It is often the case that the cuts to public services are justified by the claim that the service is abused by immigrants. The claim most often made is that it is just the benefits are the reason that the ‘foreigners’ come here, they just want to leach off of the tax-payer and so on. It then follows that there should be cuts to benefits to deter immigrants, either to drive them into work or to stop the flow of immigrants totally. Benefit cuts will supposedly deter immigrants from settling here and pull the rug from under the feet of people already settled in the country, removing the safety net for the working-class as a whole. In the minds of many the ‘foreigner’ has two hands too many in the pot and this widespread perception (itself a product of a media campaign) the immigrant is left a vulnerable target. It doesn’t matter that out of the hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans who settled in Britain since 2004, only a few thousand have become benefit claimants. Similarly it has to be noted that only 2% of housing has gone to immigrants over the same time period.
The neoliberal model can push open borders on the grounds of free movement of labour and anti-racist individualism. The system requires an endless flow of desperate workers which can be exploited readily. Immigrants serve as a reserve army of labour which undermines the wages of ‘native’ workers. This holds down wages to ensure high profits for capitalists. In turn creates a division between ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ workers which can be used to pit the working-class against itself. The ethnic tensions are a result of economic relations, out of this comes a nativist populism which can be used to attack the standard of living for both ‘foreign’ and ‘native’ workers. This is just another version of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, except it is ethnically charged to provoke nationalist sentiments among the self-identified ‘deserving’. This is to put aside the racism which emanates from the old colonial role of European nations, with Britain this takes the form of anti-black and anti-Asian sentiments typically. But let's focus on the economic foundation for a moment.
The system produces reserve armies of labour in the form of dole wastelands of unemployment and through the import of cheap ‘foreign’ labour. The contraction and expansion of the reserve armies of labour can undermine the wages of workers, even workers in trade unions. The need for a continuous flow of labour collides with the interests of the labour movement which in turn resorts to pitting relatively privileged workers against the unprotected worker. In short it’s a false hope that the limiting of immigration could reinstate the privileges of ‘native’ workers many of which have been decimated over the last 30 years. We should be careful not to sneer at working-class ‘bigotry’. The widespread support for an end to immigration entirely from the working-class will be pandered to when the economic system has gorged itself on cheap labour and can do without another injection for a while. The move by trade unions to protect the interests of the ‘native’ working-class is not entirely “irrational” and “racist”. But it is short-sighted.
It’s when the discourse descends into cleverly glossed language about the problems created by ‘cultural differences’ – e.g. that the Jews bring crime and disease as The Daily Mail once claimed – then it has sunk to xenophobic chauvinism. The same can be said of the calls for British withdrawal from the European Union and the whole debate over the EU in the UK. Withdrawal would only open up Britain to even more rapacious and destructive market forces. If it’s not Brussels it will be Washington! Economic integration actually may offer a solution. The answer could be multinational unions formed to transcend borders to protect the rights, freedoms and standard of living for ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ worker alike. This may be the only way to forge bonds of solidarity in the face of such division. We have to fight against the proto-fascist tendencies and nativist movements which seek to pit the working-class against itself. It can’t simply be that the best way to defend the working-class is to defend the free movement of labour under neoliberalism.
It’s not to say that the free movement of people is wrong in itself, rather the particular mode of immigration under conditions of exploitation has a significant downside. It is worth noting that the individual migrant would still be restrained by conditions of subjection, so it could hardly be described as ‘free’ in that sense. We would only describe the working-class as free with reference to negative liberty, the freedom from various forms of constraint. It’s clear that the main reason so many Africans try to get across to Spain or Italy on rafts is that the state of affairs in Africa has been horrendous for a very long time. Only to be captured by the Spanish police or navy and sometimes even killed by Italian fishermen. Similarly we find that the people fleeing genocide in Sudan to Israel have been met with appalling racism, there were race riots in Tel Aviv a couple of months ago and the Likudnik Miri Regev said that the blacks are a “cancer” on the Jewish state.