Migration is an economic benefit

Migration is an economic benefit
By Michael Burke

Migration is an economic benefit which has the potential to lift the living standards of the whole population. Unfortunately, the debate on the EU referendum has been dominated by the two official campaigns, both of whom are anti-immigration. The leaders of the Leave campaign are the more virulent of the two. This is an economic (as well as political) dead-end, which will deepen the current economic crisis rather than end it.

As human society has developed its basic economic unit has grown ever larger. Societies have moved from being based on the tribe or similar entities through estates to towns and villages and to the nation state, including barbarisms such as slavery along the way. A key contributor to these successive developments has been the movement of goods and people as well as capital. 

Capitalism developed in the city-states of northern Italy and reached its flowering first in the nation states of Holland and England, with the flow of goods, people, capital and expertise playing a decisive role in each case. It is evident that the US could not have reached the heights of becoming the world’s leading economic power with the highest standards of living of its population without migration on a vast scale, as well as the forced migration of slavery on an unprecedented industrial scale. Less widely acknowledged, it was the immigration of the Huguenots and Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, the mass migration forced by the Highland clearances, the migration-by-starvation practised by Britain in Ireland that provided the raw material, cultural links, language skills and expertise which contributed to and helped to sustain the English Industrial Revolution. 

Goods, services and above all capital itself are in now constant motion around the world. These are all among the physical manifestations of what Adam Smith called the division of labour, or what Marx called the socialisation of production. That is, the production process itself becomes ever more complex and intricate, requiring ever-greater specialisation in ever-larger marketplaces across national borders in order to increase efficiency and so maximise profits. A key contradiction is that capitalism has become a global system while still resting on the nation-state. 

The advocates of restricting freedom of movement within the EU such as Cameron, or withdrawing from the EU and the single market in order to prevent it such as Gove, Johnson and Farage are literally reactionary. They attempt to oppose a process of migration which has been present since the dawn of humanity and which has increased as human society has progressed. They wish to resolve this contradiction by going backwards. A nostalgic and unfeasible version of the nation-state takes precedence over the actual development of society and the economy. 

Four Freedoms

The European single market is built on ‘Four freedoms’, the freedom of movement of goods, of companies, of capital and of workers to move across borders within that market. The reactionaries wish to limit the freedom of just one of those, the movement of workers. The effect would be twofold. First, the functioning of the single market would become less efficient and average prosperity would be lower as a result. The division of labour/socialisation of production would be hindered. Secondly, within the single market it would be the bargaining power of labour that would specifically decline.

Even in the heyday of rising British industrialisation there were restrictions on the freedom of movement of workers, known as the Poor Laws which kept the unemployed from seeking work outside their parish. In this way a permanent reserve army of labour was prevented from going AWOL, and kept as a permanent threat to those in work. The Poor Law legislation was only finally abolished by the progressive post-war Labour Government in 1948.

If companies and capital are free to move, but workers are not then the easiest trick for employers to pull is to say, “accept these worse terms or lower wages, otherwise we will move to A N Other country”. Tata Steel is currently deploying a variant of this, “gives us these subsidies and allow us to cut pension entitlements, or we will fold the British business”.

It would be even more reactionary to respond that these four freedoms should all be limited, precisely because it reverses the trend socialisation of production. When increasing overseas trade last gave way to national protectionism in the 1930s it led to global economic slump.

Labour share

There is a separate objection that the fruits of these freedoms, and of globalisation more generally have been disproportionately claimed by big capital, the large banks and multinational firms. But this is increasingly true of all positive economic developments as the share of national income in the advanced industrialised economies is increasingly claimed by capital, not by labour. 

But no serious commentator suggests we should abandon the benefits of mass telecommunications because of the enormous profits made by Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and so on. Returning to the pigeon post is no more sensible than restricting free movement of workers. How the benefits of economic advances are distributed is an independent matter, a product of the struggle between classes. But the working class cannot claim a greater share of these benefits if the benefits themselves have disappeared.

It is not possible to find a way out of the economic crisis by advocating policies that would deepen it, such as protectionism or restricting the freedom of movement of workers. Socialists advocate the increasing socialisation of production; greater investment, greater free education, growing trade, free movement of workers because these raise the material well-being of society as a whole, especially the material well-being of workers and their dependants. This is where the term socialism comes from.

Migrants to Britain create twice as many jobs as their proportion of the population, 14% versus 7% to 8%. They are net direct contributors to government finances of approximately £20 billion per annum, over and above anything they receive in social protection. The indirect fiscal effect is far greater, taking into account the employment creation noted above. Whatever the claims and counter-claims of the two warring Tory factions in charge of the EU ‘debate’ the truth on migration is very simple: Migration is an economic benefit.