The Brutal Logic of the Working Class

The working class possesses a clear and brutal logic on the issue of immigration. They know the more there are of ‘them’ competing for jobs the less the wages will be for ‘us’. It’s a survival instinct that has driven Australian history since colonisation.

Time and time again, opinion poll after opinion poll demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Australians favour hard-line and inhuman policies when it comes to immigration. An Essential Media report taken on August 2nd last year found that 64% of respondents approved of Tony Abbott’s plan to cut immigration from 300,000 per year to 170,000. This is a clear cut case of raw numbers – less people coming in means less people competing for my job. But public support extends to more visceral forms of state violence against (potential) migrants. Another Essential Media report from October 25 2010 found that 53% of respondents disapproved (29% strongly disapproved) of the federal government’s decision to move children and their families out of detention centres and live within the community while their cases were being processed.

There are really only two broad ways you can respond to what this polling says about our fellow Australians. Firstly, you could write them off as unthinking racist idiots who are incapable of participating in a fully functioning democracy. Secondly, you could acknowledge that such depth and breadth of feeling (whether ethical or not) must be based on some common lived experience, and work out how this prevents us from being a better society. The first reaction is the easiest – it involves less thinking and less action. Unfortunately, it has also been where what remains of the Australian Left has been stuck for the last few years. It’s seductive because you get the satisfaction of knowing that you are a more caring person that your fellow ignorant citizens but without the burden of being able to meaningfully change the status quo.

The second is harder because once you take this pill it takes you on a challenging journey where nothing ever looks the same again – kind of like a crappy boring version of the Matrix (think the second and third films in the trilogy). Let’s take the first step. Immigration is an important determinant in setting wage levels. Imagine how much a warehouse worker or a cleaner would get in Australia if we had 100 million more people in the economy? In fact, I would posit that since the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s immigration has become an even more important factor in setting wage levels. Once capital and the flow of goods were regulated to protect Australian jobs. Once wages were fixed centrally – there never used to be a labour market in Australia as one would traditionally define it. Vulnerable migrants entering the workforce would be paid at the same rate as everyone else, allowing greater participation in Australian society and lowering the threat that immigration played to setting wage levels. Once this social compact died so did working class acceptance of humane immigration policies.

Consciously Australia moved to a more ‘competitive’ society. The dark side of this is that workers now have to compete in a labour market – and workers in this country are smart. They know where their interests are. As long as we live in the current structure more workers means less money. As long as there is no realistic prospect of structurally changing the economy then continued immigration will be seen as an ongoing threat. Look at it from another angle – it’s always the spokespersons for capital that support high levels of immigration – these people are smart, they where their interests are.

If we truly care about our fellow people (in Australia and around the world) we need to build a system that rewards the better angels of our nature. The only solution is to build a system where working Australians can earn a decent living without having to compete on a labour market. The rest is just posturing.


18 thoughts on “The Brutal Logic of the Working Class

  1. i agree with you on the the issue however perhaps the solution is more simple (or far more complex ) than reworking the labour market (and all the risks/pitfalls inherent in that). I think what we need to do is look at why the people think that immigrants are taking their jobs. When in reality the bulk of the people in society hold jobs that most immigrants can only dream of and most immigrants do the “shit jobs” that most of Australia don’t want.
    I believe that this due to a process i like to term the “Herald Sunisation” of Australia politics, we have gradually become a nation whose politicians rely on cheap headlines rather than rational decision making. “Refugee’s” have become “illegal immigrants” mentally unwell people are now enemies of the state, the opposition party is now the betraying “working australian families” .
    Maybe we should give Australian’s more credit and cut the bull shit out of politics we might find we have a system and a country that engages and embraces all people rather than polarises.

