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28 March 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 3:49pm

Why the left should unite behind open borders

By Lea Ypi

Left-wing scepticism about open borders and migration may not be rooted in racism and xenophobia, but it takes the same troubling form as its right-wing counterpart.  

The left-wing case against immigration hinges on both a pragmatic and a principled argument. The former appeals to the constraints of electoral politics in representative democracies. Across Europe, in working-class strongholds that have become increasingly susceptible to anti-immigrant rhetoric, the left is losing votes to the far right, who point to the failures of globalisation and blame liberal elites’ relaxed stance to open borders. In response, the left becomes complicit or confused.

Nothing exemplifies this better than Labour’s wavering stance on immigration. The party has tried many approaches to tack the subject, from aborted attempts to increasing vote share by emulating populist rhetoric (as seen with Ed Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mugs during the 2015 electoral campaign) to Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance in January to whip MPs into rejecting the Tory Immigration bill.

If pragmatism were the only justification at play, the party’s vacillations might be tolerable. But as is often the case with left-wing parties, the pragmatic case gains a following because it rests upon principles. Recently, radical leftist movements like Aufstehen in Germany or La France Insoumise have articulated the prinicpled argument against open borders. In the words of Aufstehen’s founders, they want “a materialist left, not a moral left”. As the leader of La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, puts it, the left must not be afraid of talking about migration, as open borders threaten working-class jobs and national welfare. 

The left-wing case against open borders is typically commited to class politics and is hostile to the depoliticising attitudes of humanitarian liberals. Leftist critics of immigration argue that this attitude fails to acknowledge the impact that globalisation has on working people. The wealthy cosmopolitan elites who advocate free trade and benefit from free movement are not those whose salaries, jobs and welfare benefits are undermined by uncontrolled flows of migrants, so the argument goes.

But there is also a different left-wing case for immigration: one that takes class politics seriously but doesn’t end up pitting domestic and migrant workers against one another. Karl Marx made this case in an important but little-known letter to internationalist activists Siegfried Meyer and August Vogt  in 1870. He was commenting on Irish immigration to England, but his words still resonate today. Marx wrote:

“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. […] He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the ‘niggers’ in the former slave states of the U.S.A.”

In turn, the Irish “pay him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English ruler in Ireland”. Marx’s letter offers an important insight that we can build upon when thinking about left-wing parties’ approach to immigration.

The left-wing criticism of open borders, that condemns liberal hypocrisy by emphasising how cheap labour benefits wealthy elites and harms poor workers, presents a distorted understanding of how social class functions in relation to the state. Marx was one of the first political philosophers to draw attention to the devastating effects this argument had on workers’ struggles.  

To understand capitalism, Marx argued, we must understand political conflicts as existing not between states and groups with different cultural profiles, but between different social classes, with distinct and historically specific alignments to global capitalism. This is one of the main ways in which Marxist thought departs from previous Enlightenment thinking, which saw nations states as the relevant agents in world history.

Class conflict cuts across state boundaries. An analysis of politics based on class rather than borders acknowledges the role that a political and economic elite play in upholding a system of global capitalist exploitation. States make and enforce laws that control particular territories. But the distinction between migrant workers and domestic workers identifies workers only with the borders that contain them, rather than a broader transnational class struggle against global capitalism.

Put simply, to argue that migrant workers pose a problem for domestic workers ignores the global structural conditions that turn immigration into a problem. Treating immigration as a threat to domestic workers reduces social conflict to state conflict. It artificially creates a “we” that must be protected, pitted against a “them” that must be controlled. This division undermines the joint struggle of working classes across the world. 

Marx termed this false opposition “the secret of the impotence of the working class”. The more we emphasise national boundaries and borders, the more we undermine class-based solidarity and diminish the prospects of joint action. It’s a division that plays into the hands of the ruling elites.

As Marx put it, “it is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes”.

The real threat to the labour movement is not foreign migrant workers or open borders. It’s the capitalist state that protects the interests of a ruling elite through practices of border management and policies of integration that render migrant workers dependent on the whims of employers. Their vulnerability flows from the same mechanism that keeps domestic workers in check and weakens collective bargaining.

To agree with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s argument that we must acknowledge the pressure on borders is to align with the capitalist state and against the working class. The last thing a left-wing party that cares about the fate of workers should be doing is supporting a project that consolidates the capitalist state.

The division that anti-immigration rhetoric introduces between domestic and foreign workers is “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power”, Marx argued. This class was “fully aware of it”. It is time that champions of the working class became aware of it, too.

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