Anarchism and migration: Lessons in getting a social struggle wrong

Anarchism and migration: Lessons in getting a social struggle wrong

A review of No Borders: The Politics if Immigration Control and Resistance by Natasha King, Zed Books, 2016

This book is quite some way off the account of the dynamics of migrant resistance to border control that I thought it would be. It is built around reflections on struggles taking place in Athens and Calais in which the author participated, but migrants only figure in this as rather vague sketches intended to illustrate some point about anarchist theory. We get no sense of the reasons why the people in these situations are on the move and why they seem to be willing to risk everything to get to some final destination. Instead we are offered a high-blown theory about ‘the autonomy of migration’, as though those on the move are motivated by an existential desire for freedom for its own sake.

In my view if you get the reason why people migrate wrong then everything else you say about the issue is likely to be a bunch of hooey. Making the search for ‘autonomy’ the critical issue generates the delusion that the activist and the migrant are some sort of soulmates on the same road to absolute freedom, King goes on to spin a theory of solidarity which binds people together with the tenuous threads of mutual regard for each other’s projects. Some anthropological notions about equality are prayed in aid for this argument and the strategic problems which the book seems to think are central are how it is possible to live out the experience of non-hierarchical, mutually-reinforcing action without doing deals with the state.

This ranks high amongst all the examples of privileged activists imposing their agendas on the struggles of people who exist many rungs lower down the social ladder than themselves. The dilemmas of being an anarchist and the opportunities that might exist for creating non-hierarchical spaces displaces the actual essential task of reducing the power of the capitalist state in determining the lives of people whose very existence requires forcing a break with its processes and controls. The world of the anarchist activist is one of a constant flurry of social experiments in communality and efforts at the pre-figuration of a social order in which external coercion has ceased to exist. But in the case of the type of egoistical anarchism which King seems to favour, even this takes place in a Foucauldian universe where repression is a permanent condition for the human soul and where the state itself is raised a bleak authority in which its capitalist features are only a peripheral issue.

This is a current which lost any connection with the profound critique of capitalism that brought other versions of the anarchist creed to a point of influence amongst a swathe of the European and American subaltern classes a few generations back. There is a world of difference between a starting point which says that the state takes the form that it does because of the capitalism interests that lie at its heart, and one that assumes that it is merely another manifestation of authority and its desire to oppress. This book makes no more than a few scattered references to capitalism as such, and when they occur they subsume the notion to just one of several different species of deplorable activity that anarchists tend to be against.

The result is an account of collaborations between ‘activists’ and migrants which are always disappointing. The disappointment is all the greater because the anarchist invests so much hope in the migrant being the hero of her fantasy of a group of human beings who are intent on living ‘autonomous’ lives. They are ‘refusing the state’ and the challenge for the activist is to make sure that they do not backslide into compromises that might bring about only partial gains. King makes it clear that she appreciates that a conundrum exists here and she calls on her comrades to be more understanding that ‘engagement’ with the forces that are denying you the right to cross a border is pretty well the inevitable consequence of fighting them in the first place. The thing to strive for from this perspective is a set of institutions – safe houses, communal kitchens, community centres and the like – which embody anarchist ethics and which might be the basis for an investment in a future, alternative, way of existence.

Unfortunately the examples she offers from her experiences in working with migrants in Athens and Calais show just how vulnerable these experiments are to be washed away by a turbulent political and economic environment. If what we want from our activism is lessons well learnt about the nature of the power we are up against that haven’t come from this experience. Despondency, if not outright despair, seems to be the legacy of jungle camps that are raided by police, migrant personal belongings wrecked, and people scattered to the wind. The brief experience of communal living ends up as not much more than a wistful memory after the evictions have taken place and the authorities cease control of the property.

Yet there is a rock which is capable of breaking the force of the current that would sweep people on the move on to defeat. It is a type of organisation which, maybe existing as nothing much more than an ephemeral network of collaborating organisations and individuals, nevertheless has learning about the ways in which the enemy can be taken on and defeated at its core. The task that lies at the heart of this collaboration is understanding how capitalism structures the state and the ways that this configures the controls that exist at borders. This process brings us face-to-face with a vast range of tensions as the interests of different stakeholders within the system of power clash and begin to reveal the extent of the contradictions that exist at every level of the social system. A strategy which aims to maximise opportunities for escape from the control of the state when it comes to exercising a right to move freely needs to be more cognisant of what the nature of these conflicts are and how they can be used to the advantage of the subject group.

