Class struggle is missing from liberals’ immigration stance

Don't close the borders, blame the bosses


James Bloodworth makes an important point here which I fear that some of his interlocutors don’t fully appreciate. He writes:

“There does exist a discernible bien pensant willingness to pretend that immigration has no impact whatsoever on worker-employer relations… is precisely the unwillingness on the part of liberals to acknowledge the challenges for the working class that migration brings…that is rendering the political climate gradually more inhospitable to those who want to find solutions that do not involve sealing off Britain’s borders.”

The error of which James (a former Left Foot Forward editor) accuses liberals here is in fact an old one. Liberals of both left and right have for decades been blind to the importance of class struggle. Marx spoke of the ‘hidden abode of production’ precisely because liberals did not want to leave ‘the realm of freedom, equality, property and Bentham’ to see what the labour process was really like.

Both Keynes and the neoclassicals effaced classical economists’ concern with the distribution of incomes between wages and profits. Classical liberals have long underplayed the importance and ubiquity of workplace coercion. And one of New Labour’s biggest failings was its managerialism and acquiescence in the growing wealth and power of the one per cent.

From this perspective, liberals who are reluctant to acknowledge immigration’s impact upon worker-employer relations are making the same mistake they always have.

Which poses the question. Given that James is right to say that spreadsheets and pious lectures haven’t assuaged workers’ concerns about the impact of immigration upon the balance of class power, how might we better address the problem?

First, we should note that immigration and globalization (pdf) are – at most – only one of many factors which are hurting lower-paid workers. Other forces include: austerity; power-biased technical change; the decline of trades unions; the productivity slowdown; financialization (pdf); and a meaner welfare state.

The answer to this set of problems is to increase workers’ bargaining power – which requires, among other things, policies such as stronger aggregate demand and greater redistribution.

Should immigration controls be part of this package? Perhaps not. Even if we grant that immigration is a problem for the low-paid, it doesn’t follow that closing borders will be a great help. The idea that remedies must resemble causes is a fallacy, of the sort that quack doctors in medieval times committed.

In fact, such controls would bring with them other problems:

– They’d require us to leave the single market which might well depress exports and hence incomes.

– In practice, tough immigration controls would bear upon soft targets such as students and innocent people which wouldn’t help workers.

– If we impose immigration controls, so will other European countries on British people. This will worsen our job prospects.

– Border controls carry a deadweight cost. Who’s going to pay the taxes to pay for border guards?

Quite simply, immigration controls cost money. Given that most people aren’t willing to pay to reduce immigration, it should therefore be possible to persuade some of them of the case for relatively open borders.

James is, I fear, right to say that the immigration debate has not been handled well by the left. But it need not be so.

Chris Dillow is an economist and author of The End of Politics. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, where this article first appeared. Follow him on Twitter @CJFDillow

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5 Responses to “Class struggle is missing from liberals’ immigration stance”

  1. GodfreyR

    By expanding to the east, the neoliberal EU ensured a supply of cheap labour to feed the profits of its global multinational corporations and keep the wages of the workers in western and northern europe low.

    Specifically in the UK, uncontrolled immigration has caused:

    – lower British worker wages
    – longer queues for our NHS services
    – longer queues and cuts in our Local Authority services
    – higher housing costs
    – greater threat from terrorism
    – major cultural costs in our inner-cities
    – higher profits for multinational corporations

  2. Anon

    GodfreyR – I would add the environmental damage done to the UK.

  3. Michael WALKER

    “Border controls carry a deadweight cost. Who’s going to pay the taxes to pay for border guards?

    Quite simply, immigration controls cost money. Given that most people aren’t willing to pay to reduce immigration, it should therefore be possible to persuade some of them of the case for relatively open borders.”

    Conversely – and I am surprised it is not mentioned – poor immigration controls make entrance easier for terrorists and their supporters. The costs of that are borne by taxpayers funding a HUGE increase in MI5/6 and increased state surveillance..

  4. NHSGP

    greater redistribution.

    The biggest redistributor is the welfare state.

    Mr Median hands over 5K of real wealth and the welfare state redistributes the lot and more. [They have a deficit]

    At the end of the year, not only has Mr Median no wealth, the state took it, but he’s owed a pension. That’s a debt. Debts are just negative wealth.

    Why should more redistribution address wealth inequality when the redistribution by the welfare state of the poor’s wealth has created the shit in the first place?

    It’s not economic homeopathy. More of the poison doesn’t fix it.

    Change the welfare state to capitalist. Invest the contributions. Make sure the working people own their assets from their hard earned cash. Stop giving it away.

    Year 1 – 5K
    Year 2 – 10K – 11K [Capital growth – 6% on average over the last 50 years, plus 3.4% in dividends]

    All denied to the working poor.

    Retirement 800K. That’s for someone just retiring back testing against historical wage levels, historical FTSE values and dividends, free of taxes with low charges.

    Instead they get a 400K of the state debts and a state pension that puts them into poverty. It’s only worth 108K and the plans are to cut that.

  5. Martin Grubb

    Chris Dillow normally does much better. His questioning of the efficacy and cost of imposing immigration controls ignores the fact that the UK already imposes such controls over the whole of the rest of the world (the ‘tier’ based system which filters applications) to deal with the understandable but exponential numbers who would wish to come to the UK. For the same reason the USA, Australia and also the EU operate similar controls. In fact the EU has by far the most restrictive attitude to immigration. 6.5% of the EU population are foreign born whilst in the USA it is 14% and Australia 25%. In any event it is doubtful if there is evidence to support Chris Dillow’s assertion that the population in these areas, including the UK, is unhappy with these current control arrangements either on grounds of principle or cost.

    Substantial costs are already incurred by the UK in operating border controls on everyone arriving here. Heathrow alone makes 70 million inward passport checks annually (This would be a strange looking ‘closed border’–that is what North Korea has). A very small part of this process is inspecting immigration work permit controls on all non EU citizens. We already have a system in place which identifies appropriate skills shortages and earnings requirements on which the issue of permits is based which could be extended to include EU citizens with the additional costs partly defrayed by similar employer/prospective employee contributions as part of the existing process. Work permits have nothing to do with border guards. The few of those that we have deal with coastline and airfield illegal immigration.

    However Chris Dillow is right to point to the risks of retaliation from an EU which has legislated heavily against immigration from outside its borders but in terms of increased expenditure annual administration costs of the extension of controls would be limited. Much larger costs, but again public objection would seem unlikely, will be required to document the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK which has quite properly large support—but perhaps not yet. We should not underestimate EU obduracy.

    In the meantime Chris should clarify exactly what immigration controls he thinks are unwise. Does he wish to remove existing UK controls and so put EU citizens and the rest of the world on a level playing field as they continue to pile into the UK as wages soar (well-perhaps not) or does he wish to retain these controls but give Europeans an exemption which then understandably upsets the rest of the world with whom we are seeking trade agreements? It’s all very difficult, isn’t it?

    It is to be hoped that we would not seek to replicate the EU’s restrictive immigration policies

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