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Immigration and benefits: the political economy of scapegoating

scapegoatImmigration and benefits. Immigration and benefits. Immigration and benefits. I can barely remember a time when these weren’t commanding headlines or the imaginations of politicians. One might say that this is no surprise, seeing as they are both hot button issues for the public – though it might be said these issues are fabricated and amplified by those with vested interests to do so.

Left critics of this kind of pernicious scaremongering rightly call it out for what it is: the politics of divide and rule. I’ve done it myself. That, however, is as far as it goes. Too often the deeper political economy, the economic pressures of which politics is but a concentrated impulse, either remain unexplored with regard to these matters or, when they are analysed, they tend toward crude conclusions and deeply problematic politics.

As it happens, the Marxist critique of political economy offers a sturdy foundation for understanding the deeper reasons for benefits bashing and anti-immigration rhetoric. In his 1972 books with Bob Sutcliffe, the late Andrew Glyn elaborated the notion of the politics of labour supply. It rests on a basic proposition:

In order to carry on accumulating capital, business in general has to secure two things. They need ready supplies of raw materials out of which things can be made, and require people who can do the making. This latter input is employed by capital in return for a wage. For a set number of hours each day, an employee works under the direction of their boss to secure the money they need to reproduce themselves and their dependents as physical beings with a certain level of competency, education, and skill. Meanwhile, the difference between the value of the labour power the worker furnishes the boss and the value of the goods and/or services they produce yields surplus value, out of which a business ultimately realises its profits when those commodities have been sold.

For Marxism this is the antagonism on which capitalism depends and cannot escape, that the wealth of contemporary advanced industrial societies is socially, collectively produced, but is privately appropriated, is the stuff of class struggle. Immediately, in the sphere of employee/employer relations, proletarians – those who have to sell their labour power for a living – have a clear interest in securing a greater share of what they produce. They generally desire higher wages, control over their work, control of their lives outside of work, and most importantly, have an interest in facing their employer as a united collective to best prosecute these and other interests.

Employers have diametrically opposed sets of interests. They are compelled to keep as much of the surplus value generated as possible, as well as tightly monitoring and controlling their workers, to retain the power to set work time, institute speed-ups to intensify the labour process, have a range of flexible labour contracts commensurate with the needs of the business, and ensuring the latent collective power of workers only ever remains that.

Business in general has a very clear and keen interest in the lives of its employees in general. It has to make sure its labour supply is always available, is trained to the requisite level, and most importantly is not powerful vis a vis capital’s own interests. Glyn’s argument was at the moment the post-war consensus was starting to fray, of a set of institutional arrangements (or what some call regimes of (capital) accumulation) in which the rule of capital had been forced to make significant concessions to labour because of the latter’s strength, business had an interest of using the crisis of the 1970s to recast Britain’s class relationships.

It would rather not have representatives of labour sit across the bargaining table backed up by the strike weapon. The labour movement was a collective threat to its workplace sovereignty and the irrepressible necessity to accumulate. After the high point of the 1972 miners’ strike, what happened from 1979 onwards was a veritable counterrevolution. Using the media, the law, and the brute force of the state, the Conservatives inflicted a set of strategic defeats on the labour movement – most importantly the 1985-5 miners’ strike. What Thatcher had succeeded in doing, regardless of her personal motivations, was to ensure the politics of labour supply could be more readily shaped around the needs of British capital. The “barriers” to accumulation represented by uppity workers, strong trade unions, and the threat of industrial action were worn smooth under the hobnail boots of paramilitary police units at Orgreave.

Hence the situation we have today. An official politics in which business necessity trumps all, one where inequality is rampant and growing, and the national scandals of food bank dependency and zero hour contracts remain peripheral to public discourse. Culturally speaking, we live in a work-obsessed times, and the tedious language of aspiration spilling from politicians’ mouths reflects a horizon limited by compulsive consumerism.

Assuming the present equilibrium struck in the politics of labour supply wishes to be maintained by the powers that be, then why do the two mainstream parties who, between them, represent the interests of capital in general wish to crack down on immigration?

