Can there be ‘non-reformist’ reforms?

The recent furore caused by a Tory politician referring to migrants entering the UK as ‘an invasion’ has brought to the fore the whole question of borders and ‘bordering’. Most people of course take for granted the idea that borders are natural and permanent, that we are all ‘citizens’ of a certain state, which gives us the right to live and work there and also to keep out citizens of other states who may be considered unwanted or undesirable for one reason or another. Few question the idea that a state needs to have borders, often well-policed ones, to enable such exclusion to take place. Disregard of such borders by people from outside seeking to enter provokes vexation or hostility among many and is easily used as part of a political party’s agenda to court support and popularity.

Life for migrants
Those from outside who do manage to get in by irregular means are subjected to a rigorous process of ‘assessment’ before a decision is taken on whether they are ‘genuine’ refugees or asylum seekers who might be in peril if they returned to their home country, or whether they are just ‘trying it on’, ie, attempting to gain entrance simply for economic or other reasons deemed non-legitimate. Anyone who has been involved with trying to assist asylum seekers knows just how precarious an existence they lead in the period of their assessment, sometimes lasting a number of years. They live a life on the edge not knowing from one day to the next whether or when they will suddenly be taken to a detention centre to face deportation to a place where their life may be in danger.

On the positive side, this prompts a significant number of people to come forward and assist these individuals in a practical way and to show them fellow feeling and humanity. And there are others who in a sense go further and seek to make the case more generally against the use and very existence of borders as a way of excluding people and putting barriers in the way of their seeking other and hopefully better lives. An example of this mainly with reference to the US was the 2021 book by Todd Miller, Build Bridges Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders (recently reviewed in this journal) and now, focused on the UK, we have Against Borders. The Case For Abolition by Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke De Noronha (Verso, 2022).

Borders and the nation state
Both these books present a powerful set of arguments against the nation state, the system it supports and the suffering it causes, even if neither takes the arguments further by advocating in a specific way not just the abolition of borders and states but, as the Socialist Party does, of money, wages and the whole of the profit system. This is a pity because they are all pieces of the same intricate jigsaw that make up the capitalist system.

There are, however, points in their book in which Bradley and De Noronha seem fully conscious of this. They advocate, for example, ‘transformation of the conditions to which borders are a response’, ‘a world without borders’ without ‘the false promises of race and nations’, and abolition of ‘the nation-state system’. They also say that they are for ‘rejecting the dreary and paralysing politics of reformism’. But, at the same time their practical recommendations remain on the level of working for certain kinds of reforms within the current system, which they label ‘non-reformist reforms’, and for ‘government policies that are less bad’. They take this ‘non-reformist reform’ formulation from the French writer and theorist André Gorz, who, in the 1960s, argued for ‘revolutionary reformism’, ie, seeing some types of reforms as being both of immediate benefit to workers and at the same time somehow laying the ground for revolutionary change (he was an early advocate of the so-called ‘guaranteed basic income’). Like Gorz, they see fights for these reforms as ‘trials of strength’, small wins which would allow movements to build power and momentum. They state that ‘the task of distinguishing these ‘non-reformist reforms’ from reformist ones is vital, while also, however, admitting that there can be a fine line between the two.

‘Non-reformist’ reforms
What are the ‘non-reformist reforms’ around border control that these writers say we should now aim for as a prelude to a world in which borders are abolished? Examples they give are: equal access for refugees and asylum seekers ‘to essential goods and services’ and ‘labour rights and protections’ regardless of immigration status; an end to deportation for ‘foreign’ offenders found guilty of crimes; an end to Home Office policing of refugees and asylum seekers; fewer resources expended on immigration control. All this as a prelude to aiming for something more, a world in which everyone has the freedom to move and to stay – something which we can only applaud.

However the obvious comment that these ‘non-reformist’ proposals prompt is not that, perhaps with much effort, lobbying and the rest, they are impossible to achieve but that, even if they were achieved and this made a significant difference to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, they would do nothing to address the wider imperative of abolishing the borders between nation states which the authors rightly see as controlling and defining people and fuelling nationalistic and racial divisions. Nor would they do anything to remedy the widely differing levels of access to the necessities of life that make capitalism a profoundly unequal society. What they certainly would do is take up a massive amount of time and energy on the part of those campaigning and almost certainly distract attention from the fundamental task of replacing a society dedicated to profit to one based on the satisfaction of needs. Also, though there is of course no denying that certain reforms can be beneficial to migrants and to workers generally, it is also the case that, just as one government may decide to bring them in, another may decide to revoke them and so take us back to square one.

System change not reforms
So reforms, even if labelled ‘non-reformist’ (or, as some may call them, ‘progressive’), cannot resolve the basic contradictions of a system organised for the benefit of a wealth-owning minority not for the majority who have to sell their energies to an employer for a wage or salary. Indeed reforms may even serve to perpetuate that system by lending it temporary respectability and acceptance in the sense that it may seem that improvements are being made and that should be enough. Of course it is not enough and it may easily make those involved in such activity lose sight of – and so actually impede – the essential socialist objective of a moneyless, leaderless world society of voluntary cooperative work, free access to all goods and services and truly democratic organisation. Why prolong the agony?


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2 Replies to “Can there be ‘non-reformist’ reforms?”

  1. “Also, though there is of course no denying that certain reforms can be beneficial to migrants and to workers generally, it is also the case that, just as one government may decide to bring them in, another may decide to revoke them and so take us back to square one.”

    Trade union legislation since Thatcher; the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act; and the Police Order Bill (that is, at the time of writing, going through the House of Frauds) are good examples of this.

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