What is Marxism’s take on international migration?

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Migrants in Edirne, Turkey, closed to Greek border. (Photo: Müge Ayman - feb.2020/IOM)

By Vinicius Cruz Campos
Portuguese version – click here

You may have heard of Karl Marx at some point in your life. You probably know him as one of the creators of The Communist Manifesto together with his comrade Friedrich Engels. However, have you ever wondered how Marxism interprets the phenomenon of international migration within capitalism?

To answer this question, we need to keep in mind that Marxism works as an analytical lens to interpret various phenomena in a structural way, that is, understanding the relationship between the individual (you and me) with the economic system (capitalism). According to Marxists, our life choices are not completely free and self-dependent. Therefore, the capitalist structure limits our freedom of choice to different degrees and our actions are also based on historical structures that we have inherited.

Thus, issues related to the structure of the capitalist system are the ones that call more attention of Marxist scholars. Why do people migrate? Are there voluntary migrations or are all of us, or at least the majority, forced to migrate? Who benefits from a state-regulated migration system? Who pays the bill? One of the main concerns of Marxism is precisely how economic forces (the structure) lead individuals to migrate from the poorest countries to the richest ones and how this mobility (mainly of migrant workers) is used to increase the profits of the bourgeoisie, mainly from rich countries in Europe and North America.

Migration, Profits and Reserve Army

One of the main Marxist premises is that work is one of the generators of economic value, which means that to reach the final price of a good, the capitalist considers how much work is exploited from an employee when producing such good. This is quite different from neoclassical economics, which states that the supply and demand of products is what is essential to create value. Marx argued that the labour force exploited by the ruling class is central to the construction of value in the capitalist system. However, as Sabrina Fernandes affirms, “the objective of capitalism is not to create use value, but infinite accumulation”, i.e., capitalism does not simply seeks to price goods, but to profit as much as possible on what is produced. The direct exploitation of labour by large corporations is key to unbridled capital accumulation and increasing profits.

Gastarbeiter‘s policies, common in Germany until the mid-1970s, are an example of how we can see this concept applied to reality. The government of Germany hired migrant workers on a large scale to boost its industrialisation and generate a growing accumulation of capital from the exploitation of cheap migrant labour. However, as soon as the country faced a severe economic crisis that limited the expansion of capital in the 1970s, the government promoted the (often forced) return of these migrants to their countries of origin. This repatriation was extremely problematic, as several families had already built their lives in the country and had no support whatsoever to reintegrate into the labour markets of their origin countries. This evinces how disposable migrant workers are for the those who control power and wealth.

Another argument that is very present in Marxist analyses is that there is an inversely proportional relationship between the profits of production and the wages of the working class. The countries at the centre of global capitalism need migrant workers so that profit levels are higher because migrants earn on average much less than domestic workers. Undocumented migrants from the Global South are major targets of exploitation by various companies, such as Mexican workers in the United States, who are often denied their labour rights and receive wages far below the national average.

The concept of the reserve army is central to Marxist interpretations of migration as well. These are workers who earn less than the average or minimum wage and who can be fired en masse without major political consequences. The capitalist system needs a huge amount of “disposable workers” to maintain a growing accumulation of capital. Migrants from the Global South, particularly undocumented ones, are the main reserve force in rich countries. Being in a situation of great vulnerability and irregularity, including a constant fear of being deported, migrant workers accept low wages and indecent working conditions, which means that an irregular migrant worker is not free to choose who they wish to work for.

Pessimism and realism

The entire international migration system is designed to bring down costs with workers and increase profits. The use of the migrant workforce is a great ally to achieve this goal. It is quite problematic that there are very few opportunities for foreigners to obtain nationality or a permanent work permit, especially those belonging to the most vulnerable strata. This legal uncertainty leaves them at the mercy of the national ruling class. Ending irregular migration is not a priority for rich countries, as it would end the large reserve army available to national elites. Furthermore, when efforts are made to regularise the legal status of migrant workers, they are usually focused on temporary work visas, which means that workers can be repatriated at any time, even against their will.

Therefore, Marxist theories of migration are more pessimistic than others. Migration is another sign of unequal development and power relations between nations and does not bring development to countries of origin. In fact, migration can even favour the underdevelopment of the peripheries of the world through the process of brain drain, which is when highly skilled workers leave their countries such as Brazil, India, and Argentina to go to work in the US, Europe, and Japan.

Does this mean, then, that Marxists are against migration or can even condone discourses in favour of migratory controls? Absolutely not. This kind of argument is completely incompatible with Marxian writings that claim that if capital is international, the working class must also organise internationally. In fact, the First and Second Socialist Internationals are quite clear in the defence of equal rights and conditions between national and migrant workers and in the need to prevent the owners of the means of production from using migrant labour as a work of lower value.

Finally, this is just a very brief introduction to various discussions that Marxist authors carry on the topic of migration. Marxism views international migration very critically and understands that they are part of an international structure of exploitation of the working class. However, under no circumstances does Marxism advocate the control of borders by the State, which, by the way, is controlled by the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the international organisation of the working class is key to overcoming the current reality. In Marx’s own words, “if the working class wishes to continue its struggle with some chance of success, the national organizations must become international.”

Further Readings

If you are interested in the topics presented in this brief text and are looking for a more comprehensive understanding of the Marxists’ takes on international migration, I recommend the following texts:

  • Castlles, Manuel (1975). Immigrant Workers and Class Struggles in Advanced Capitalism: The Western European Experience. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/003232927500500102.
  • Costa, Daniel (2019). Employers increase their profits and put downward pressure on wages and labor standards by exploiting migrant workers. Disponível em: https://www.epi.org/publication/labor-day-2019-immigration-policy/.
  • Delgado Wise, R., Márquez Covarrubias, H., & Puentes, R. (2013). Reframing the Debate on Migration, Development and Human Rights: Migration, Development, and Human Rights. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/psp.1783
  • ROCHE, John. Marx and Humanism. Rethinking Marxism, [s.l.], v. 17, n. 3, p.335-348, jul. 2005. Informa UK Limited. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935690500121984.

Svennson, Niklas Albin (2019). Why Marxists oppose Immigration Controls. In: https://www.socialist.net/why-marxists-oppose-immigration-controls.htm.

About

Vinícius Cruz is an Associate Officer for Labour Migration and Mobility in the Regional Office of the International Labour Organization. Vinícius is a graduate of the European Master in Migration and Intercultural Relations and has a BA in International Relations from the Federal University of Sergipe, Brazil. Since 2012 he has been working with issues related to refugee and migration in civil society organizations, universities and international agencies.

NOTE: the opinions of the author do not reflect the position of ILO”

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