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Immigration and Class

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Migration between countries occurs if and when it “resolves” social and especially class contradictions inside both of them.  One set of contradictions pushes people out of a country just as another set of contradictions in other countries pulls them in.  Finally, while migration “resolves” some social contradictions, it likewise engenders or aggravates others.

These days, capitalist globalization (e.g., US multinationals producing exports in China) dumps cheap goods into countries whose domestic producers cannot compete with them.  It introduces global retail trading corporations (e.g., Wal-Mart) that destroy domestic merchants.  Finally, globalization’s ups and downs produce sudden inflows and outflows of private capital that further destabilize national economies.  In these ways, capitalist globalization exacerbates social contradictions.  Migration follows as one way people and corporations try to cope with those contradictions.

In many less developed economies, their two main domestic class structures have been under extreme and rising pressure for some years.  Small self-employed producers cannot generate enough value from what they produce and sell to secure their enterprises’ reproduction.  Domestic capitalist enterprises are rarely capable of competing with multinational corporations as the latter invade their markets, compete for inputs of raw materials, tools, and equipment, and squeeze their access to credit.  The capitalist class structures — the invading multinationals and the surviving domestic capitalists — rarely generate enough new jobs to absorb the masses rendered unemployed by the multinational invasion.  As desperate farmers migrate to the urban and industrial areas internally, they not only swell the already high unemployment there; they also quickly discover the two possible “solutions” for that unemployment.

One group’s solution is to enter the vast, poor, and insecure “informal sector” (an unstable mix of the legal and illegal small-scale producers of very low-price and low-profit goods and services).  The customs of that overcrowded sector often differ radically from everything this group knew and believed before their class structures were dissolved by or subordinated to the invading multinationals.  Across the globe, the masses are traumatized on a vast scale through their passage into the informal sectors.  Long-standing conventions of work, dress, family life, sexual activity, kinship, religious activity, and so on break down quickly and thoroughly.  Another group’s solution is emigration — either instead of entry into the informal sector or after experiencing it.

It is important to note that it is not poverty that produces emigration.  Poverty has been the norm in many parts of the world for long periods of time without provoking emigration.  Emigration is usually a result of the interaction of external and internal conditions dissolving deep structures of production and patterns of social life generally.  Recent waves of emigration are no exception.  The catalyst was the dissolution of the class structures of the self-employed and the smaller capitalist producers in the Third World.  Indeed, the few Third World capitalists who prospered — usually by finding ways to serve and thereby survive the multinationals’ invasions — also supported (overtly or covertly) mass emigration.  Their societies were polarizing into a “modern” sector (the relatively few successful capitalists and their hangers-on among the professionals, state officials and workers, upscale retailers, and various personal service providers) and that “informal” sector.  The political problem everywhere was and remains how to manage and contain the potential explosion of masses of traumatized internal migrants living in extremely precarious conditions.  They represented a frightening specter of potential political opposition to the local “modernizing” classes.  How much better to have them leave and perhaps send back money to desperate relatives left behind!

The prospect of mass emigration struck the modernizers as the best available solution to the problem of their “informal sectors.”  They did not want to undertake (much less pay for) mass work programs financed, say, by taxes on domestic and multinational capitalists or domestic redistributions of wealth and income.  They did not dare take any domestic steps that risked the enmity of the multinational “bloc” comprising corporations and the international agencies they or their home governments controlled.  Such enmity could lead to capital outflows, currency collapses, and the social unrest thereby further provoked.  Nor did they imagine the possibility of confronting the multinational bloc through coordination of multiple Third World economies (such as one that is struggling to be born now in Latin America).  Thus, leaders of many Third World governments, together with their corporate supporters, found ways to facilitate mass emigration.

At the same time, globalization’s other side — the rich industrial capitalist economies (RICEs) — has also been experiencing class contradictions and crises.  Global competition drives all capitalists in the RICEs aggressively to lower commodity prices without reducing profits.  One key means to this end entails moving jobs to cheaper workers overseas (outsourcing, capital exports, etc.).  Another involves moving cheaper workers, via immigration, into jobs inside the RICEs.  Thus, such US industries as agriculture, construction, tourism, restaurants and hotels, and hospitals — all industries that cannot readily outsource — have long recruited and supported the immigration of low-wage workers, legally or illegally.  Immigration “solves” their competitive problems.

However, solving one problem provokes another.  Mass immigration of low-wage workers has all sorts of contradictory effects on the host society.  The resources available to (especially local) governments and the demands on public services change, often in ways provoking conflicts between new immigrants and their non-immigrant neighbors.  Conflicts also result as immigrants raise and lower various wage and price levels, shift housing patterns and conditions, increase profits for some enterprises while diminishing those of others, change party memberships and politics, and alter the mix of religious institutions and practices where they settle.

US corporate recruiters and employers of immigrants bear no responsibility to finance and thereby ease their integration into local communities.  The burden thus falls on the government at a time, especially in the US, when state resources are already stretched and objects of significant social conflict.  Immigrants and immigration get caught up in aggravated domestic conflicts, often as scapegoats in a nation with a long history of displacing class conflicts onto anti-immigrant agitation as well as inter-racial, inter-ethnic, and inter-religious tensions.  Immigrants today, like those before them, suffer all sorts of discriminations.

Today as in the past, the issue is political.  Will immigrants and non-immigrants seek to solve their economic and social problems by battling each other or will they unite to seek other solutions?  Will domestic social policies in their new countries provide all immigrants as well as natives with jobs, homes, and schools of quality to facilitate their integration while minimizing discriminations against them?  Will those domestic policies be financed by funds drawn chiefly from the corporate profits fattened by cheap immigrant labor?  Will foreign policies of leading nations require the immigrants’ countries of origin to provide decent economic options for their people so that emigration becomes a genuine choice rather than a desperate last resort?  It is difficult to see such changes emerging so long as the class structures and imperatives of capitalism remain hegemonic in the economies at both ends of the migrants’ journey.

What the immigrants and the natives thus need most — and what might therefore be a basis for strategic unity — is a change in the class structures as both ends.  To say that such a strategy is not “realistic” neglects the fact that 200 years of capitalism as the hegemonic class structure and countless “realistic immigration reforms” have not fundamentally altered modern migration.  It remains the scene of mass suffering, social and personal trauma, grotesque injustice, and painful struggles pitting immigrants against non-immigrants while migration’s capitalist beneficiaries keep profiting from it.


Rick WolffRick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).


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