Refugees and Capitalism

ONE OF the charges laid at refugee campaigners is that they represent only a minority of the population. Anti-racists are right to say that they will fight for what is right even if they are in the minority.

But we must also explain why Howard has been successful in winning majority support and an election by playing the race card.

The growth of refugee rights activism disproves the idea that racism is an “innate” part of human nature. But neither is it enough to suggest, as some writers to newspaper letters pages have, that most ordinary people have simply been “duped” by the government’s lies because they are “uneducated” or “stupid”.

Socialists argue that racism is an ideology specific to the capitalist system, first arising with the early phase of colonial expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Western European nations were subduing other parts of the world and plundering their resources.

This was driven by an emerging class of capitalists seeking to expand trade and accumulate wealth.

But while their ideology was one of freedom and equality, their system depended on the use of forced labour in and from the colonies—the slave trade.

Britain was involved in the forced transportation of up to 30 million people in the period 1500-1800.

Initially whites as well as blacks were forced to become indentured labourers in the mines and plantations of the West Indies and North America.

But slavery provoked massive opposition from ordinary people.

Racism was developed to justify this horrific trade in human beings.

The use of white slaves was phased out and a massive campaign was waged to convince ordinary people in the colonial powers that blacks were “inferior” and “subhuman” and so could be bought and sold.

Even after slavery was abolished in the 19th century racism lived on, sustained by pseudo-scientific ideas based on twisted versions of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

It was also used to justify white colonial powers’ conquest and domination of indigenous peoples.

The end of slavery did not mean, however, that there was no longer any material basis for racist ideas.

Racism has always been used by capitalism to divide and rule over the working class.

Our rulers will whip up racism to keep workers weak and demoralised, in particular when the system is in crisis or the level of workers’ struggle is high.

The racism of slavery was used to justify the forced movement of millions of people.

Today racism is built on the opposite— stopping people moving.

Immigration controls institutionalise the idea that people from predominantly non-white countries pose a threat to “our” way of life.

BEFORE THE late 19th century, there were few controls on people’s movement between countries.

Colonial outposts like the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia were built on waves of migration from Europe.

The expansion of capitalism in Australia led to the growth of a powerful working class.

When the economy went into crisis in the late 19th century, workers fought back to defend their livelihoods.

After defeating these struggles, the ruling class was determined that their power would never be challenged again.

They constructed the historic “Australian settlement” around the time of Federation. The nation was to be built on three main planks: protectionism, tying trade unions to the state through “arbitration”, and White Australia.

The White Australia Act of 1901 was a more extreme version of similar laws around the world, like the 1905 Aliens Act in Britain, which tried to block the movement of “undesirable” people.

Its effect was to deflect workers’ anger onto foreigners who, it was claimed, were threatening jobs.

The policy succeeded because union leaders and the Labor Party embraced it, fighting to exclude nonwhite labour from Australia rather than win equal rights for all workers.

Immigration controls have never been about stopping all movement of workers.

This can be seen in the way Australian bosses actively recruited masses of southern European workers in the boom after World War Two.

They conveniently ignored White Australia to solve labour shortages by importing darker-skinned workers.

Waves of non-white migrants have been pulled into the heart of Australia’s industry. “Multiculturalism” was brought in to catch up with the reality of Australian capitalism—an economy that has always depended on immigration.

When the long post-war economic boom ended in the 1970s, immigration levels began to be cut back. Partly this was because business no longer needed such large supplies of workers.

But mainly it was to strengthen racist ideas and divisions within the working class.

This explains how the bosses’ Financial Review can call for more immigration to boost the economy but also give qualified support to mandatory detention of refugees.

Western governments have implemented “neo-liberal” policies, which seek to remove restrictions on the movement of capital and money.

Yet they also want to deny freedom of movement to poor people seeking a better life. Anti-refugee hysteria has become a preferred tool of Western governments since the 1990s.

People become refugees because they are fleeing war or repression, or because they want to escape from poverty.

Western governments bear a large portion of the blame for these problems.

They back up Third World dictatorships through arms sales and military aid and bleed poor countries dry through the IMF and World Bank.

Our rulers’ main reason for scapegoating asylum seekers is to sow racist divisions and weaken resistance to driving down all workers’ wages and conditions.

For white workers there is no material benefit from racism.

Detailed studies of the United States have shown that while white workers earn more than blacks in the segregated South, their wages were actually below those of black workers in the North.

SO WHY do white workers accept racist ideas? Firstly, capitalism pits various sections of workers against each other, in particular through the division of the working class into different wage and skill categories.

Often, niches in the workforce are filled by particular ethnic groups. White workers are more likely to be found in skilled positions, while migrants are left with most of the lower-paid, unskilled work.

These groups must then compete for the pitiful wages and social services the ruling class is willing to offer them. Immigrants come to be seen as a “drain” on these resources.

This situation creates the possibility for racial antagonism among workers, which is then exploited by bosses to their own advantage.

Secondly, while racism provides no material benefit for white workers, it can give them a “psychological dividend”.

Especially with the insecurity created by falling wages, school and hospital closures and erosion of welfare, the feeling that at least white workers are doing better than migrants can provide false comfort.

Finally, the ruling class backs this up by projecting racist ideas through its control of the mass media, education system and other institutions in society.

At last year’s election Howard campaigned around the jingoistic slogan, “We will decide, and no one else, who comes into this country.” These ideas were given greater power because of Labor’s capitulation to the hysteria.

But the other reason racism has been on the rise is the failure of capitalism to provide real improvements in ordinary people’s lives.

The Financial Review’s Stephen Long paints the picture: “Under-employment is rampant, with nearly a third of part-time employees wanting to work more hours.

“Full-time jobs growth has collapsed. About nine in every additional 10 jobs created during the past 10 years paid less than $500 a week, on current values, and nearly half paid less than $300 a week.”

Racism breeds most easily where there is a “deficit of hope”. Socialists argue that any fight against racism must also be a fight against the system that creates the conditions in which it can take root.

When workers unite across race, ethnicity and culture to fight for better wages and conditions, they begin to challenge racist ideas and confront the real divide in society—that of class.

Capitalism creates the possibility for such struggles by bringing workers together in large, multicultural workplaces.

Labor governments’ failure to bring real improvements in workers’ lives and their acceptance of globalisation means they have also turned to racist scapegoating, introducing mandatory detention in 1992.

In contrast, the anti-capitalist movement opposes those at the top of society who have pushed neo-liberal policies and persecution of refugees. It is vital that anti-capitalists take a lead in connecting the struggle for refugee rights with the organised workers’ movement.

The creation of groups like Labor for Refugees provide an unparalleled opportunity for convincing wide layers of workers that the struggle against racism is at one with the struggle for a better world.

By Jarvis Ryan and Tad Tietze, Socialist Worker 1 March 2002


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