2020s >> 2021 >> no-1400-april-2021

Questioning Nationality

The ten-yearly census once again literally poses the question of nationality. The Socialist Standard runs the occasional article on ‘How I became a socialist’ to which this is a companion piece, ‘Why I am an internationalist’.

I begin with a report of migrant labour being used to undercut wages and actually displace local workers from their employment and eviction from their homes. This, naturally, caused resentment and a reaction that became violent resulting in the authorities responding with decisive force.

If this incident seems to have been missed in these days of all-revealing social media, that’s because it occurred in 1832 on the south bank of the Tyne at Friar’s Goose. The mining community there had been in a protracted dispute with the local coal owner who determined to break the strike.

To this end migrant labour was brought in to replace the local workers, some from as far away as Derbyshire and Cumberland, where lead mining was in sharp decline. With the benefit of historical perspective it is clear that both sets of workers were victims of a common foe, capitalism.

Lead mining had ceased to be profitable while coal, at the very heart of the burgeoning industrial revolution, promised rich dividends. All the more so if labour costs could be minimised. Unemployment and the prospect of poverty were wielded to pitch one group of workers against another, keeping them divided and thus effectively powerless.

One hundred and twenty years or so after this event the world was blessed by my emergence, in a maternity hospital named for the local pit. Not on Tyneside though, where I would move to a couple of decades later, but in a Lancashire town ruled by King Coal and Queen Cotton.

However, those two economic monarchs were already relinquishing their power and both had largely been deposed by the time I deserted their realm in the early 1970s. By which time a sizeable community of migrants, on this occasion textile workers from the Indian sub-continent, had settled in the town.

Economic decline fostered resentments and would eventually lead to the election of British National Party members as town councillors. They proved to be so spectacularly useless as councillors their moment was brief, but again indicative of how capitalism, whether consciously or not, can stimulate misdirected resentment and anger.

As already indicated, I moved away from the town and settled in the North East. However, I maintained my allegiance to the football club, a curse I eventually visited on my Gateshead-born son. So was I merely a Lancastrian living in economic exile, all the more so now that I’m domiciled in South Yorkshire?

A reason I was born in Lancashire is that one great granddad migrated from the then North Riding of Yorkshire in search of work. His son, my granddad, married a woman whose family hailed from the Trough of Bowland which was split between Lancashire, and the North and West Riding of Yorkshire.

On the maternal side, my grandmother was many generations Lancastrian, but her husband was of Devonian stock via Wales, another example of economic migration. So, I am the offspring of migrant labour.

This is by no means an unusual story, rather it is the norm. To say I am a …………………………… (please add your own label) is merely to identify an accident of birth. It is no more significant than that. I have a friend who, by his own admission, is vertically challenged and of a placid demeanour. With a beaming smile he informed all he knew that a DNA test revealed he was, at least in part, of Viking stock.

To return briefly to Friar’s Goose, the only difference between the reluctantly itinerant lead miner migrants and those of today who cross continents, is distance having to be travelled. The cause of migration remains constant, in the modern era it is capitalism.

Direct economic necessity, such as brought sub-continent workers to the Lancashire and Yorkshire textile towns, lays the imperatives of capitalism bare. People largely don’t uproot themselves and their families without good cause and capitalism exploits the imperative of need for its own profitable ends.

However, capitalism, driven by its absolute need to pursue profit, can manifest its competitive nature in extreme form, war. Whether cross border or civil, the root of armed conflicts is economic. Trade routes, resources, control of the levers of state and/or corporate power all too often lie at the bottom of martial conflict.

Not unreasonably, people will move away from battle zones if they can. But, even if the prospect of being killed or injured recedes, the local devastation of homes, workplaces and basic services can make life virtually untenable, especially in the short term. And for the poor the short term is all they have.

Whether it’s your lead mine being closed two hundred years ago or your village/town bombed out yesterday, you essentially face the same dilemma, to stay and try to survive, or move and try to survive.

For all that racism manifests itself, capitalism is ultimately equitable, it will exploit any and all whatever their skin tone, language, dialect or point of origin. For its own purposes it will encourage people to consider how their apparent differences make them somehow special, unique, perhaps in some undefinable way superior to others.

After all, it would be disastrous for capitalism if (when) people realise that their differences are superficial, determined by circumstance not race or ethnicity. Cultural diversity can be a positive, but even culture is not a fixed thing, setting people apart.

I will continue to look at the results for the football team I was born to follow, which is about as deep as my support goes these days. It is an example of how capitalism has become transnational. The club was one of the founders of the football league reflecting the economic power of local capitalism in the 1870s and 80s.

One hundred and fifty years later it is a minnow in (to mix my fresh and saltwater metaphors) in the soccer shark pool, recently bought out by an American deal using leveraged finance to raise the capital. My club? Rather like my country, it seems.

For the vast majority of people, the working class of the world, there needs be to be a recognition and acceptance of the one answer to the surely hackneyed question of, what race am I? The human race!

The national question, as posed by the census, merely confirms the limits of capitalism. To push beyond those limits, to socialism, means making that question is as obsolete as a Cumberland lead mine.

DAVE ALTON

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