When the various collectives and networks whose work King reviews are really doing a useful job (and, if this review seems rather negative in assessing their role, let me say that I think they do a lot of really important work) then they will be alongside migrants in accomplishing this task of probing and pushing back at the structures of power. This, after all, is what migrants who are on the move do all the time in any event. Grandiose ideas about exercising an autonomous right to migrant seldom figure in the plans of a Filipina social care worker looking to evade the onerous obligations of being ‘self-sufficient’ as she pursues her profession, or the Eritrean refugee stopped by border controls from reaching the networks that would provide support and a degree of security.

What they want are tactics which will push back and paralyse the efforts of immigration controllers to harass, imprison and deport them. A movement which builds on the capacity of the working class to resist the oppression and exploitation endemic to the capitalist system ought to be able to play a role in helping migrants in achieving that end. What a shame that anarchist theory, which once helped workers and peasants organise a practical fightback against capitalism has, in the egoistical version presented in this book, got so little to say about how those battles might be resumed..

Trump’s USA: Global capitalism is in retreat and migrant workers’ rights are on the line

Trump’s USA: Global capitalism is in retreat and migrant workers’ rights are on the line

President Trump’s cabinet looks pretty much as many predicted at a time when it seemed unlikely that the billionaire reality host would ever make it to be the Republican Party candidate for the post, let alone the nation’s chief executive. Packed with business types rather than politicians, and with a good smattering of generals prominent on the most hawkish side of the military elite, the US executive looks like the sort of place that billionaires and their pals go to when their dreams of world domination by other means crumble into dust. Crumble into dust is the appropriate way to talk about the economic side of capitalism as the failure to restart growth after the Great Recession of 2007/9.

As The Economist reported in its January 28th edition, the engines of the global economy – great transnational companies (TNCs) – have been afflicted with a grievous crisis of stagnant and falling profits for most of the last decade. The retreat of the global company over this period has been marked by a staggering decline in the rates of return on equity invested in international business, with 40% of the world’s biggest firms now failing to make even 10% profits on the stocks under their control – as The Economist puts it, a yardstick for underperformance.

Loss of confidence

The loss of confidence and belief in the idea that the future was global on a mega scale is a big part of the reasons why the business practices of the TNCs have fallen so sharply out of favour with the wing of capitalism that Trump and his allies represent. The long-marginalised advocates of such dusty and unfashionable sectors as coal and steel manufacturing, based in ‘the homeland’ and vying for a place in markets that are decidedly national, are once again finding their place in the sun, and President Trump’s inner-circles. This explains the enthusiasm for scrapping the rules and dispensations which had favoured international business, which have included complex regulatory regimes designed to track the movements of flows of capital and protect property rights across the globe, and tax regimes which are most efficient for those with the mobility to bank their profits in remote island havens.


Under Trump there will be a penalty inflicted on those who move assets across frontiers – excepting of course, businesses which want to repatriate the one trillion US dollars they have accumulated outside the country during the heyday of their offshore and outsourced operations. Trump’s ultra-hard line on immigration policy, which has so scandalised liberals in recent weeks, is part of the very same process which is seeing protectionist measures being brought in across the board to replace the regime which had favoured the TNCs in the recent past. Much of the discussion – and the public protests – has concentrated on the ban on admission to the US for citizens of seven mainly Muslim countries, introduced by presidential executive order at the end of January. Harsh as this has proved to be it is only one aspect of a raft of immigration control measures which will have a drastic effect on the country’s large population of settled foreign nationals. The extension of the categories of undocumented migrants who are to be considered priorities for deportation includes anyone who has broken the law by either entering or staying on in the country without permission. According to the independent Pew Research Centre, this lines up around 11 million people for removal.

