How Labour’s common sense on Neoliberalism creates space for Nationalism

This March the Labour Party officially came out against freedom of movement. Though often empathetic, its cause is worrying deep. Reflecting its the definition of neoliberalism it critiques.

This March, it became official: the Labour Party is against freedom of movement. Though Labour members frequently deploy the language of empathy and solidarity, a commitment to the basic right of human beings to live, work and raise families in the land of their choosing is no longer part of actual party policy.

As a vital component of the Brexit negotiations, Labour’s official position on this question has become more consequential than ever. Debates about the EU and freedom of movement are long-standing, but amid the bitter debates which erupted after Labour’s position in the second round of indicative voting became public, it has become obvious why neither side finds itself in a position to settle the matter once and for all.

Remarks like those recently made (inaccurately) by Paul Embery reflect a widely-held belief that freedom of movement ‘betrays traditional working-class communities’; a position grounded more often than not in racist dog-whistling and bad economics. At the same time, however, the position held by the pro-European, progressive left is itself mired in profound confusion, ultimately about the nature of globalised capitalism and Britain’s place in it. What is left resembles a grudge match, not a debate.

Neoliberalism Means More Than Globalisation

At the heart of the impasse is the left’s common sense on neoliberalism. Many are convinced that in order to explain the problems which working-class voters face and to posit solutions, all they need are grab-bag of references to the history of globalisation and financialisation - economic imperatives which together make up the politics of neoliberalism. But this story oversimplifies the development of capitalism and the history of those class struggles which have followed alongside it. The fraught relationship between the Labour Party and the idea of European integration shows how the ordinary left reading of neoliberalism makes certain forms of nativism and nationalism on the left inevitable.

The left’s ‘official history’ of neoliberalism, as found in the work of David Graeber and David Harvey, reads like this: in the 1970s, groups of free-market extremists centred around the Reagan/Thatcher teams emerged from the political wilderness in which they had languished since the 1940s to launch an assault on the workers’ movement, which since the end of WWII had grown too powerful. To break working-class power, neoliberals presided over the wholesale outsourcing of millions of jobs in heavy industry to low-wage Asian economies. Neoliberals thus replaced a robust, Fordist economy based on mass production with an ersatz economy based on dodgy debt instruments and service industry make-work. Foreign workers thus become competitors, not potential comrades. This, we are told, was done by design.

This narrative of ‘political choice’ is as familiar to the British left as the sun in the sky. It reflects an popular, “common sense” reading of the past, and it is touted as the foundation of Labour’s policy-making on the highest level. Jeremy Corbyn’s flagship ‘Build it in Britain’ initiative, the industrial strategy meant to galvanise working-class support and save the party from its ‘middle class’ future, was framed in just these terms. We were told it represented a break with the ‘kind of magical thinking’ which has governed the country for ‘the last 30 years’. But in this narrative, a question goes unanswered: only 30 years? What about the last 300 years? If we trace the historical roots of our present crisis, it becomes clear that what is at stake is not just neoliberalism but capitalism itself.

The simplified theory of neoliberalism is dangerous because, as Build it in Britain shows, there is a direct line connecting this idea of history to the politics of wooing ‘traditional working-class communities’ with national development initiatives that are framed as defending workers against competitive pressures from abroad, all while doing nothing to call into question the foundations of capitalist competition itself. This form of politics treats prosperity as a zero-sum game played between nations, not a question of class struggle played out between those who own property and those who own only their labour.

From Changes in the Governance of Production to Changes in Production

To really understand the neoliberal turn and where we go from here, we need to take into consideration structural changes to the process of production which had already profoundly weakened the positions of organised labour and the socialist movement in the Western economies well in advance of the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions. These structural changes occurred in the fields of automation, containerisation and industrial robotics. From a human perspective, these stories are told best in James Boggs’ The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, published in 1963. But this was no narrowly American phenomenon. The end of WWII brought with it a wholesale technological transfiguration of the world, and this process of ‘modernisation’ was already well-advanced by the time the left entered its major legitimacy crisis at the end of the 1970s.

Automation was a point of bitter struggle for the British working class as far back as 1956. The fact is that globally, most of those forms of employment which formed the core of the old organised labour movement were made wholly obsolete. Comparatively few were relocated from one geographic region or working-class substratum (i.e. from a ‘native’ to an immigrant workforce) to another. Not just nationally but globally, the number of workers employed in industrial production has declined relative to the world population. This, as the Endnotes collective wrote, is “the real meaning of the ‘de-industrialisation’ that has taken place in the last 30 years”.

It is widely-understood that the political and social implications of the mid-century technological transformation were far-reaching. Industrial productivity, despite the death-knells constantly rung for British industry, is higher now than ever before. Make no mistake: the bottoming-out of Britain’s industrial working-class so often discussed in relation to the monumental transformations of neoliberalism did certainly take place. But competition introduced into the labour market by technological change did (and continues to do) far more to suppress wages and destroy the bonds of solidarity that make the Labour movement strong than any amount of competition introduced by immigration.

