Je sans frontieres? By William Bowles

30 August 2005

Although I was born into a relatively poor working class family (my father was London organiser of the Musicians Union and earned a very low wage), I was also privileged because my extended family of aunts and uncles (over 30) and the political culture that for the most part, they embraced, gave me access to riches denied to most of my contemporaries.

I am an archetypal ‘red diaper’ baby, raised in the radical political culture produced by the struggles of the first half of the 20th century, that of socialism and the battle against the rise of Fascism. Of course it had its downside as being raised in what was effectively a ‘Bohemian’ environment set me apart from the ‘mainstream’, dominant culture of those I grew up with in my very typical South London, working class neighbourhood.

I was raised both inside and outside English society and indeed, to this day, I identify not with England but with London where I spent the first thirty years of my life before relocating to another big city, New York. And once established there, I considered myself a New Yorker, fully immersed in the life and culture of the place. New York was just as much ‘my town’ as it was to those who were born there (many of whom were themselves also first or second-generation immigrants). Much later, I found that the same thing applied to the third city I adopted, Johannesburg, proving, if to no one but to myself, that it is possible to be a citizen of the planet and carry one’s identity with you no matter where you live.

My grandparents on both sides were exiles; on one side, from rural England, the other from Russia. I think it’s true to say that I am in every sense of the word, a child of the 20th century, a product of the vast upheavals of peoples and cultures that 19th and 20th century capitalism and its rival, produced.

Perhaps this explains the wanderlust that many of my family possesses, who have spread across the planet and who now live in more than a dozen countries.

At the other end of the century that produced my parents and of course, me, in the age of alleged globalisation, there are two contradictory forces at work, one, the desire for the unimpeded movement of capital to wherever the return is the highest and the other, the desire on the part of the rich minority of the planet’s population to restrict the free movement of labour in order to protect their privilege.

The latter is of course the product of the former, such is the irony of the so-called neo-liberal agenda that seeks to impose its will on those last vestiges of the global commons, the collective ownership of resources so vital to survival such as water and of course, land and its natural resources, from the crops to the minerals found beneath it.

GasThose in the West who pour scorn on the ‘it’s all about oil’ posse are of course, more than somewhat disingenuous about events and their causes, preferring ridicule to analysis, not that it takes much to figure out that as ever, it’s about resources, always has been and until such time as we remove the scourge of capitalism, it always will be.

As my comrade S. Artesian says in his latest and as always, excellent essay on capital, ‘Like Oil and Water…Land and Labor…Then and Now’ says:

At origin capitalism distinguishes itself from its predecessors, and from coincident modes, through the enforced separation of land and labor. A specific relationship is established in this specific form of separation. Ownership, private property, exists as a condition of production. Ownership appears as a value in itself, as wealth in itself but essentially, ownership only has value to that degree that it transforms itself, is “lost,” into the production of exchange values. The separation, expulsion of labor from land, is the source of that exchange value. Labor finds itself without use. The “owner” of the labor finds it useless, save for its value in exchange for the means of subsistence. Ownership of land, its organization as production for exchange, the expulsion of labor, and the engagement of labor power are the necessary, and coincident, opposites forming the totality, the identity of capitalism. Each exists only in the other.

I know that for many of us, the language used above might seem somewhat opaque, ‘exchange values’ and so forth but every last one of us who sell our labour must surely know that at heart, our labour is nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold, allegedly in a free market, that essential mantra of capital.

But although the ‘captains’ of industry continue to mouth off about the ‘4 Freedoms’ of capitalism (as the chairman of the Confederation of British Industry informed listeners this am, 30/8/04 on Radio 4), free movement of labour being one of them, the reality as we all know, is that labour is anything but free and least of all, free to move except for the privileged few or the even more courageous (and desperate) amongst us willing to take on the global police state being constructed around us.

So, back to ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ or ‘Plays Without Borders’, the title of a television quiz game played between countries back when the Common Market was a novel idea. Teams from different towns within the EU would compete, playing silly games, the idea as the title obviously implies, to break down barriers between peoples and countries.

And once again, it should also be apparent that racism and xenophobia come in right handy when it comes down to the reality of the ‘free movement of labour’, pitting one worker against another and indeed, one country against another as the attitudes of European manufacturing capital towards the emerging industrial giant of China so clearly shows.

