Leaving the Fortresses: Between Class Internationalism and Nativist Social Democracy

Sonia Boyce, Lay back, keep qui­et and think of what made Britain so great (1986).

One moment in a BBC inter­view with Jere­my Cor­byn in sum­mer 2017 crys­tal­lized the dilem­mas fac­ing Europe’s left par­ties on ques­tions of migra­tion.

Would a future gov­ern­ment under his pre­mier­ship, the Labour leader was asked, accept Euro­pean Union “free move­ment”? In response, Cor­byn stressed that the rights of “EU nation­als” must be guar­an­teed and the needs of British-based com­pa­nies for Euro­pean skilled work­ers would be assessed. When pressed, he clar­i­fied: his pre­ferred sys­tem would be approx­i­mate to the present free-move­ment regime, but it would out­law “the whole­sale impor­ta­tion of under­paid work­ers from cen­tral Europe.” The abil­i­ty of agen­cies to import low-paid work­ers to Britain to under­cut or dis­miss, for exam­ple, “an exist­ing work­force in the con­struc­tion indus­try” would be end­ed. To but­tress this, jobs should also be adver­tised “in the local­i­ty first.”

In these com­ments, Corbyn’s posi­tion aligned with that of union leader Len McCluskey. For the UNITE gen­er­al sec­re­tary, the EU’s expansion—meaning specif­i­cal­ly its east­ward expan­sion (“cen­tral Europe” is a euphemism)—represented “a gigan­tic exper­i­ment at the expense of ordi­nary work­ers,” in that “coun­tries with vast his­tor­i­cal dif­fer­ences in wage rates and liv­ing stan­dards have been brought togeth­er in a com­mon labour mar­ket,” result­ing in “a sys­tem­at­ic attempt to hold down wages and cut the costs of social pro­vi­sion for work­ing class peo­ple.” It’s a view that blurs crit­i­cal dis­tinc­tions: between exploita­tive employ­ers, the EU’s labor-mar­ket dereg­u­la­tion, and immi­grants them­selves. McCluskey’s rhetor­i­cal move of pin­ning blame on “unscrupu­lous boss­es” who hire migrants is a close cousin of those who blame “peo­ple smug­glers” for the migrant cri­sis – these bogey­men exist, but each is a cog in a much larg­er machine.

Corbyn’s remarks, then, man­i­fest­ed what Tom Gann calls an act of “delib­er­ate bad faith” where­by a cri­tique of the EU’s Post­ed Work­ers’ Direc­tive is run togeth­er with the impli­ca­tion that migrant work­ers under­mine work­ing con­di­tions. Corbyn’s stance attempt­ed to dis­rupt the alliance with­in the Labour Par­ty between advo­cates of EU-wide free move­ment and those who favor EU eco­nom­ic gov­er­nance in all its forms. But his tech­nique was mis­con­ceived. It per­forms a tor­tu­ous tri­an­gu­la­tion, uphold­ing a left-lib­er­al, anti-racist migra­tion stance whilst offer­ing a ten­ta­tive hand to anti-immi­gra­tion sen­ti­ments direct­ed against so-called “cen­tral Euro­peans”; a hand that, clothed in a glove of class pol­i­tics, dis­avows itself. It seeks to direct crit­i­cism toward the boss­es but leaves loop­holes for xeno­pho­bia to worm into.

Corbyn’s “bad faith realpoli­tik” – in Gann’s phras­ing – on immi­gra­tion rep­re­sents a step back from his leadership’s ini­tial posi­tion­ing. Enter­ing office in 2015, he promised a sharp break with Labour’s author­i­tar­i­an and immi­gra­tion-restric­tive drift under Tony Blair, Gor­don Brown and Ed Miliband. The Blair-Brown admin­is­tra­tions had grant­ed sweep­ing new pow­ers to immi­gra­tion offi­cers, removed rights and enti­tle­ments from asy­lum seek­ers, launched the Islam­o­pho­bic ‘Pre­vent’ strat­e­gy, and sought to link the griev­ances of work­ing peo­ple to ques­tions of immi­gra­tion, as in Brown’s noto­ri­ous deploy­ment of a far-right sta­ple in his pledge to train “British work­ers for British jobs.”

In con­trast, Cor­byn and his clos­est con­fed­er­ates, Diane Abbott and John McDon­nell, are ded­i­cat­ed and long­stand­ing activists in pro-migrant and anti-racist move­ments. Against the lega­cy of Blair and Brown and the lean­ings of the bulk of the Par­lia­men­tary Labour Par­ty, and despite the degree to which anti-immi­gra­tion sen­ti­ment among the British pub­lic has been stirred, the new lead­er­ship has gen­er­al­ly stood firm against racism. Upon his elec­tion to the lead­er­ship, Corbyn’s first act was to attend a “Refugees Wel­come” demon­stra­tion. He refused to be jour­nal­ist-bad­gered into con­ced­ing that immi­gra­tion lev­els are too high, or to promise to reduce them, and he appoint­ed Diane Abbott as his shad­ow min­is­ter for immi­gra­tion con­trol. (It has been a while since a senior Labour politi­cian, still less one with an immi­gra­tion con­trol brief, has felt able to declare, as Abbott did in the fore­word to Free Move­ment and Beyond, that “free­dom of move­ment is a work­ers’ right” and where greater mobil­i­ty is per­mit­ted to cap­i­tal than to work­ers, “in prac­tice work­ers’ rights are severe­ly cur­tailed.”)

The fact that all this went large­ly unpun­ished in the polls has shift­ed the polit­i­cal cli­mate. In turn, it altered the debate on Brex­it. In the 2017 gen­er­al elec­tion Corbyn’s Labour Par­ty gained ground among vot­ers on both sides of the Brex­it fence. The cliché is that it picked up sup­port from “cos­mopoli­tan Remain­ers” and “xeno­pho­bic Leavers,” but this is glib and lazy. Polls reveal con­spic­u­ous dif­fer­ences of opin­ion among Remain vot­ers on ques­tions of immi­gra­tion and the free move­ment of EU cit­i­zens and strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties between Remain and Leave vot­ers on ques­tions of pub­lic ser­vices – which both groups, on aver­age, deemed more impor­tant than the UK’s rela­tion­ship with the EU. Labour’s cam­paign strat­e­gy gam­bled on this, with sig­nal suc­cess.

And yet, as we’ve seen, the rad­i­cal­ism of Labour’s immi­gra­tion pol­i­tics has lim­its. Although its June 2017 elec­tion man­i­festo gave warm recog­ni­tion to the con­tri­bu­tions that migrants make to UK soci­ety and promised an end to indef­i­nite immi­gra­tion deten­tion, it did not promise an end to immi­gra­tion deten­tion alto­geth­er, and it spoke of reduc­ing immi­grants’ access to pub­lic funds. On a core issue of the UK’s Brex­it-defined con­junc­ture it stat­ed – by sleight of hand, as if it’s a tru­ism – that “free­dom of move­ment will end” when Britain leaves the EU. In fact, rather than an auto­mat­ic con­se­quence of Brex­it, aban­don­ing free (EU) move­ment would be a con­scious deci­sion — and like­ly an unpop­u­lar one. Accord­ing to Euro­barom­e­ter, over two-thirds of UK cit­i­zens sup­port “the free move­ment of EU cit­i­zens” to “live, work, study and do busi­ness any­where in the EU. It would rep­re­sent, warns Michael Ches­sum, an orga­niz­er for the Labour Cam­paign for Free Move­ment, “the biggest expan­sion of bor­der con­trols in decades.”

It is not enough to chal­lenge this spe­cif­ic expan­sion. We also need to under­stand the com­plic­i­ty of left­ist posi­tions with its fun­da­men­tal log­ic. In this essay I advance a cri­tique of social-demo­c­ra­t­ic migra­tion pol­i­cy in Europe today, and of left jus­ti­fi­ca­tions of a “nation­al turn.” I devel­op the argu­ment by way of analy­sis of ear­li­er migra­tion regimes. But before I turn to the the­o­ret­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal sec­tions, I shall briefly sur­vey the recent record of three of Europe’s oth­er left par­ties, as each are tra­versed by sim­i­lar fault lines to those dis­cussed above.

