Race, migration and neoliberalism

Cheap labour is vital to the neoliberal project. The left must stop competing with UKIP for unpleasantness and start building a popular narrative of diversity and pluralism.

Sally Davison George Shire
13 February 2015

Over the past two years the Kilburn Manifesto has been at the centre of a wide-ranging public debate initiated by the journal Soundings and its founding editors Doreen Massey, Michael Rustin and Stuart Hall. In the penultimate instalment of the Manifesto, Sally Davison and George Shire consider the historical links between race, migration and neoliberalism and argue for a Gramscian approach to challenging the  common sense about race in the UK towards a pluralist, inclusive and multi-cultural concept of citizenship.

Gramsci’s concept of ‘common sense’ is useful in helping to understand the complex articulations between race, migration and nation and the way they are mobilised within neoliberal ideology. In an early instalment of the Kilburn Manifesto Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea argued that common sense is a form of everyday thinking that offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world:

It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of ‘the common people’ for practical guidance and advice.

For Gramsci, the common sense of a society contains within its mix of ideas ‘stone age elements’ and ‘prejudices from all past phases of history’: previous ways of understanding the world leave their mark on popular ways of thinking. Each political formation draws on a repertoire of elements to create its own forms of hierarchy and patterns of exclusion and inclusion.

In Britain especially, common sense on race is suffused with relics from its past imperial history, though it also draws on other elements, such as feudal beliefs about the divine right to rule, or a Shakespearean celebration of the happy few at Agincourt. These and other accretions have left what Gramsci describes as ‘stratified deposits’ in our ideas about Britishness, Englishness, ethnicity and difference.

Thus ideas about race in Britain remain heavily influenced by the colonial period, when it was seen by Europeans as natural that white men ruled black people, and the civilising mission was the ‘white man’s burden’.  The global inequality that is a direct legacy of colonial history strongly reinforces these attitudes, since it does in fact reflect a continuing reality about who holds power and wealth in the world. Whilst openly racist ideas are rarely articulated publically these days, race is nevertheless omni-present. Media images of over-crowded boats and immigrant bodies washing up on the Mediterranean shores of the EU, or shrouded, anonymous and abject prisoners in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, or the pictures of Ebola victims that reproduce the ubiquitous imagery of African victimhood – none of these is overtly presented as being ‘about race’, but they are carriers for common sense ideas about the natural order of the world.

Ideas about British values and the general inferiority of foreigners are mobilised most often in current debates in the notion that ‘our small island’ is being over-run by immigrants from Europe, but one of the reasons this view is taken up by the media and populist politicians so readily is that they have a long tradition to draw on: a treasure trove of familiar stories about the good old days. 

The broad outlines of the story – there are too many of them, ‘they’ are not like ‘us’, they are a threat, they are criminal, they are illegal, they will swamp us, they are taking things that rightfully belong to us – have been deployed in the same but different configurations for every wave of migration to Britain (almost always driven by the desire for cheap labour). These stories have particular embellishments in particular periods, but they go back at least as far as the industrial revolution, and start with the vilification of the Irish (of course the long history of anti-semitism stretches back even further).

Race and neoliberalism

Though theories of the market, neoliberal or otherwise, are not themselves racialised (not least since they deal in inputs of labour rather than human beings), the functioning of the contemporary global economy is deeply embedded in the histories and practices of racism. The operations of the market are always underpinned by unequal power structures; and the maintenance as far as possible of unequal global power relations has been a key concern of the global elite throughout the postcolonial period.

The way migration is discussed fits into a hierarchy of entitlement. It is assumed that people from the rich west can go wherever they want, but the poor will by and large stay where they are. The supreme example of this one-way view of migration is the invisibility in much contemporary discussion of the mass European/white settler migrations of the nineteenth century, especially to North and South America, the Antipodes and Southern Africa, which led to the dispossession, subordination and sometimes eradication of whole populations, with all the consequent inequality and violence that this has brought to the world. Today, as neoliberal capitalism spreads its grip across the globe in search of new sources of raw materials and new markets, it produces levels of dispossession and displacement even greater than those that caused the nineteenth-century emigrations.