Major threat

Other measures will allow the federal authorities to go after the so-called ‘sanctuary cities’, where local government has pledged a degree of support and protection to people who seek to regularise their residence status in the US. Taken together, the travel bans and the pumped up deportation measures, not to mention the claims being made for a ‘great wall’ along the southern border with Mexico, represent a major threat to the USA’s historical status as a major destination for migration. Despite what is claimed by the ‘America First’ nationalists who are the dominant influence in Trump’s administration, immigration cannot be branded as a feature of the globalisation of the TNCs which they so revile. The success they have had in confabulating the movement of people with the flows of capital around the world in the search for profits is one of the reasons why Trump’s eccentric brand of politics has made inroads into the country’s working class communities.

But the United States – a country so fundamentally forged by migration over the course of its history since the days of European colonialism – cannot so easily dismiss the movement of people as a mistaken policy pursued in recent times by a now discredited section of its ruling elite.

US working class divided

It is far more accurate to describe the anti-immigrantism which Trump is now promoting as a determined effort to drive forward a policy that will keep the US working class divided during a period of capital restructuring; a period that will require the levels of exploitation of workers in the homeland which is currently required from the people labouring in Asia and elsewhere in its outsourced business supply chains. The world watches the brave protests which have erupted across the whole of the US in the past weeks in solidarity with the excluded citizens of the seven Muslim countries, and hopes that this is just the starting point for a militant defence of the rights of all migrants in the country, including the 11 million now threatened by their inclusion in the priority categories for deportation.

This is republished from the March/April 2017 edition of Chartist


If we want to campaign for free movement we must break out of our comfort zones

If we want to campaign for free movement we must break out of our comfort zones

The launch of the Alliance for Free Movement (AFM) last month provided the opportunity for people involved in post-referendum initiatives to explain their campaigning work so far.

The Alliance itself has come about on the initiative of people with a lengthy history of trade union activity. They were frustrated with the fact that so much of the political establishment – both left and right – has given up on arguments about the positive role free movement of people in the EU has played over forty years.

Chairing, former deputy general secretary of the PCS, Hugh Lanning[i] opened the session by setting out how people who favour internationalism can be rallied to try to win the argument in favour of open borders while the UK negotiates Brexit in the next few years.


Green MP Caroline Lucas best summed up the challenges when she pointed out that, from the standpoint of the mass of public opinion, we have spent the last few years losing most of the crucial arguments in favour of the free movement of people. Unless we get a better sense of why this is, we will continue to be on the losing side.

For some in the audience the reason we are on the back foot is because the EU referendum mobilised nationalist and racist sentiment and this was reflected in the vote in favour of Brexit. Winning the argument on free movement was therefore completely bound up with a campaign to thwart the Article 50 process and keep Britain in the EU.


Whatever the merits of doing it this way, it also poses the danger that the arguments the newly-founded AFM wants to push about the importance of free movement will be stuck as a subordinate element in a re-run referendum campaign in which the dominate issues hinge on whether or not membership of the EU means rule by an anti-democratic, spendthrift clique of Brussels-based bureaucrats.

Many on the progressive wing will feel entirely comfortable about this, seeing that, when all is said and done 48% voted to stay in the EU in the referendum. And, they might say, it is not entirely impossible that next time round this might grow by the few extra percentage points needed.

But is difficult to feel confident that another campaign that centres on the ‘in’ or ‘out’ question will really give the AFM the space that it needed to make a radical and thoroughly progressive case for free movement. Efforts to engineer a reversal of last year’s vote will give supporters of the rights of migrants a secondary role in a new Bremain campaign at best. The likelihood is even then the leaders of such a movement would be prepared to back scrapping free movement in its current form in order to keep a toe-hold in the single market.

In or Out

This task ought to be framed as ‘In or Out the EU, we call for the right of free movement.’ Winning that argument would require the AFM to break out of the comfort zone of pro-EU politics, which is currently dominated by mainstream politicians who have been quite happy to chip away at the rights of migrants of all types for years.

It would mean getting out to all the regions where dismay about migration contributed to the Brexit vote, but whose economically depressed situation has nothing to do with the arrival of new workers.

This argument needs to find allies amongst trade unionists, the people running our public services, schools and universities, and even employers who are prepared to go public and say that the most valuable asset their businesses have are its workers.

