Capitalism has a long, ugly history of scapegoating immigrants. The pattern has been repeated often. For example, British capitalism’s drive to empire helped force the Irish, as colonial subjects, to emigrate. Miserable colonial conditions, including horrific famines, drove many Irish to labor for capitalists in England at wages lower than English workers had won. English workers raged against and clashed with the Irish immigrants more than they struggled against the colonial system that had brought them.
British capitalists recognized a useful side effect of importing lower-wage workers. It differentiated employees by national origin, religion and sometimes also ethnicity. Some English workers resented downward pressures on wages and working conditions, overcrowded housing and neighborhoods, and overused and inadequate public services. They often overlooked capitalists’ profit-driven organization of immigration, and instead blamed immigrants themselves. British politicians reinforced such ways of thinking as they sought financing from those capitalists and votes from English workers. Likewise, profit-driven media companies, the journalists they hired, and compliant academics often promoted notions that immigrants represented net economic costs and difficult social adjustments imposed on the existing population. Such notions deflected workers’ resentments about their economic situations onto scapegoating immigration and immigrants. In short, immigration made a divide-and-rule strategy of capital against labor all the easier to pursue.
Adding insult to injury, some British leaders scolded English workers for their “intolerance” or “prejudice” against the Irish. Such scolding lofted them “above” the fray of mutual recriminations among competing English and Irish workers. Portions of the upper classes enjoyed celebrating themselves as more “tolerant” and less “biased.” The British replicated their Irish history with others among their “colonial subjects” in Asia, Africa and South America. The same applies to various French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German and Italian colonial exploits. A parallel history characterizes the US’s long experience with immigration, as well as chattel slavery, to cope with capitalism’s recurrent labor shortages.
After formal (officially recognized) colonialisms had been overthrown in the 20th century, post-colonial economic realities there changed slowly, if at all. Profound poverty plus economic backwardness, inequality and continued subordination to former colonial masters kept emigration on many people’s agendas. Those who left to become immigrants found in their new homes the same old divisions, hostilities and scapegoating.
Modern times offer more examples. The US repeatedly undermined basic living conditions in its de facto colony, Puerto Rico, driving millions to move to the US mainland. There, they repeatedly encountered all manner of discriminations, abuse and scapegoating. The US economic dominance of Mexico and Central America as informal colonies — intensified by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — produced the same result, but on a much larger scale. US capitalists used Latin American immigrants as means to exert downward pressures on wages and working conditions, with the usual anti-immigrant results. Following the European colonial pattern, some in the corporate and governing US elite congratulate themselves for denouncing scapegoating, intolerance, etc. and castigating those with such attitudes as “deplorables.”
Since the 1970s, the remarkable relocation of capital from its old centers in Western Europe, North America and Japan to the new centers in China, India, Brazil and beyond has provoked new migrations. The industrialization of the new centers and associated political and military conflicts have traumatically and quickly (in historical time) transformed the lives of millions and stimulated huge labor migrations — interregional and international.
Emigration traumatizes most of those driven from their homes, jobs, families and communities. Extreme conditions push emigrants to leave, especially for foreign places they usually know little about. The uneven development of capitalism, coupled with its drive toward colonialism, has consistently produced the extreme conditions and extreme inequalities that sustain successive waves of migration.
A real “cure” for the horrific processes of migration lies in a real confrontation of capitalism’s uneven development. For example, investment could be directed not to where private profit rates are highest, but rather to areas that need that investment most. The rationale would be that poverty and marginalization pose a threat to peace (and thus to economic development as well), which outweighs private capitalist profitability in terms of social well-being. For another example, full employment — by state authorities wherever private employment is insufficient — could become a funded priority everywhere in part as a major counter to emigration.
For yet another example, taxing extreme wealth could provide significant additional resources for investment in poorer areas. At the same time, progressive taxation can likewise prevent the resources flowing to poorer regions from reproducing there the gross inequalities that historically accompanied capitalist development. To get an inkling of the magnitudes involved, consider the 2016 Oxfam report which showed that the combined wealth of the world’s 62 richest individuals exceeded the combined wealth of the poorer half of the world’s population (3.5 billion people). We could seriously address migration by redistributing that wealth. If redistribution were combined with either a reorganized and regulated capitalism — or, finally, transition to a non-capitalist system less beset by inequality — still more could be accomplished.
Capitalism always entailed migrations of capital and labor.
Capitalism always entailed migrations of capital and labor. It also entailed — as Marx’s, Piketty’s and others’ work have argued — a continual tendency toward wealth and income inequality, coupled with recurring cycles of recession and depression. The masses of people hurt by the cycles and inequalities have occasionally mobilized political coalitions to moderate or even temporarily to reverse them. For example, the Great Depression of the 1930s enabled a powerful mobilization from below by a coalition of labor unions, socialist and communist parties. That coalition forced the New Deal policies onto President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress. From the 1930s to the 1970s, capitalism’s tendency toward wealth and income inequalities was temporarily reversed and cycles moderated.
President Ronald Reagan marked the re-emergence and return to dominance of private capitalism in place of the state interventionist capitalism from the 1930s to the 1970s. This was accomplished by “deregulation and privatization” — the rollback of the New Deal policies. The government-led post-World War II destruction of the Communist Party, then the socialist parties, and then the slower destruction of the labor unions secured the political and ideological conditions for rolling back the New Deal. Private capitalism renewed its classic tendencies toward wealth and income inequalities, cycles, and the resulting migrations of capital and labor.
The stale but pernicious “debate” over immigration resumes because the underlying economic system reproduces the problem.
Contemporary struggles over immigration replay an old pattern whose horrific consequences should long ago have spurred us to turn toward the sorts of solutions mentioned above. Instead, we see and hear yet again about building walls, expelling undocumented migrants, denouncing intolerant “deplorables” and so on. The stale but pernicious “debate” over immigration resumes because the underlying economic system reproduces the problem.
That system’s leaders and supporters hope that the latest immigrants will eventually be absorbed by profit-driven economic growth. They likewise hope that neither immigrants nor non-immigrants will blame the system for all their sufferings and losses during such absorption. They have become accustomed to expecting that this generation’s immigrants, once absorbed, will blame the next generation of immigrants. When tabulating the social costs of capitalism, the repeated damage done by the migrations it has provoked looms large.