On the uses and abuses of Karl Marx in the freedom of movement debate


‘If you don’t make any more wages than you need to live, you are a neoslave. You qualify if you cannot afford to leave California for New York. If you cannot visit Zanzibar, Havana, Peking or even Paris when you get the urge, you are a slave. If you’re held in one spot on this earth because of your economic status, it is just the same as being held in one spot on this earth because you are the owner’s property.’

Diane Abbott’s piece in the Guardian today – in which she argued freedom of movement is a worker’s right – reminded me of these words, penned by the Black political activist and wrongfully imprisoned inmate of Soledad Prison, George Jackson. In this short passage from his prison letters, Jackson outlines a critique of the abstract right to freedom of movement so vaunted by liberal thinkers operating in the tradition of the enlightenment, a bourgeois political tradition that led the masses to the barricades with the promise of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’. For Jackson, the promise was – and is – not enough. His criticism lies not in the proclamation of the right itself – the freedom to be able to travel, to come and go as you wish – but in the capitalist structures that prohibit it. “Freedom of movement” is an unrealisable dream to the wage slave, ‘held in one spot on this earth because of [their] economic status’.

How far the left has travelled since Jackson put pen to paper in the 1960s. Now, there are some who argue that the dream should remain unrealised – that it’s no dream at all, but a nightmare. They say that in the wake of the Brexit vote, the left should oppose freedom of movement under the auspices of an ostensibly radical economic perspective – that the free movement of workers from Europe forces down wages. This has been put most succinctly in The Morning Star:

‘Most of the shop stewards have not read Karl Marx, Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman but they have grasped the simple truth that a surplus of labour drives wages down’.

The invocation of Karl Marx is one I’ve heard in debates with those on the Sheffield Left. The quotation to which they often refer is from a speech by Marx to the First International:

‘In order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labour force.’

So far, so radical. We should oppose freedom of movement on the basis that it’s used as a tool by bosses to suppress wages.

Or is it? There’s no evidence to indicate that immigration does in fact reduce the pay of local workers (see also here). Actually, some have argued that on average immigrants earn more than British-born workers, which suggests immigration actually has the opposite effect. There’s certainly no correlation between the growth of wages in European economies and their respective levels of immigration.

I don’t want to dwell on these arguments for two reasons: the first is that others have made them much better than me; the second is that they’re often just ignored. You can repeat until you’re blue-in-the-face that there’s no evidence that freedom of movement suppresses wages and people will continue to make the same bogus claim. So, I want to address the argument on its own – purportedly radical – terms.

Yes, in theory a reserve army of labour can be used to drive down wages. The worker goes to market to sell her labour power. If there’s a surplus of labourers then she’s forced to sell her labour power for less. It’s at this point the radical opponents of freedom of movement put down their copy of Capital and proclaim victory. QED: we reduce the size of the labour surplus by reducing immigration, which in turn halts the downward pressure on wages.

What’s missing from this account, though, is the role of the capitalists. In fact, one of the great – and certainly far more central – insights of Marx is that the capitalists control the demand for labour. It’s the capitalist who decides whether and how they’re going to invest their capital, and consequently whether or not there is a surplus of labour at all.

One of the things characterizing the UK’s current economic stagnation is the moribund investment rate. Without the assurance of profits, business is hoarding capital, rather than investing it. From a Marxist perspective this is a text-book example of the contradiction between the relations of production (private property relations which demand that investment decisions are made on the basis of private profits) and the forces of production (the development and growth of the economy).

It’s this contradiction – not freedom of movement – that is the driver of falling wage rates, as big business attempts to force down wages to increase profits. I suspect you could halt all immigration tomorrow and it would have no effect on this dynamic (indeed, the reduced revenues from the taxes paid by immigrants – they are net contributors to the economy – might even provide the political cover for implementing harsher austerity policies aimed at transferring wealth upwards). A “hard” Brexit will only intensify the process. Britain’s withdrawal from the Single Market (membership of which is predicated on the free movement of labour) and the “frictionless” supply chains it affords will act as a further squeeze on profits, leading to yet more ferocious attacks on standards of living.

Having put these missing pieces of the puzzle in place, our radicals seem anything but. The surplus of labour – the crutch they lean on to justify their opposition to freedom of movement – is a product of the refusal of capital to invest. Their ostensive “defence of wages” transforms into a tacit defence of its opposite: the absolute right of capital to dictate and set the demand for labour; that is, to define what a surplus of labour is. This isn’t a socialist – let alone Marxist – policy. Rather, its effect is to create a reactionary bloc in which the interests of British workers are tied to the exigencies of (one section of) British capital.

From all this, the position of the left should be clear. Our opposition should not be to freedom of movement between Britain and the EU, a freedom rightly championed as an unrealised dream by the likes of George Jackson and Diane Abbott; on the contrary, it should be to the big businesses that hoard the capital required to develop Britain’s economy, an economy that has alternated between stagnation and crisis for the last decade. If big business won’t invest, then the state must. If you care about defending wages, then this – not an end to freedom of movement – should be your principle demand.