The Crack in the Edifice: Modern Capitalism, Migrant Workers and Social Movements

One and a half centuries after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, this document of invaluable importance to all subsequent radical social movements, it seems that Leftists all over the Western world are still deterministically searching for their mythical proletariat. Unable to adequately analyse the changes that recent developments have triggered on the concrete living conditions, and thus on the consciousnesses, of the masses, Marxists and Anarchists alike stubbornly ignore the theoretical insights that various emancipatory movements have so painstakingly developed. Instead, they dogmatically search for ways to awaken their preferred revolutionary subject from its slumber.  The struggles of other oppressed groups, such as women, migrant groups, and LGBTQ people are seen as of secondary importance to the class struggle, and the vital role that social constructs such as racism, heteronormativity and sexism play on the reproduction of the capitalist status-quo is ignored. This position is made even more bizarre by the fact these groups contain some of the most proletarianised sections  of society. Especially in a Western neoliberal context characterised by the proliferation of precarious employment relations and the corresponding outsourcing of industrial jobs to the global South, the meanings and symbolisms attached to oppressed groups and their objective position in modern relations of production should be of primary importance to any serious radical organisation.

Alongside the proliferation of precarity and austerity, modern Western societies are characterized by an absence of resistance, an almost all-encompassing political depression which hinders the development of sustainable social movements. Other than occasional (albeit significant) outbursts in the crisis years of 2008-2012, there have not been many notable moments where the dream of a potential radical reorganisation of society appeared feasible. Instead, most attempts at radical/critical/confrontational thought are easily co-opted by the dominant hegemony which utilizes resistance to further its own aims. In this process identity movements are liable to become neutralised and disconnected from critical analyses of capitalism, allowing for the manipulation of the struggles of oppressed people into reformist, non-revolutionary directions. Hillary Clinton’s feminism and the way the Bernie Sanders campaign utilised the image of Black working class women are potent examples of this. Even more dangerous is the racist use of identity calling for a ‘resurgence’ (in quotation marks because their centrality was never really questioned) of the ‘white worker’. This strategy makes it easy for extreme-right and Fascist parties to take up the banner of speaking for the oppressed, for a ‘working class’ which is automatically defined as White, male, and heterosexual. Fascism, always in the service of capitalism, becomes a rallying-cry against the injustices it is designed to sustain while simultaneously justifying the forces which made its rise possible in the first place (such as institutional racism and forms of social Darwinism).

Despite being caught in a situation of deepening poverty and worsening labour conditions, the mythical proletariat refuses to mobilise. This argument does not give credence to the liberal trope which paints the majority of the white working class as stupid racist thugs; however, some explanation must surely exist for this immobility, and it might be located in the sphere of what Marx called the ‘superstructure’ rather than the economic base. Simply put, a significant reason (although by no means the only one, and the inadequacy of the Left is something that should seriously be looked at) that the working class does not act to radically redefine its life is because a big part of it has: 1) been convinced that there is no alternative; and 2) because a radical communist alternative would require the relinquishing or re-fashioning of important identity categories such as masculinity, Britishness and whiteness. These categories are inseparable from any serious analysis of modern capitalism, as the relative privileges afforded through their possession obstruct the emergence of an intersectional and internationalist anti-capitalist consciousness. Gramsci was the first modern radical theorist to highlight the concept of governing by consent, and anti-colonial writers such as Walter Rodney and Edward Said have analysed the extent to which the creation of a common identity (consensus) of ‘European-ness’, forged through institutions such as the NHS and/or through the cultural domination of oppressed populations, was instrumental in justifying colonization (colonization in turn fortifying the consensus). We can see that this shared idea of belonging to Europe is an indispensable tool of the Fascists, many of whom have begun organising on a European-wide level.

Serious consideration of the effects of the above categories, if combined with a critical analysis of capitalism, illuminates a social order dependent on manufacturing consent through a nominally total incorporation of all in a ‘democracy’ which is however still inherently based on exclusion. When the democratic façade breaks (which it frequently does, most notably as a result of worsening economic conditions), the other identity categories are readily mobilised to channel popular frustration away from the dominant classes and steer it towards subjugated groups such as women, immigrants and non-Whites. When significant sections of the Left, rather than using such moments of rupture to advance a coherent critique of the entire complex of social relations, instead fall back to class-reductionism, they inadvertently give credence to the very same structures which maintain the relative stability of the system in times of economic depression. As long as social movements remain complicit in the reproduction of the dominant ideas around race, gender, sexuality and nationality, the system will be able to maintain its hegemony by a combination of economic promises and appeals to privileged identities. Since these arguments are regularly misconstrued, it is important to once again stress that they do not imply that social movements should exclude the British, white, cishet and male working class from its analyses and activities; instead, they need to organise with all subjugated social groups without simultaneously reproducing exclusionary ideas.

