"Fortress Culture" issue of this anarcho-syndicalist magazine with articles on refugess, asylum seekers, borders, globalisation etc.
Direct Action (SolFed) #19 2001 partial
Partial contents only - please let us know if you have access to this magazine and can scan it for us or lend us a copy to scan.
Contents: Fortress Culture
- NASStier than ever: Anatomy of a human rights disaster. When the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) started, it was clear it would be bad news - here's how bad.
- Scaling the Global Fortress: For a culture of workers’ self-emancipation.
- Barbed Wire Capitalism: Even with the election over, politicians and their media lackeys continue to peddle their racist lies about so-called bogus or economic migrants.
- Laws Against Women: gender and asylum: When women are victims of mass rape and of sexual slavery, it is typically called part of the ‘normal experiences of war’.
- We are all bloody foreigners: Lowlights of a long history of British xenophobia.
- Anti-capitalism - The state we're in: The emerging anti-capitalist movement is unified in opposition to capitalism and support for the tactic of direct action. But what about the role of the state?
NASStier than ever
When the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) started, many saw that it would be bad news for asylum seekers. The government dismissed critics, but the reality has been far worse than anyone predicted. NASS is in chaos, and the whole system has been a catastrophe.
Since last April, all new asylum seekers have their financial support and accommodation provided by NASS. The most notorious feature of the new regime is the Voucher Scheme. Instead of being able to claim benefits, asylum seekers receive vouchers which can only be used at a limited number of shops. They are only allowed £10 cash each week. The value of vouchers was set last year, equivalent to a mere 70% of Income Support. This has not been increased since (despite changes in benefit rates), further impoverishing refugees. So much for the government’s commitment to eradicate child poverty; refugee children apparently don’t count.
Fears that vouchers would stigmatise asylum seekers have proved disastrously true. Using vouchers marks people out as refugees, leaving them open to racist abuse and attack. Supermarket staff make their disapproval plain and try to impose their own restrictions on what can be bought with vouchers. Some supermarkets force voucher holders to use separate tills. Don’t forget that these are the supermarkets that are making extra profits off the back of asylum seekers, by being allowed to pocket the change from refugees’ vouchers.
The vouchers bureaucracy is a shambles. Vouchers are cancelled for no reason, leaving refugees unable to buy food. Vouchers have to be collected and cashed at a post office. Of course it would make their lives far too easy if they could just use any post office. Because only certain post offices are ‘designated’ for use by voucher holders, some people are having to spend up to 25% of their weekly cash allowance just to get there. Vouchers simply don’t arrive on time, and it takes weeks or months for vouchers to catch up with changes in people’s circumstances. Women who have babies while being supported by NASS are having to use newspaper to keep their baby clean, while they wait for the baby’s vouchers so that they can afford nappies. Because their maternity grant rarely arrives in time, they can’t buy essential equipment like prams or cots, or even baby clothes.
Letters reporting changes of circumstance or asking for vouchers urgently are ignored. Trying to get through to NASS on the phone is a deeply frustrating experience, featuring the ubiquitous ‘to speak to an unhelpful operator press 2 now’ phone system - all in English, of course, and involving being on hold for a long time, while the refugee is paying for the call. Even experienced advice workers find the system difficult and time consuming to negotiate - for refugees trying to deal with it directly, it can be a nightmare.
Refugees are supported by NASS while waiting for a decision on their claim for asylum. The government says that it is speeding up decision making and no one should have to wait more than 6 months. For many, this is true, with their applications being ‘considered’ and refused within weeks. But the decision making system is dire, with some getting denied asylum in record time, while others get apparently lost in the system, waiting months before anyone gets round to even interviewing them. Because this wasn’t supposed to happen any more under new Labour’s shiny new asylum system, anyone who has been supported by NASS for over 6 months is entitled to £50. For another 6 months you get another £50, and so on. NASS could easily identify those entitled and send them payments. Do they? Have a guess. Do they even tell people about it? Have another guess.
Vouchers are one half of NASS, the other is dispersal. Refugees are dispersed around the country on a ‘no choice’ basis. Where they end up depends on the whims of civil servants and takes no account of their need to be near family, friends and essential services. NASS staff have no training or experience in dealing with the needs of vulnerable or disabled people, yet they are in charge of allocating ‘suitable’ accommodation. Needless to say, it rarely is.
Accommodation is provided by both local authorities and private landlords. Many criticisms can be made of local authorities’ role in this, but most provide some kind of support service to newly arrived refugees. Private landlords often fail to provide anything apart from the lowest quality housing, stuffing in as many people as possible and giving no support or help. As a direct result of their profiteering, refugees can end up moved around the country many times. Some councils have made efforts to enforce legal minimum housing standards. When they do, the landlords avoid them by moving people. After each move, people wait weeks for their vouchers to catch up.
This system creates a terrible isolation for refugees. Already a long way from home and having suffered persecution, even torture, they are housed miles from communities sharing their language, culture or religion. Whether you think that this removal of refugees from communities of support and solidarity has been deliberate, or is just an accidental by-product of the system, depends on how cynical you are. NASS were supposed to carry out ‘language clustering’, making sure that people speaking the same language were sent to the same areas. This is not happening, making it impossible to plan and establish support and interpreting services. Asylum seekers have so little money they can rarely afford to go out and socialise, let alone travel many miles to see friends or family.