Since 2004, Britain has experienced the largest wave of immigration in its history. Whole sectors of the economy have seen labour costs drop through the floor thanks to a ready supply of labour from Eastern Europe. This has plugged some of the skill gaps in the economy – remember the early 00s shortage of plumbers? – and helped the NHS soldier on in the face of insufficient recruitment.

Surely then it suits capital’s interest to maintain the huge inflow of people? It lowers labour costs, means British business is effectively subsidised by the education and training programmes of other states, generates (some) antipathy among the host population, and creates more competition between workers for scarce jobs – making those infrequent instances of collective challenges to capital even rarer. Indeed, some so-called anti-globalists argue the left should oppose immigration on these very grounds.

Why, if mass immigration suits the interests of capital are the main parties falling over themselves to appear tough on it? Is it yet another instance of ruling class decadence?

Part of it is short term political pressure, certainly. Immigration certainly fuels anxiety of the ‘foreigner in one’s own country’ type, itself ultimately rooted in the myriad impacts it has on a tough labour market, diminishing public services, and housing shortages. UKIP’s showing these last five years is indicative potential political damage to the main parties at its hands if the flow goes unabated.

The second, in the longer view, is that immigration may lose its efficacy as a disciplining mechanism on the politics of labour supply. As any pollster will tell you, when they’re not getting voting intentions haplessly wrong, younger cohorts tend to be more positive about immigration, appear less prey to the fears and anxieties that attends to it, and accept free movement as a fact of social life. If antipathy is thinning, then divide-and-rule becomes much harder to sustain – a point picked argued in Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Multitude, for whom each migrant, wherever they are, carry with them a speck of internationalism beyond borders.

In the short and medium range, managing the politics of labour supply requires a row back on mass immigration to what, by general consent, is regarded as necessary flows. Yet capital still needs a ready supply of bodies and brains. If immigration is to be limited, from whence will it come?

According to government statistics, of the 65 million people who live in the UK, somewhere in the region of 30 million of them are officially in work. Around 13 million residents are under 16, and around 11 million are aged over 65. That’s 11 million people unaccounted for in the employment statistics. A good chunk of them might work in the informal/black economy, but the rest will mostly be women working as housewives, or the disabled who cannot work. Only a tiny sliver of these missing millions are the officially unemployed dependent on social security payments.

Often, the Tory attack on the unemployed and disabled people is seen as pure malice driven by spite. Listen to the Conservatives themselves it’s a moral crusade aimed at attacking dependency culture. Remember, in this topsy-turvy world, joblessness is caused by lifestyles of worklessness, not lack of jobs. Yet, regardless of the “noble” intentions of our evangelical DWP minister, what their policies are doing is draw more of the “invisible” millions into the labour pool. The existing unemployed, being around a sixth of the total, are small beer.

The Work Capability Assessment, the New Labour policy none of the current leadership candidates are bothered to disassociate themselves from, has forcibly declared large numbers partially work fit and capable of some job roles. By shifting them onto Employment Support Allowance, the Tories have swelled the pool of labour that capital can draw from – it’s one that will also increase as the retirement age creeps up.

Simultaneously, these moves have opened a new front of divide and rule too. Scrounger rhetoric is particularly pernicious because it plays the negative politics of class – it hails its audience as workers, but sets them up against the pool of surplus labour by positioning them as unworthy layabouts paid for out of their taxes. And on this score, as polls often note, the young are particularly sceptical of social security and are generally supportive of draconian crackdowns.

Looking at the policy shifts on immigration and social security from a politics of labour supply point of view, we can see a certain continuity: a desire to keep labour passive and therefore British capital “competitive”, and preserve Britain a desirable location for direct foreign investment; a way of managing the short and long-term challenges immigration poses labour supply from the standpoint of keeping it quiescent; and gradually moving from a reliance on incoming workers to maintain the labour surplus to unlocking the latent reserve army so far outside of the labour market, starting with those dependent on the welfare state for unemployment and disability support.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Labour is not some substance that can be prodded and manipulated like so much clay on a potter’s wheel. It has to analyse this movement to keep it at heel, search for openings, exploit them, and work against it being the plaything of an opposing power. That is much, much easier said than done. But a good starting point would be to resist, not go along with these moves.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

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