Migration: Moving people, moving capital

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Young Central American migrants ride atop the northbound freight train called “La Bestia” on their journey through Mexico toward the United States. Mexican activist and photographer Irineo Mujica was one of the first to publish photo documentation of this migrant route, fraught with run-ins with organized crime.

by Richard Gaunt
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Immigrant and migrant workers who depend on precarious wage labor are at the crux of global capitalism’s explosive crises. As members of the global poor and dispossessed, they are often subject to super-exploitation and physically dangerous conditions. Immigration and migration remain poorly understood phenomena, and yet immigrants are among the most important political agents today. What are we to make of the dramatic spike in labor migration in recent decades? What broader political and economic forces are behind this?

We must do everything we can to denounce the racism and xenophobia that is rapidly normalizing following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president as divisive scapegoating, and we must push deeper into their structural origins. A perspective that includes the dynamics of the world economy suggests that global capital both relies on and produces uprooted, mobile labor.

As capital globalizes, people, money and commodities move rapidly across the globe. Sociologist William Robinson writes that the globalized era is defined by a “dramatic decline… in the material and political obstacles to [capital’s] unfettered movement.”  Enabled by neoliberal policies that eliminate trade barriers, commodities are now produced and distributed in complex global networks. Today, national economies are increasingly subservient to the transnational economy. This shift to a global economy has occurred through massive structural violence resulting from privatization and neoliberal policies that remove state restrictions to capital’s flow. The resulting changes have destabilized lives all over the world, and triggered the dramatic rise in net international migration from 93 million in 1980 to 243 million in 2015, according to the World Bank.

Few places have felt this destabilizing shift as directly as Mexico, whose economic structure was rewritten in the early 1990s by the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA is an archetypal neoliberal policy, as it entailed the near total elimination of trade restrictions between the U.S. and Mexico, and initiated mass privatizations.

This resulted in the decimation of local economies in Mexico, and the dispossession of peasants and indigenous people. Millions of dispossessed peasants and disenfranchised workers became a new commodified export for the global economy: cheap labor.

In the years following NAFTA, Mexico exported more labor per-capita than any other country in the world, according to United Nations documents. In these years, as similar changes swept other Latin American countries, Mexico also took on a role as a “gateway” for northward migration, as people made the arduous journeys north through Mexico to the United States. Samir Amin notes that these workers are now dispersed in maquiladora, agricultural and service sector jobs that rely on “precarious” labor whose low skill status, and/or lack of citizenship reduces the capacity for negotiation afforded to more “stable” workers.

NAFTA and other economic programs are representative of the structural ways in which the global economy simultaneously creates and relies on uprooted immigrant labor. In effect, this means that the same processes and interests that uproot people’s lives, also appropriate those lives to supply the labor for global capital. Today, those who are geographically uprooted form an ideal workforce for the global capitalist class. As Robinson points out, their flexibility, and in some cases “deportability” makes them vulnerable, and yet instrumentally necessary components of transnational production. Knowing this, President Trump may find it difficult to carry out his promise to deport millions of undocumented workers on whose labor global capital depends.

The conflicts surrounding immigration are symptomatic of the global nature of the relationship between capital and labor. Because of this, migrating workers have a unique political agency in today’s global economy. The days of centralized, geographically stable, union labor are behind us, and with it the forms of organizing that were successful in the past.

Migrant workers must become an agent of labor struggle for the present day. This will require thinking and acting beyond borders, exposing racist scapegoating of immigrants as profit-protecting lies, forging solidarity between and among sectors of workers, and finding new ways to organize flexible labor to reclaim power. Most importantly, we must challenge the foundations of capitalism, which destroy any possibility of stability and livelihood for the vast majority of the world’s population.

Richard Gaunt is a 2016 graduate of Ithaca College.

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