Refugees have the same health care needs as any of us, on top of which they may be suffering the physical and psychological effects of torture, and the effects of the isolation and stigma NASS forces on them. Despite this, even the most basic services like health care can be closed to them. There are reports that some GPs refuse to accept refugees on their books, because there is no money for interpreters. Even where they are registered with a GP, it is often impossible to get an interpreter when needed. The mental health needs of refugees are going unmet. Specialist resources are almost non-existent outside London, and services which are available are under-resourced and over-stretched. It is extremely difficult to provide counselling through an interpreter - so difficult that some counsellors and psychologists refuse to work in this way. As there are so few Kurdish or Farsi or Rwandan (to name but three) speaking therapists around, most refugees can’t get any kind of counselling or support.
Most refugees are extremely resourceful, and those who are allowed to stay manage to battle their way through British hostility and bureaucracy to make new lives for themselves. Yet the state still seems determined to make life as difficult as possible for them. Even when people get a decision on their case and are allowed to stay, their problems don’t come to an end. They are cut loose with no support or guidance. Their vouchers are cut off after 14 days, and they have to leave their accommodation. They are at the mercy of the Benefits system. For most people, this means claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance. Job Centres are unwilling or unable to provide interpreters. Hate those JSA interviews? Imagine having to do them in a foreign language. And the JSA takes weeks to come through, leaving refugees with no money in the meantime. There is no formal system to help refugees understand how to claim JSA or Housing Benefit, how to apply for accommodation, how to get into college, how to open a bank account, etc.
Despite the carping about refugees being a drain on the system, nothing exists to help them get their qualifications and experience recognised in this country. Plus, because of dispersal, people are very often living miles away from those who could help them; other refugees who’ve been through it themselves.
NASS is a disaster. It provides little support and less service. The system is in chaos; it is understaffed and still costs a fortune to run. And it has a silly name. New Labour promised it would review the system by February 2001, but nothing has been done. The obvious answer is to let asylum seekers go back to claiming benefits and to live where they choose; to stop seeing refugees as a problem and start treating them as people.
[[A note on terms: 'Asylum seeker’ is the term used by the Home Office to describe anyone who has asked for asylum and is waiting for a decision on their application. ‘Refugee’ is the term used by the Home Office to describe someone who has been officially accepted as ‘genuine’ and has been granted asylum. In this article these terms are used more loosely, as we do not accept that someone is only a refugee when the Home Office says so.]]
Scaling the Global Fortress
For a culture of workers' self-emancipation
We are witnessing rapid changes and further expansion of the system we call capitalism. More than ever, freedom for the few means slavery for the vast majority. Profit is privatised, and the rich are getting richer; meanwhile, the costs, risks and oppression are socialised. Increasing mobility of investors means freedom from obligations towards workers, the old, the young, the ill, the unemployed, the environment and our communities. Multinational Temporary Work Agencies are making a commercial industry out of it.
The economic, social and cultural conquest that is globalisation is being delivered by force. The US’s status as the premier world bully is unlikely to be contested by any single challenger, and it dominates the military, economic, technological and cultural dimensions of power. The development of more integrated military and economic blocks, such as in the EU and South East Asia, increases competition and tension with the US, but all agree to using institutions like the IMF and WTO to exploit the so-called Third World. Freedom for capital means oppression, prisons, fences and fortresses for the ones that want to escape from the worst consequences of the exploitation.
One of the US’s current key objectives is to manipulate and accommodate the countries in the "corridor" from the Baltic countries and Poland, through East and Central Europe, to the Balkans, Turkey, the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus, and the former Central Asian Soviet Republics, to Xinjiang and Tibet. This is to reduce and undermine European, Russian and South- East Asian ambitions and to get control of vast oil and other natural resources.
US policy towards Russia is the whip and carrot. They co-operate and try to control them economically, but, at the same time, they undermine them politically by developing interests in the "Eurasian Corridor", for example, by supporting an oil pipeline from Caucasus through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea.
It is in this context we see the new strategic concept of NATO of having mobile units of soldiers that can defend "western" interests as in the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo or wherever. NATO is also experimenting with new "conventional" bombs fitted with nuclear explosives in mines in Northern Norway. This is a further development of the ammunition which has caused so much killing and suffering in the Gulf and Balkans. Military laboratories and the arms industry have continued to do very nicely, thank you, since the fall of the "Iron Curtain".
Human rights are subordinate to the interests of NATO. Chechnya is accepted as a Russian domain. The ex-Bolsheviks can continue with war, violations, cleansing and torture without interference from the western mass media. Turkey is kept as an ally, whatever the oppression it unleashes on Turkish workers, political opposition groups and the Kurds.
On the other hand, Central and South America are the US’s backyard. Here, 1st January 1994 brought a newly aggressive phase in "freedom for the few" capitalism, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, USA and Mexico came into force. People resist - the Zapatista uprising started on the same day. Now, "Plan Colombia" is designed to use US military intervention to secure access to natural resources, especially oil, and to gain control in a key geopolitical strategic region in order to continue the implementation of the planned FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas).
Capitalist barbarism is everywhere. Multinationals find no profits in developing medicines for the poor in Africa. In Bangladesh, young women workers (children) are locked into garment factories, causing death and injuries when fires break out. In Argentina, the FTAA has brought massive US$8,000 million cuts in three years in public spending to satisfy the demands of the IMF. Massive opposition is met with brutal state forces.
To these and other examples we, as anarchosyndicalists, ask: What are the consequences for humanity? How can we as workers fight for self-emancipation?
