“A nation WITHOUTH BORDERS is not a nation at all.” So tweeted Donald Trump, and it’s one of the few things he’s said that’s actually true. The question is what is to replace the present system of capitalist nation-states? Will it be increased chauvinism and repression, or international working class solidarity and international socialist revolution? It is in this light that we have to understand the issue of the immigrant children being ripped from the arms of their parents and, in fact, the very issue of mass immigration itself.
There is no understanding the issue from a purely national point of view. How can it be simply a matter of “abolishing ICE” when there are 65 million refugees globally (vs. “only” 40 million during WW II)? How can it be simply a matter of the cruelty of Donald Trump when the newly elected government of Italy refused to allow a boat of refugees to land, potentially leaving them all to drown at sea? (For more on the refugee crisis in Europe, see or listen to this interview.)
Nor can the issue be understood without looking at the history the nation state, which was essential to the development of capitalism itself. When the rising capitalist class overthrew feudalism in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century, it united large land masses into nation states. At that time, that was a progressive development compared to what came before it, when what dominated was little feudal fiefdoms, with people (and, therefore, markets) divided up into this little valley and that little hillside. The unification into the nation states both widened the horizons of the masses of people and also opened up markets to a further development of the productive forces – larger and more efficient factories, for example. The national identity of the people of France, Britain, Germany and other countries was essential to the rule of the capitalist class vs. the feudal aristocracy; but it also united the capitalists with the workers in their respective countries. That is still true today.
In the former colonial world, the process was somewhat different. Rather than the indigenous capitalist class developing the nation states out of the actual situation on the ground, these states were drawn up by outside forces – by world imperialism. North Africa/Western Asia (the so-called “Middle East”) is a perfect example. Much of that land was controlled by the old Ottoman Empire. When the Ottomans (among others) were defeated in WW I, the British and French imperialists stepped in. Through the Sykes-Picot Accord, they decided which of these imperialist thieves would get to loot and plunder which part of the old Ottoman Empire. In order to peacefully reach this agreement among thieves, they simply decided on new national borders based on what suited them. In this way the borders of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries were drawn up. Now, after 100 years, a national identity may have developed in those countries, but we in the imperialist nations should never forget how those borders were drawn up in the first place.
“Demise of Nation State”
Now all of this is breaking down. In April of this year the London-based Guardian newspaper published a signal article called “The demise of the nation-state”. In it they explained: “The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstances. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue.” This “apocalyptic nationalism” is an expression of the crisis of the working class.
“Race to Bottom”
In the industrialized world, workers have seen their wages driven down and down as the owners of capital – the capitalist class – flees high wage countries. From the United States, for example, first they fled to Mexico and from there to China. (Now, as wages in China are tending to rise, they are fleeing to Vietnam and other even lower wage areas.) They are also fleeing to avoid paying taxes and to avoid being subject to pro-worker laws against layoffs and other pro-worker rules as well as to avoid environmental regulations.
There is another aspect to this crisis for the working class: The capitulation of social democracy. Throughout the European Union, one national government after another is deregulating and cutting back on social services in order to compete. All the old socialist and labor parties have capitulated to this globalization of capitalism and have led the way in attacking their own working classes.
Another fundamental aspect of how mass immigration is affecting world politics is the crisis in the underdeveloped world. To a large degree, this is an economic crisis. What, after all, helped generate the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria – the “Arab Spring” – but the globalization of capitalism? In all those countries, the regimes sought to attract global capital by deregulation and privatization. This meant even greater impoverishment of the workers and peasants of those countries. (It was also accompanied by massive corruption and enrichment of little cliques surrounding the individual heads of state.) As the Guardian article put it, “the suppressed consequences of 20th century recklessness in the once-colonized world are erupting, cracking nations into fragments and forcing populations into post-national solidarities: roving tribal militias, ethnic and religious sub-states and super-states…. a nihilistic backlash from the ones who have been most terrorized and despoiled.”
The crisis is seen in the form of inter-national wars, such as the war in Syria. We also see the “nihilistic backlash” in the form of the rise of ethnic and communal war and slaughter.