If the stand­out migra­tion-relat­ed issue in Britain is Brex­it, in Greece it is refugees. The foil, for Syriza, is “Europe” here too. For three decades, the Greek rul­ing class had looked to EU acces­sion as an escape route from the periph­ery, an entry tick­et to the “core.” Eco­nom­i­cal­ly, that dream came to a clat­ter­ing end in the cri­sis of 2008, and a neo-colo­nial rela­tion­ship of Brussels/Frankfurt to Athens was imposed. Geo­graph­i­cal­ly, Greece’s periph­er­al sta­tus as the EU’s fron­tier-police state was forced into the lime­light by the refugee cri­sis of 2015. On assum­ing office in that year, Syriza pledged to shut down migrant deten­tion cen­ters and to offer cit­i­zen­ship to sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion migrants born in the coun­try, but it reneged on these promis­es. Trapped in an abu­sive rela­tion­ship with Brus­sels, Alex Tsipras’s par­ty played along with the EU’s dirty deal with Turkey, which blocked routes for Europe-bound refugees. As Dim­itris Christopou­los, head of the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion for Human Rights, has argued, the mes­sage sent out by the deal con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed every­one it touched:

It con­t­a­m­i­nates us because we accus­tom our­selves to legit­imiz­ing xeno­pho­bia. It’s an inhu­mane mes­sage for the refugees and migrants who find them­selves liv­ing in a buffer zone. It’s extreme­ly prob­lem­at­ic for the social cohe­sion of the buffer zone itself, which is Greece and Turkey. It’s dam­ag­ing for Turkey because it buys Euro­pean silence (for its lead­ers) as Turkey makes its author­i­tar­i­an shift.

The same con­t­a­m­i­na­tion extend­ed to the treat­ment of pro-refugee move­ments in Greece. The EU’s bor­der was brought onto the islands and into the cities. On the for­mer, the secu­ri­ty forces col­lab­o­rat­ed with Fron­tex to pre­vent vol­un­teers from pro­vid­ing refugees with aid and assis­tance. In the lat­ter, police—many of them Gold­en Dawn members—have been deployed to evict refugee fam­i­lies and sup­port­ers from squats and shel­ters, with the major­i­ty trans­ferred to piti­ful­ly under­fund­ed deten­tion cen­ters. In sum, when it comes to Syriza, bad faith on migration/refugee issues takes the form of an exter­nal­ly-dis­placed cap­i­tal­ist real­ism: the EU pill has – and had to have – been swal­lowed, there is no alter­na­tive.

In France, the major par­ty of the rad­i­cal left is Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (“Unbowed/Unsubmissive France”) – a project that, as its name sug­gests, rep­re­sents a nation­al­ist-repub­li­can left pop­ulism. Its stance on many migra­tion-relat­ed issues is broad­ly pro­gres­sive. At one of its ral­lies a minute’s silence was held for the migrants dying in the Mediter­ranean. Mélen­chon has con­demned police racism and pro­posed mass reg­u­lar­iza­tion of undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers. How­ev­er, few if any of France Insoumise’s pro­posed poli­cies on immi­gra­tion depart sig­nif­i­cant­ly from the cur­rent regime; indeed, the word immi­gra­tion was not men­tioned in any of the 83 head­ings of its pro­gram for the 2017 gen­er­al elec­tion. On the defin­ing migra­tion issue of 2015, Mélen­chon, a long­stand­ing crit­ic of EU free move­ment, slammed Angela Merkel for her deci­sion to allow Syr­i­an refugees en masse into Ger­many. At the root of this is France Insoumise’s ide­al­iza­tion of French repub­li­can­ism – sym­bol­ized in its pref­er­ence for the Mar­seil­laise and tri­coleur over the Inter­na­tionale and red flag. It means that while on ques­tions of reli­gion and race its posi­tion can in the abstract appear uni­ver­sal, it fix­ates on a par­tic­u­lar con­sti­tu­tion­al cor­pus, the French nation state, as the embod­i­ment of uni­ver­sal­ism. The upshot is myopia toward France’s impe­r­i­al and colo­nial his­to­ry (and relat­ed­ly, a fail­ure to con­front its Vichy past), with a con­comi­tant inabil­i­ty to take seri­ous­ly ques­tions of Islam­o­pho­bia or the racial­iza­tion of pop­u­la­tions of North African descent. It even per­verse­ly extends to a por­tray­al of France as an oppressed nation under the thumb of a Berlin-led EU. What Mélen­chon thun­ders against, notes, Clé­ment Petit­jean, “isn’t aus­ter­i­ty gov­ern­ments, neolib­er­al man­agers of cap­i­tal, and the neolib­er­al log­ic of social­iz­ing the risks and pri­va­tiz­ing the prof­its, but Ger­many. Euro­pean cap­i­tal­ism and insti­tu­tions are reduced to Ger­many.”

To round off this sur­vey we turn to Germany’s own demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist and left pop­ulist par­ty, Die Linke. With Die Linke the ele­ment of unre­al­i­ty in its migra­tion pol­i­tics does not per­tain to bad faith, or to the eli­sion of com­plex rela­tions between the par­tic­u­lar and uni­ver­sal. It lies instead in the fan­ta­sy required to per­ceive any con­nec­tion between its max­i­mum and min­i­mum pro­grams. The for­mer, spelled out in the 2011 man­i­festo, promis­es that a Linke-led gov­ern­ment would “open bor­ders for peo­ple in need!” It not only affirms that “Ger­many is a coun­try of immi­gra­tion” (an axiom for social­ists and left lib­er­als) but adopts a rad­i­cal anti-cap­i­tal­ist spir­it in its rejec­tion of “a pol­i­tics of migra­tion and inte­gra­tion that only grants social and polit­i­cal rights to indi­vid­u­als deemed ‘use­ful’ for cap­i­tal. We demand open bor­ders for all.”

The “min­i­mum pro­gram,” the pol­i­tics of every­day prac­tice, is a far cry from this. The Linke-led region­al gov­ern­ment of Thuringia, for exam­ple, has called for a new immi­gra­tion law to ensure that immi­grants are select­ed for their abil­i­ty to fill skilled labor short­ages. This, it adds, “speaks to Germany’s par­tic­u­lar inter­ests: that it attracts the qual­i­fied and tal­ent­ed skilled work­ers that it will cer­tain­ly need in future.” The same gov­ern­ment par­tic­i­pates in fed­er­al depor­ta­tions, cit­ing as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion prag­mat­ic imper­a­tives and the lib­er­al-demo­c­ra­t­ic order. And Die Linke’s best-known leader, Sarah Wagenknecht, has gained noto­ri­ety for her abil­i­ty to swerve right on mat­ters of race and migra­tion. She blamed a ter­ror­ist attack at a Berlin Christ­mas mar­ket on Merkel’s so-called “uncon­trolled bor­der open­ing” to Syr­i­an refugees. (It also, she added with a wink to the law-and-order brigade, attest­ed to fund­ing cuts suf­fered by the police.)

Is it a sig­nif­i­cant bio­graph­i­cal fact that the sin­gle most impor­tant event in Wagenknecht’s polit­i­cal for­ma­tion was the uncon­trolled bor­der open­ing of Novem­ber 9, 1989? Cer­tain­ly she – GDR patri­ot, SED mem­ber and Honeck­er admir­er – was trau­ma­tized that night. In this con­nec­tion, giv­en the SED roots of Die Linke, we should recall the GDR’s nexus of nation, inter­na­tion­al­ism and race pol­i­tics. In many respects, the par­ty line was impec­ca­bly inter­na­tion­al­ist and anti-racist. US black mil­i­tants Paul Robe­son and Angela Davis were invit­ed for Kaf­fee und Kuchen with Wal­ter Ulbricht and Erich Honeck­er respec­tive­ly. But Ver­tragsar­beit­er [con­tract work­ers] from Mozam­bique, Viet­nam and else­where were served a dif­fer­ent menu. Their pass­ports were with­drawn upon arrival; many were housed in sin­gle-sex bar­racks, restrict­ed to cer­tain zones of cities, iso­lat­ed from the rest of the com­mu­ni­ty, paid less than their East Ger­man peers, and faced with the “choice” of abor­tion or depor­ta­tion if they became preg­nant. While SED ide­ol­o­gy was cast as a human­ist uni­ver­sal­ism, in prac­tice a vast­ly greater weight was placed on nation­al­ism and the defense of the “social­ist Heimat.” At the heart of that Heimat was that bor­der-con­trol mon­stros­i­ty, the Berlin Wall itself, one of whose key pur­pos­es was to ratch­et up the rate of exploita­tion.

