The thief and the cash cow: Twins from a union of enemies

Whether migrants are vilified as 'Thieves' or supported in terms of their 'contributions', they are at all times thought of as objects. Panos Theodoropoulos surveys these narratives, and writes that anti-racists must step up their arguments.

By Panos Theodoropoulos

A few years after the temporary conclusion of the Brexit debacle in the UK, the topic of migration continues to dominate public discourse. Despite the vitriol that has been hurled at migrant workers in Parliament, in the media, and in wider society, our rulers tell us that migration numbers are still too high (some would argue that there is a long list of other, more dangerous things that are ‘too high’, but these are evidently lesser concerns). The ‘height’ of the problem is such that the Conservative government is apparently worried that it will lose them the next election. In a panicked response, James Cleverly has announced the ‘biggest clamp on legal immigration ever’, and we sit and watch as the powers that be regurgitate some of the most tired and overstretched myths about migration in circulation. The extent of misinformation would potentially be comical, if it didn't entail detaining people in modern concentration camps or attempting to transport them to Rwanda.

Before moving on, let's establish two crucial facts. One, the UK's economy intrinsically relies on migrant labour. Two, immigration controls do not deter migration; their real function is to create precarious migrant workers, by making it impossible for them to locate legal employment and thereby pushing them to the shadow economy, where exploitation is most intense and the biggest profits are made.

Governments are obviously aware of these facts. So, other than pure sadism, what is the use of engaging in this crazed, harmful demonisation? A surface level response, which is being repeated by the government themselves, is related to the wishes of the ‘electorate’. Yes, a large proportion of the UK's population is much closer to fascism than they would like to acknowledge. Yet this is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath this layer, there lie more insidious – and rarely admitted – economic reasons that have to do with creating a mass of precarious and exploitable workers. Yet even below this layer lies an entire chain of cultural associations, beliefs, and myths about ourselves, about human worth, about who is acceptable and who is not, that impact far more than society's stance on migration.

These myths, to which both the left and the right contribute, shape ideas and create the ‘common sense’ that frames people’s thinking. And it is through these myths that we can understand troubling underlying assumptions that are rarely interrogated, precisely because they have already established themselves as an aspect of what their proponents consider to be ‘common sense’.

One of these perspectives – a staple of the right wing – is that the presence of migrant workers in the economy lowers wages and impoverishes working conditions. This is what I will call the ‘Thief Argument’. It forms an important pillar of their wider discourse, allowing them to claim that they are not racist; they are simply stating the ‘obvious’, since ‘we have to look out for our own people first’. Most left-wing thinkers (from autonomists to much of the Labour party), respond in exasperation and in what they believe is a defense of migrant workers. They say that migrant workers are ‘good for the economy’ because they passionately work, staff the NHS and other vital services, pay taxes, and are disproportionately not recipients of state benefits. I will call this the ‘Cash Cow Argument’.

Yet, despite their vehement proclamations of mutual enmity, these two sides are much closer than seems at first glance. In a manner not uncommon in UK political discourse (centuries of colonialism tend to leave their mark in a plethora of ways), both the left and the right tend to view migrants purely in terms of their economic costs or benefits to the host society. It is basically the same way that you view your car: if you think that it’s doing a good job, you admire it; if it is underperforming, you want the problem ‘dealt with’. Yet, surprisingly for some, we have not come to these islands simply to work in your warehouses or to benefit from your patronising ‘protection’: we are more than machines. Furthermore, far from being confined to the realm of migration, these twin perspectives betray a wider conception of the human condition under capitalism as such.

The Thief

The ‘Thief Argument’ is probably my favourite, because of how easy it is to dismantle when you have a drunken conversation at the pub with one of its supporters. Yet it still must be confronted because it is strongly established in common discourses and propagated by powerful interests. In all its simplistic glory, the argument states that migrants, either in their quest for jobs and conditions better than the ones they left behind or due to the insecurity of their status, are willing to work for lower wages and in worst conditions than the locals. This, they claim, creates a race to the bottom which impoverishes British workers. This argument then extends to talk about migrants' impact on social housing, access to healthcare, and public services in general (as if it is a nefarious coalition of migrants that has been ruling the UK and has been dismantling and privatising every crevice of social protection that it can get its hands on).

Despite its obvious lies, this argument has managed to worm itself into the ‘common sense’ perceptions of a large portion of society. It is propagated by the the majority of the media, Nigel Farage, the Conservatives, and the right wing of Labour. Its strength lies in its simplicity; the argument seems straightforward and ‘obvious’, so much so that it has polluted some of the most progressive aspects of the Labour party, with even Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 echoing UKIP in blaming international employment agencies that allow employers to ‘import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy’. (Of course, employment agencies in general need to be burnt to the ground. But by connecting migrants with low wages, Jeremy missed the chance to identify the main culprit for those low wages).