  2. “When in reality the bulk of the people in society hold jobs that most immigrants can only dream of and most immigrants do the “shit jobs” that most of Australia don’t want.”
    I know the ‘average’ wage is frequently touted as being what this month? $65k, $75k?
    Meanwhile, the median wage -that which 50% of Australians make less than- is still around $40k.
    Living in a fruit picking and packing area, I agree there are ‘shit jobs’ that many Australians might not want to do, but having tried one of these jobs for a few months, I was struck by the number of backpackers there weren’t.
    Even the ones that were worked poorly and left early in the majority of cases.
    The simple fact is, half of Australia’s working population do ‘shit jobs’.

    1. I think that’s a really good point. A lot of people do a lot of hard work and the median wage is a lot less that the so-called average.

  3. I think that the observation you make about the lived experience of workers under (neoliberal) capitalism as being one of (increasing) competition is correct but insufficient and leads you to link it to an incorrect conclusion about this reflecting actual material interests.

    It is indeed the way that workers face the “labour market” as individuals competing for jobs that tends to atomise them, pulling against the way that the organisation of work unites them in collective labour. But that is quite different to saying that the issue of population versus jobs is a simple zero-sum game.

    A review of the extant Australian literature on the issue shows a consistent finding: Immigration levels have no overall negative impact on the unemployment rate of “native workers”. Indeed, it seems that most migrant workers end up taking jobs that “natives” weren’t ever likely to take. Often these jobs are lower paid, but that’s not the same as having a downward pressure on jobs taken by “natives”.

    Of course, governments and bosses use the threat of high immigration and cheap labour to discipline workforces and increase rates of exploitation, but this is different to it being a direct economic effect of migration.

    The main reason there has been a squeeze on living standards in the last 30-40 years, I would argue, is that competition has increased due to far less robust capitalist growth rates after the end of the long, post-WWII boom. The main reason wages are going down in real terms in Europe have nothing to do with migration rates and a lot to do with the crisis. Politically, the argument against migration is a classic example of displacing social insecurity caused by systemic crisis into insecurity over a threat from outside (and usually connects with nationalist and racist tropes).

    I plan to do a more detailed post on this on Left Flank sometime soon.

    1. I think you’re right about the main reason for the squeeze on living standards. However, what I’m getting at is that it’s the very lived experience of workers in the labour market which impacts on attitudes towards immigration. Competition does not breed compassion.

  4. I find it highly ironic that the so-called Marxist left and big business speak with the same voice on the subject of immigration: the more, the merrier.

    And lest I am labelled an ignorant and racist bogan (as I almost was a few days ago by a previous commenter) for making this point, let me state this:

    (1) I am a wog, or what I call fringe white (what people describe with the “Mediterranean appearance” euphemism);
    (2) I’m tertiary educated.
    (3) I arrived in Australia on a skilled migrant visa.
    (4) I’m low paid, as I never managed to get a job in my field and at my age (50), I better forget about it.
    (5) I consider myself not only vaguely “progressive”, or somewhat left-leaning, but Marxist.

    And having worked as a cleaner for years on end, until my knees started to fail, I’ve seen an originally low paid occupation being flooded with kids (coming to Australia at big personal expense and, therefore, being unable to fail), just to be exploited, at the same time driving what were already low wages into misery.

    All the while, big companies make big bucks and ask for more of the same (and understandably so). And the left? Well, they are well and asked to say hi: full of good intentions and having the high moral ground, content themselves speaking platitudes.

    And, on top, when vaguely left-leaning bourgeois politicians, like Bob Brown or Sarah Hanson-Young, actually assume a position on this subject, they’re automatically classified together with Pauline Hanson, never mind that Ms. Hanson was against non-White migration, full-stop; while Mr. Brown is calling for a reduction in skilled migration, without regard of race, nationality, gender or religion.

    And they are attacked on those grounds simultaneously by the Murdoch press (recently reporting Mr. Brown for having said that skilled migrants were queue jumpers, although no other media reported those words, that I am aware of), the right-wing think tank and the… Marxist left.

    Frankly, the left is dramatically ill-prepared to debate this subject.