An ele­ment of that nation­al­ism was pre­served, albeit in trans­mut­ed and pan-Ger­man form, through Wagenknecht’s jour­ney from Stal­in­ism to left social democ­ra­cy. It is on dis­play in her lat­est book, Pros­per­i­ty With­out Greed. In its pages, the Die Linke leader search­es for the defin­ing social cleav­age today and finds that it is emphat­i­cal­ly not class con­flict between cap­i­tal and labor. (The book con­tains, one crit­ic piquant­ly notes, three men­tions of “class”: a class of school stu­dents, a new class of gad­gets, and a first-class air­line tick­et.) Rather, it is the oppo­si­tion of inter­na­tion­al and nation­al, the capri­cious locusts of finan­cial­ized glob­al­iza­tion ver­sus the demo­c­ra­t­ic and pro­tec­tive bas­tion of the sov­er­eign nation state. The for­mer is con­struct­ed to serve a neo-feu­dal order of monop­oly cap­i­tal and ren­tiers; the lat­ter will enable the cre­ation, under Die Linke, of a mar­ket soci­ety in the inter­ests of the 99 per­cent.

One can trace in Wagenknecht’s pro­gram a redesign, in anti-glob­al­iza­tion col­ors, of the lib­er­al-social­ist tradition—the nation state (à la Giuseppe Mazz­i­ni) as inde­pen­dent free repub­lic, super­vis­ing a non-exploita­tive mar­ket soci­ety (the utopia of Adam Smith). But more ger­mane to my argu­ment is that Pros­per­i­ty With­out Greed exem­pli­fies a con­tem­po­rary trend on the left: a map­ping of neolib­er­al­ism onto the inter­na­tion­al plane and of democ­ra­cy and social pro­tec­tion onto the nation state, in jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of an embrace of ‘nation’ and “sov­er­eign­ty.” It’s a trend that is per­haps most sharply etched in the work of the Paris-based crit­ic Diana John­stone. Through her lens, a Europe-wide shift is under­way, “from the tra­di­tion­al left-right rival­ry to oppo­si­tion between glob­al­iza­tion, in the form of the Euro­pean Union, and nation­al sov­er­eign­ty.” This is a Manichean oppo­si­tion. Glob­al­iza­tion and the EU are framed as offen­sive and impe­ri­al­is­tic, where­as nation­al sov­er­eign­ty is spo­ken of in folksy Jef­fer­son­ian tones. (It is “an essen­tial­ly defen­sive con­cept. It is about stay­ing home and mind­ing one’s own busi­ness.”) Most of the West­ern main­stream left, regret­tably, has suc­cumbed to the myth of glob­al­iza­tion, allow­ing its visions of “human rights” and “antiracism” to lure them into the impe­ri­al­ist camp. Inured against such delu­sions are the defend­ers of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty. Fore­most among them is Mélen­chon, but all anti-glob­al­iza­tion opin­ion, for John­stone, steers nat­u­ral­ly to the left—including even that of a Marine Le Pen (whose rhetoric of racial and reli­gious equal­i­ty she takes at face val­ue). Of the many evils of Euro­pean uni­fi­ca­tion, the great­est for John­stone is the free move­ment of labor, in par­tic­u­lar the end­ing of immi­gra­tion con­trols with the for­mer com­mu­nist coun­tries, for “it is sim­ply a fact” that mass immi­gra­tion low­ers wage lev­els and rais­es unem­ploy­ment.

A cog­nate, if more elo­quent and sophis­ti­cat­ed, case has been advanced by the soci­ol­o­gist Wolf­gang Streeck. For him, glob­al­iza­tion, and Euro­pean inte­gra­tion in par­tic­u­lar, empow­er tech­nocrats at the expense of the sov­er­eign peo­ple and of the polit­i­cal sphere more broad­ly. They relo­cate polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic pow­er from the nation­al to the glob­al lev­el, “into the hands of inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions: to an insti­tu­tion­al con­text, in oth­er words, that unlike the nation state was con­scious­ly designed not to be suit­able for democ­ra­ti­za­tion.” Streeck con­structs the tech­no­crat­ic EU and flows of poor immi­grants as a deplorable alliance. In his dis­cus­sion of British ‘Leave’ vot­ers, he sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly imag­ines their moti­va­tions thus: “When hear­ing about the refugee poli­cies sold by the Merkel gov­ern­ment to the Ger­man pub­lic as Euro­pean poli­cies, they must have feared that at some stage these would have to be adopt­ed by their coun­try as well.” But Streeck con­flates their skep­ti­cism toward the “qua­si-con­sti­tu­tion­al, demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly unchange­able oblig­a­tions” through which the Berlin-Brus­sels Behe­moth gov­erns with their skep­ti­cism toward the threat of UK bor­ders being opened to immi­grants from “less pros­per­ous EU mem­ber coun­tries” and to whomev­er would “demand entry as an asy­lum seek­er or refugee.” The immi­gra­tion of poor peo­ple is seen as an anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and wage-sup­press­ing impo­si­tion on a nation’s sov­er­eign­ty. In this, as oth­ers have point­ed out, Streeck affirms “a bina­ry con­struc­tion of cit­i­zen­ship where ‘migrants’ already liv­ing and work­ing in Britain are cast as ‘out­siders.’” In pre­dict­ing pos­si­ble futures, he speaks in two tones: trag­ic Marx­i­an and ide­al­is­tic Polanyian. In the lat­ter mood, he pro­pos­es that cap­i­tal­ism be “de-glob­al­ized,” enabling “social cohe­sion and sol­i­dar­i­ty and gov­ern­abil­i­ty” to be resti­tut­ed (“re-embed­ded,” in Polanyian terms), and with the econ­o­my restored to its right­ful place with­in the ambit of “demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment.”

But why should a return to the “nation­al” bring about a social “re-embed­ding”? Why would Streeck’s vision of re-democ­ra­ti­za­tion through a restora­tion of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty enable a regen­er­at­ed, revi­talised and inclu­sive cap­i­tal­ism? The case neglects not only the deep­er fac­tors behind Euro­pean capitalism’s low growth, and the prob­lems (notably eco­log­i­cal) that would be exac­er­bat­ed by any return to high growth, but also what Streeck else­where has called capitalism’s “spe­cif­ic direc­tion­al­i­ty”: its expan­sive ten­den­cy, such that, like incom­ing waves around a sand­cas­tle, mar­ket forces tend to cir­cum­vent and sub­sume what­ev­er insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures have been erect­ed to keep them in check. This includes the lib­er­al state, which was itself, pace Streeck, designed to con­strain democ­ra­cy.

If there is one sin­gle, or at least marked­ly vis­i­ble, moment in which social-demo­c­ra­t­ic affec­tions shift­ed from nation states to the EU, it was the Mit­terand government’s tour­nant de la rigueur of 1983. This appeared to sig­nal the the dying gasp of “social democ­ra­cy in one coun­try,” and it seems of lit­tle acci­dent that its archi­tect was Jacques Delors, who then moved to the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion as a mon­e­tarist con­vert. There he took charge of push­ing for­ward mar­ket and mon­e­tary inte­gra­tion in the EU, the aim of which was the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of pre­vi­ous­ly pro­tect­ed sec­tors, sup­ple­ment­ed by fur­ther rounds of pri­va­ti­za­tion and the empow­er­ment of cor­po­ra­tions based in the northern/central “core” to expand their pres­ence through­out the south­ern and (after 1989) east­ern periph­eries. Delors attempt­ed to sell all this as a social demo­c­ra­t­ic project, with the help of some snake oil called the “social chap­ter.” If Tony Blair is the most rec­og­niz­able face of social lib­er­al­ism, Delors sure­ly has equal claim to its patent.