This is not the first time capitalism has moved towards more globalisation. The period 1870 to 1914 was also characterised by new forms of production and expansion in world trade. Such capitalist development inevitably creates both oppression and revolt. On 1st May 1886 in Chicago, workers were striking to win the 8-hour-day. Days later, a state-sponsored operation saw a bomb explosion and several anarchists were immediately framed for it. Parsons, Fischer, Engel, Spies, Lingg Schwab, Neebe and Fielden were arrested. Of them, Parsons, Fischer, Engel and Spies were hanged. Lingg died in prison. These Haymarket Martyrs belong to the international proletariat, and May Day commemorates the crimes perpetrated by the defenders of capitalism in the United States.
The period 1870-1914 ended with the senseless slaughter that was the First World War. The IWA (International Workers’ Association) inherits the anti-militarist tradition of the First International of workers to this day. Today, anarchosyndicalists actively oppose the arms trade and advocate general strikes against war. Sections and Friends of the International have been and are active against the war in Chechnya, the Balkans, and now Colombia.
Being anarchosyndicalists means we can develop direct actions according to our strengths - without relying on subsidies, funding, favours, agreements, compromises, or other offers from our enemies. We refuse to integrate our free associations into the capitalist system. The reformist workers’ unions today are service organisations and are burdens on the back of the workers, not free tools for workers’ self-activity and self-emancipation. Class collaboration, for example, participating in "union elections" under state schemes, means losing our collective strength, not increasing it. You can’t survive by eating the cheese in the mousetrap.
Capitalism is an automatic machine producing human and ecological misery, child exploitation, unemployment, fascism and wars. The IWA’s goal is to replace capitalism and the state with a federation of workers’ free associations. Only workers’ internationalism can overcome barbarism. There are signs of real resistance against globalisation, as we have seen in Seattle and Prague, but we should not have any illusions about alliances with organisations seeking to rescue capitalism from itself. They only function as lightning conductors against self-emancipatory struggles and initiatives.
The IWA and its Sections and Friends started 2001 with international co-ordinated actions for numerous workers and groups of workers involved in struggles in various countries. On 22/23/24 of June, the IWA is organising a global conference on immigration in Milan, Italy. In the autumn, we will be co-ordinating actions against Multinational Temporary Work Agencies - enterprises making profits from selling slave contracts. These and other activities are steps in the right direction in the global movement against capitalism and for humanity.
Barbed Wire Capitalism
The hyped-up clamour for even tighter restrictions on immigration reflects the hypocrisy. Controls and restrictions on immigration - for employment or otherwise - are less about stopping economic migration and more about stopping struggle and organisation among migrant labour. In this light, a world without controls and restrictions is the only truly anti-racist and pro-working class system there is.
Racist commentators equate economic migration, the movement of people in search of a better life, with ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, who are quickly dismissed as scroungers and parasites. They contrast it with ‘genuine’ asylum cases - people escaping war, torture, discrimination and other ‘political’ oppression. However, such has been the legacy not only of the colonial period, but also of modern capitalist economic imperialism, that it is impossible to define a dividing line between ‘political’ and ‘economic’ reasons behind mass migration. Indeed, immigration authorities don’t even bother most of the time. Instead, the decision to admit is most often based on foreign policy considerations, such as which oppressive regimes happen to be western allies and which don’t. In short, the economic and political mayhem caused by capitalism across vast parts of the globe leads directly to mass migration, whether it is labelled ‘economic’ or not. After all, such movement can be viewed in terms of so-called market conditions - labour moves to where it finds employment.
Related to this is the structural need of capitalism in ‘western’ countries for migrant labour. One manifestation of this is the ‘guestworker’ system. To resolve labour shortages, governments invite in foreign ‘guestworkers’, give them work permits tied to specific jobs then (often) kick them out when the permit expires and their labour is no longer required. This system is common in the US and northern Europe, and increasingly in the UK since the 1960s. It has recently been put forward by new Labour as a solution to shortages in some areas such as computer programming.
The other aspect of capitalism’s need for migrant labour is the huge ‘secondary’ economy based on superexploited refugees and asylum-seekers with no work permits, no rights of settlement, housing or medical care, and under the constant threat of deportation. This is the case in those sectors which have such appalling wages and conditions that it is difficult to find enough ‘home’ labour to take the available jobs - from domestics to hospital auxiliaries and porters; from the rag trade to hotels and restaurants; from house and office cleaning to security guards in private security firms. And these are the lucky ones! The less lucky must endure virtual slavery, whether in the sex industry, or in one of many other dehumanising jobs, including, not least, domestic service.
On one hand, in ‘developed’ countries, capitalism creates economies dependent on migrant labour, while on the other hand, in ‘developing’ countries, it creates conditions that force people into economic migration. In other words, such migration is part and parcel of the global economic system. As such, racism is the only motive behind both the existing raft of restrictions on economic migrants throughout western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and the continuous cries for more of the same. And, of course, this racism is very handy for capitalism. Rather than stemming migration and ‘protecting’ home labour, as is claimed, anti-migrant rules and regulations provide a handy toolkit with which the working class can be further divided, and workplace organisation further weakened.
The relaxation of internal European boundaries has gone hand in hand with not only a strengthening of external borders against migration, but also a corresponding increase in other internal checks on immigration status - at workplaces, on the streets and through state welfare agencies. Alongside workplace checks, ‘employer sanctions’ have also been brought in - although it’s the ‘illegal’ employees rather than the employer who are most likely to be sanctioned. These measures, mostly US imports, are now harmonised across Europe, and increasingly so at a global level.