Inside this crumbling edifice held together only by the ‘superstructure’, migrant labour is one of the key cracks which gives rise to possibilities of effective resistance. Migrants have immense power due to both the economic and the cultural roles they play in society. As I have extensively analysed elsewhere, our labour forms one of the fundamental pillars of wealth creation and social reproduction in the UK. Migrants represent a significant percentage of those employed in jobs that range from industrial production, Amazon warehouses and agriculture to social work, domestic services and hospitality. Disproportionately over-educated for the jobs that we perform, we are further disadvantaged by being located in the most precarious and dangerous occupations of society. Significantly, we are not placed there because of some abstract mechanism; rather, our labour position is a direct result of the aforementioned mechanisms of exclusion that operate in society and which the Left more often than not uncritically supports. Migrant workers do not ‘take’ jobs that the local working class could have otherwise occupied; the reality is that the capitalist system utilises dominant stereotypes and migrant vulnerability to create economically important, low-wage and insecure jobs which it then fills with migrant workers in order to maintain competitiveness. Certain characteristics migrants share, such as a temporary outlook on their labour, language and cultural difficulties, and a ‘dual frame of reference’ by which they favourably compare UK jobs and conditions to those that exist in their homelands, aid this process. Of course, the more vulnerable the migrant generally, the more vulnerable their labour position (with refugees and undocumented workers being the most viciously exploited). The state actively crafts mechanisms to increase migrant vulnerability in order for them to be more insecure and, hence, more exploitable.

As the needs of the capitalist economy combine with widely-held popular stereotypes and these migrant-specific characteristics, the jobs migrants disproportionately perform become almost completely associated with the population doing them. This creates a vicious cycle where migrants keep on being allocated to the jobs assigned to us, thereby further cementing popular perceptions about our ‘suitability’ to perform them. This situation serves more purposes than simply that of assuring that the capitalist machine is fed with a constant supply of cheap and insecure labour; it makes possible the creation of a rhetoric which blames migrants for accepting the only jobs available to us, jobs which the machine itself requires in order to maintain itself! As this rhetoric gains traction and becomes legitimised, important questions concerning the nature of the capitalist system and its resulting effects on all oppressed populations become side-lined. Instead of attempting to overturn the underlying social and economic structures which simultaneously disadvantage migrant and ‘local’ populations, the issue rather becomes one of tweaking the existing conditions in directions that favour the status-quo. The above analysis, although by no means exhaustive (it is impossible to sufficiently cover the intricacies of migrant labour in an article), serves as a forceful reminder of how the capitalist system relies on the manipulation of stereotypes created through the subjugation of non-white, non-British, non-male and non-cishet social groups. Rather than being simple by-products of the system, these ideas are fundamental components of its ability to function.

This is where migrant workers, along with other oppressed groups, can serve as a catalyst for the emancipation of the entire working and precarious classes. Of course, this does not mean that migrants are completely immune to the dominant ideas of the system: many harbour racist and sexist beliefs or may have capitalist- inspired dreams of rising up the occupational ladder. These are issues to be addressed through propaganda and education following similar tactics that the various social movements have developed over the years. However, due to their conditions of existence, it is much harder for the neoliberal hegemony of consumption and obedience to completely overpower their faculties. Migrant workers realise both the fact that they are being excluded and the fact that the economy cannot function without them. Moreover, their increasing demonisation in the context of Brexit unmasks the previous promise of ‘you will be one of us if you try hard enough’ and exhibits its emptiness. Migrant workers are one of the few sectors of society largely ‘uncontaminated’ and ‘un-incorporated’; outside the scope of hegemony, since hegemony is largely based on our Otherness, we are currently being denied even the possibility of a limited ‘acceptance’. This position therefore affords migrants the potential of acting as an important revolutionary subject. Moreover, migrant struggles can contribute to uniting the oppressed, both ‘local’ BME and disenfranchised whites, especially in combination with other movements transgressing dominant values and social structures (such as the LGBTQ movement).