This tra­jec­to­ry exem­pli­fies an aspect of Streeck’s argu­ment that is unas­sail­able: the ide­ol­o­gy and pol­i­cy pro­grams of “glob­al­iza­tion” did indeed cap­ture the cen­ter left. In its spring­time, “glob­al­iza­tion” seemed to her­ald a plu­ral­ist uni­ver­sal­ism and trade-fueled growth that would uplift the poor and hud­dled mass­es. It would fos­ter the cre­ation of human rights regimes and would tear down walls – most spec­tac­u­lar­ly in 1989. It would stim­u­late migra­tion, under­min­ing xeno­pho­bic prej­u­dice and con­sol­i­dat­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al norms. In the EU these trends took a dis­tilled form: the spir­it of glob­al­iza­tion appeared to have been neat­ly bot­tled with­in the EU’s own perime­ter, a local elixir of free move­ment, neolib­er­al­ism, cos­mopoli­tanism and democ­ra­cy. Across Europe, social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties swigged the kool-aid. Turn­ing “social-lib­er­al,” they embraced glob­al­iza­tion, cos­mopoli­tanism and intra-EU free move­ment.

What the lib­er­al glob­al­ists (unsur­pris­ing­ly) over­looked are the project’s bleak­er pre­sup­po­si­tions and con­se­quences: ubiq­ui­tous eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty and inequal­i­ty, polar­i­sa­tion between sur­plus and deficit nations, asset bub­bles and gen­er­alised finan­cial volatil­i­ty, and the inevitable ‘pop­ulist’ (often nation­al­ist) illib­er­al blow­back. What the left nation­al­ists miss is that the lib­er­al-glob­al­ist fram­ing of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist “progress,” which they seek to shoot down, rests on false bina­ries. This is not with­out irony, in that they, who main­tain that “glob­al­iza­tion” has hijacked the left, them­selves repro­duce a cen­tral myth of glob­al­iza­tion, name­ly, that free flows of cap­i­tal and lib­er­al­ized migra­tion regimes, togeth­er with neolib­er­al­ism, democ­ra­ti­za­tion and cos­mopoli­tanism, con­sti­tute an inte­gral, world-trans­form­ing whole.

A more con­vinc­ing image of the world sys­tem, sure­ly, is that it is con­sti­tut­ed and con­tin­u­al­ly recre­at­ed through artic­u­la­tions of the glob­al and the nation­al (and in the case of the EU, the region­al). The cap­i­tal­ist class does not cleave into two camps – glob­al­ist vs nation­al – but is a con­tra­dic­to­ry col­lec­tiv­i­ty, for­ev­er forced to bal­ance between, and polit­i­cal­ly decide on, strate­gies that con­tain endem­ic ten­sions and con­trary ele­ments.

What does this mean con­crete­ly, in the case of labor migra­tion? Con­sid­er, first, our own age. Far from enabling cap­i­tal and labor to freely flow, it has brought a ratch­et­ing up of con­straints on the lat­ter. Just as mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry lib­er­al mar­ke­ti­za­tion gen­er­at­ed glob­al eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ty and nation­al­ist reac­tion, neolib­er­al glob­al­iza­tion has brought fre­quent finan­cial crises and a hard­en­ing of bor­ders and of migra­tion con­trol regimes. An ear­ly instance was Reagan’s Immi­gra­tion Reform and Con­trol Act of 1986, which may have done lit­tle to deter immi­gra­tion but did ensure that new­com­ers were often undoc­u­ment­ed –right­less and pow­er­less. For the down at heel, Mark Duffield observes, “there have nev­er been so many fron­tiers, check­points or restric­tions. This unprece­dent­ed glob­al ‘lock­down’ of the world’s poor has been accom­pa­nied by the grow­ing sur­veil­lance and polic­ing of all forms of inter­na­tion­al cir­cu­la­tion.” The EU is only in a lim­it­ed sense an excep­tion to the rule. Its inter­nal bor­ders now bris­tle with more phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers than when the Berlin Wall was erect. Its exter­nal bor­der is a racist-clas­sist lat­tice through which cit­i­zens and rich non-cit­i­zens stroll, while oth­ers are barred, and tens of thou­sands drown. Far from being mere­ly phys­i­cal or logis­ti­cal, this reg­u­lat­ed and selec­tive­ly ‘open’ bor­der increas­ing­ly impress­es its pow­er through the insti­tu­tions of civ­il soci­ety.

The “glob­al age“ may be one of migra­tion, but it offers no easy dichotomies; it is not an era, for instance, in which pop­u­la­tion move­ment has been lib­er­al­ized or even sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased. Yes, sev­er­al EU acces­sion coun­tries expe­ri­enced sub­stan­tial emi­gra­tion upticks in 2000-2008. Yes, impe­ri­al­ist inter­ven­tions and civ­il wars in Syr­ia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Soma­lia pro­duced large-scale refugee move­ments. But large-scale move­ments of peo­ple are, in his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, nor­mal. In the 2010s, inter­na­tion­al migrants com­prise around 3.2% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, only triv­ial­ly high­er than the 2.9% fig­ure of 1990, or the 3% of 1960. Con­sis­tent­ly, over the last six decades just 3 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion have lived out­side the coun­try of their birth. Glance fur­ther back and you find that a larg­er pro­por­tion of the world’s pop­u­la­tion in 1914 lived in a coun­try oth­er than that of their coun­try of birth than do today. Emi­gra­tion rates of twen­ty per thou­sand per decade were not uncom­mon before the First World War; nowa­days even half that fig­ure is con­sid­ered high. With its wealth, high labor demand, age­ing (and in some regions declin­ing) pop­u­la­tion, the EU is a favored des­ti­na­tion, but only 4.7% of total pop­u­la­tion are migrants. And the trend today is not con­sis­tent­ly upward; far from it. Fol­low­ing the 2008 eco­nom­ic cri­sis, for exam­ple, inward migra­tion into the EU fell sharply. As for asy­lum appli­cants, these, in the peak year of 2015, amount­ed to only around 0.25% of the EU’s pop­u­la­tion. In short, these flows are not sig­nif­i­cant­ly under­min­ing the terms and con­di­tions of work. Study after study has shown that immi­gra­tion gen­er­al­ly has a min­i­mal or pos­i­tive effect on wages (counter to the claims of John­stone, who mis­rep­re­sents the stats she cites). Mass immi­gra­tion does not under­mine the prospects of labor or the left, nor – the log­i­cal con­verse – does mass emi­gra­tion boost them, whether in 1850s Ire­land or 2000s Lithua­nia. The nutri­ents required for labor and the left to flour­ish are cul­tures of sol­i­dar­i­ty and com­bat­ive agency. These emerge with chang­ing “polit­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty struc­tures” and social move­ment suc­cess­es, cir­cum­stances that can obtain when immi­gra­tion rates are high­er, such as West­ern Europe in the ear­ly 1970s, or low­er.

In left-nation­al­ist inter­pre­ta­tions, a fal­la­cious the­sis on mass immi­gra­tion (that it has been unleashed by lib­er­al glob­al­iza­tion, dri­ving wages down) is com­mon­ly linked to a bina­ry that coun­ter­pos­es the EU to the nation state. The EU is pre­sent­ed as inter­na­tion­al, impe­ri­al­is­tic, alien, and, as such, able to act as Europe’s gang­mas­ter-in-chief, the orga­niz­er of sluices of Slavs and oth­er East­ern (or “Cen­tral”) aliens into the erst­while sov­er­eign nation­al ter­ri­to­ries of France, Britain, Ger­many and the like. This por­tray­al is then yoked to the argu­ment – per­sua­sive, I think – that the EU is con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic and neolib­er­al in a way that nation states are not.