While migrant labour endures miserly wages and conditions, those without permits do so with the constant threat of workplace raids and deportation hanging over them. Add to this the divisions created by employment controls. It’s not just that migrant labour is divided from ‘home’ labour, but groups of migrants are divided from each other - ‘legal’ (with work permits) and ‘illegal’ are divided, so are ‘permanent legal’ (with settlement rights) and ‘temporary legal’. Given these conditions, the culmination of a century of increasing controls and restrictions, it is little surprise that the position of immigrant labour at the forefront of radical working class organisation is a thing of the past. Yet, despite even these barriers to organising, in recent history successful attempts are not unheard of. For instance, in the Swift 17 case in Des Moines, USA, in 1988, the INS (Immigration & Nationality Service) was forced to back down on its threat to deport 17 workers arrested after a workplace raid. The campaign brought local community activists together with the remaining Swift workforce who took industrial action.
Any system of controls, even the fairest, most reformed system imaginable, is racist and anti-working class. This is not to say that reforms and basic improvements in the lives of migrants should not be welcomed as far as they go; it is to say that the principle of a ‘fair’ immigration policy, as promoted by many ‘official’ labour movements in the west, is still a principle based on racism and division. This stance may be widely unpopular, but it is the only one that is credibly anti-racist and pro-working class.
Laws Against Women: gender and asylum
Of the millions of women world-wide forced to become refugees, a tiny fraction make it to Britain seeking asylum from persecution. Those who do are met not with sympathy and understanding but with hostility and disbelief. Their experiences are doubted or ignored, and they too often become invisible.
Britain defines a ‘refugee’ based on its interpretation of the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention. The Convention defines a refugee as "a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and who is outside his (sic) country of nationality".
Women are as likely as men to be persecuted for a ‘Convention reason’, yet their experiences often are ignored, or their claims denied. The Convention is ‘gender blind’ and is not interpreted in a way which takes account of women’s particular experiences. You will probably not be completely surprised to learn that the British Immigration system does its best to interpret the Convention as narrowly as possible, with the aim of denying refugee status to as many people as possible.
The conventional image of a woman refugee is as the dependent of a man. It is her husband or father who is the ‘real’ refugee because he has been a political activist. Her claim is derived solely from his. While this picture may be true for many women, it does not begin to show the range of experiences of women needing asylum.
In every country women are fighting for their rights, and the rights of their communities. In too many countries this is enough to get them imprisoned, tortured or killed. In refugee law, ‘political activity’ is defined narrowly and seen as being a member of a formal party or trade union, public speaking, and attending rallies and meetings. While women are of course active in this way, their activities are not confined to this conventional view. Women run safe houses, pass messages, provide food and medical care, organise informal meetings and networks. Communities cannot resist without women’s support and participation. Their importance is not lost on their persecutors, who target women in order to try to defeat opposition and resistance at the grass roots. Yet, women’s activities are too often seen by asylum decision makers as ‘low level’ and unimportant.
As well as women under attack for their overt political acts, many women are persecuted because of their ‘private’ acts; the Algerian midwife who gives contraceptive advice as part of her work; the Chinese woman pregnant with her second child who refuses to have a forced abortion; the Sierra Leonian woman who refuses to take any more beatings from her husband and knows the police will not protect her; the Ethiopian woman who will not allow her daughters to be subjected to female genital mutilation; the Iranian woman who has sex outside of marriage with a man of her own choice... Even if a woman does not herself define her actions as ‘political’, she faces persecution because they are seen as such by her persecutors. All of these women’s actions are political, seeking to assert their own autonomy and rights over their bodies, and challenging the laws and norms of their societies. I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s always worth saying it again: the personal is political.
Such women will have huge difficulties asserting their right to asylum in Britain. The immigration authorities, and often lawyers and the courts, persist in viewing these as private, individual acts, refusing to see them in a wider context of women’s experiences and women’s resistance. As a result, women are refused the recognition and protection of refugee status.
Rape and sexual torture is often used as a weapon against women and against their communities, but even this is often not enough for a woman to be granted protection. Women are raped while in detention as part of a systematic regime of torture. Women are raped in their homes or in the street to subjugate them, or as punishment for defying social conventions, or to punish their family or their community. The immigration authorities in Britain persist in viewing rape in isolation, as an individual act of male sexual gratification, and refuse to see it for what it is - a weapon of power and control. They may not accept that rape amounts to persecution, or that the woman is being persecuted for a ‘Convention reason’. Even where sexual violence is clearly being used as a weapon of war against women from particular religious or ethnic communities, where women are victims of mass rape and of sexual slavery, there is hostility to accepting this as ‘persecution’. Instead, it is called part of the ‘normal experiences of war’.
Women refugees arriving in Britain are denied the opportunity to put their case, or even to make a claim for asylum. Women who arrive as part of a family group which includes a man will rarely be told of their right to claim asylum in their own right. Instead, they are viewed solely as dependants of the father, or husband, or brother they arrived with, only entitled to claim asylum on the basis of his experiences. Women who arrive without a man may be subject to hostile interviewing by a (usually male) immigration officer, very soon after their arrival. They may be given a questionnaire to return within just two weeks, to be completed in English of course, which asks a limited range of questions based on the conventional interpretation of what makes a refugee. Women survivors of rape and sexual violence are not given the time and understanding they need to explain what has happened to them. They may not feel able to talk about what has happened, and they may not understand its significance for their asylum claim. And if they do try to bring it up later, then this will undermine their ‘credibility’, with immigration officials accusing them of making it all up to improve their asylum claim.
Because the UN Convention is interpreted in a way which is blind to women’s experiences, women’s claims for asylum often fail because they are not seen as persecuted for a ‘Convention reason.’ Some campaigners and lawyers have tried to deal with this by arguing for women to be accepted as a ‘social group’. Of course no government is going to accept that all refugee women are entitled to be here, so the definition of ‘social group’ has to be narrowed. It goes from ‘women’ to ‘women fearing violence’ to ‘divorced women fearing violence’ to ‘divorced women fearing violence due to false accusations of adultery’. While this refining of definitions has helped some women to gain asylum, it only works by defining who is deserving - and so, it follows, excluding those who are not.
