. Desperate to deflect Tory charges that Britain is a “soft touch” for immigrants, they tout every reform taken to speed up the process of ejecting “undesirables” from the country. They talk about legitimate asylum seekers, as opposed to economic migrants – as if poverty itself were not one of the cruellest breeds of oppression.

All this, despite the fact that the government’s own published reports and advice clearly show that the ideas that dominate the “asylum debate” are largely spurious. For example, the report Migration: an Economic and Social Analysis from the Research, Development and Statistic Directorate of the Home Office, demolishes a great many of the myths around immigration, observing that migrants tend to have higher incomes than natives (on the whole, although they occupy a great range of income brackets), and that there is “little evidence that native workers are harmed by migration”.

One of the central fallacies, peddled by the gutter press in particular, is that the asylum seekers are trying to get access to a “soft touch” welfare system. Yet, the report states, migrants tend to use welfare provision in roughly the same proportions as indigenous workers – although that includes higher usage of unemployment and housing benefits, whilst they receive less incapacity and pension benefits. Indeed, the figures for unemployment among migrants apparently show that around 6 percent of them are unemployed as compared with a general unemployment rate in the economy of just under 5 percent – and this is given the filtering employment barriers of language, legal status, lack of references or recognised qualifications or sheer outright racism, that may stand in their way of finding employment.

Indeed, another report Understanding the Decision Making of Asylum Seekers actively refutes welfare as a basic motive for travelling around the world to come to another country. The majority of respondents had little or no knowledge of the UK welfare system, at most they had a vague idea that they would be “looked after”. Indeed, after finding that welfare receipt was not a primary motivating factor to move, the report notes that “most [of the immigrants interviewed] wanted to find a job and did not want to live on state benefits.”

The report lists other factors likely to be of importance – the perception that Britain is a fair and open society is high on the list, as was the desire to be with family and friends already in the UK. Such primary reasons stem largely from the historic foreign policy of the UK government, in presenting itself as a bastion of the free world whilst simultaneously exerting direct political control and links over far-flung lands. Capitalism is a global phenomena, and the interests of capital in Britain materially reach into all corners of the globe.

This is also amply demonstrated by the lists of countries where asylum seekers are coming from – Iraq, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey making up the top six countries. The chaos of global politics and repression drives the need to migrate, a global chaos born of the struggle between rival capitalist bands to access and monopolise the wealth of the world.

Demand for labour
While it is true, as one of the writers in the report observed, that the decision to economically migrate is not taken solely on labour market factors, and the nature of the political regime and country may well have a strong determining role, nevertheless the demand for labour to be attracted to concentrated areas is a structural feature of capitalism. Since its inception, capitalism has drawn workers into highly concentrated areas of development in order to satisfy its labour needs. All those people seeking migration, whether legal or illegal, are simply obeying the imperative that they must try to find a place to work; and no amount of government restrictions will change that fact.

In fact the report Migration Population in the UK: Fiscal Effects states that migration is a net contributor to the British capitalist economy. Many migrants bring new skills, new industries (including the industry around migration). Each new worker is able to expand the capacity of industry to produce. Of course, what the report neglects to mention is that this happens only within the remit of the profitability of capital, which can and will discard workers – irrespective of their origins – whenever its inevitable crises interrupt growth.

It should, therefore, be in the interest of governments to facilitate (at least) the smooth running of the labour market. Indeed, they should promote the widest movement of labour possible. Yet, despite this interest, and the clear advice at their disposal, they fail to do this.

A primary reason for this failure is the perception among workers (who have votes) that there is some threat to themselves from competitors from overseas. It’s a matter of record that those who are in possession of little are easily frightened by the threat of some other coming to take it away – hence all the medieval tales of færies and witches trying to steal children from impoverished peasants. The appearance of jobs going to these “foreigners” whilst their “own” go without reinforces the illusion that migration causes unemployment. However, a government so minded could choose to argue against these illusions, and pour resources into propaganda to that end.

That they choose not to indicates another reason – that governments rely upon apparent homogeneity of culture and population to secure support for their actions and policies. How else, otherwise, to spread the message that “we are all in this together” if the “we” cannot communicate in the same language, with the same set of meanings and values? The growth of capitalism has occurred alongside the growth of the culturally homogenous state – usually through forced population migrations – wherein the owners and rulers of a land could pretend to some sort of common identity with the ruled.

Hence the problem, in the eyes of many capitalists, that despite the fact that since the second world slaughter more people – year on year – left the UK than entered it, of a change of “culture” without the consent of the population. That is, that the cultural changes are breaking up the historical cultural bloc upon which traditional power and authority is based. The economic needs of capital come into conflict, again, with its social basis and the political needs of the master class.

So far as socialists are concerned, this attempt to try and make a common appearance of an interest with our exploiters is like a burglar playing on their support for the same football team as their victim. It does not change the relationship one iota. We see the harm that is done by national boundaries, that prevent workers from moving to be with whom they want to be with; prevent them from sharing their skills and their knowledge as they see fit; prevent them from seeing their common cause.

So far as socialists are concerned, it is not a case of chanting “Asylum Seekers are welcome here”, which implies we as workers have some right to say who is and isn’t welcome in the first place; nor even of saying that the asylum laws should be relaxed. We understand that the thing which makes workers leave behind their communities, and go to a place where their language is not spoken, is the wages system itself, which swats humans around the globe like a kitten playing with its toys. This underlies the need for us to recognise our identical position with regards to the wages system, and work together, as workers across the world, across boundaries, to create a commonly owned planet where all can live in security.

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