The weakness of this argument is that it ignores the wider social and economic conditions that create our common reality in the UK. To begin with what should be obvious, wages and employment conditions are not set by migrants but by the parliament and bosses. It is true that many migrant workers work in jobs that have low wages and poorer labour conditions; yet, as I have analysed elsewhere, they are in these jobs because the UK economic system is designed to have them there. This has been going on since the glory days of the British empire; more recently, the government and employers capitalised on the expansion of the European Union in the early 2000s to provide cheap and insecure labour to many industries that were to profit greatly from it. Indeed, the principle of free movement of the EU is designed, and supported by big business in the UK, almost exclusively for that purpose. Weaker economies are artificially kept in a state of underdevelopment, which pushes migrant workers to the more ‘developed’ economies to serve as workers.

A brief example of how the government–business–migrant dynamic works: Many warehouses and factories rely on agencies to provide them with temporary labour to fill their short-term needs (try to imagine the chaos in one of Amazon’s warehouses during the upcoming Christmas and New Year period). Employment legislation passed by the UK government allows insecure, short-term contracts which employment agencies use to essentially ‘rent out’ workers to the employers that require their labour. The agency usually pays the worker something around minimum wage (once again established by the UK government) while receiving a lot more from the employer than what goes in the pockets of the worker. The insecurity of the contract allows the employer to dispose of the worker once there is no need for them (while at the same time not needing to concern themselves with nuisances such as sickness or maternity pay), and the sheer volume of industries enable the agencies to consistently shuffle their workers from one location to the next, making profits all year round. On the other end of the equation, many migrant workers share some characteristics that are used by this government–business complex in order to boost profitability. These include de-skilling (the non-recognition of qualifications gained abroad), language difficulties, lack of information regarding trade unions and general labour rights, as well as an initial preference for a quick job to get settled down as fast as possible.

As time passes and networks are solidified, occupations become linked with the people performing them, creating a cycle that reproduces itself (think of the ‘Polish plumber’ stereotype). If you have a look at ethnic community groups on Facebook, you will routinely find British employers advertising vacancies there directly rather than rely on recruitment websites. Studies in the US have shown that the extent of employers’ preference to migrant labour is so deep that they have even drawn racialised, biological conclusions as to why certain ethnicities are ‘better’ for certain jobs; for example, some believe that Mexicans are naturally suited to agricultural labour due to the ‘design of their bodies’. It is not the migrant workers that ‘take jobs’; the reality is that the whole economic system, aided by cultural assumptions, is designed to employ migrant workers in those specific conditions.

In a study on the issue of migrant work, Anderson shows that the arguments that ‘migrant workers fill jobs that British people don’t want’ and that ‘migrant workers take jobs’ are equally invalid. Migrant workers simply accept the jobs and conditions that have already been established by the government and by employers, with existing migration controls playing a key role in creating precarious workers that are useful for profitability. The real culprits of the impoverishment of the UK’s working classes are the government and the bosses, and, in the working class, migrant and British workers have a lot more in common than their differences. These basic realities have not changed after Brexit; if anything, they have become worse as migrants have become even more precarious due to immigration restrictions.

The Cash Cow

While the ‘Thief Argument’ is pretty easily confronted through a basic understanding of how the UK’s economy works, the ‘Cash Cow Argument’ is harder to dispel because: 1) it usually comes from a moral source that claims to support migrant workers, and 2) because it is actually true, but in its very proclamation is directly counterproductive to the purposes of migrant solidarity. Yes, the UK economy has been designed to employ migrant workers at specific jobs, and as such it would be unrecognisable (and unimaginable) without them as it is currently structured. Yet how pitiful, weak, and dangerous is it to use a group’s economic benefit to this society as the main argument in support of their humanity?

While the right and the far-right hide their underlying racism behind economic arguments, the most vocal forces of the left betray, through their own proclamations, that they want migrants to stay in the UK only because of the benefits their exploitation brings to British employers. In doing so, they inadvertently support the wishes of capitalists more faithfully than their far-right opponents. The far-right wrongfully claims that ‘migrants are bad because they harm the economy’ and the left replies, very factually, that ‘this economy needs migrants’; in so doing, they prop up the very system they claim to be against. What is common in both of these perspectives is an infatuation with the health of the UK’s capitalist economy and a simultaneous conception of the migrant as purely an economic vessel, a thing, something with no value other than the profits it can or cannot produce.