An alternative approach is to argue, as I have done here, that women’s ‘private’ acts are very often also political. This approach can seem more attractive, as it recognises the range of women’s experiences and demonstrates that women are active, rather than passive and dependent. If it is accepted, it may protect more women. Yet, even this would not go far enough.
Perhaps the solution lies in changing the legal definition of a refugee? Some feminist lawyers argue that ‘gender’ should be added to the list of ‘Convention reasons’. Others argue that this would not be necessary if the Convention was interpreted in a more inclusive way, with more consideration given to women’s experiences.
On one level, the above legal arguments are welcome, if they help to push at the boundaries of the law, and give more protection to refugee women. In the end, tinkering with the law will never go far enough. As long as it exists, refugee law will define who is worthy of protection, and so, also define who is not. The real answer lies in rejecting bogus asylum laws. Women and all those seeking protection have the right to asylum. No-one has to justify their right to be in this country by slotting themselves into legal definitions, or by saying why they are more deserving than anyone else. The only way to give real protection and support to all who need it is to reject false definitions of genuine and bogus, legal and illegal, and ultimately, to reject all immigration controls.
[[Much of the background information for this article – though not necessarily its opinions or conclusions and certainly not any errors! – is taken from ‘Refugees and Gender: Law and Process’, by Heaven Crawley, co-published by the Refugee Women’s Legal Group. Written primarily for legal advisers, this book gives a comprehensive account of the legal issues surrounding gender, persecution and asylum, and provides a gendered framework for the interpretation of the UN Convention. Although the book limits itself to discussing how current law can be used to protect women, and so does not look at the validity of the very existence of such laws, it’s well worth getting hold of a copy if you want to know more about the issues touched on in this article. Refugees and Gender: Law and Process, by Heaven Crawley, 2001, published by Jordans/RWLG, price £19.00, ISBN 0 85308 690 7]]
We're all bloody foreigners
Lowlights of a long history of British xenophobia
Every so often, and with disturbing and increasing regularity, the cry goes up from some politician or section of the media that Britain is in danger from abroad. This usually refers to immigrants of some kind who, it is claimed, are taking our jobs and houses as well as abusing our welfare and benefits system (or what’s left of it). Allied to this is the fear that, somehow, British culture and traditions are being overtaken, ‘swamped’ and destroyed.
The latest wave of fear has been directed at asylum seekers who, having travelled hundreds of miles in appalling conditions, often exploited and cheated on the way, find that they are the targets of the kind of hatred that made them flee their homes in the first place.
Politicians, who are looking for scapegoats to divert the attention of ordinary people away from other issues, whip up fear and suspicion of immigrants. No job? Blame the immigrants. Appalling housing? Blame asylum seekers. Worried about the resources for education/health/public services? It’s the bloody foreigners who are misusing the precious resources of our nation to promote a foreign culture and an alien way of life.
Such lies and xenophobia are not new. But the real question is, who is not descended from immigrants? The people who became known as the British arrived here in coracles, quite illegally, some six or seven hundred years before the Romans. They were then pushed to the western areas of the island by the later wave of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who, in turn, had to contend with the Vikings and, later, the Normans. Since then, various other people have come along, sometimes by invitation, sometimes by accident, to escape oppression or poverty. They have brought their culture, skills, and hard work.
Leaving aside the fact that the kings and queens of England have usually been foreign, whether French-Norman, Welsh (Tudors), Scottish (Stuarts), Dutch (William of Orange) or German (George I, and ever since), the ruling class have always put their own interests firmly first. Immigrants were sometimes welcomed and then, because of political expediency, vilified, harassed and sometimes even killed. Others were assimilated into our society and then, in turn, joined in the chorus of disapproval of a new wave of immigration later on.
William I who, like all good conquerors, took steps to ensure that no one else could profit from his experience and follow the same route instituted the first positive system of controlling entry. The Cinque Ports along the south coast of England were essentially a method of immigration control. The Middle Ages saw English kings encourage immigration from Europe of various merchants and skilled workers. Jewish merchants were first welcomed, then forced to wear labels and finally expelled. After the Black Death, immigrants were encouraged to help rebuild the economy. The Tudors gave asylum to those fleeing religious persecution, while positively barring those who they saw as undesirables. Cromwell allowed the Jews to return and mercantile capitalism flourished, through immigrants such as the Huguenots.
The first Aliens Act (1793) was a direct response to the French Revolution. French aristocrats were still free to enter, but ‘dangerous persons’ could now be deported on suspicion. After the defeat of Napoleon, and with Britain economically and militarily secure, a series of Acts relaxed controls so that even passports became discretionary. This period saw the large-scale immigration from Ireland as labour was needed to support industrial expansion. Movements from the country to the town saw a fundamental change in Britain’s economy. Many of the mining communities of South Wales were established, with migrants from the North East of England.
State concern over Jews fleeing from oppression in Tsarist Russia and Eastern Europe brought another backlash. The Royal Commission on Alien Immigration produced a report in 1903 that was to lead to the introduction of the 1905 Aliens Act. Under the heading "Evils attributed to alien immigration", the 1903 report, in words chillingly reminiscent of those used today, alleged that immigrants were "in an impoverished and destitute condition, deficient in cleanliness and practised unsanitary habits". A high proportion were "criminals, anarchists, prostitutes and persons of bad character… becoming paupers and a burden on the local rates… (or) work for a rate of wages below a standard upon which a native workman can fairly live." Moreover, "their existence in certain areas gravely interferes with the observance of the Christian Sunday."
