Immigration control - a tool of the bosses

Mick Brooks looks at the question of the movement of labour (emigration and immigration) and how the bosses have always managed to have a flexible approach on this question depending on the needs of their system at any given moment. In the end whether they are campaigning for it or against it, it is always used to enhance their profits as they attempt to divide the workers on this issue.

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews

From 'Refugee Blues' by WH Auden

The free movement of labour is a basic freedom to be defended by all workers against those who seek to divide us.

The French revolution of 1789 was the first to be fought under the banner of human rights. For the French revolutionaries the freedom to go where you wanted was as basic as the freedom to say what you thought. They were right. They were fighting against a regime that wouldn't let common people move from one part of France to another. The motive then, as now, was to control the movement of labour. In particular the King didn't want peasants running away from their overlords to work in the towns. So he controlled the movement of people so as to help the aristocracy keep commoners where they could screw them.

Two hundred years ago Alfred Lord Byron wasn't asked for his passport when he was swanning round the Mediterranean countries. The rich did the 'grand tour', moving easily across borders. Of course, they had money. More importantly, between 1815 and 1930 over fifty million people left Europe to find a better future. They went to the 'empty lands' of the Americas and Australasia. These countries were empty partly because of the massacres of the original inhabitants. Nobody tried to stop them leaving, or entering. Less than fifty years ago (white) British people were paid to migrate to Australia. Migration was believed to be good for the receiving countries and good for the sending nations. Certainly it was good for the migrants. They went of their own accord. They went in search of a better life.

At the time the great migration began, Britain was generally reckoned to be overcrowded. Its population at the battle of Waterloo was about 10 million. Then as now, 'overcrowding' is measured by the ability of the productive forces to keep the population adequately fed, watered and housed. As Marx puts it, "every method of production that arises in the course of history has its own peculiar, historically valid, law of population."

Of course there were frictions between new arrivals and established workers. The recent film, 'The gangs of New York', depicts the battles between 'native Americans' and Irish immigrants. After the US Civil War it became fashionable to sneer at Swedish migrants instead. Twenty years later Swedish Americans were regarded as fellow North Europeans to be appealed to in the battle against South Europeans, such as Italians, and Jews - who were all dirty, lazy and lived in warrens like rabbits. In passing, one of the most depressing aspects of researching this background is to find out how utterly unoriginal all this racist rubbish is. The same abuse is passed down from generation to generation, and just hurled at the latest lot of incomers, whoever they happen to be.

It is worth noting that immigration controls have existed in this country for less than a century! It was in fact only at the turn of the twentieth century that all over the world, we started hearing the clanking sound of drawbridges being pulled up. The era of unrestricted migration was coming to an end. In Britain, the Aliens Act of 1905 was the first general law restricting immigration into Britain. Immigration control is a monstrosity in a land formed by wave after wave of people looking for a better future for themselves and their families since at least the time of the beaker folk, thousands of years before Christ.

The passing of the Aliens Act was accompanied by violent ant-semitic agitation against Jews fleeing from the pogroms in Russia. Here's a (British) rant from the time. "Jewish power baffled the Pharaohs, foiled Nebuchadnezzar, thwarted Rome, defeated feudalism, circumvented the Romanovs, balked the Kaiser and undermined the Third French Republic". There's not a word there that Hitler couldn't agree with. What cut across this attempt to divide workers was the militant action of Jewish immigrants, particularly a series of strikes by the Jewish Tailors Union which the Manchester Trades Council saw as setting a good example for the 'locals'! And the bosses knew it. Here's the London 'Evening News' from 1891, "The advance of Socialistic and anarchical opinion in London is commensurate with the increased volume of foreign immigration." The more, the merrier!

The years between the Wars were crisis years in Europe. Mass unemployment was an almost permanent stain. They didn't need immigrant labour to threaten the existing work force with - the dole queues were quite enough. Migration was strictly controlled. More to the point, it didn't happen. Workers had nowhere with jobs to move to.

The years after the Second World War, by contrast, were golden for capitalism. Steady growth and relatively full employment in all the advanced capitalist countries was a feature of the era. The problem the bosses confronted was labour shortage. They solved it by lifting the controls and actively encouraging immigration. In my own area of West London at the end of the War, Wolfe's rubber company started to lodge adverts in the Punjab for vacancies. This was the beginning of the mass movement of Sikhs and others into Southall. People of Asian origins now make up 90% of the population in central Southall. Speaking personally, I think they have improved the tone of the place no end.

Capitalism is an endlessly flexible system. Unfortunately, this flexibility is provided by the suffering of the working class. During the 1930s, while traditional industrial areas such as South Wales were gripped by despair, new industries were opening their gates in areas such as West London, including Southall, and Slough, particularly when rearmament began in preparation for the Second World War. What we saw was a transfer of workers between the regions. So far from getting on their bikes, like Norman Tebbitt's dad, families actually walked all the way from Wales to London in search of work, sometimes pushing all their worldly goods in a pram.


