Tarnished dreams in promised lands

Global Apartheid - The New Untouchables
May 17, 1996

Globalisation is a concept much under discussion these days. But writers on either side of the debate agree that one striking development of the past 15 years is the increased mobility of capital, both portfolio and fixed capital. Labour, by contrast, is said to be relatively immobile, according to economists such as Lester Thurow and Robert Reich, US secretary for labour. They argue that in a world of footloose capital and stay-at-home labour, the appropriate policy is to do everything to attract as much capital, both domestic and foreign, to stay in the country and provide the workers with jobs. The world economy may be being globalised, or merely internationalised as it was during the half century before 1914, but today labour is much less mobile than it was in the 19th century. Is this really so?

Here are two books which highlight the global mobility of labour in the late 20th century. Nigel Harris is a political economist, one of the most persistently innovative writers on matters of development. Anthony Richmond is now emeritus professor of sociology at the York University in Canada and has a lifetime record of writing on problems of race, ethnicity and migration. Both of these books reveal the dark underbelly of global capitalism - the worldwide movement of legal and illegal immigrants and refugees, their struggle to find and maintain a niche in the interstices of the global market order, the attendant racism, ethnic conflict and, through it all, the emergence of a new world, an expression that is common to the subtitles of both books.

Of the two authors, Harris is the more interesting. He was one of the first to be sensitive to the new emerging economic order. This is his fourth book in 12 years. All of them have tracked the decline of the old certainties of North and South and pointed to the dangers of nationalism and armed conflict. But he has done this, being the creative Marxist he is, in a positive rather than normative/moralistic tone. Migration, for him, is a response to the demand for relatively unskilled labour in western countries as well as for relatively skilled labour in oil exporting states. Often it is the same type of skilled person who migrates to the West to take a job requiring less skills than he/she has, while in the Gulf countries the match between demand and supply of skills is better.

The real innovation in Harris's book is his contention that migration is a problem created not by the migrants but by the "socialised state", and the notion that it exists to promote the welfare of its citizens and that these somehow represent a racially, religiously or linguistically homogenous "nation". While, during the 19th century, states did not restrict migration - they encouraged it - in the late 20th century governments have adopted the rhetoric of separating immigrants from natives and juggled the requirement for labour (if only to do the lower paid jobs that the natives will not take) with the pretension that the welfare of the natives requires excluding the immigrant. As President Carter's Commission of Immigration testified to Congress in 1989: "The actual policy of the US government is quite different from its stated policy, which is the strict control of the border and strict restriction of entry. The de facto policy is to keep the door half open."

Migrants come in many colours and ethnic groups. There are sweated trades in the developed countries as well as developing ones. Throughout the book, Harris is thorough in his research and comprehensive in his coverage. Many of the "progressive" people in developed countries - trade unions, socialist and social democratic parties - face the dilemma that the kind of welfare state they wish to protect is threatened by the emerging global division of labour. Protectionism and immigration control appear attractive. Harris shows how much the socialised state was a myth anyway and, in any case, it is hard to sustain with migration of capital and many industries to the South. "The world economy, it seems, has by now passed the point of no return, and we are set upon the road to a single integrated global economy, regardless of the wishes of governments or citizens. Indeed, any efforts to reverse the process spell catastrophe - and particularly for the central project - the employment at tolerable incomes of all those in the world who wish to work."

Why do people migrate and indeed how do they do it? One strand of social science has always pointed out the miserable condition of the migrant worker - the Mexican wetback, the Indian indentured labourer, the Filipino housemaid, the Turkish gastarbeiter. The misery of the migrant is then blamed on the profiting capitalist. But there is a problem here. Most of the migrant workers - legal and illegal - have volunteered to come. The Mexican workers who come illegally across the boundary risk injury, incarceration and death. Why would they do it if, at the other end, only exploitation awaits? Slavery is one thing; it is involuntary migration. But what about voluntary migration?

Harris is clear eyed on this matter. While there is sweated labour, often poor housing and racism, migrant workers come because they know they will be better off. There are social networks set up by previous migrants and a long chain of agents helping them to get from home to their destination, legally or illegally.

Richmond, by contrast, is in the older social science tradition of regarding immigration as something slightly undesirable. He is keen to argue "the impact of postindustrialism, postmodernism and globalisation on international migration, racial conflict and ethnic nationalism" (from the blurb at the back). His concern is very much the migration from the South to the North. The greater volume of migration, of course, is within the South as Harris demonstrates. But apartheid is a strong emotional symbol and Richmond argues that the new world order is reproducing apartheid on a global scale.

The first part of Richmond's book is devoted to sociological theories. Here, in addition to his well-known 1955 study, Richmond takes on Anthony Giddens's structuration theory in terms of signification, domination and legitimation. The other chapters set out the theory of migration. Perhaps because I am not a sociologist, I found some of the theorising obvious and unhelpful. His book is also full of flow charts and diagrams of the positive and negative forces, push and pull factors with arrows pointing from one box to another in both directions. That said, he does provide an extensive bibliography.

The second part is a comparative study of immigration and racism in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia. All these countries invited immigrant workers in the days of full employment of the 1950s and 1960s. Australia is an exception in having invited Asian migrants only during the 1970s and later. But, by then, in North America and Western Europe, the policy had become more selective or almost a complete ban. But, of course, early migrations generated subsequent supporting waves - families, spouses, etc. Thus immigration continues. But immigrants are not homogeneous groups. Calling them Asian or Afro-Caribbean may look neat on administrative forms but such categories oversimplify. The racism that a Bangladeshi faces in the East End of London is qualitatively miles away from what a Gujarati living in Wembley experiences. Race and class interact. Immigrants have differences among themselves, often imported from their native lands - the Tamil-Sinhala conflict, the Mohajir-Sindhi conflict all live on in the streets of Britain.

But Richmond wants to establish a polar conflict between migrants (black) and locals (white). The apartheid concept powerful in South Africa is problematic at a global level. The dialectics of migration is that it is voluntary on both sides, while governments of the North have to pretend that they are against immigration but not openly racist. Apartheid was enforced on a majority by a minority and, above all, it restricted the mobility - economic, social and geographical - of blacks. Mobility and, indeed, its relative ease is the problem in immigration. But, as Harris shows, migration is not exclusively a black/white problem. It is much more complex and, in another sense, much simpler since it is the attraction of higher income for the immigrant, and higher profits and lower prices for the employers, which keeps immigration going. There is no sign that it will ever stop, or even slow down.

Lord Desai is director, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics.

Global Apartheid: Refugees, Racism and the New World Order

Author - Anthony H. Richmond
ISBN - 0 19 541013 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £12.99
Pages - 3

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