The comment I referred to above by the chairman of the CBI was made in the context of the free movement of goods, not labour, as he attempted to justify the importation of billions of dollars-worth of clothes being held up in ports across the EU. ‘Free trade’, one of the other ‘F’s’ of global capitalism, is it seems, also a very ‘flexible’ concept, just a the ‘free movement of labour’ is.

And to his (dubious) credit, the boss of the CBI did point out that ‘we’ can’t have it both ways, either Free Trade is indeed free and unimpeded or it ain’t. What he didn’t point out however, was that many of the plants in China that produces the flood of consumer goods are in fact producing for Western companies that used to manufacture in the developed world but who have relocated production to countries like China, companies like Nike that are in reality no more than marketing and distributing corporations whose shares are owned by financial behemoths, largely banks, pension funds, insurance companies and investment houses.

Things are as they say, coming to a head, with a growing clash of capitalisms. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, with those who can’t adjust going to the wall. So in yet another paradox, we are returning, in leaps and bounds to an earlier age even as we allegedly stride forward toward a new ‘golden age’, an age of intra-capitalist rivalries that the world has not witnessed for at least half a century and all of it brought about by the downfall of the Soviet ‘empire’ and the revolution in production brought about by the revolution in Information Technology that has made ‘globalisation’ possible.

Pretty much alone amongst my ‘leftie’ brethren, I wholeheartedly advocate the removal of all barriers to the movements of people, that is frontiers, border controls and the like, and indeed consider it one of the cornerstones of any genuine socialist project that I would lend my name to. To advocate anything less is to submit to a narrow, parochial view of what it is to be a socialist. Okay, so I’m out of step with pretty much the entire population but so what?

Such a position is, I contend far from idealist but central to any future socialism that will come about, albeit in ‘nation states’ but nation states that will exist in a very different world than the one we presently inhabit. To quote once more from S Artesian’s essay but I trust in my proposed future context:

The old relations of production cling to emerging revolution like an umbilical cord, and a tether. So that the opportunity for the success of a new society, for the triumph of the ruled, the dispossessed, the expropriated, appears to reconstruct the failures of the old society, to repeat past defeats, to confirm the impossibility of revolution, to re-form the collapsing relations of capital, of private property.

In other words, if we attempt to reproduce the old relations in all its forms simply because it’s politically expedient to do so, we will inevitably reproduce many of the old and outmoded relations. If we can learn one lesson from the experience of the Soviet Union, it is precisely what to dump and what to carry along with us or as Karl Marx put it:

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

No doubt just as whenever I mention ‘peak oil’ in anything less than words of reverence, mention of abolishing borders will bring howls of anguish from people who envisage hordes of the ‘great unwashed’ cueing up to ‘invade’ us to get ‘free health care and housing’ but as the admission of countries like Poland to the EU prove, even though it has an unemployment rate of something like 20%, perhaps 100,000 Poles have taken ‘advantage’ of ‘je sans frontieres’ to come to the UK, hardly a flood, and in any case, in a world without frontiers, the movements of people will be determined by many factors, not the least of which would be the two-way movement, both in and out of countries. In addition, there would be no need of the vast security apparatus needed to police borders, nor the need to combat organised crime syndicates that are the inevitable product of such policies.

Most important of all I contend is the fact that people move not because they want to uproot themselves from their families, their friends and everything they know and move to a country that will in all likelihood reject them but because sheer survival dictates it. That it is the economic and consequent political policies of the developed world that has forced them to take such drastic action. Hence the notion of ‘je sans frontieres’ must be viewed as part of a larger programme of action for any future that any of us are likely to want to live in.

And in any case, I am realistic enough to know that such a situation is unlikely to happen until such time as we are in a position to get rid of capitalism, but this is the point. It’s to make the point of principle just as I, along with millions of others advocate a more rational and just use of resources, something else that is not likely to happen until we get rid of capitalism but it doesn’t stop us from advocating it, nor make it any the less the right course of action to take.

The bottom line here as a socialist is to establish the cause of events and to present a reasoned analysis no matter how ‘out of step’ it may appear to be, rather than give in to ‘received opinion’ and to articulate solutions based upon what one thinks is ‘popular’ or acceptable at this particular time. To do any less is not only to be cowardly about one’s convictions but to mislead people into lending support to a position that is to put it mildly disingenuous at best, and at worst, totally misleading and opportunist.


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