Not everybody welcomed the Welsh, or the Punjabis. Famously the same walls in Southall that had held anti-Welsh slogans in the 1930s were adorned with similar greetings to the new arrivals in the1960s. But were the men who came to Wolfe's after 1945 really 'taking our jobs'? Well, if they were, 'we' were pleased to give them up at the time. Working with rubber is hot, nasty work and the 'locals' were pleased to move on to lighter and better-paid employment. After the War workers from the Caribbean staffed the health service and the transport system, invariably starting at the bottom with work that nobody else was prepared to do. Asian workers likewise went to northern cities in decline, took up work in industries such as textile production that were already low paid and where the locals were already leaving in despair for the future.

These immigrants were invariably of working age. They came and put in long hours and, in the process, put in a great deal more money to the Treasury kitty than they got out. It also remains the case that more people leave the country than come in. And those that enter, come here to work. By contrast Britain exports the economically inactive. Hundreds of thousand of pensioners head out for countries such as Spain for the winter, (to cut down on their central heating bills).

'It's a small country,' we're told, as if the entire 1½ billion or so population of the Indian subcontinent were all going to turn up at Heathrow and Dover on the day we tore up immigration controls. Well - if that happened, we socialists would have a problem. But is it likely? Some Welsh people came to West London in the 1930s. The majority stayed in Wales, even though the economic situation was desperate. Why? Because people are not economic calculating machines. Maybe they have folk to drop round on and look after. Perhaps the kids have settled down in school and made a good group of friends. People have got roots that they are unwilling to just abandon them. Why did they have to pay people to go to Australia? After all the living standards are higher than here - and the sun shines sometimes - and they have a more successful cricket team than us. Why should people from 'abroad' be any different from us? Not everyone left Europe in the nineteenth century. Most countries (except Ireland) saw their populations rise continually despite the emigration, and millions were migrating from the villages to the cities to become workers throughout the period. In Britain, the population continues to rise to this day, and it's not because of immigrants. Mass migration into this country ceased with a series of laws starting with the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962.

For under capitalism the good times don't last forever. During the 1960s it was clear that the golden age of the post-War economic boom was coming to an end. The 1970s was a decade of crisis all over the world. In one country after another the pattern of the inter-War years was repeated - fortress Britain and fortress Europe. And inevitably this meant harrying the hapless folk who just wanted to move here so as to work hard and do the best for themselves and their families. And, related to the economic crisis, the world showed signs of cracking up. For the first time since the Second World War we have seen armed conflict on the European continent. The inevitable result is waves of refugees streaming to what they see as safe havens. As for Africa, it has been riven by permanent economic crisis for the past thirty years. This has produced grisly wars and civil wars all over the continent

This repeated pattern proves the lie of the racists, when they say that immigration causes unemployment. There was mass unemployment in the 1930s and no immigration. Why should anybody want to come to a country when they can't get a job? The bosses eased immigration controls when they wanted cheap labour. Immigration is associated with a tight labour market.

Actually some migrants did try to get to Britain in the 1930s - German Jews fleeing Hitler. But the Tories didn't let them in - effectively conniving at the holocaust.

Why can't we have non-racist controls? Many people in the labour movement who have swallowed the "we're a small island" argument' are never the less horrified at the brutality of immigration control. But the one produces the other. Immigration controls are necessarily racist. The movement of labour occurs because different countries have different standards of living. When the Aliens Act was promoted, the phrase "undesirable immigrants" was used in the legislation. But the word 'Jews' was used on the streets. Under the present controls there is a 'primary purpose' rule. It queries whether the primary purpose of somebody getting married is to enter the country. In fact it is coded racism against Asians, who are most likely to contract arranged marriages. This is surely a cheek in a country ruled by a royal family with a severely shrunken gene pool as a result of hundreds of years of arranged marriages! Immigration controls are always racist.

What about capital movement? Capital goes to wherever it makes the highest profit.

Here's the economist Ricardo, regarded as one of the most hard-nosed representatives of the capitalist class in his time. "Experience shows that the fancied or real insecurity of capital… together with the natural disinclination which every man has to quit the country of his birth and connections… checks the emigration of capital. These feelings, which I should be sorry to see weakened, induce most men of property to be satisfied with a low rate of profits in their own country rather than to seek a more advantageous employment for their wealth in foreign nations." (Principles of political economy and taxation, 1817)

The reader can see at once that Ricardo's sentimental nationalism has been replaced in the bosom of present day capitalists with a resolute, implacable and heartless internationalism. They will go anywhere if there's more profit in it for them.