‘But I don't see migrant workers that way!’ the dignified left-wing reader proclaims, thinking of how many times they have eaten in ‘ethnic’ restaurants or have defended the ‘culture’ of various migrant groups. However, supporting migrants in terms of their cultural contributions essentially reproduces the same utilitarian rationality that underpins the Thief argument. Migrants are tolerated, or even loved, because of what they are seen to contribute. Yet we know that love is not a transaction. Behind such hollow exhibits of support lies the same exploitative mentality that values humans only in terms of what they produce, be it economic or cultural products.

The omnipresence of these perspectives shows how deeply they have come to form parts of our ‘common sense’. No matter what side of the argument we are on, it seems as if we are circling around the same conception of the human being as merely a producer; our ‘contributions’ determine the extent to which we are deserving of being treated with dignity or not.

Beyond the binary

We need to be aiming for more than this. Anti-racism needs to be much stronger than a call to arms for capitalist or utilitarian exploitation of migrant workers. We need to highlight the common sources of the plight of both British and migrant workers, and foreground the objectives of solidarity, community power, and the overthrow of this economic system as such. The most important idea behind neoliberalism is that every individual is no more than their productivity and their capacity to survive in an intensely competitive environment. This perspective has underpinned the state policies that impoverish and exploit both British workers (think about the rhetoric used to demonise welfare recipients) and migrants. It is contradictory and damaging to argue against this system while at the same time proclaiming that migrant workers are welcome precisely because of the roles they serve within it.

Instead of continuing to spiral around this whirlpool of narratives that only serve the rich, we need to organise to develop community power from the bottom up, free from political parties and outside of the dominant institutions that exist to give an illusion of freedom amid soaring inequality. We need to fight for ‘no borders’, not ‘better borders’. We need to fight for ‘anti-capitalism’, not ‘better capitalism’. We need to show how borders are part of the same structures that create the scarcity and social collapse that anti-migration pundits are raging against.

History has shown that solidarity is forged in collective action. Through initiatives such as Living Rent, both migrant and Scottish workers fight in unison to improve their living conditions, targeting problems which equally affect them both. Radical trade unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain bring both migrant and local precarious workers together in a variety of labour struggles, showing that solidarity is stronger than division. All these initiatives combine to prove that we as humans, in all of our diversity, are capable of not only resisting the assaults on our living conditions together, but that we are also able to forge new ways of existing, outside and beyond the scope of capital and profit.

We are much more, and much stronger, than our economic roles attempt to constrain us into being. An essential step, therefore, towards organising for emancipation is to completely and permanently expel any traces of the ‘Cash Cow Argument’ from our rhetoric, while at the same time consistently dismantling and ridiculing the ‘Thief Argument’. This is only one of the stages towards setting the foundations for the development of a relatively coherent (different parts of the left will always have important theoretical variations) anti-capitalist and anti-racist movement. The issue is not whether migrant workers are good for the economy; the issue is the economy itself and the plethora of oppressive mechanisms that maintain and reproduce it.

P.S. It is probably true that the ‘Thief Argument’ and its variants played a significant role in galvanising support for Brexit. However, it is equally true that the European Union is a coalition of capitalist nations, warmongers and bankers. Supporting the European Union in the name of fighting for the rights of migrant workers is incoherent; the policies of the European Union, in conjunction with the those of the UK’s governments, are precisely those which keep migrants' countries of origin in a constant state of underdevelopment and force us to seek work elsewhere. These policies stem from the same sources that both throw British workers under the wheels of austerity and that fortify migrants’ exploitation. It is equally incoherent and counter-productive to suddenly jump to support EU workers' rights while ignoring the struggles of non-EU migrants (a fault that the '3 Million Campaign' is particularly guilty of), who have borne the brunt of the UK's racist migration regime for far longer and with much more painful results. Finally, a brief look at the numbers of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean because of EU border policies should be enough to disrupt any Remainers' belief that a ‘return’ to the EU would be important for protecting migrant rights.

As British politics temporarily moves beyond Brexit and now grapples with the issue of migration from other continents, these ideas remain pertinent. Beyond supporting the rights of migrants to live and work freely, it is important to understand how the UK's international interests exploit and impoverish countries and create migration. Most people do not want to migrate; whether they do so because of economic need, environmental decay, or simply to study abroad, the fact is that their migration is usually a result of their countries' underdevelopment and inequality. This underdevelopment persists precisely because imperial nations like the UK exploited, and continue to exploit, these countries' resources. Of course we must support the rights of migrants once they arrive at a location; however, it is extremely important to always connect this support with an anti-imperialist analysis, understanding that the main problem to be confronted is (international) inequality, not migration.

Panos Theodoropoulos is a political sociologist and a member of the Interregnum collective. He is currently writing a book on migrant labour in the UK with Polity Press.