This process takes place according to the internal logic of capitalism. Competition between capitalists drives innovation, and this has historically worked to make workers and their skills superfluous. This process increases the size of what Marx called the “reserve army of labour”, the body of intermittently (or precariously) employed workers who compete ever-more bitterly for wages and thus drive the workers’ share of wealth ever-lower. The threat of “foreigners” as competitors has always been a smokescreen to conceal these basic realities from the workers who might be empowered by a greater understanding.

The upshot of this is that the world of work was transformed in the 20th century independently of ‘political choice’. Wholesale privatisations, the de-funding of local government and public services, union-busting, and other jewels in the crown of neoliberal policy have been state-directed in conscious ways. But all these schemes would have been impossible during the 1940s and early 50s, when the economy was growing and the organised workers’ movement was still a central component of Britain’s social compact. At the time of the ‘post-war consensus’ around strong unions and a strong welfare state, Thatcherism would have been unthinkable.

That neoliberalism only became possible after a long period of technological development which weakened labour’s position in relation to capital shows that the present crisis is not synonymous with a monetarist conspiracy launched in the 1970s, nor with the scores of low-wage labourers that neoliberals are said to have invited to Britain’s shores. We cannot benefit the working class in any meaningful way by controlling immigration, any more than we can reverse the transformations wrought by automation, containerisation or computerisation.

Left Unity and the Creep of Left Nationalism

That these facts are lost on Labour’s would-be nationalists is obvious. But the real problem is that when the progressive left gets drawn into arguments about the contributions immigrants make to the economy, it plays the nativist game. It’s easy to bust the myth that immigration has a significant non-local impact on wages. This makes for compelling academics and anti-racist activism; but it is only one component of compelling socialist politics. To build a durable, winning electoral coalition, we still need to answer the central question of contemporary politics: if immigrants and foreigners haven’t wrecked the economy and made life worse for the average worker, what exactly has? How do we explain wage stagnation, if not by engaging in scapegoating?

The answer is structural, but the left usually considers it sufficient simply to say that lax labour laws allow employers to make unfair use of immigrant as well as non-immigrant labour. Unfortunately, arguments like these do nothing to dispel the fundamentally right-wing myths at work.

We instinctively assume that the problem of nativism can be knocked down with a clutch of references to ‘solidarity, not empathy’ or a cry against the injustice of ‘freedom of movement for capital but not for people’, as if the anti-immigrant narrative rested on nothing but sand. The fact is, the nationalist tale is convincing for a reason. It offers to explain the fact of stagnating wages and hollowed-out communities in a way the progressive left simply cannot. Taking the focus off choices made by immigrants and putting it on those of the ruling class simply flips a fundamentally broken binary on its head. More often than not, it leaves people perplexed as to why anyone would think that such an argument in any way defeats the assertion that deporting immigrants would improve the British job market.

Better Politics is Possible

A mass internationalist movement for socialism and justice will remain a mere notion as long its proponents insist on situating a neoliberal ‘elite’ as the one and only problem, and not the system of which the chiefs of neoliberal institutions are simply the most visible beneficiaries.

People will continue to look to national leaders and ultimately to nationalism for salvation as long as socialists refuse to accept that not everything which shapes and has shaped political economy are choices made by national figures.

But neoliberal leadership did not create the post-Fordist world by decree. Likewise Corbyn’s industrial strategy, and still less his immigration plans, cannot bring Fordism back at a stroke. Only a critique of the capitalist system itself can reveal how profoundly inadequate the allegedly ‘realistic’ views of would-be left nationalists like Paul Embery and Eddie Dempsey are to the crisis of contemporary capitalism and the breakdown of social-liberal politics across Europe. Such a critique will have to be socialist as well as internationalist. That means making room for international institutions like the EU in socialist politics.

This is an old fight, one which the internationalist left has often lost. So-called ‘yellow’ socialists like Pierre Biétry stood opposed to progressive ‘reds’ well over a century ago. The founder of the first socialist party in Britain, Henry Hyndman, was a committed nationalist described by Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor as a man keen to “set English workmen against foreigners”. He was also a virulent anti-Semite. Nationalist socialism has been and remains a dangerous presence within our movement, worthy of as much (if not more) attention than nationalists without. This is Labour’s problem, and it is the Labour movement’s to resolve, on its own terms. We must ask for more.

Overcoming the impasse posed by Brexit and nationalism requires us to bust certain myths, particularly ones around de-industrialisation. A diverse working class population still exists in the UK and around the world, and it still requires a politics of its own. But nationalist socialism cannot provide a viable working-class politics: indeed, it prevents us from even imagining such a thing in coherent terms.

If the ongoing Brexit farce has contributed anything positive to political discourse, it’s that we now have a clearer picture of where the reactionary encampments within our movement lie. An opportunity to clear them out once and for all now exists. If the EU poses problems for the British left, freedom of movement is not one of them. With this in mind, we can connect an understanding of how technological change has shaped society with a radical vision of the future in which technology, internationalism and workers’ democracy all intersect to transcend the false choices handed to us by a world divided by capital and borders.


Nolan MacGregor (@Nolan_MacGregor)

Nolan MacGregor is a political data analyst and Labour activist. He writes about philosophy and politics.