    1. Godfrey, the “queue-jumpers” comment was from an AAP report. When Greens members approached Brown’s media people they were told the office had no idea what they were talking about, but as far as I know Brown has not attempted to correct the record anywhere.

      1. No worries. The point you’re making is valid. To both Maggie and Dr_Tad – I don’t think the Greens are centrally relevant to the point I’m attempting to make about how labour market competition and insecurity can foster a hostility towards outsiders. This Maggie, I think is a long way from high moral platitudes.

  5. “I don’t think the Greens are centrally relevant to the point I’m attempting to make about how labour market competition and insecurity can foster a hostility towards outsiders. This Maggie, I think is a long way from high moral platitudes.”

    I agree that the Greens are not really relevant to your point. But the prominence they gained in this matter has been given to them by other Marxists, not by me.

    What bothers me is that, with your possible exception, I haven’t seen any Marxist considering the possibility that this backlash against immigration might have any other explanation than racism or xenophobia.

    Under that hypothesis (i.e. this is due to racism only), then, what the hell, let’s just fight it and explain the offending parties their mistake.

    But if that hypothesis were false, what we would observe is that we are explaining away a problem that is genuinely felt. And those who genuinely feel this problem will think: “Gosh, these people really have nothing to do with us”. Or, to paraphrase myself: they are “full of good intentions and having the high moral ground, content themselves speaking platitudes”

    And as I feel genuinely affected by this problem, that is precisely what I feel.

    So, let me ask the question: do we support limits to skilled migration or not?

  6. Magpie, you doth protest against Marxists too much here. Given the lengthy debate we conducted in the comments of Left Flank (not to mention what I’ve said here, see above), to say that you “haven’t seen any Marxist considering the possibility that this backlash against immigration might have any other explanation than racism or xenophobia” is a bit rich.

    There is no question that economic competition provides the seed-bed for anti-immigrant feeling among workers. Importantly, it also provides the material basis for sectionalism or inter-firm rivalry among workers within nations and ethnic groups. It is quite a different thing to then argue, as you continually seem to, that there is a rational interest in workers succumbing to that competitive arrangement. If one does then we should not just be in favour of increasing the competitive advantage of permanent resident Australian workers against skilled migrants, we should also support our boss in their competition against other bosses, because it’s better if “our” firm comes out ahead, or we should support tariffs on “our” industry at the expense of others.

    All this really does is leave workers (who have a common interests in opposing the capitalist class, not just their own boss) in worrying much more about the outcome of inter-capitalist competition (their own boss’ interests) or inter-state competition (their country’s capitalist interests) than their class interests. We have just spent 35 years experiencing the joys of competition thanks to neoliberalism — being told to line up with “our” national interests on the global playing field, but also making “our” firms competitive against others. Barry O’Farrell argues that NSW public servants wages are uncompetitive with those of other states’, as justification for his draconian attacks on collective organisation.

    However, your argument gives ground to the idea that we have to worry not about state and corporate neoliberalisers, but foreign workers seeking a better life, because of this “felt” competition. To put it as kindly as I can, you have this exactly upside down.

    Any Left project for rebuilding working class resistance has to start with a rejection of the “feeling” that competition produces because we need to tap into the collective “feeling” of class (not sectional, not national) antagonism, to identify capitalists as the enemy and to build collective organisation on a class basis. Sure we may be in a minority right now, but it’s hard to see how looking for shortcuts that undermine class consciousness are a start.

  7. Dr_Tad,

    With respect, I’ve deliberately addressed Godfrey, not you.

    Would you allow him to answer. or should I understand you answered for him?

  8. Magpie,

    Of course I support limits to skilled migration.

    I think the original point I was attempting to make was that there is a sensible logic based on labour market competition that produces hostility towards migrants. It’s the basis of the logic that needs to be attacked and altered before we can be a truly humane society.

    Dr Tad – interesting point about BOF.

      1. Thanks, I think Dr_Tad though was making a point about framing.

        The use of one set of descriptors although applied to skilled migrants instead of refugees could nonetheless reinforce those notions against refugees.

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