The 1905 Aliens Act targeted "aliens of certain undesirable classes", i.e. those fleeing poverty and oppression, while ensuring that wealthy immigrants were still welcome. The war of 1914 brought in yet stricter controls that were to become the mainstay of subsequent British immigration policy. It also saw the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, which established that all individuals born within "His Majesty’s dominions and allegiance" automatically acquired British nationality at birth. However, the British ruling elite maintained many forms of imperial inequality within this supposed belief in universal nationality.
Two of the most important forms of imperial inequality were differences based on gender and skin colour. Women could not transmit their status of British subjects to their children; nationality descended only through the male line. British women lost their nationality on marrying an alien, while alien women marrying British men automatically became British. This was based on the twin assumptions that only men could define family nationality and that women were incapable of loyalty to anything except their marriage beds.
Free migration within the empire and commonwealth was restricted by immigrant poll taxes, literacy and English language tests, and administrative checks on the non-white nationals. A rigid system of discrimination, based on the perceived superiority of the white population, incorporating cultural, social, religious and political distinctions was used to both justify and facilitate control.
During the inter-war years, immigration was curtailed, only to pick up with refugees fleeing the growth of fascism in central Europe. A combination of anti-Semitism and unemployment ensured that only a small number of Jewish refugees entered Britain between 1933 and November 1938. However, as Britain geared up for war and Anglo-Jewish groups exerted pressure, more were admitted. Many subsequently found themselves interned during the invasion panic of 1940. As industry demanded ever-more labour to wage war, the internees were released and even German and Italian prisoners of war were used in essential areas, such as agriculture. It was with the help of refugees, enemy aliens and neutrals that Britain secured its share in victory.
After the war, critical labour shortages remained in British industry. The government searched for potential workers amongst the refugees and displaced people in Europe. Poles were the first to be recruited then, to meet the shortage of domestic workers in hospitals, sanatoriums and other institutions; ‘Baltic’ women were drawn from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania under a scheme named Balt Cygnet. The ‘Westward Ho!’ recruitment scheme was aimed at men aged 18-54 and women aged 18-49 from Eastern Europe, as Britain aimed to recruit as much foreign labour as possible before other countries "skimmed the cream off". Germans, Austrians and Italians were then targeted for particular industries. Finally, Irish workers were encouraged to come to Britain from the newly independent Irish Republic, by being given the special status of neither subject nor alien.
The news of Britain’s labour shortage spread beyond Europe and, in June 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks with 492 Jamaicans on board. The Labour government did not welcome this but, under the Nationality Act, the arrivals were British subjects, with the right of free entry into the United Kingdom. The government did all it could to prevent further immigration, considering ‘coloured colonials’ to be "of inferior stock likely to harm the interests of British Society". Their attitude, and the attitude of subsequent governments, set the tone of immigration policy for today. Ministers and officials assigned colonial immigrants stereotypical characteristics they associated with their blackness. They were blanketed as quarrelsome, suspicious, violent, unlikely to settle down and in need of discipline. This attitude influenced the perceptions of the British people to the subsequent waves of commonwealth immigration from East Africa and Asia.
Today we have the government, using much the same language and arguments of a hundred years ago, stigmatising asylum seekers and introducing more draconian measures to prevent them coming to Britain. They applaud the free movement of capital; they loathe the free movement of labour. Yet the two are directly related. It is the increasingly unencumbered free movement of capital, championed by the west, which helps create the poverty, which prompts the economic migration from the developing world.
According to the Home Office, the number of work permit holders and their dependants has risen by more than a third since Labour came to power. These are the skilled and educated sections of the Third World workforce. We are not only exploiting the poorest; we are creaming off the most educated too.
The attitude and language used by politicians of both main parties against asylum seekers has directly led to an increase in racism. Even third and fourth generation immigrants are feeling its effects. The state will one day change its view on the need for immigration, as economics dictates, but it cannot undo the lasting effect its continuing talk of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers has on ordinary people. The British state’s attitude towards immigration has always been underpinned by the twin forces of capitalist needs and underlying racist assumptions and attitudes. Ever more asylum seekers can be subject to torture, rape and solitary confinement; all the government cares about is getting cheap professionals from overseas with IT skills, teaching qualifications and nursing certificates.
Anti-capitalism -the state we're in-
It’s time to grab our own dreams before the state turns them into a nightmare.
We live in changing times. After decades of bitter defeats, there are encouraging signs that a new protest movement is emerging. The main objects of anger are the key agents of global capitalism – like the World Bank, World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The unifying factors are opposition to capitalism and support for the tactic of direct action.
The strength and dynamism of our multi-faceted protest movement has caught capitalism off-guard and shaken it out of its post-Soviet complacency. No sooner has capitalism got used to being all-powerfully rampant, unquestioned and unopposed, than it has got a rude reminder that mass protest is not, after all, dead. Even more confusing, this rude lot have cast off the baggage of the old authoritarian left, including its commitment to electoral politics. A new diversity and independence of action has forced capitalism onto the defensive.
This is not to say that suddenly, capitalists have had to stop striding the world arena proclaiming that human history is at an end, and that the only future is the free market future. But the arrogance is now less pronounced. The first response has been to reach for the media consultant. Image make-overs all round have brought multinationals falling over themselves to portray a caring side; to demonstrate their environmental credentials and their commitment to the world’s poor. The recent trade agreement signed at the summit of the Americas reads more like a document aimed at eradicating poverty than a free trade agreement.
