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Free movement only for capital, not labour: Friedman v Louw

Patrick Craven is the former spokesperson of Cosatu and SAFTU, now living in Scotland.

More and more refugees and “economic migrants” are fleeing to richer countries in the hope of finding a better life and governments all over the world are seeking protectionist economic solutions at the expense of each other, which will deepen the looming economic recession.

Business Day has hosted an interesting war of words between columnist Steven Friedman and Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation (FMF), arising from remarks by Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, a former chairman of the FMF, about the problems caused by the influx into the city of undocumented “illegal” immigrants.

Friedman pointed to Mashaba’s inconsistency of calling for a “free market” and condemning government interference in business, while at the same time demanding punitive measures against workers who exercise their right to move from one country to another without the correct documentation: “It is surely impossible to advocate free markets without insisting that people have the right to work where they choose, wherever they are born, and that employers have the right to hire them.”

Louw’s response was an incoherent diatribe, mainly using rhetorical questions such as: “Do Friedman’s confabulations not imply endorsement of criminality?” He not only failed to answer the charge of inconsistency against his co-thinker, but compounded it in his assertion that “no-one debates the right to migrate more vigorously than libertarians”, which is totally at odds with Mashaba’s advocacy of stricter control over people’s right to migrate.

I am far closer to Friedman’s view than Louw’s, but I feel that the argument missed the opportunity to raise the much more fundamental question of why governments impose more and stricter controls to make it harder for workers to move across national borders and the why virulent nationalism has re-emerged around the world, in which 34 new nations have been created since 1990 and breakaway movements in other countries such as Scotland are thriving.

Leaders of two of the most powerful nations, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and many others, have resorted to the crudest forms of conservative nationalism to win support. More and more refugees and “economic migrants” are fleeing to richer countries in the hope of finding a better life. Governments all over the world are seeking protectionist economic solutions at the expense of each other, which will deepen the looming economic recession.

Even the capitalists’ own extremely cautious moves to create multi-national institutions such as the African Union and the European Union, have done nothing to reduce the power of the separate nation member-states and the EU is in danger of collapsing following the Brexit vote in the UK.

Worst of all is the danger of workers being taken in by this nationalist and xenophobic propaganda and being persuaded to turn against fellow workers in other countries and to support policies which shift the blame for high unemployment, deepening poverty and widening inequality from the monopoly capitalist system on to fellow workers in other countries and specifically those entering “their own” country, whether legally or illegally.

This is particularly worrying in Africa where the most national boundaries were never based on the democratic decisions of the people but by colonial rulers, like those who met in Berlin in 1884-85 to carve up the territories they had conquered and enslaved, with no regard to the languages or cultural traditions, least of all the wishes of the people living there.

All this makes it necessary to revisit the debate around what Marxists have called the “National Question”.

Marx and Engels in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto posed the need for workers of all countries to unite, and internationalism has remained the cornerstone of the revolutionary workers’ movement ever since.

The nation states that were formed by the new capitalist ruling class were, as Lenin put it: “An organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalises and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the classes.” [His emphasis.]

At the same time, however, after much debate, the communist movement agreed that as imperialism led to the colonisation of huge areas of the world, the communist movement must recognise the emerging progressive, anti-imperialist form of nationalism, and support the colonised peoples’ democratic right to self determination.

But they opposed any illusions that simply replacing the colonial regime by an indigenous “comprador capitalist” class would in itself solve the underlying problems facing workers, a view brilliantly expounded by Frantz Fanon, which has been vindicated by subsequent developments in the former colonial world.

As he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, in a prophetic forecast that could have been written about South Africa today, and specifically the ANC, wrote: “After independence, the [liberation] party sinks into an extraordinary lethargy… Now that they have fulfilled their historical mission of leading the bourgeoisie to power, they are firmly invited to retire so that the bourgeoisie may carry out its mission in peace and quiet.

But we have seen that the national bourgeoisie of under-developed countries is incapable of carrying out any mission whatever… The party, which during the battle had drawn to itself the whole nation, is falling to pieces. The intellectuals who on the eve of independence rallied to the party, now make it clear by their attitude that they gave their support with no other end in view than to secure their slices of the cake of independence. The party is becoming a means of private advancement.”

In these few words Fanon explains why Africa’s political liberation has led to no change in its economy which remains in the hands of the colonial capitalists, and also why these leaders have embraced the imperialist powers’ view of the nation state and never questioned the boundaries imposed by the colonialists.

African leaders, and even some progressive political and labour leaders still regard fellow Africans a “foreigners” and blame them for our woes. Why do leaders of liberation movements adopt exactly the same policies as their former colonial masters? Why has the ideal of pan-Africanism been abandoned by all the continent’s leaders?

Lenin wrote nearly 100 years ago that: “Capital in the advanced countries has outgrown the boundaries of national states.” That is even more true today, yet far from becoming more unified the world is becoming more fragmented. This reflects the profound impasse of capitalism, which needs a global market in which capital can move freely but cannot do without the separate nation states to maintain order and to divide and subdue the working class. That is the rationale for Mashaba’s outburst and his glaring inconsistency.

But is also reflects the failure of the leaders of the left parties and unions around the world to offer a way out of this impasse and to accept that there can no longer be any solution of the national question on a capitalist basis. Instead they should revive and popularise the central demand of Marxists for workers of the world to unite and built a workers’ socialist federation [which was the original conception of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, before its degeneration under Stalin], leading ultimately to the withering away of the state and the creation of a communist commonwealth. DM


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