The two argu­ments should not be thus yoked, for the coun­ter­po­si­tion of EU and nation state rep­re­sents a dis­tor­tion. The EU is a curi­ous hybrid, in cer­tain respects “nation-like” while also a crea­ture of nations, an inter­gov­ern­men­tal fed­er­a­tion, a con­ti­nen­tal ultra-impe­ri­al­ism, and an “empire lite,” form­ing a hier­ar­chi­cal con­struct with Berlin on the top rung, Athens far below. For its part, the nation-state sys­tem was glob­al­ized ini­tial­ly through empires, and cap­i­tal­ist nation states are inher­ent­ly inter­na­tion­al and impe­ri­al­ist in ori­en­ta­tion. This is seen, to take an exam­ple per­ti­nent to our argu­ment, in the his­tor­i­cal con­struc­tion of migra­tion regimes, from the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry to the present day. In mid-19th cen­tu­ry West­ern Europe, when nation-states were overt­ly impe­r­i­al bod­ies, migra­tion pol­i­cy tend­ed to be lib­er­al and colo­nial: migra­tion was not heav­i­ly reg­u­lat­ed by states, but did involve large-scale inter­ven­tions in colonies, through the con­struc­tion of inden­tured labor regimes and the like. The final third of the same cen­tu­ry saw a shift to more open­ly racist and nation­al­ist con­trol regimes, in the UK and else­where, dur­ing a phase of accel­er­at­ed glob­al­iza­tion, a peri­od that also saw the con­sol­i­da­tion of the nation as an ide­o­log­i­cal struc­ture (a par­tic­u­lar­ly robust one, riv­et­ed into the state), in rela­tion­ship to which a suc­ces­sion of regimes of racism were shaped.

Britain’s first immi­gra­tion-repres­sive leg­is­la­tion, the Aliens Act of 1905, was focused on the “threat” of incom­ers from Cen­tral Europe – and like its suc­ces­sors today, it tar­get­ed the poor. (First-class pas­sen­gers were exempt from con­trol.) In Ger­many, to take anoth­er emblem­at­ic case, nation­al uni­fi­ca­tion was swift­ly fol­lowed by the con­struc­tion of a labor mar­ket that defined Slavs and oth­ers of “non-Ger­man” her­itage as aliens. Pol­ish Gas­tar­beit­er were admin­is­tra­tive­ly pushed to the bot­tom of the labor mar­ket. For­eign work­ers, as the direc­tor of the Nation­al Employ­ment Office put it, ought to be “employed specif­i­cal­ly in the low­est lev­el, low­est paid, unskilled jobs, because in this way the indige­nous Ger­man work­er simul­ta­ne­ous­ly gains a note­wor­thy advan­tage: e.g., advance­ment up the lad­der from com­mon, low-paid jobs as day labor­ers to high-paid, skilled employ­ment is ren­dered con­sid­er­ably eas­i­er for him as a con­se­quence.” Immi­grants from poor­er nations were chan­neled into pre­car­i­ous work and slum hous­ing. This could then be tak­en as proof of their nation­al or “racial” back­ward­ness or infe­ri­or­i­ty – a sure­fire way to cement xeno­pho­bia and nation­al­ism in the ghet­toes and fac­to­ries.

Across Europe, work­ing peo­ple and social demo­c­ra­t­ic orga­ni­za­tions marched to the mantra that the nation was “theirs.” This pit­ted them not only against “rival” nations but against col­o­nized and racial­ized “oth­ers.” In keep­ing with­in the nation­al-racial­ized scaf­fold, Sat­nam Vird­ee has argued, they unmade them­selves as a class; nation­al­ism sol­dered social democ­ra­cy to cap­i­tal­ism. But there were also those, often racial­ized out­siders, who kept a social­ist-inter­na­tion­al­ist flame alive. For them, bor­ders were deployed as mech­a­nisms of offen­sive strug­gle, in the form of impe­ri­al­ism (the use of tar­iffs, exchange rates and sub­si­dies as weapons in the strug­gle for world mar­ket share) and as invid­i­ous tech­niques of labor con­trol. Their cur­rent was capa­ble of tem­porar­i­ly win­ning over the might­i­est of social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties, the Ger­man SPD. In 1907, at its Stuttgart Con­gress, a res­o­lu­tion was passed in oppo­si­tion to bor­der con­trols. It sup­port­ed the “abo­li­tion of all restric­tions that pre­vent those of par­tic­u­lar nations or races from resid­ing in a coun­try or which exclude them from, or pre­vent the exer­cise of, the social, polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic rights of the nation­als.” At the same gath­er­ing, Karl Liebknecht called for the “Damo­cles sword of depor­ta­tion” to be destroyed, to pre­vent busi­ness inter­ests pit­ting for­eign work­ers against those with Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship.

The nation­al­ist-inter­na­tion­al­ist divide in Europe’s labor move­ment is usu­al­ly recalled as the August 1914 moment: the split was over the ques­tion of war. Less well remem­bered is that it also coursed through the ques­tion of migra­tion. The Stuttgart res­o­lu­tion was rapid­ly con­sumed by the 1914 infer­no. In the deglob­al­iz­ing era that began that year and stretched into the 1950s, con­ser­v­a­tive, cor­po­ratist and fas­cist migra­tion regimes pre­vailed, all insti­tu­tion­al­ly racist to the core. It was in this age that social­ist move­ments assumed the reins of gov­ern­ment on a sig­nif­i­cant scale. In Ger­many the SPD took office, and imme­di­ate­ly faced the ques­tion of migra­tion reg­u­la­tion. For instance, in March 1920, dur­ing a reform of the admin­is­tra­tion of for­eign labor, Germany’s Fed­er­a­tion of Employ­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions pro­posed three pol­i­cy mea­sures to the SPD fed­er­al gov­ern­ment: the prin­ci­ple of “pri­ma­cy for nation­als” (for­eign­ers may be hired only when no domes­tic work­ers are avail­able), equal pay scales for for­eign and Ger­man work­ers, and that the admis­sion of for­eign work­ers be mon­i­tored by com­mis­sions com­posed equal­ly of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of man­age­ment and unions.

These were impor­tant reforms. The employ­ers, defen­sive in the face of the 1918-19 upris­ing that had swept social democ­ra­cy into office, had made con­ces­sions. They had relin­quished their right to freely pick and choose from extra­na­tion­al labor mar­kets and had acced­ed to the demand of the unions for equal pay rates. In exchange, how­ev­er, the SPD shift­ed to a hard nation­al­ist posi­tion, accept­ing the prin­ci­ple of labor-mar­ket dis­crim­i­na­tion (in terms of recruit­ment) against for­eign­ers, and aban­don­ing its pre­war demand for the dis­man­tling of state dom­i­na­tion over for­eign labor.

In the short run, the reforms appeared to have been obtained at the expense of the employ­ing class but in the long run they under­mined labor, by incor­po­rat­ing the unions into the machin­ery of nation­al­ist dis­crim­i­na­tion and by strength­en­ing one line of demar­ca­tion between for­eign and nation­al work­ers even as anoth­er line of divi­sion (dif­fer­en­tial pay rates) was soft­ened. The con­struc­tion of a state-reg­i­ment­ed nation­al labor mar­ket was sutured togeth­er with the prin­ci­ple of equal pay for equal work.