This is because the conditions of migrant labour highlight important connections between the various oppressions that combine to create modern society. Our precarity in the workplace is an indication of the labour conditions that increasingly impact the wider working class. Our social insecurity is also exemplary of processes that impact ‘local’ British workers. This applies to a variety of issues, from benefits to NHS access and housing problems. Our stigmatisation in popular discourse parallels that of the ‘undeserving poor’ which is increasingly used to characterise the white working class (while the same system simultaneously exalts their ‘importance’ in order to maintain their limited consent). Our criminalisation, whether in detention centres or common prisons, also parallels that of the ‘local’ working class youths. These shared characteristics can be mobilised to dismantle the exclusionary narratives with which so many British people identify. Furthermore, a sizeable percentage of migrant workers are women and face the same structural sexism that all women experience to varying degrees, a reality which is worsened by additional factors such as persecution over immigration status, race and sexuality. The feminist connections between migrant women and ‘local’ women, located in areas such as the gendered nature of migrant work or the sexual abuse suffered in detention centres, can also be important in galvanising relations of solidarity and action.

Most importantly, the presence of migrants serves to remind the entire society that everyone can be a migrant. One’s current social position is of little importance when it comes to the workings of the gigantic structures of society and capitalism; at any given point, whether through economic melt-down or war, everyone is liable to have to leave their homes and search for a new future in another land. Migrant labour and the social movements around it can therefore potentially forge of a sustainable and much-needed bridge connecting the anti-capitalist and identity movements. This potential has already been proved through a variety of campaigns such as the one conducted by the migrant cleaners in the London School of Economics together with the United Voices of the World union. In Scotland, as in most of the UK outside of London, much work remains to be done. An important initiative is that of Oficina Precaria, an autonomous, migrant-led group which connects resistance to precarity with feminism and migrant rights. Their solidarity to migrant workers is not limited to fighting migrant exploitation: they also help migrants deal with issues such as housing, benefits, and even provide psychological support.

Understanding the inter-connected nature of various oppressions and how they all feed into each other to reproduce the totality of the current social system will enable the Left to more effectively organise resistance. More importantly, it will enable us to fight for the overthrow of all oppressive systems and ideas, which should be our constant and non-negotiable aim. The domain of migrant workers is one key point where these connections are especially illuminated. Utilising and effectively operationalising intersectional analyses will enable the Left to come into substantive and sustainable contact with migrant and other subjugated groups. The most important aspect of this process will be that of directing a part of the wider Left’s substantial economic and practical resources towards the self-empowerment of these groups. For example, research has shown that racialised and ‘othered’ workers organise most effectively when included in existing unions while simultaneously having the autonomy to make group-specific decisions regarding how they organise. This process of empowerment in turn feeds into the wider movement, with migrant workers actively involving themselves in a wide range of social struggles. As the various subjugated sectors of society gradually become empowered and self-sufficient, social movements in their totality will become stronger. This is not an appeal to separatism as some critics of identity movements are quick to proclaim; this is the practical realisation that, without empowerment and autonomy, any nominal inclusion in wider movement processes is essentially a reproduction of the subjugated conditions these groups experience in society. In order for the modern proletariat to rise, we need to shed the class-reductionist mentalities of the past, re-work our definitions and understandings of what constitutes a revolutionary subject, and build towards the political, social and economic emancipation of all.

[Featured image taken from here]

3 thoughts on “The Crack in the Edifice: Modern Capitalism, Migrant Workers and Social Movements

  1. Hi Panos I really enjoyed reading this. I’m curious what you think about the impact of hostile environment policies on migrant unionisation over the last couple of years? Cheers

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    1. Hi, thank you very much for your comment. As I wrote, the more vulnerable the migrant, the more exploitable they are. Hostile environment policies do not have as their primary objective the deterrence of migrant movements to the UK; like all state policies on migration, their main goal is to manipulate the conditions under which migrants labour. When it comes to non- EU migrants, this has created a lot of fear on top of the original stress of being tied to specific jobs via a Visa etc. When it comes to EU migrants (which is the population I have had so far time to research the most), the environment can still be felt, and this feeling of insecurity and anxiety hinders the boldness with which migrant workers feel that they can operate. For example, just today my partner told me of some intense bullying in her workplace which was not met with any resistance from the migrants, who simply put their heads down and continued working. The main problem, however, continues to be the non-presence of unions in such workplaces- it is our responsibility to make sure that the hostile environment is resisted. The government will keep on doing what it needs to do for the interests it represents, it’s up to us to do what we have to do. As I am sure you understand, I cannot expand much more on a reply to a comment. Bridget Anderson has written extensively about the intersection of migrant labour and state policies and most of my ideas on the subject are basically copied from her, so I fully recommend reading her work: http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199691593.001.0001/acprof-9780199691593

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