Capital can move whenever and wherever it likes. Capital controls in this country were literally put on a bonfire in 1979 by Thatcher. She knew whose interest she was serving! So capital always goes where the wages are cheapest? Not necessarily. Other things being equal, capital will always vote for cheap labour. But other things are seldom equal. The City of London is still a bigger destination for capital out to make money than the whole of Africa. Capital is free to go where it likes, for it is owned by the boss class. The movement of labour is controlled in order to subordinate it to the bosses.

In the revolutionary year 1848, Marx made a speech in Brussels on what attitude the workers should take in the debate on free trade and protection. He asked, "what is free trade under the present condition of society?" and answered, "it is freedom of capital". He went on, "the most favourable condition for the worker is the growth of capital." And he concluded, "the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade."

Free trade presupposes the free movement of labour and capital. This is all part of the free market system hymned by the apologists of capitalism. But the capitalist state lets capital move freely, yet controls the movement of labour.

Capitalists (unlike their ideologues) are actually suspicious of markets. Markets mean that the bosses are not always in control. Since the dawn of their system the boss class has worked to negate the fact that markets can sometimes tilt in favour of the workers. Marx called the instrument they use the industrial reserve army.

We don't need to look in detail as to how Marx applied this concept to nineteenth century conditions in 'Capital'. How widows, orphans, the disabled and other unfortunates made up a disadvantaged section of the working class who found it very difficult to hold down a steady job. They in turn were used against the claims of the active workers.

This is what the industrial reserve army does for capital. "During the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, the industrial reserve army presses upon the army of active workers; and during the periods of overproduction and boom, the former holds the claims of the latter in check. Thus relative overproduction is the background in front of which the law of supply and demand works. Relative surplus population restricts the activities of this law within the limits which are convenient to capitalist exploitation and capitalist domination." So, "the condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness of the other portion, and the converse, become means for enriching the individual capitalist."

In effect the capitalists are able to tap a reservoir of labour in times of need. They are in a position to control the supply of labour. The starkest instance of this was apartheid South Africa. Blacks were supposed to live in Bantustans, homelands where in reality nobody could make a living. They were drawn out to the mines and industrial towns as needed and thrown back on these scrapheaps when judged superfluous to requirements. The beauty of the Bantustan, from a capitalist point of view, was that it didn't cost them a penny. The workers were left to their own devices to survive.

In Switzerland some economists have discovered a wonderfully flexible labour force. There is a core of native-born Swiss workers, who don't have to be very flexible. Most have a job for life. Then there are the gastarbeiters, foreign workers drawn in when needed. Most are adult males living in compounds and sending most of their earnings hundreds of miles back home. They have no rights. When recession bites, they are unceremoniously sent packing. Lovely!

The Labour government has announced a 'liberalisation' in the rules allowing some categories of asylum seekers to work. Guess what? They are workers with skills we are short of, and workers who will do seasonal work of harvesting for rates of pay no 'native' worker would put up with. This scheme is really a step towards controlling the movement of labour - in the interests of the bosses.

On the industrial reserve army, Marx concludes, "but if a surplus working class population is a necessary product of accumulation… on the other hand this overpopulation becomes a lever promoting capitalist accumulation, and is indeed a necessary condition of the capitalist method of production." Capitalism is using migration to reproduce an industrial reserve army in the receiving countries. The solution, Marx goes on, is for the workers to "discover that the intensity of competition among themselves is entirely dependent upon the pressure of the relative surplus population" and to "endeavour by trade unionism and in other ways, to organise a purposive co-operation between the employed and the unemployed, in order that they may avert or diminish the ruinous consequences that arise for their class."

But if it is a fantasy that several billion impoverished people will up stakes and head for Britain the moment immigration controls are lifted, it is true that some people will make the move whether it's illegal or not, and despite all the hardships and dangers. If the movement of labour is criminalised, then snakehead gangs will profit from it anyway. Unfortunates up to their necks in debt are dropped off the back of a lorry in the middle of the night - often not even knowing what country they're in.

So the question is: what attitude does the labour movement take towards the working class victims of the immigration control regime when they're here? Asylum seekers are criminalized: if they try to get a job they can be deported. So they go underground and get sucked into the grey or black economy, working long hours for what we see as starvation wages and without any of the basic protection we take for granted. Is that what we want? If workers can be threatened with deportation when they kick up a fuss, the bosses have got a pliant labour force. This is the hidden reality portrayed in the film 'Dirty pretty things'. The immigration regime is an obstacle to workers in Britain to protecting immigrant workers - and ultimately themselves.

The labour movement was built on the slogan 'an injury to one is an injury to all'. Now, more than ever, that must be our watchword.