“Borders and Beyond” Conference: the politics of abolising migration controls

Most of today was spent attending the first ever conference of the newly-formed academic group “Society for the Abolition of Migration Control”, entitled “Borders and Beyond”. It was a good collection of discussions, so I though I’d convey a flavour of some of the themes that were raised, around the general topic of open borders/abolishing migration controls. In particular, there were divergent attempts to contextualise it politically and evaluate its class-significance.

Towards the beginning of the day, talks were largely factual; people with detailed knowledge of the workings of the migration system explored a lot of the mechanics of how it worked. A key theme that emerged was the ‘internalisation’ of ‘border controls’ – rather than simply being focused around the actual borders of countries, migration controls actually involve various practices of control, surveillance, and stratification, which operate throughout the country – on the street, in the workplaces, in people’s homes, in hospitals, and of course in prisons for the innocent detention centres.

The interesting bits came later, when different views on the political implications of the demand for open borders were raised. What was interesting was the range of outlooks that abolishing migration control could fit into.

At one extreme, there was a talk which drew lots of supply and demand curves and argued (rather shakily) that there was a strong “economic case for” open borders because of the productivity gains from more efficient allocation of workers- basically free trade arguments applied to labour. At the other extreme, there was a talk which argued (also rather shakily) that getting rid of migration controls would mean getting rid of nation-states, war, and capitalism. If I’m honest, neither was too convincing.

A third view that was put forward was perhaps more convincing, because it balanced recognising the flexibility of the world system and the consequent separateness of different questions, while also taking into account more messy realities than the ‘economic case’. This talk argued that open borders would mean opening up the arena of political struggle very widely – it would raise lots of questions that would be decided by the relative strengths of different tendencies. To take the most obvious example, if everyone living in a country is to have equal legal status, this might mean either levelling up or levelling down – capital could try to use free migration to drive down minimum wages, privatise public services, and generally dismantle the social democratic state that represented the previous compromise in first-world nations; or alternatively, labour could use free migration to extend the minimum wage effectively to all workers, raising wages overall, compel larger progressive taxes in order to finance an expansion of the welfare state to apply without restrictions, etc.

Conversely though, the talk argued that while being against migration controls was ambiguous, supporting them was a dead-end for labour. The argument, as I understood it, went something like this: either mass migration continues or it doesn’t. If it does, then migration controls just consign migrants to live in a semi-legal limbo, which makes them more easily exploitable and less likely to unite with natives (especially if the natives are advocating harsher attacks on them – hardly a good basis for solidarity). This means that they are used to attack the working class as a whole and undermine their collective strength.

Or mass migration stops. This might be for two reasons. One would be going back in time to before globalisation happened. The other would be a hardcore orgy of violence. To actively remove all or even most migrants from the country would, as the talk said, “require violence of an efficiency and extent far greater than what the state is currently capable of”. That is, it would require paramilitaries, a police state, fascism. And fascism can never be pro-working class, because it gives so much power to the state and the state is never pro-working class, even if it can sometimes be forced to grant them concessions by their independent power.

So that was the stated reason why open borders was “a necessary but not sufficient condition of working-class internationalism”.

I think this speaker’s case was actually strengthened by the dissent of the other speakers – the very fact that both free-traders and communists could support the abolition of migration controls suggested that it really wasn’t inherently tied to either outlook.

To some extent, of course, that sort of undermined the point of the society – whose goal seems to be very much a non-ideological, single-issue demand for freedom of movement. This is quite a departure from most people who advocate open borders, who are usually committed anti-capitalists (like the no borders network) – or else they’re hardcore free-marketeers.

At an ethical level, calling for an end to unjustified attacks on vulnerable people is impeccable; but my fear is that because the demand is so ambiguous, any attempt to mobilise people behind the demand will be hamstrung by a refusal to commit to one stance or the other.

That is – proletarians have no incentive to support an borderless world where each worker competes with every single other worker in the world, with two billion paupers ready to undercut her. But the bourgeoisie have no incentive to support a borderless world where each worker is organised alongside every other worker in the world to force a global minimum wage and global health service.

Which I guess suggests that the demand in its pure form is liable to be most appealing to those middle-class people who can stand somewhat aloof from class struggle and focus on the purely ethical question. The ethical question is not irrelevant – indeed I think it’s significant and non-accidental that measures which strengthen the working class against capital tend to coincide with what’s humane and what’s libertarian. But a committment to socialism is what breathes life into that ethical validity.

2 Responses to ““Borders and Beyond” Conference: the politics of abolising migration controls”

  1. Medea Says:

    That was a great analysis, especially your last two paragraphs.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Thanks, glad you thought so!

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