It must be developed by campaigns that have their roots in the towns and cities across the UK. And it must aim to win arguments that centre on jobs and working conditions locally, and what needs to be done to defend the NHS and other public services. The aim would be to bring together migrant community groups with representatives of all these other interests and start to make the case for an approach to migration that really benefits everyone.

Starting to win these arguments will need a willingness to move out of our comfort zones which have limited the appeal of open borders and free movement, and which has still shown little progress in breaking through to the wider population.

[i] The other platform speakers were Colin Yeo, the lawyer who runs the Free Movement legal website, the co-leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, MP, Matt Carr, journalist and One Day Without Us campaigner, Christina McAnea, head of health service workers at the trade union UNISON, Roger Casale of New Europeans, and Jo Pons Laplana, an NHS trade unionist and migrant activist.

(The original version of this blog appeared on the website of the Migrants’ Rights Network)

The working class case for freedom of movement

(This first appeared in the Morning Star, January 17th 2017)

THE idea of a right to free movement is cursed by its association with the European treaties which have as their objective the creation of an unfettered market in which all goods, services and persons circulate as commodities.

As the crisis of the free market system has become more obvious, and as its impact is felt more sharply by working-class people, a head of steam is building up which wants to end what many see as the thing most symbolising the failings of global capitalism.

The clamour to end the right to freedom of movement is reaching fever point and is drawing in a swathe of the Labour Party, like its Brexit spokesperson Sir Keir Starmer and its candidate for mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham.

However, party leader Jeremy Corbyn and others in his team are still standing out to resist pressure from that direction.

Who is right in this argument? The answer boils down to whether you think the wider interest of working-class people really are best served by doubling and reinforcing the checks on the movement of people who have been pushed into this by the need for employment.

With all the forecasts of renewed economic turbulence the question becomes ever more urgent, given the likelihood of even higher levels of unemployment in the period ahead. There are myths that need to be confronted in this discussion.

One of these is that migration is driven exclusively by the desire of bosses to access supplies of cheap labour. This bald statement has to be tempered by the fact that everything to do with government policy from the late-1970s onwards has concerned itself with driving down the proportion of GDP — national wealth — which is distributed in the form of wages.

Figures from the OECD show that this declined from a high of 64 per cent in the mid- 1970s to a low of 52 per cent in 1998, when a slight recovery began.
The vast bulk of this huge squeeze on the amount of the national wealth that goes to wage earners took place between 1978 and 1998, during years of either low or actual zero net migration.

The point is that whatever people think about the impact of the movement of workers on wages and conditions of employment, it plays a subordinate role to the greater effects that have come from the war on trade unions and the deregulation of labour markets.
Historically, migration has been important as a means to compensate wages earners for the effect that the mobility of capital has on their lives.

When profit-driven investment leaves regions behind in a state of underdevelopment, or when it abandons once prosperous towns and cities in processes of deindustrialisation, the ability to move becomes important as a means to escape the worst effect of collapsed living standards.

If concern about the labour market effects of migration, bringing downward pressure on wages and employment security is to be dealt with, the answer lies in bringing trade union organisation and equal social protection to the newcomers at the quickest rate possible.

The encouraging sign that migrants do see the value of workplace organisation — seen in the advances made in the recruitment of people to unions in areas like hospitality and social care, and also the campaigns against the “Uberisation” of the service sector — ought to encourage us that more can be done in this direction.

In the debate within the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is right to resist the demands to fall back from his principled support for the right of people to move freely across borders.

The alternative, as we are seeing in the tentative plans being drawn up for post-Brexit controls, is a bureaucratic drive towards visa controls and identity checks for all people.

Under this, access to the jobs market and even rented accommodation will depend on employers and landlords agreeing that you can safely be regarded as “British” enough to merit the job or the tenancy.

Discrimination will flourish in this atmosphere and trade unions will find that migrant workers are pushed even further beyond the solidarity that will be needed to fight the effects of an ever deepening crisis of capitalism.

The right to move freely across borders needs to be claimed as a right that belongs to all working people and should be defended with all the energy we can muster.