This initial tactic to stem the turning tide has, of course, no substance, and will fail as fine words and images fail to match social and economic reality. Capitalism is in the process of learning an old lesson; that oppression always leads to resistance and, since oppression is inherent in capitalism, it will always face opposition. Human history is not over just yet.
What will the capitalists do about this permanent fixture that is opposition? They can crush it mercilessly, only for it to re-emerge in some other form. Hence, after decades spent defeating Marxism, they find their victory celebrations being spoiled by a motley crew of environmentalists, Third World peasants, trade unionists, anarchists, and sod knows who else.
The more intellectual wing of capitalism will soon come to the fore. The ideologically-prone are still drunk from the victory party after the USSR collapsed, and their knee-jerk response is to sweep protest off the streets. But, in time, at least in the west, capitalism will come to terms with the fact that this simply will not work. Death squads cannot be deployed on Oxford Street. Sooner or later, capitalism will seek to absorb protest as a means of containing it.
The primary method of absorbing opposition is to channel it down the dead end of reform. The anti-capitalist becomes the pro-capitalist reformer. The simplest and now traditional way of achieving this goal is to lure popular dissent into electoral politics. Instead of mass action against capitalism, many are thus redirected to getting people elected to regulate it. The crucial trick here is to sell the idea that the state can be used as a means to control the excesses of capitalism.
Within the broad anti-capitalist movement, there are already sections arguing for this approach. Most obviously, the Marxist left have attempted to go down both the parliamentary highway and the direct actionist cycle route, but are increasingly putting their efforts into electoral politics, hoping to capture the centre left vacated by the Labour Party. Their official line may be that they reject parliamentary politics, and that putting up candidates is merely a tactic. However, at the first sign of success, the dynamics of electoral politics are such that they will inevitably be sucked into the established order. Today’s revolutionary becomes tomorrow’s statesman or woman, seduced into accepting the logic of the state, part of which sadly entails deploying state forces against their former revolutionary comrades, to support the forces of global capital.
The idea of all-powerful global capitalism has led some anti-capitalists to form the false conclusion that it is the loss of state power which has caused the recent increased strength of capitalism. This "powerless state" theory also falsely assumes that, in the past, benevolent governments have held in check the power of companies to exploit workers. Seemingly, global capitalism is now so powerful that it can no longer be controlled in this way. The implied solution is to strengthen the power of states internationally in order to check the power of multinational companies. Already, some self-appointed theorists of the protest movement are calling for greater state regulation of international capitalism, or even the forming of an international government. If this argument is won, it can only lead down the cul-de-sac of parliamentary politics – after all, this is how to elect a ‘stronger state’.
The "powerless state" idea is fundamentally flawed, and must be exposed at all costs. Unfortunately, many who instinctively oppose it are lending support almost by default. We only need to fall for the capitalist propaganda, and see the world as all-powerful footloose capitalism, free of the control of governments, ever ready to transfer production to where wages are lowest, and we are already positioned ready to see the demon as capitalism, and the state as the saviour. The fact is, this is nonsense and bears no comparison to economic and social reality. The truth is, throughout its history, the state has been used by those in power to further their own ends and to crush both internal and external opposition. In so doing, the state has been guilty of the most horrendous crimes against humanity. Rather than being a benevolent force capable of being used in our interests, the state is by its very nature oppressive, if only by virtue of the fact that it sits outside society, and rules over it. The state is an instrument of the ruling class; it can be nothing else, ever. Furthermore, this is the role it continues to play under 21st century capitalism. The idea that the state now lacks power is a nonsense to the point of absurdity.
Undoubtedly, multinationals have used new technology to cross national boundaries more easily than previously. But it does not follow that the state loses control through this. It simply has more excuses through which to support the ruling class. "Sorry, that’s the flexible global market for you". When the chips are down, states happily bomb, murder and rape to get their way, as ever. The war in Latin America has been waged for over a century, and the US continues to use state terror to keep the protest movements of the poor in check (see international news, this issue). It was the forces of the state that were used to crush the miners, just as it is the forces of the state that are now being deployed against anti-capitalist demonstrators.
The nation state is only on the decline to the extent that it is giving way to regional super states centred on the economies of Japan, Europe and the US. These trading blocks have been evolving since the Second World War, along with the structures needed to support them. Their development has been complicated by the threat of the Soviet Union, so rivalry has been held in check by the need to maintain a united capitalist front in the face of communism. There has also been a dependence by Europe and Japan on US military might, which has seen them willing to accept US dominance in return for US protection. Furthermore, the need to ensure the developing world did not succumb to communism has tempered the way in which these super states have exercised their colonial power. Accordingly, state coercion has been applied with more sophistication and spin.
More sophistication does not imply state power has declined - it continues to be maintained, albeit exercised through different methods. Physical and social attacks are still used regularly, but now, so are economic attacks, as dictated by quasi-international agreements.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB), and World Trade Organisation (WTO) were set up after the Second World War, in a time when the Soviet threat was foremost. These UN based bodies would ensure the smooth running of capitalism by regulating trade and development. From the outset, they were dominated by the US government, who claimed majority voting rights, and blatantly used them to further US capitalist interests. They set up a fixed currency exchange system based on the dollar, which effectively turned the US into the world’s banker, and brought massive overseas investment by US corporations. In the cold war, the IMF and WB were used to channel funds to those developing nations (or more commonly, the dictators who ran them) who were loyal to western capitalism.
