The last week or so has seen a sudden change in the political atmosphere in Europe (including the UK) on migrants and refugees. A progressive shift seems to have happened, originating in part from below.
The bloody dead end of the Syrian Civil War, with both main forces, that of Assad and of Islamic State, engaging in atrocities and scaring the hell out of much of the civilian population, has augmented the already large numbers fleeing from Libya, bloody local dictatorships such as Eritrea, as well as other conflict zones derived from imperialism’s wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq and the Palestine/Israel conflict. Other major refugee flows around the world include the flight of Rohingya Muslims from racist/religious persecution in Theravada Buddhist Myanmar; though this is perhaps somewhat remote from immediate mass interest in Europe.
The rise in frequency of tragic mass drownings of those fleeing across the Mediterranean in flimsy, often leaky and horrendously overloaded boats; in the UK context, the determined attempts of a couple of thousand of mainly African migrants camped in Calais to cross the Channel via lorries travelling the Tunnel route; these things appear to have had a contradictory effect on public consciousness. At first they appeared to lead to a further cranking up of xenophobia, with politicians like Cameron disgustingly describing migrants as a ‘swarm’ and seeking more and more repressive measures, including now abolishing all food and money support for ‘failed’ asylum seekers.
But this issue was coming to a head, more and more were dying in the Med, and more and more the xenophobic rantings of Cameron, Philip Hammond, etc. looked untenable to many people. It only took one incident to produce a change in consciousness. This came on 2 Sept when AP flashed around the world some very sad and traumatic photographs of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish boy from Kobane, in Syrian Kurdistan, who had drowned along with his mother and brother when a boat capsized and was washed up on a beach, being found and then carried away by a Turkish policeman.
Both on a UK and a European level, these photographs seem to have been the ‘straw’ that triggered off a significant shift in popular consciousness. Such things are themselves complex: as some Palestinians have bitterly observed, if images of dead children are so powerful, how there is not such an popular mobilisation over theirs?
But be that as it may, this has rightly catalysed an outpouring of sympathy for refugees that seemed unthinkable only a few weeks ago. In quite a few parts of the UK, people have been queuing up to volunteer to help Syrian refugees and even to put them up in their homes. The same has been true on a much more dramatic scale in Germany in particular; thousands of refugees marched through Hungary to Austria after the Central Budapest railway station to prevent them travelling to Germany. This has again produced an incredible wave of solidarity, and volunteering to help refugees, to accommodate them, in Germany.
In the UK context, such solidarity is quite astonishing given the xenophobia that seemed dominant in the recent general election. It has erupted in parallel with another event that would have seemed astonishing a few months ago: the surge for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election.
Politicians have started to back-pedal away from overtly xenophobic sentiment, reacting to a different strain of ‘public opinion’. After the publication of the Alyan Kurdi photographs, Cameron initially insisted that the UK would take no more refugees from Syria than the measly 216 that have been admitted since early 2014. Within a couple of days, under public pressure, he seemed to have changed his tune dramatically, and was now pledging to admit ‘thousands’ of refugees.
There are many hooks in such promises; those admitted were to be selected by the UK govt from camps for people already in Syria, and would not include those already in Europe. Cameron claims that this is so as not to ‘encourage’ more to take dangerous trips via criminal people-smugglers. While opening up legal routes for refugees to avoid these killers and their appalling boats is essential, Cameron is evidently more concerned to maintain government control over these very vulnerable people, to continue the xenophobic agenda by other means.
Meanwhile the losing Brownite Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper, who was shadow Home Secretary under Ed Miliband and therefore most directly responsible for formulating its immigration policy, including its anti-immigration campaign mugs, is now calling for the UK to take 10,000 Syrian refugees. In this she is merely tailing the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn who has in a principled manner welcomed both Syrian refugees and the net migration figures that have so embarrassed the Tories: he has even said he would invite Syrian refugees to stay in his home. As has Andy Burnham, who is also adapting to current mass sentiment and Corbyn’s popularity, having (completely unlike Corbyn), voted consistently in favour of severe restrictions on asylum seekers and refugees over his career as a Labour front-bencher.
On a European level, particularly regarding Germany, Angela Merkel has gained considerable support among the refugees by promising to admit up to 800,000 refugees from Syria to Germany, which has prompted the thousands of Syrian refugees travelling up from the Balkans to see Germany as a refuge in some ways reminiscent of the end of Stalinism.
Myths, xenophobia and globalised capitalism
The reasons for this shift are not easy to analyse, but evidently themselves transcend national narrowness, parochialism, and some national borders. Prior to the past couple of weeks, the body politic here had appeared to be dominated by reactionary anti-migrant sentiment, to the point that a party such as Ed Miliband’s Labour, half-heartedly trying to live down its overtly neo-liberal recent past, thought that adapting to ‘popular’ xenophobia and the rise of UKIP was a way to do it.