The Weimar SPD offers a text­book exam­ple of “left nation­al­ist” migra­tion pol­i­cy. But it should not be seen as the antithe­sis of a pan-Euro­pean approach. Indeed, the Weimar-era SPD was an impor­tant con­trib­u­tor to the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion project. Upon assum­ing office, its lead­ership was eager to endear their par­ty to the mil­i­tary, and to oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive nation­al­ist cir­cles, and a way to achieve this lay at hand: demand the return of the colonies that in 1918 had been wrest­ed from Ger­many. In 1919, by 414 votes to 7, the elect­ed par­lia­ment of the new repub­lic, with the SPD at the helm, demand­ed the re-appro­pri­a­tion of Germany’s colonies. Giv­en the geopo­lit­i­cal frailty of Weimar Ger­many, how­ev­er, social democ­rats increas­ing­ly came to favor achiev­ing this goal by oth­er means: Euro­peaniza­tion. An impor­tant pre­sen­ta­tion of this strat­e­gy can be seen in a 1926 book Die Vere­inigten Staat­en von Europa by Wladimir Woytin­s­ki, direc­tor of research at the trade union con­fed­er­a­tion (ADGB). A “Unit­ed States of Europe,” Woytin­s­ki pro­posed, was imper­a­tive if Europe’s glob­al hege­mo­ny were to be main­tained. In his words, an eco­nom­ic uni­fi­ca­tion of the states of Europe requires “a uni­fi­ca­tion of their colo­nial poli­cies. The colonies of the indi­vid­ual mem­bers of the union must become colonies of the union as a whole.” Through Euro­pean inte­gra­tion, Ger­many would claw its way back onto its prop­er perch as a respect­ed colo­nial pow­er.

Because in insti­tu­tion­al terms Euro­pean inte­gra­tion com­menced in the 1940s, its geopo­lit­i­cal frame is com­mon­ly thought of in rela­tion to Fran­co-Ger­man peace, and to the Cold War (the US’s bol­ster­ing of its West Euro­pean allies). What this frame occludes is a pri­or his­to­ry in which the idea of Euro­pean inte­gra­tion was con­fig­ured around ques­tions of colo­nial­ism and immi­gra­tion. In the 1920s the Pan-Euro­pean move­ment, notably, envis­aged Euro­pean inte­gra­tion as a process of colo­nial con­do­mini­um. It urged Euro­peans to set­tle in Africa and take con­trol of its resources, for, as Hansen and John­son put it, in the “devel­op­ment” of Africa “Europe would find both a large source of pros­per­i­ty and a par­tial solu­tion to the prob­lem of migra­tion posed by its increas­ing pop­u­la­tion.” This migra­tion regime would be strict­ly one-sided: Europe, the Pan-Euro­peanists argued in the after­math of the First World War, must pre­vent immi­gra­tion to the white-major­i­ty con­ti­nent by “black work­ers and sol­diers.” As Hansen and Jon­s­son show, it is not far-fetched to see the ‘defense’ of Europe against Africans as the root of the move­ment for Euro­pean uni­fi­ca­tion.

The EU, then, was the vehi­cle of nation­al-impe­r­i­al states. The patri­o­tism of its found­ing fathers blend­ed nation­al, colo­nial, and Euro­pean-impe­r­i­al ingre­di­ents. It repli­cat­ed the ele­ments of the states that set it up. In some respects it is nation-like, in oth­ers impe­r­i­al, both in its inter­nal hier­ar­chy and its preser­va­tion of colo­nial inter­ests. EU free move­ment, for exam­ple, was insti­tu­tion­al­ized for essen­tial­ly the same rea­sons it had been decades and cen­turies ear­li­er, in nation states such as Ger­many: to lubri­cate trade and oil the gears of indus­tri­al change, and to enable busi­ness­es to dip into larg­er and more dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed pools of labor, thus spurring a region-wide upscal­ing of com­pe­ti­tion, cap­i­tal con­cen­tra­tion, and – ulti­mate­ly – the con­struc­tion of a geo-eco­nom­ic behe­moth. Through­out the nation­al-impe­r­i­al and EU phas­es, migra­tion regimes were cen­tral in the man­age­ment and manip­u­la­tion of pop­u­la­tions; they enable the rapid sup­ply of labor to grow­ing indus­tries and the cre­ation and enforce­ment of racist codes. A graph­ic exam­ple of both func­tions was the con­struc­tion of the EU’s “free move­ment” regime at the time of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The treaty promised a right of free move­ment to work­ers with­in the Euro­pean Eco­nom­ic Com­mu­ni­ty. Alge­ria was, as a colony of France, part of the EEC, but to enable free move­ment of Alge­ri­ans would poten­tial­ly under­mine the “racial” exclu­sions on which the EEC was found­ed. Hence, the draft was rewrit­ten to exclude non-Euro­pean Alge­ri­ans from free move­ment, while ensur­ing that the word­ing did not con­tra­dict France’s self-image as a benev­o­lent colo­nial pow­er, with French cit­i­zen­ship uni­ver­sal­ly applied.

The EU’s migra­tion regime is, from this angle, a con­tin­u­a­tion of those of the impe­r­i­al nation states that set it up: Poles and Alge­ri­ans to Ger­many and France in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies; Poles and Roma­ni­ans to Ger­many and Italy today. In the move­ments from Tallinn or Bucharest to core EU states in the 2010s we hear the echoes of, say, the 1840s Irish via Dublin or Belfast and across the Irish Sea. In that decade, Lon­don rigid­ly applied the lib­er­al-mar­ket rule­book across blight-hit Ire­land, exac­er­bat­ing the famine and caus­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands to flee to Britain where they were put to work for pover­ty pay, dig­ging canals and lay­ing rail. For Lon­don then, we might read Brussels/Frankfurt today; Ire­land then, “Cen­tral” or “South­ern” Europe today; canals and rail then, skin­ning chick­ens and clean­ing offices today. In each case, the impe­r­i­al polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic elites seek out reserves of skilled or inex­pen­sive and mobile labor and ‘inte­grate’ them into the national/EU divi­sion of labor, while cod­ing them into nation­al-eth­nic hier­ar­chies. In each case, that cod­ing draws heav­i­ly on the colo­nial past. (Almost all move­ments of immi­grants into Europe have been deeply shaped by the Euro­pean colo­nial past, as Nicholas de Gen­o­va has put it; our “brave new Europe” has been “busi­ly redraw­ing the colo­nial bound­ary between a ‘Euro­pean’ space large­ly reserved ‘for Euro­peans only’ and the post­colo­nial har­vest of cen­turies of Euro­pean exploita­tion and sub­ju­ga­tion.”)

There is no mys­tery behind the com­mon­al­i­ty of the nation­al-impe­r­i­al and EU migra­tion regimes. Both man­age labor for cap­i­tal. Val­ue-pro­duc­ing labor doesn’t descend from the heav­ens, it’s man­u­fac­tured. The foun­da­tion of accu­mu­la­tion is the repro­duc­tion of, and capital’s access to, work­ers. A noto­ri­ous­ly “inelas­tic” com­mod­i­ty, the repro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion of labor pow­er depends on all man­ner of admin­is­tra­tive tech­niques. And this, the man­age­ment of social repro­duc­tion, rubs up against a sec­ond cap­i­tal­ist imper­a­tive: the free mobil­i­ty of labor. Immi­gra­tion acts through and against oth­er labor-repro­duc­tive process­es. It is one of the insti­tu­tions through which cap­i­tal­ist states cre­ate, mobi­lize, equip and reor­ga­nize the work­force, and the pop­u­la­tion as a whole – oth­er insti­tu­tions that per­form relat­ed social­ly-repro­duc­tive func­tions include edu­ca­tion sys­tems, the fam­i­ly, and gen­der divi­sion (with women work­ers des­ig­nat­ed, in some eras, as a “reserve army”). All these insti­tu­tions slice and dice the work­force into steep-sided hier­ar­chies. If seen thus, immi­gra­tion is no more “alien” than the oth­ers, and a fear of mass immi­gra­tion is no less absurd than fear­ing the influx­es of women work­ers that dis­placed the “male-bread­win­ner” norm.

In both cas­es, relat­ing to incom­ers as fel­low work­ers, fel­low sub­jects, is axiomat­ic. As labor pow­er, as “vari­able cap­i­tal,” work­ers exist as objects: forced to stick with cap­i­tal where it sets up shop and fol­low it where it flows. In this sense, immi­grant work­ers are lined up for eval­u­a­tion. They find them­selves mea­sured up and assessed for their util­i­ty to cap­i­tal and for the nation (or EU). Sub­jec­tivized by insti­tu­tions and norms that define them as oth­er or less­er, “they” can be pigeon­holed as low-paid threats to “our” wel­fare, as hard-work­ing labor, or as ben­e­fi­cia­ries of pious pity. “They” appear as acces­sories of cap­i­tal, “for­eign-brand­ed” com­peti­tors on labor mar­kets and/or essen­tial for our har­vests and indus­tries, to “our” growth rate and glob­al influ­ence. “Europe needs more migrants,” espe­cial­ly skilled ones, bray the busi­ness lead­ers. Thanks to immi­gra­tion from oth­er EU states and beyond, the cof­fers of Germany’s pub­lic health insur­ance scheme and pen­sion funds have swollen prodi­gious­ly. It is immi­gra­tion that has boost­ed Germany’s stand­ing as the EU’s pre-emi­nent pow­er – even as its refugee con­tin­gent has enabled its cre­den­tials as a human­i­tar­i­an hege­mon to be bur­nished bright.

