Monday, May 26, 2008

Lenin's take on immigration

"Lenin" has a serious point to make about the governing party's current orientation:

"Given that New Labour were the ones who tried to stoke up anti-immigrant xenophobia in Crewe and Nantwhich, on the assumption that the 'white working class' is basically racist and authoritarian, we can almost bet that the government will place themselves to the right of the Tories on this question at the general election despite the evident failure of this strategy by yesterday morning"

The supposed "rational kernel" of a xenophobia that New Labour cannot quite will to materialise, is the idea that immigration results in lower wages. Lenin writes:

"When we are told by some who should know better that immigration pushes wages down, empirical refutation isn't difficult to find. For example, a recent study for the Low Pay Unit found that overall pay tends to increase a bit as a result of immigration, although the lowest paid might experience a slight fall."

giving short shrift to the idea that immigration might weaken the bargaining power* of labour. The writers of this study express their conclusions this way:

"although the arrival of economic migrants has benefited workers in the middle and upper part of the wage distribution, immigration has placed downward pressure on the wages of workers in receipt of lower levels of pay. Over the period considered, wages at all points of the wage distribution increased in real terms, but wages in the lowest quarter would have increased quicker and wages further up the distribution would have risen more slowly if it were not for the effect of immigration."

Historically economic immigration tends to be positively correlated with output. Evidently adding to the work force will boost output, but this isn't likely to have constituted the sole or principle reason for rising real wages in recent years, if we accept that such a thing has occured**. The distribution of output largely depends on political factors. The term "wages" in Lenin's formulation is amenable to some ambiguity. Average wages may have increased but workers aren't paid average wages. "Wages" can reasonably taken to mean working class wages, which can rightly be said to have stagnated on account of immigration.

Perhaps Lenin ought to put Marx aside at this stage. For better or worse the sisuation in the UK isn't really consistant with Marx's predictions of a vast proletarian class with the capitalists and their retainers living like plantation owners among their slaves. Instead there's something like a working class amounting to 35% of the population, with perhaps 55% of the population belonging to a middle class whose income is subsidised (tactically or accidentally rather than for reasons of social justice etc) by property income.

Considering the middle class and the working class together as a marxist type proletariat results in the following sort of formulation:

"Marx speaks of reproducing the means of subsistence, but here he clearly refers to a historically produced subsistence as opposed to the minimum amount of nutrition, clothing and so on that one could possibly live with. The means of one's subsistence can include sufficient wages to use the internet, purchase a car, mortgage a house or pay rent on a flat, have the normal range of consumer durables, including a washing machine and perhaps any other labour-saving device that allows you to get to work on time and have sufficient hours after the working day to unwind and recuperate for the next eight hours. It would also include support for a family, which is after all the unit through which the labour is replaced. If you look at the UK national minimum wage, or the US mimimum wage, the level is determined not by reference to some ahistorical level of bare subsistence, but by how much it costs to reproduce one's labour in the here and now"

This implies a kind of social reasoning on behalf of employers that isn't supported by reality. The inclusion in wages of funds that can cover items such as washing machines depends on a number of other factors:

1. the overproduction of these items at lower and lower cost

2. low inflation resulting from persistant real growth

3. the ability of workers to resist wage cuts

all of which depend more on capitalists failing to collude in their own interests than somehow colluding in the workers' interests.

In the absence of effective unions resistance to wage cuts comes down to passive resistance: going off sick, sudden defection from the workplace, working inadequately, refusing to work or being made incapable of work.

Having pointed out that employers are bound to follow this conventional minimum, Lenin introduces a class of employers who do not:

"If the rate [of the minimum wage] is far too low" then "this is a concession to the needs of poverty employers whose margin of profit is slight. In comparing the wages of migrant and 'indigenous' workers, one therefore has to look at the determinants of the cost of labour power."

The problem here comes out of construing middle class wages as working class wages. Hence we end up with the following formulation, bizarrely amenable to the kind of xenophobic nonsense Lenin rightly deplores:

"The combined costs of reproducing one's labour power as a Polish worker is lower than the cost of reproducing one's labour power as a British worker."

and which isn't correct.

Anyway, Lenin's right to advocate "free movement" as a civil liberties issue and to reject the idea of Gaza type walls defending our priviliges as tame retainers of capitalism as detestable and practically impossible.

*Lenin raises a different bargaining power argument here:

"At the moment, European capital supposedly requires 8% unemployment - the 'natural' or 'non-accelerating inflation' rate of unemployment. Anything lower and the bargaining power of labour pushes up the cost of labour power (that's the 'accelerating inflation'), which is disadvantageous to the employers. However, we don't necessarily fancy being appendages to the machinery of capital, and that is what we become when migration is restricted to suit its interests."

The NAIRU is basically nonsense because inflation historically tends to fall as output rises. What the gentlemen advocating its use as a tool for informing policy mean is that given significant inflation capitalist profit depends on aggressive action to reduce the bottom line.

**the calculation of real wages tends to systematically underestimate the costs of housing. The Low Pay Unit believe the cost of accomodation in the UK to amount to £30 per week. pdf

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