Conservative home secretary Suella Braverman flew to Washington DC last week to announce that “uncontrolled and illegal migration is an existential challenge for the political and cultural institutions of the West.” She spoke to a tiny audience at the free market American Enterprise Institute. The speech didn’t make major newspapers in the US such as the Washington Post or New York Times. But it stirred up a media storm in Britain.
Braverman wasn’t simply posturing to advance her ambition to replace Rishi Sunak as Tory leader. She was trying to drag the migration debate in Britain—already toxic thanks to her and the right wing tabloids—decisively onto the terrain of the far right. After bigging up the scale and disruptive impact of recent migration into Europe, Braverman makes this key statement, “If cultural change is too rapid and too big, then what was already there is diluted. Eventually it will disappear.”
She is essentially endorsing the far right “Great Replacement” theory. This claims that “liberal elites” are encouraging migration to reduce white people to a minority in Europe and North America.
Braverman also attacks the 1951 Refugee Convention. This was devised after the Second World War to ensure that never again would people fleeing tyrannies, such as Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, not find refuge. She says, “We now live in a completely different time.” But war in Ukraine has created more than six million refugees. Just in the past week or so almost the whole population of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus has fled to Armenia rather than be forcibly reincorporated into Azerbaijan.
Braverman admits—though not in as many words—that it is often poverty that leads people to leave their home countries. But she fails to acknowledge that this reflects the deep structural inequality between rich and poor that has grown worldwide under the neoliberal policies promoted by the likes of the American Enterprise Institute. One of the greatest condemnations of the capitalist system is that living standards are so low in, for example, much of Africa that people are willing to leave their homes in search of a better life.
Despite her talk of modernising refugee law, Braverman plays to the homophobic and sexist far right gallery when she says, “We will not be able to sustain an asylum system if in effect, simply being gay, or a woman, and fearful of discrimination in your country of origin, is sufficient to qualify for protection.”
In raising the stakes so brutally in Britain, Braverman is taking part in a global offensive by the far right. Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s fascist prime minister, will soon celebrate the first anniversary of her election victory. She promised to halt “illegal” migration but instead the numbers have doubled to 128,600 so far this year, up from around 66,200 at the same time last year.
In Libya warring between rival governments and the disastrous floods at Derma are pushing more people across the Mediterranean. Meloni has appealed to the European Union for help.
But her deputy prime minister and rival Matteo Salvini, in alliance with French fascist leader Marine Le Pen, is trying to outflank her to the right. He calls the rise in migration “an act of war … I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe in fate. I think it’s something absolutely wanted, organised, planned and financed to create difficulties for an unconventional government.”
Meanwhile, the upcoming elections in Poland are pulling the already viciously anti‑migrant Law and Justice Party government even further to the right. Whoever wins may end up depending on the antisemitic, homophobic and sexist Confederation Party, which is campaigning against the government’s welcome to a million Ukrainian refugees.
This would strengthen the hand of Europe’s leading far right politician, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who is currently relatively isolated. He is accused of allowing migrants to cross from Hungary into Slovakia to help his ally Robert Fico—who came top in the Slovak election last weekend. When he was prime minister in 2016, Fico said Slovakia wouldn’t accept “one single Muslim” migrant.
Daniel Hegedus of the German Marshall Fund says, “There could be an increasing core of central and eastern European and southern European illiberal, authoritarian governments … there is an entrenched authoritarian deep state in Poland.”
But the far right weaponising of migration isn’t confined to Europe. In her speech, Braverman quotes New York’s Democratic Mayor Eric Adams saying that the “migrant crisis” will “destroy New York City”. More than 118,000 migrants have come to New York since spring 2022. This is partly a consequence of the policy pursued by Greg Abbott, right wing Republican governor of Texas. The New York Times says that Abbott and his lieutenant-governor are “the driving force behind one of the hardest right turns in recent state history”.
Abbott has bussed 15,800 people who crossed the US southern border into Texas to New York City. As the Financial Times put it, “The crisis Abbott exported to New York has pitted erstwhile Democratic allies against one another as they trade blame while struggling to mount a coherent response. It has also focused national attention on an issue that Republicans favour—migration and a chaotic southern border—at the expense of one they would prefer to mute—abortion.”
Abbott was endorsed when he ran for re-election in 2021 by Donald Trump. He has pledged to build the wall along the US border that Trump promised. Trump himself remains, despite all the court cases against him, far ahead of all the other Republicans running for their party’s nomination for the presidency in 2024. In recent polls he’s been ahead of Joe Biden.
The possibility of a second Trump term in the White House is quite real, with huge implications for the cohesion of Western imperialism.
Despite Braverman’s appeal to the supposed facts of “economic and demography”, the idea that the advanced capitalist economies face an overwhelming “migration crisis” is nonsense. By far the biggest concentrations of refugees are to be found in the Global South, especially in the Middle East and Africa. The rich economies of Europe and the US could easily absorb the numbers entering them if enough resources were allocated to support them. And, as the experience of past migrations has repeatedly shown, the new entrants enrich the host societies both materially and culturally.
Capitalism as a global system has, ever since the first industrial revolution two centuries ago, depended on flows of migration to provide cheap and exploitable labour. But this structural reality, as Karl Marx grasped during the 1860s, creates the danger that economic competition between “native” and immigrant workers is transformed into racial antagonism.
Capitalism is today facing the biggest crisis in its history. It combines economic stagnation—which started in the North with the global financial crisis of 2007-9 but is now spreading to China—accelerating climate catastrophe, and growing inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China. It is this multi-dimensional crisis that is driving people across borders. But ruling class politicians are responding by seeking to displace popular anger caused, for example, by the global cost of living crisis onto migrants.
Braverman may be trying to pull Sunak rightwards but he has himself been beating the anti-migrant drum to counter the Tories’ unpopularity. The far right, both in government and on the streets, needs to be confronted directly. Anti-racist movements that put solidarity with migrants and refugees first must be built. But the only adequate response to the offensive mounted by Braverman, Meloni, Trump, and their like is class politics.
In other words, the anger that the far right exploits needs to be redirected back at its real source, the boss class who prioritise defending their wealth and profits and their system.
This is why the wage struggles that have developed since spring 2022 are so important. A new generation of workers are learning how to use the strike weapon to defend their interests. And in the process, it becomes clear that effective action depends on class solidarity that cuts across all the differences of nationality, colour, religion, and the like. Ultimately, as Marx argued in the case of Ireland, workers’ struggles can only succeed if they develop into an international struggle against the imperialism and racism that buttress their exploitation.
The New Age of Catastrophe by Alex Callinicos is available from Bookmarks bookshopOriginal post