This is what is driving tens of millions of people from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere to risk life and limb and leave their homes to try to survive elsewhere. In Latin America, tens of millions are driven from their homes by economic disaster as well as “nihilism” in the form of gangland violence.
Working Class in Industrialized World
The working class in the industrialized world has responded by turning away from its traditional social democratic parties. Why, after all, should they continue to rely on these parties when they have been some of the main culprits in pushing through attacks on workers? Further, social democracy is based on capitalist stability, which means among other things stable nation states. But both the nation states as well as capitalism in general have been anything but stable. So, in a struggle to try to return to the “good old days”
of steadily rising incomes, and the tried and true national identity as French, British, Italian or American, tens of millions of workers are moving towards chauvinism. That is why millions of workers in Britain voted to leave the EU (“Brexit”), tens of millions of workers in the US voted to “make America great again” and the vote for the right wing chauvinist Five Star and the League in Italy.
The attempt to restore the relative stability of the old nation states means workers trying to bond even closer to their “own” capitalist class – a dead end if there ever was one.
It is also why the slogan to “abolish ICE” is inadequate. ICE is not the issue; the refugee disaster globally is. So, how should the working class respond to this disaster?
Barely over a quarter of Americans (27%) support Trump’s policy of ripping children out of the arms of their parents. But this is just recoiling from the most brutal face of an inhuman general policy. Workers, and the workers’ movement should consider Trump’s comment that a nation without strong borders isn’t really a nation in light of the fact that since capital can jump borders without any difficulty, we already in effect do not have strong borders. The more desperate workers are in the underdeveloped world, the worse wages and conditions they will accept there, attracting even greater capital to those countries. Meanwhile, even more will be forced one way or another to enter the higher wage and less politically unstable countries like the United States and the countries of the EU. There, if they have no rights, they will be driven to work for even lower pay and without the right to organize.
The drive to crack down on “illegal” immigration is leading to the election of the most right wing, anti-worker governments, including those in the US, Britain and Italy. Any worker who thinks that these governments won’t use their increased power to crack down on all worker rights is sadly mistaken.
Meanwhile, workers who accept this cold-hearted crack down, are violating the most basic principle of the workers’ movement – international working class solidarity. It will be impossible to rebuild our movement without this principle.
So, by refusing workers the same rights that the owners of capital have, we end up with the worst of all worlds.
Instead, the workers movement – and socialists inside that movement – should be calling for:
- workers to have the same right as does capital – free movement.
- Full citizenship rights for all workers, wherever they live and work. This includes the full right to organize into unions and the right to strike.
We should also be calling for international working class solidarity in deeds not just words. In this light, we cannot escape the issue of Syria, given the tens of millions who have been forced to flee that country. Such international solidarity means first of all for the workers movement in the industrialized countries to have a dialog with the workers and the revolutionaries in and from Syria (and the other surrounding countries) to figure out what is happening, what went wrong and how the working class can intervene now. One thing to consider would be an international working class boycott of all arms and military forces entering Syria. It would mean also encouraging and supporting a workers’ movement against imperialist intervention into Syria. That would mean not only the US, but even more important Russia and Iran as well as Turkey.
As far as Latin America, it would mean starting with international working class action, including international strike action, to establish a basic wage sufficient to buy a basic minimum basket of goods as well as a guaranteed job and basic social services (guaranteed health care, unemployment insurance and pensions for starters).
In the end, though, we are facing the full consequences of the flowering of one of the main contradictions of 21st century capitalism: The crisis of the nation state in the era of global capitalism. Workers cannot control what we do not own, and there is no ownership of capital on simply an individual level. Nor on the level of small groups of individuals. What is necessary is to socialize the ownership of capital – to place it in the hands of society as a whole.
Then, however, we are faced with the question of who controls society – will it be the working class or will it be a little clique of bureaucrats? Along with the social ownership of capital, what’s needed is a government – a “state” – under the direct, democratic control and management of the working class itself.