By the 1960s, the world situation began to change, and so did the IMF and WB. The Soviet economy was already in trouble, and was no longer seen as a major threat. The long post-war boom was coming to an end and the dominance of the US economy began to slip. The dollar weakened and the fixed exchange mechanism collapsed. With the world awash with "petro-dollars", this collapse and the demise of currency controls led to vast sums of money circumnavigating the globe in search of higher returns. Much of it ended up being lent to Third World economies.
By 1970, Third World debt stood at $75 billion and, in the next decade, grew to some $900 billion. With the world slump, Third World countries already struggling to keep up debt repayments saw exports dry up. Then, the US raised interest rates to 17%, sending the cost of debt repayment spiralling. Third World debt servicing charges shot from $40 billion to $121 billion, and many economies went into free-fall. At this, western money was withdrawn wholesale, while newly rich Third World elites started to export their cash too, so the flow of cash from the poor south to the rich north soon amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars.
No longer restrained by the Soviet threat, western capitalism moved quickly to exploit the situation and reassert traditional colonial relations between the rich north and poor south. However, it was not ‘footloose’ multinational capitalism which led the exodus to relocate to the poor south in search of higher profits; it was the powerful governments of the rich world, using their economic muscle to force open the economies of the developing world, to allow greater exploitation by capitalist countries already firmly rooted there.
Instead of the traditional gunboats and other military hardware, the governments of the rich world sent in the IMF and WB. By now, the US had changed IMF rules to make IMF loans conditional on countries implementing an IMF-designed economic reform programme. If they refused, not only were they denied IMF funds; WB loans, private banks, and lending agencies would also pull out, since they lent under the cover of the IMF - the only body with the power to both underpin loans and squeeze repayment from debtors.
Developing nations, hit by world recession and sinking under a sea of debt, had little choice. The short term aim of the IMF economic program was to boost earning to service debt. This was done by implementing an austerity programme - cutting public spending, withdrawing food subsidies, devaluing the currency (aimed at making imports expensive and exports cheap), freezing wages and restricting credit. Not surprisingly, the result was disastrous for the general population, but allowed countries to repay debt to first world capitalism.
Under the IMF program, countries are expected to move towards ever more radical institutional structural reform, including privatising state assets, repealing laws protecting domestic industries from foreign ownership and liberalising overseas trade and foreign investment. In other words, they are forced to allow foreign multinationals cherry pick assets at bargain prices (due to currency devaluation). These IMF reforms, laughingly called aid programmes, are actually a straight take-over of developing nation economies by rich northern capitalists.
IMF and WB policies have also created a consumer elite within, who profit from loans repaid by plunging the mass of the population in poverty. Though small, this elite is a valuable market for northern capitalist goods, and is happy to buy the northern capitalist "shock therapy" free market reform rhetoric. The reality is that the IMF programme has proved a disaster. From Latin America, Asia, and Africa the result has been the same; falling domestic production leading to ever increasing poverty. In Eastern Europe, IMF-inspired programmes have been used to wreck the domestic economy in order to press home western capitalist advantage. The former Yugoslavia is a classic case, where IMF policies wrecked a relatively successful economy, thus creating conditions in which racial tension could grow, encouraged by US and European governments to destabilise still further, thus clearing the way for the creation of pro-western IMF-run government.
Like the IMF, the WTO mechanism, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) dates back to the post-war era, and is increasingly being used as a system of exploitation by western governments. The first move to change GATT into an explicit tool of the rich took place at the Uruguay Round. A new charter was introduced which allowed corporations to invest freely anywhere in the world without restrictions imposed by environmental and safety standards. It also included a clause increasing protection for so called intellectual property rights, ensuring further outflows of funds from the poor south to the rich north.
Recently, the move towards "free trade" has gathered pace. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an extension of GATT, has caused the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Americas. In Mexico, workers have lost their right to safe working conditions, any chance of a clean environment, and the right to join unions. Utilities, public services, and even banking has been opened up to "free trade", ensuring that the Third World will be run by western-based banks, effectively eliminating any hope of domestic industrial development within the Third World.
Of course, the "free trade" tag is just more capitalist propaganda. The GATT system is a tool for western governments to ensure that first world capitalism remains dominant. Even where developing nations can use lower wages to produce goods more cheaply, they use GATT to protect "their" markets from cheap imports. Even the World Bank estimates that the loss to developing nations of western protectionism is more than twice the total "aid" programme. Forget free trade, GATT is for "free trade" where the west will win, and for greater protection where it has any chance of breaking even or losing. Europe uses GATT to ensure continued protection of its aerospace industry and agricultural production, the US for its pharmaceuticals, etc.
We are heading towards a quasi-world government administered by the rich on behalf of western/northern capitalism, through institutions such as G-7, IMF and WB, under regulations drawn up under GATT and enforced by the WTO. This is hardly a world in which the state is powerless to control footloose multi-nationals. Rather, it is an imperialist world, under which powerful states pursue capitalist self-interests. Far from being a benevolent force that could be used to control capitalism, states are there to rule in the interests of the rich and powerful.
The pull of parliamentary politics is strong, and though politicians may not be the flavour of the month, a credible left social democratic party, staffed by committed members, would be seductive to many people. But any electoral strategy, such as seeking to gain state power as a means of controlling capitalism, is based on a false premise. To counter it, we must continue to develop the ideas, methods and confidence with which to challenge capitalism directly - based on direct action, one of the cornerstones of anarchism – which itself developed out of opposition to parliamentary methods. The state is part of the capitalist system and we need to confront this system in its entirety. We cannot defeat state power by becoming part of it.
Libcom note: Text from https://web.archive.org/web/20030807091310/http://direct-action.org.uk/