But for twenty-first century victims of capitalism’s great destructive capacity, moving away for a better life follows a very different pattern. The movement of populations that has characterised the whole of the modern period is called into question when the periphery seeks to come to the centre.

Neoliberal meritocracy

Another way in which racialised forms of common sense help sustain neoliberal hegemony is the role they play in naturalising privilege. We are encouraged not to notice that the biggest factor in determining people’s life chances is the relative wealth of the families they are born into. Racialised thinking is thus closely related to another stalwart of neoliberal common sense – meritocracy. The idea that those who are at the top are there because of merit necessarily implies that those who are under-represented lack merit in some way. (And the corollary is that lack of success must be linked to a failure to work hard, or to personal flaws such as laziness, criminality or parasitism.)

The refusal to acknowledge the existence of the networks of advantage, patronage and power that maintain the rich in their position is damaging to everyone whose life is structured by inequality – whether this is connected to race, class, gender or other forms of structural inequality. Meritocracy refuses any acknowledgement of the role racism plays in everyday structures of society; it masks racism through its apparent espousal of a moral commitment to opportunity for all.

Cheap labour

Flexible labour markets that keep down wage costs are at the heart of the neoliberal project. Neoliberal governments usually disavow this intention, however: for them migration is good for growth – another term devoid of human content. However, in order to create an alliance that will keep them in power they very often have to find a way of securing the consent of those whose ways of life are being destroyed by globalisation.

As Ed Miliband has correctly identified, the problem of migrant workers being used to undermine local wages and conditions is a real one, to be addressed by measures to defend minimum levels of wages and conditions. In other words this is a problem of unequal relations between capital and labour, to be addressed by state and or collective intervention (not that he is able to express it in this way).

Unsurprisingly, this take on the issue rarely features in debate. Broadly speaking, the  discussion takes place at two completely separate levels: at the macro-economic level,  where the focus is on the economic benefits or otherwise of migration, with no consideration of human concerns; and at the common sense everyday level, where exclusionary discourses are so well entrenched that there is scarcely any contestation.

It has become routine to frame migrants as being unentitled to normal services and benefits even if they have paid tax all their lives – a position that is itself located within a wider stance that seeks to characterise the welfare state in terms of people ‘taking’ things. A migrant worker with no rights and no social or familial existence is a dream come true for neoliberals. Cheap overseas labour could be even cheaper if workers could be denied the usual rights of citizens (and there is an additional benefit if they can be blamed for the underfunding of public services and lack of affordable housing).

Labour has not found itself able to strongly state this case, and has too often succumbed to the dominant exclusionary discourse. Instead of competing to win over voters presumed to identify with UKIP's narrow-minded concerns, it would do better to address some of the other pressing issues facing its traditional working-class base – poverty, precarity and lack of housing would be good places to start.

As Ewa Jasiewicz has written:

When you take class identity out of who we are, when you take away any pride in the working-class history of resistance that has won us our rights at work and more, then class becomes not a ‘them and us’ of workers and bosses, but entwined with race, insiders and outsiders, the hardworking deserving poor and the hardworking, immigrant undeserving poor. (Guardian, 29.5.14)

As she argues, people who talk about ‘foreigners taking jobs’ are not necessarily racist. But the problem is that they don’t ask who it is that is giving these jobs to ‘cheaper, casualised, more compliant workers’. UKIP, through ‘addressing British-born victims of neoliberalism’ – talking to workers about work but without talking about power and wealth – are seeking to yoke these sentiments to an exclusionary politics that discourages investigation of underlying power structures. The left needs to do something different: to construct a popular national politics that recognises the value of human diversity, and builds an alliance that brings together a popular majority that can encompass class and other forms of inequality, and is capable of challenging the unaccountable power of the elite.


After Neoliberalism? Soundings Kilburn Manifesto

Conference : Saturday 21 February 2015, 9.30-4pm
Human Rights Action Centre, EC2A 3EA

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