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Monday, 18 January 2016

Europe and the Multitude

The year has started with gloomy predictions about the economic slowdown in China, the fragility of emerging markets, the unsustainability of household debt, and the overvaluation of equities. "Sell everything" and "head for the hills" seems to pretty much capture the mood (on the other hand, Arsenal are still top of the league). Oddly, the EU appears to have taken something of back seat behind these four horsemen, which probably reflects ennui more than anything. It has been near the top of the gloom charts for so long that perhaps we've all subconsciously decided to change the record. The one aspect of Europe's manifold problems that still gets attention is the twinned issue of refugees and internal migration, the latter courtesy of the UK's "crusade" to reform Europe so a Polish pig farmer can't debauch the NHS.


Looked at over the long-term, Europe has historically been marked more by emigration than immigration, certainly since 1500 (we can safely ignore historically illiterate attempts to equate Syrian asylum-seekers with the fall of the Roman Empire). This process began to change after the First World War, less because of labour shortages occasioned by fatalities than the wider reversal of the preceding era of globalisation. Many European industrialists of the 1920s were worried that the continent might be squeezed between a vibrant America and a potentially vibrant Soviet Union, but attempts to coordinate production and standardise the market (e.g. the International Steel Cartel of 1926) were stymied by the political shift to the right and the protectionist policies of the 1930s. Consequently, labour mobility was largely intra-state rather than inter-state, particularly after the onset of the Depression. At a European level, emigration slowed but immigration did not yet pick up.

The Second World War was marked by large labour migrations during the period of conflict, both within states and between them, notably the forced labour imported to Germany to backfill manpower at the front and expand armaments production, but it was also marked by extensive ethnic cleansing at its end, notably the expulsion of Germans in Eastern Europe and the "rationalisation" of the region under Soviet direction. The period immediately after 1945 was one of atypical national homogeneity, ironic given the aims of the Axis powers, even if this didn't appear obvious in Western European states whose borders and peoples hadn't moved as much as those in the East. Paradoxically, it meant a population normalised to the idea of labour mobility, both within and between states.

From the 1950s onwards, the European economic model assumed the need for industrial consolidation and scale in the centre, continuing the concerns of capitalists in the interwar years, hence the European Coal and Steel Community that birthed the EEC. German and other refugees from the East helped fuel the early stages of the Wirtschaftswunder of the late-40s and 50s, but by the 60s Germany was obliged to import Gastarbeiter, part of a general trend across North-Western Europe. In most countries, unskilled migrant labour came from both the European periphery (e.g. Italy and Portugal) and beyond (e.g. Turkey and North Africa). The UK was unusual in that migrants from distant former colonies predominated, with the European periphery being less significant (the exception being the influx of Greek Cypriots in the 60s).

This pattern meant that migrant labour was conceptually separated into two categories, European and non-European, with the latter having limited rights, which preserved the notion of national homogeneity despite the reality on the ground. By the 1980s, the demand in the centre had shifted from unskilled to skilled labour as deindustrialisation advanced and the service sector expanded. The accession of Greece, Spain and Portugal did not dramatically change labour flows, both because those countries had been providing the centre with Gastarbeiter for some time (and at increasingly higher skill levels), and because capital flows to the periphery had an offsetting effect through the nearshoring of lower-skilled jobs and the expansion of tourism. By the time the 1992 Single European Act enshrined the free movement of citizens, labour mobility was not seen as problematic.

What changed this was not the expansion of the EU to the East after 2000, despite the popular salience in Britain of Polish plumbers, but the refugee crises of the last 25 years, from the Balkans to Syria, which in practice dissolved the legal distinction between European and non-European migrants. The irritation displayed towards migrants in public discourse, whether in terms of "benefit tourism" or "bogus asylum-seeking", uses the same deserving/undeserving dichotomy employed by politicians in the domestic sphere. The point is not to indulge bigotry, but to normalise discrimination between good and bad labour. The utilitarian argument of people like Jonathan Portes, emphasising the aggregate economic benefits of immigration, is not categorically different from David Cameron praising Ugandan Asian entrepreneurs while criticising Muslim women who don't speak English. They're both employing the language of trade: value and compliance.


The shift towards skills and asset-based immigration criteria reflects the transformation of the economy. Theresa May's proposal that immigrants should have assets of at least £35,000 is not intended to privilege oligarchs over workers but merely a reflection of the going-rate in London for a skilled job. The workers we want to attract will have £35k, or a business sponsor who can guarantee it. Similarly, the Swiss and Danish proposals to expropriate asylum-seekers might appear to be targeting the asset-rich, but the actual impact will be to dissuade the lower-skilled, not the higher-skilled. In the neoliberal era, economic migrants are just another commodity, so we shouldn't be surprised at the appearance of tariffs and levies. This might be unethical, but it's not "unhelpful" from the perspective of national capital.

The nation state is necessary for capital formation, but it also creates a constraint on capital expansion and mobility through borders, languages and jurisdictions. There have been various waves of globalisation in history driven by the need for capital to overcome these constraints, from mercantilism through colonialism and state-led imperialism to the Washington Consensus. For all the noise about integration and federalism, the EU remains a project to reconcile capital's goals with national sensitivities, not a covert plan to dispense with the nation state. What drives the bureaucrats of Brussels is not the belief that we should all be speaking Esperanto but the desire of supra-national capital to exploit a Europe-wide market. It is easy to forget in a period of general dissatisfaction with the EU that it remains the most advanced supranational organisation in the world and arguably the most advanced form of state capital.

The current angst over the "movement of peoples" should be thought of in terms of long-run changes to the economy and the demand for labour rather than short-run "crises", and in this light not much has changed since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The core still needs to import labour (if more skilled), though now just to stand still in terms of GDP growth as the working-age population shrinks, while there remains plenty of scope for further nearshoring in the South and East of the continent as wages are adjusted downwards through internal devaluation, i.e. austerity. Germany's generosity towards refugees does not reflect greater moral awareness but demographic self-interest. Unaccompanied young men may present social problems, as in Cologne, but they are an economic asset for an ageing population. Any "reform" of free movement and refugee policy will be towards greater discrimination, not curtailment.

The process of globalisation has both undermined state authority and increasingly framed the demands of the post-proletarian "multitude" (in the term employed by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri in 2000's Empire) in terms of economic migration, both intra and inter-state (in this regard, "social mobility" is often a euphemism for intra-state migration). The demand for work permits and citizenship rights - "Papiers pour tous!" - appears to address the nation state but is in fact a demand for the abolition of borders. This is, ironically, a perfect example of the neoliberal ideal, a world of free-floating factors of production in perfect equilibrium, suggesting that the multitude remain the unconscious agents of capital rather than self-conscious labour. What Hardt and Negri are pointing towards is the continuing collapse of the distinction between the European and non-European that started in the 1990s, which is at the root of the crisis of confidence in EU identity.

If protectionism and autarky in the 1920s and 30s marked the temporary retreat of globalisation, the current nationalist turn (or isolationist turn, in British terms) appears to be far more of a defensive response towards the continuing strength of globalisation rather than the eruption of atavistic forces in a vacuum. Unless I missed it, Donald Trump isn't advocating capital controls, and those that do, like Marine Le Pen, are categorically different to the "extremes" of left and right (i.e. social democrats and social conservatives) that so terrify modern liberals. This doesn't mean that a "Financial Crisis II" isn't going to happen, but that the new normal may be periodic financial busts, in which case it definitely is. In other words, the economic engine is back-firing, not broken, and the movement of people - whatever the immediate cause and wherever their origin - is a sign of health rather than malaise.

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