Migration as Revolt against Capital

The fact that a large number of refugees, especially from countries which have been subjected of late to the ravages of imperialist aggression and wars, are desperately trying to enter Europe is seen almost exclusively in humanitarian terms.  While this perception no doubt has validity, there is another aspect of the issue which has escaped attention altogether, namely that it is the first time in modern history that the issue of migration is being sought to be taken out of the exclusive control of metropolitan capital.  Until now migration streams have been dictated entirely by the requirements of metropolitan capital; now, for the first time, people are violating the dictates of metropolitan capital, and attempting to give effect to their own preferences in the matter of where they wish to settle.  Wretched and miserable, and without being conscious of the implications of their own actions, these hapless refugees are in effect voting with their feet against the hegemony of metropolitan capital, which invariably proceeds on the assumption that people would meekly submit to its dictates, including in the matter of where to live.

The idea that metropolitan capital had until now determined who should remain where in the world and under what material conditions of life, may appear far-fetched at first sight.  But it is true.  In modern times one can distinguish three great waves of migration, each dictated by the demands of capital.  The first of these was the transportation of millions of people as slaves from Africa to the Americas, to work in the mines and plantations for producing commodities that were exported to meet the requirements of metropolitan capitalism.  Since the facts about the slave trade are reasonably well-known I shall not discuss this particular wave of migration any further.

Once the heyday of the slave trade was over, there was a new type of migration.  Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, metropolitan capital had imposed a process of “deindustrialisation” upon the third world, not just on tropical colonies like India but also on semi-colonies and dependencies like China.  At the same time it had “drained” away a part of the economic surplus of these societies through a variety of means, ranging from the sheer appropriation without any quid pro quo of commodities using tax revenues of the directly-administered colonies, to the imposition of unequal exchange in the valuation of third world products, to the extraction of monopoly profits in trade.  The populations of the third world economies which had become impoverished through these mechanisms had been forced however to remain where they were, trapped within their own universes.

But, soon, two streams of migration developed in the nineteenth century at the behest of metropolitan capital.  One was from the tropical regions of the world to the other tropical regions, while the other was from the temperate regions of the world to the other temperate regions, in particular from Europe to the temperate regions of white settlement such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  The migrants from the tropical regions were not allowed to enter freely into the temperate regions (indeed they still are not).  They were transported as coolies or indentured labourers from their habitats in tropical and sub-tropical countries like India and China to where metropolitan capital wanted them, to work in the mines and plantations in other tropical lands.  Their destinations included the West Indies, Fiji, Ceylon, Latin America and California (where Chinese workers were employed in gold extraction).

The temperate-to-temperate region migration was a part of the process of diffusion of industrial capitalism from the European metropolis to these new lands.  It was a high income migration, in the sense that the migrants came from relatively high income regions and moved also to regions where they enjoyed high incomes.  The tropics-to-tropics migration by contrast had nothing to do with any diffusion of industrial capitalism; and it was a low-income migration.

The reason for this difference, the fact that temperate region migration was a high income one while tropical migration was a low income one, has often been attributed to the higher labour productivity of the European migrants compared to the Indian and Chinese migrants.  But this is erroneous.  The incomes of workers under capitalism are scarcely ever determined by the level of labour productivity per se; on the contrary what matters is the relative size of the reserve army of labour: even with rapid increases in labour productivity, real wages of workers may stagnate at a subsistence level if the reserve army is large enough.  Besides, the relevant labour productivity one has to look at in the context of this argument is not that of the workers employed in capitalist industry but of those outside of it, since they are the ones who are likely to be migrating; and there is no reason to believe that the labour productivity of the latter was any higher than that of their counterparts in the tropics if we ignore the impact of “drain” and “deindustrialisation” inflicted on the tropical lands.

The real reason for the income difference of the two migration streams lay elsewhere, in the fact that in the temperate regions into which they were migrating, the European migrants could simply displace the local inhabitants (like the Amerindians) and take over their land for cultivation.  This not only gave such migrants high incomes, but also kept up the wages in the home countries from which they were moving out, by increasing what economists call the “reservation wage”.  Nobody naturally would work for a pittance in Europe if he or she can migrate to the temperate regions of settlement abroad and earn a much higher income on the land taken over from the Amerindians; it is this prospect which kept up the real wage in Europe as well.

The tropics-to-tropics migration in contrast was low-wage migration since the migrants came from populations which had been impoverished by “drain” and “deindustrialisation” and had no prospects of setting themselves up as farmers on land snatched from the original inhabitants in their new habitats.

W Arthur Lewis, the well-known economist of West Indian origin, estimates that each of these migration streams in the nineteenth century was of the order of 50 million persons; but no matter whether one accepts this particular estimate, the numbers involved were undoubtedly large.  Utsa Patnaik estimates that almost half the number representing the increase in population each year in England between 1815 and 1910 migrated to the “new world” to which industrial capitalism was getting diffused from Europe.

The third big stream of migration was in the post-second world war period.  This period, stretching from the early fifties to the early seventies, has been called by some the “Golden Age of Capitalism”, since it saw high rates of growth of Gross Domestic Product in metropolitan, especially European, economies, on account of the post-war reconstruction boom and the institution of State intervention in “demand management”.  Even though the rates of growth of labour productivity were also high, they were not as high as the rates of GDP growth, which meant an increase in labour demand.  In most European countries however populations were hardly increasing; the increase in labour demand therefore was met by importing workers from the tropical regions.  There was still no free migration of labour from the tropics to the metropolis but migration in specified numbers was allowed to meet the growing labour demand.  The migrants, consisting of Turks in Germany, Algerians and others from former French colonies in France, and South Asians and West Indians in the UK, took over low-paid jobs, releasing the local workers who had been employed in such jobs earlier, and who could now move up the job hierarchy.  Post-war capitalism in short witnessed a large growth of an underclass of migrant workers in the metropolis.

But as the post-war boom, or the so-called “Golden Age”, collapsed, the migrant workers and their descendants found disproportionate representation in the ranks of the unemployed and the underemployed.  With the onset of the capitalist crisis in the current century, their position has become even more precarious.  The social consequences of this phenomenon have been much discussed and we need not dwell upon them here.

The point however is this: quite apart from the wars and aggression that metropolitan capitalism unleashes everywhere, even its “normal” modus operandi entails the dispossession and impoverishment of people in other parts of the world.  Its objective is to keep them trapped within their own universes, as a distantly-located labour reserve, which it can tap from time to time by allowing carefully-controlled migration to regions where it needs labour.  Its assumption is that they can so remain trapped in their own universes without a murmur, no matter what condition they are in.  And of course it is on the basis of this assumption that it unleashes imperialist wars on third world populations.  The modus operandi of metropolitan capitalism requires the fulfillment of this assumption.

What the so-called “refugee crisis” of Europe is demonstrating is that this assumption can no longer be fulfilled.  Even more significantly, metropolitan capitalism does not have any answer to this problem of “refugees at the gate”.  It cannot allow them in; and it cannot find solutions to their problems in their home countries.  Either would be a humane course, but capitalism is not about humaneness.  And this fact is coming to haunt it.

Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India.  This article was first published in People’s Democracy 40.42 on 9 October 2016; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.