As sub­jects, immi­grant work­ers are col­leagues and com­rades. Migra­tion is a way in which the exploit­ed class­es attempt to cope with social and eco­nom­ic con­straints. At the local lev­el it affects labor mar­kets, and can enable a raised rate of sur­plus val­ue, yet it is also a rudi­men­ta­ry man­i­fes­ta­tion of strug­gle, as emi­grants up sticks and quit their pre­vi­ous employ­ers and state. This is, so to speak, the “lib­er­al” moment in work­ers’ resis­tance to exploita­tion. Desert­ing one’s work­place or coun­try, whether indi­vid­u­al­ly or social­ly, has always spo­ken of the attempt to improve one’s lot. Migra­tion devel­ops the glob­al inter­con­nect­ed­ness of the work­ing class, under­min­ing local and nation­al parochialisms. This is why Lenin was adamant that migra­tion – with­in nations, to towns and cities, and across nation­al bor­ders – has a pro­gres­sive edge. It brings peas­ants and work­ers into cos­mopoli­tan inter­course, unset­tling patri­ar­chal prac­tices, open­ing eyes, expand­ing hori­zons. Yet Lenin’s cos­mopoli­tanism was not rose-tint­ed or lib­er­al. He, and inter­na­tion­al­ist social­ists, rec­og­nized in mass migra­tion a bit­ter escape from con­cen­trat­ed mis­ery, a jour­ney com­pelled by cap­i­tal, to be entered more like­ly with trep­i­da­tion than desire.

Sim­i­lar con­tra­dic­tions relate to the immo­bil­i­ty of labor pow­er. In a “pro­tec­tive (or “com­mu­ni­tar­i­an”) moment of resis­tance, work­ers con­front pover­ty and inse­cu­ri­ty by build­ing sup­port sys­tems with­in fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty: norms and net­works that func­tion as islands of sol­i­dar­i­ty. Unions, cam­paigns and left par­ties press for rigidi­ties in the labor mar­ket. They seek influ­ence over hir­ing and fir­ing, and the laws per­tain­ing to them. The forms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that grow on such islands may be refrac­to­ry to the inter­ests of cap­i­tal, or they align with them, by cement­ing the seg­men­ta­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of the world’s work­ing class along lines of gen­der, nation and so on.

When nav­i­gat­ing such islands, we should beware the temp­ta­tion to con­flate laws and poli­cies with nations and poli­ties. The for­mer are an indis­pens­able ter­rain for win­ning reforms that con­strain busi­ness and pro­tect work­ers, where­as poli­ties and nations are struc­tural­ly geared to win­ning bat­tles for cap­i­tal, both against work­ers and against rival nation states. Nation­al sen­ti­ment and insti­tu­tions of cit­i­zen­ship and democ­ra­cy sewed the work­ing class into the state; “the peo­ple” arose in oppo­si­tion not only to dynas­tic or impe­r­i­al rule but also lat­er­al­ly, vis-à-vis oth­er “peo­ples” and “less­er races.” This is why, where social­ists ori­ent to elec­toral pol­i­tics alone, inter­na­tion­al­ism seems to melt away, for – even when one thinks of the antag­o­nist, cap­i­tal, as a glob­al force – it becomes hard­er to imag­ine col­lec­tive agency in terms that reach beyond ‘our’ nation’s perime­ter. But think it we must.

The idea that labor mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion can be over­come by rais­ing bor­ders, defend­ing the “nation,” and exclud­ing immi­grants is a Sozial­is­mus der dum­men Ker­le [a social­ism of chumps, of nump­ties]. Does capit­u­lat­ing to xeno­pho­bia ben­e­fit the work­ers’ cause, or the left? Look no fur­ther than our most recent dis­mal decades, in which Europe’s social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties bowed before anti-immi­gra­tion pres­sure, a craven capit­u­la­tion that brought no sus­tained elec­toral revival but has, on the con­trary, kept the ogres and trolls on the far-right well fed and hun­gry for more. Or glance back to the 1940s USA, where dra­con­ian immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy was the gate­way drug that led to binge after binge of repres­sive leg­is­la­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in McCarthy­ism.

Con­verse­ly, the late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry upsurge in Amer­i­can social­ism occurred at a time of record-break­ing immi­gra­tion, and was itself strong­ly based in immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, with labor and social­ist orga­ni­za­tions often immi­grant-led. And today a sim­i­lar log­ic obtains; immi­grant work­ers in Europe are build­ing the above-men­tioned islands of sol­i­dar­i­ty. Think of the recruit­ment cam­paign that has brought many east­ern Euro­pean food-fac­to­ry work­ers into Britain’s BFAWU, revi­tal­iz­ing that union. Or the recent­ly cel­e­brat­ed case of the Latin Amer­i­can clean­ers at SOAS; they forced their out­sourced firm to rec­og­nize their trade union, and built sol­i­dar­i­ty among staff and stu­dent bod­ies across the col­lege, even­tu­al­ly lead­ing SOAS to bring all facil­i­ties staff back in-house – a vic­to­ry that has inspired sim­i­lar suc­cess­es else­where. In all the years she has lived in Britain one lead­ing activist, Moreno Yusti, “has had stereo­types placed around her neck. The lit­tle woman. The igno­rant for­eign­er. The migrant hap­py to under­cut oth­ers’ wages.” The real­i­ty, com­ments jour­nal­ist Aditya Chakrabort­ty, “is she fought hard­er and smarter than a multi­na­tion­al and know-all uni­ver­si­ty man­agers. And she has lev­elled up pay and con­di­tions for 120 work­ers.”

But the dark side of the SOAS clean­ers’ sto­ry is no less instruc­tive. Ear­ly in the cam­paign their employ­er sum­moned them to a meet­ing. Doors were blocked, and when employ­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tives men­tioned the phrase “immi­gra­tion papers,” immi­gra­tion offi­cials in riot gear stormed in. Nine clean­ing staff were bun­dled into lock-ups, then on to planes. Here, in one vignette, is the bor­der, busy at work. It’s not out there invis­i­bly hug­ging the coast­line; it’s here, invad­ing our com­mu­ni­ties and work­places. (In uni­ver­si­ties, too, where it runs even in the ink of aca­d­e­mics’ sig­na­tures.) In its design, immi­gra­tion con­trol aims to keep out the poor, and, as Brid­get Ander­son points out, “poor coun­tries” and coun­tries whose cit­i­zens are black are very like­ly to coin­cide. It is a racist instru­ment, designed to coun­ter­pose the “com­mu­ni­ty” with the out­sider, and to estab­lish and main­tain “racial” dif­fer­ence. It sorts work­ers into streams: the “unwant­ed” or “ille­gal” (and hence intim­i­dat­ed, attrac­tive to cut­throat employ­ers), the legal­ly-immi­grat­ed, and the local-born (their pay pack­ets topped up by a piti­ful psy­cho­log­i­cal wage stirred up from nation and racism). It cre­ates eth­ni­cal­ly tiered work­forces: white CEOs and man­agers; low­er-paid office work­ers and ‘skilled’ local-born man­u­al work­ers; and unskilled man­u­al labor, often from “Cen­tral Europe” or fur­ther afield. In some work­places this strat­i­fi­ca­tion sinks into the soil of dai­ly exis­tence, as each cat­e­go­ry lunch­es in dif­fer­ent can­teens and rarely social­izes out­side their class-race tier, with pre­dictably cor­ro­sive effects on sol­i­dar­i­ty and the soul. Nowhere is this stark­er than in Italy, where a high­ly racial­ized divi­sion of labor sep­a­rates unem­ployed and young Ital­ian cit­i­zens from hyper-exploit­ed Roman­ian and African farmhands. Some of the for­mer blame immi­grants for their eco­nom­ic plight, and, iron­i­cal­ly, often emi­grate them­selves.