Hence the ‘immigration control’ mugs that helped Labour lose the recent General Election; they may well have demoralised a key part of Labour’s ‘core vote’: the immigrant-derived, mainly non-white minorities. A key part of the mendacious narrative of the Tories against Labour, paralleling the myth that Labour ‘overspending’ caused the capitalist financial crisis of 2007-9, is the equally bizarre view that Labour aimed to change the ethnic composition of Britain through mass migration and thereby cement its electoral base. As put forward by Andrew Neather, a xenophobic graduate (and defector to the Tory press) of Blairism’s ethos of contempt for refugees and migrants, along with the working class in general, this latest attenuated version of Hitler’s Dolchtoss (stab in the back) hobgoblin tale charges that New Labour aimed to “rub the right’s face in diversity”.
Anyone with any experience of New Labour’s massive expansion of repression against migrants, the vicious xenophobia of New Labour Home Office honchos such as Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Smith and Johnson, knows what rubbish that is. New Labour introduced ‘vouchers’ instead of cash benefits for asylum speakers. New Labour started the large-scale detention of child migrants. New Labour doubled the time of ‘probation’ of non-EU migrant spouses from one year to two; the Tories later increased it to five and added a earnings threshold that exclude much of the working class from sponsoring a non-EU partner. The Tories were carrying out Labour’s reactionary logic – had Brown retained power, he would probably have done something similar. New Labour launched demented crack-downs on supposedly ‘bogus’ overseas students that again, the Tories have carried on and deepened.
Labour has been so craven over migration, as it has been over the capitalist financial crisis, that it has willingly ‘taken the blame’ for the large scale migration that took place in the noughties and which now continues in the twenty-teens, despite austerity and the financial crisis. The truth is that larger-scale migration flows are as organic to capitalism today as asset bubbles and their collapse, with economic convulsions like that symbolised by the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the continuing Euro-brinkmanship over Greece. These are all the product of globalisation, the ever increasing spilling of productive forces over national boundaries (and hence the need for actual and potential reservoirs of labour-power to do the same), as well as the ruination of large areas of the world by the economic and military depredations of neo-liberal imperialist capitalism, which create wave after wave of refugees, both political and ‘economic’ .
In the British context, the fact that the Tories, despite their often vicious ‘crackdowns’ on migration and accelerated attacks on the rights of migrants, have utterly failed to halt or even marginally slow down either EU or non-EU migration, and both are now at record highs, even higher than they were under New Labour, shows this is something organic. Mutatis mutatis, this is the case in Europe and similar things are posed in the United States, Canada and the entire imperialist world. Even overtly inhuman measures such as those by Australia against refugees have not significantly slowed net migration. Yet despite this objective tendency of globalised capital both to demand considerable migration flows, and to create the political and economic ruination necessary to drive it, it at the same time cannot abolish the nation-state.
Contradictions of imperialism
The nation-state is part of the bedrock of capitalist imperialism, indeed it is the contradiction between the overflowing of national boundaries under capitalism on the one hand, and on the other that capitalism is rooted in the nation-state and the domination of the planet by a few advanced capitalist powers, that is the very essence of imperialist capitalism. Hence political forms can shift dramatically, from the large-scale colonial empires of the late 19th/early 20th centuries to the neo-liberal neo-colonialism of today, but capitalism continues to be racked by these insoluble contradictions and hence remains imperialism.
It is the working class that has the real interest in breaking down national borders and abolishing the nation-state, in order to unite humanity itself under the rule of the international working class and open the road to communism. In this sense, class conscious workers can have no truck with those who want to stop the process of globalisation, and in particular, turn to the nation-state in order to keep out migrants. Objectively, imperialism in its accelerating decline, even as it chases around the globe seeking new reservoirs of cheap labour to replace older ones, is creating in real life an internationalised working class as a class-in-itself. This is the gravedigger of capitalism. Any hostility to migrants and refugees, any working class xenophobia or racism, only undermines and delays the political crystallisation of the international proletariat as an international class-for-itself. To give full expression to this in conscious terms there needs to be created an international, genuinely communist working class party.
Class conscious workers must seize the opportunity of this turnaround in anti-migrant sentiment and anti-xenophobia in parts of Europe. We should use this opportunity to put forward the socialist position of class solidarity, not merely liberal ’empathy’, and we must demand full state help for all such migrants and refugees, and the abolition of all laws that restrict their travel, residency and citizenship rights. We must also be aware that movements that involve the liberal bourgeoisie can tend to be like the “will o’ the wisp” – they can disappear as quickly as they arise. No reliance on Cameron, Merkel or any bourgeois figure or government. Independent working class action, and independent working-class politics, is the only thing that refugees and migrants can ultimately rely on to fight for their rights.