Far from pro­tect­ing work­ers’ rights, immi­gra­tion con­trol divides the work­force, dri­ving new arrivals into inse­cure jobs, whip­ping up sta­tus anx­i­ety, vest­ing employ­ers with addi­tion­al tech­niques of con­trol, and sub­ject­ing every­one to inten­sive reg­u­la­tion by state bureau­cra­cies and the police. Expand­ing the remit of the bor­der police and inten­si­fy­ing immi­gra­tion sur­veil­lance would not sup­press labor-mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion; as Richard Sey­mour argues, it would only shunt “migrant work­ers fur­ther into the shad­ows where they are more sus­cep­ti­ble to vio­lence and hyper-exploita­tion,” sharp­en­ing the racial­iza­tion of rights and life-chances, com­pro­mis­ing work­place health and safe­ty, weak­en­ing unions’ bar­gain­ing pow­er, and inten­si­fy­ing labor-mar­ket rival­ry – all to the ben­e­fit of the prop­er­tied class­es.

For the time being, bor­ders are here to stay, but push­back is pos­si­ble on both the fronts that mat­ter: devel­op­ing struc­tures (both net­works and norms) of sol­i­dar­i­ty in work­places and com­mu­ni­ties, and recre­at­ing a con­sis­tent pole of anti-racist inter­na­tion­al­ism. By the lat­ter I mean a pol­i­tics that defends free move­ment while giv­ing no quar­ter to neolib­er­al free-move­men­tism (in the form, most egre­gious­ly, of the Post­ed Work­ers Direc­tive); that refus­es the pur­port­ed choice of EU or nation; and that builds sol­i­dar­i­ty with all migrants – includ­ing the Syr­i­an refugees who, deterred by Britain’s odi­ous prac­tice of indef­i­nite deten­tion, find work in ware­hous­es, con­struc­tion sites, and garages for as lit­tle as £10 a day, and those who, flee­ing war, famine or pover­ty, seek to sub­vert visa poli­cies, cir­cum­vent asy­lum pro­ce­dures, keep afloat in rub­ber dinghies, or clam­ber over barbed wire.

Cos­mopoli­tanisms “from below” are con­tin­u­al­ly being recom­posed, inter­na­tion­al net­works of resis­tance that chal­lenge rights vio­la­tions and exploita­tive labor prac­tices. In the ear­ly British Empire it was the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary Atlantic”; in Europe today it is poly­eth­nic sol­i­dar­i­ty and anti-racist strug­gles, which resist recrude­s­cent xeno­pho­bia while main­tain­ing con­tempt for the ersatz cos­mopoli­tanism of the glob­al­ist elite. Even in our immi­gra­tion-para­noid age there is no short­age of exam­ples. They can be seen in the SOAS strug­gle men­tioned above, and the cam­paign of ver.di, the Ger­man ser­vices union, for the right to vote for migrants. They are found in ‘whole work­er’ orga­niz­ing, such as the Latin Amer­i­can Work­ers Asso­ci­a­tion in Lon­don, whose edu­ca­tion­al work­shops give migrant work­ers strength by inform­ing them of their rights. Some are local and bare­ly vis­i­ble. They include acts of char­i­ty and sup­port for refugees: dona­tions of mon­ey or clothes, pro­vid­ing shel­ter, or oth­er forms of prac­ti­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty, such as orga­niz­ing to stop col­leagues or neigh­bors being deport­ed. Protests, such as those in Britain call­ing for the clo­sure of Yarl’s Wood deten­tion cen­ter, the M18 anti-racist demon­stra­tions, the Pre­vent­ing Pre­vent net­works, Calais Migrant Sol­i­dar­i­ty and the No Bor­der Net­work. And pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns, such as that of the Two-Tailed Dog Par­ty in Hun­gary. When the Orbán gov­ern­ment launched a bill­board cam­paign fea­tur­ing state­ments – osten­si­bly to refugees but writ­ten in Hun­gar­i­an, strict­ly for domes­tic con­sump­tion – such as “If you come to Hun­gary, you have to respect our cul­ture!” and “If you come to Hun­gary, you can­not take Hun­gar­i­ans’ jobs!,” in response satir­i­cal bill­boards appeared, mock­ing the government’s slo­gans. “Did you know there’s a war in Syr­ia?” “Did you know a tree might fall on your head?” “Did you know one mil­lion Hun­gar­i­ans want to emi­grate to Europe?,” and the like.

Most impres­sive­ly, in Barcelona in Feb­ru­ary 2017 pro­tes­tors marched to urge the Span­ish gov­ern­ment to take in thou­sands of refugees. The protest includ­ed recent­ly-union­ized African street ven­dors, Cata­lan inde­pen­dence sup­port­ers, and NGO activists, among tens of thou­sands of oth­ers. Here was unas­sail­able proof that anti-racism and migrant sol­i­dar­i­ty can attract mass sup­port. A momen­tous state­ment – in effect, that “Black Lives Mat­ter” – it gave a glimpse of the poten­tial for a push­back against the EU’s bor­der-con­trol regime.

That Barcelona act­ed as a bea­con reflects, in part, politi­ciza­tion specif­i­cal­ly around the Cata­lan ques­tion, giv­en that the demon­stra­tion was a rebuke to cen­tral gov­ern­ment. In part, how­ev­er, it also car­ries a wider les­son. Over pre­vi­ous years a nar­ra­tive had been cre­at­ed, around a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of cam­paigns, that pro­vid­ed “real expla­na­tions of why peo­ple are suf­fer­ing” – for exam­ple, that high rents are the out­come of “preda­to­ry tourism, unscrupu­lous land­lords, a lack of social hous­ing, and prop­er­ty being pur­chased as over­seas invest­ments.” The local left par­ty, Barcelona en Comú, had helped to cre­ate those pro­gres­sive nar­ra­tives, and gave its back­ing to the demon­stra­tion – and yet it also led the very city admin­is­tra­tion that had met­ed out repres­sion to migrant street ven­dors.

The new social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties dis­cussed ear­li­er occu­py a sim­i­lar ter­rain to Barcelona en Comú. In aspir­ing to gov­ern they face relent­less pres­sure to act in the inter­ests of cap­i­tal, and to main­tain the state as a cap­i­tal­ist force, com­plete with barbed bor­ders, polic­ing of migrant street ven­dors, and the rest. They are also, how­ev­er, projects that emerge from, engage with, and lis­ten to labor and oth­er social move­ments. Such move­ments, like the cam­paigns just list­ed, offer glimpses of the emer­gence of inter­na­tion­al­ist forms of col­lec­tive agency that can counter the stub­born hold of the “nation­al” on the imag­i­na­tion of the left. They can begin to cre­ate the shared “prac­tices, demands, strate­gies, re-writ­ings of his­to­ries, under­stand­ings of each oth­er, and – above all – com­mon aspi­ra­tions” which, Pana­gi­o­tis Sotiris has argued, can over­come divi­sions of eth­nic­i­ty, reli­gion, and cit­i­zen­ship and estab­lish prac­ti­cal polit­i­cal uni­ty. Strug­gles by migrants, and in sol­i­dar­i­ty with migrants, are indis­pens­able. They are essen­tial to the con­sti­tu­tion of polit­i­cal sub­jects capa­ble of coun­ter­ing cap­i­tal on an inter­na­tion­al­ist basis, col­lec­tive sub­jects that ori­ent not around nation and eth­nos – the archi­tec­ture of the exist­ing order – but around net­works of the present and trans­for­ma­tive projects of the future.


Author of the article

is senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Brunel University, London. His other books include Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market (2010) and Green Growth: Ideology, Political Economy, and the Alternatives (2016).