Sunday, September 20, 2015

Overlords and underlings (1999)

From the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
What an extraordinary notion it is that so many members of the human race should be forced to remain on that small section of the earth's surface in which they happened to be born. Who gave the world's rulers the right to tell us which bit of land we should live on?
When journalists write on "the great issues of the day" for the capitalist newspapers, they often seem to have turned their brains off. A lot of noise has been made recently about "foreigners" arriving in Britain, for example on the Kent coast. They aren't really genuine refugees, the cry goes up, only "bogus ones", who have the nerve to try to cross the capitalist-ordained boundaries to make themselves a little better off. The press, radio, and television are full of the protests. Yet all those making such a noise are living here in Britain, the country where industrial capitalism first came to prominence, and which therefore grabbed a vast Empire in all parts of the world—amounting at its height to a quarter of the entire surface of the globe, and to a quarter of the globe's population.
In every continent the British were found, running this enormous Empire for the benefit of the British ruling class-in Asia, in Africa, in America, in Australasia, and even here in Europe. Yet without turning a hair, British politicians and journalists are now trumpeting the idea that everyone should stay at home. Isn't it a bit late in the day for the champions of British capitalism to attack what they have been supporting for the last three hundred years?
It's worth mentioning, too, that when British capitalism sent its soldiers and settlers abroad, they went as conquerors, subduing and ruling over the native populations which had the misfortune to be living in the countries which Britain subjugated. Sometimes, indeed, they not only subdued the original inhabitants, they literally exterminated them. For example, the people who lived in Tasmania when the British arrived to settle there were all wiped out, the last ones in the middle of the nineteenth century.
In contrast, the immigrants who now try to settle in Britain come at the bottom of the social scale, taking the worst houses, accepting the worst conditions. Yet many publicists cannot contain their indignation that they should try to come here at all. It is strange that these propagandists can accept the British ruling class sending its emissaries to annex and govern dozens of foreign countries, yet cannot accept these deferential incomers, coming here merely in the hope of securing the worst-paid jobs.
Conflicts within the ruling class
Like all the other great political questions of which the papers and the airwaves are full, this one is being debated within the ruling class. For no ruling class is ever completely unanimous. It is painfully obvious that the ruling class of each particular state has interests which conflict with those of every other state's ruling class, and that every so often these conflicts ripen into open warfare, in which the rest of us are kindly allowed—indeed forced if we are reluctant—to rush forward loyally and kill the workers (and their families) who support some other state's ruling class. But capitalism also creates conflicts within each ruling class; no two capitalists have interests which are exactly the same.

The question of immigration, for example, causes disputes within the British ruling class. Some property owners want to establish the principle that when a particular industry or trade is short of workers, its owners have the right to bring in workers from any other country, and thus help to counteract the danger of having to raise wages and salaries. Other capitalists apparently feel that the native British working class should not be diluted. After all, our rulers pay for an education system, and a vast media industry, both of which work their socks off to produce a population fiercely loyal to the British ruling class, and which will therefore support its masters to the hilt whether in peace or war. So some members of the capitalist class feel it would be a mistake to let in too many workers from other countries, who have not been conditioned for years by British patriotic propaganda, and which therefore—perish the thought—might not be one hundred percent devoted to the British ruling class.
As a result journalists and publicists charge into the fray to support whatever view is held by the capitalists who pay them—some to attack immigration, some to defend it. Like all other issues, this one will be decided by whichever opinion finally wins the greatest support among the members of the ruling class.
This is not to say that the way these big "issues of the day" are resolved will have no effect on any member of the working class. Capitalism inevitably involves continuous tinkering with the system, as this or that group of capitalists force through changes which they think will benefit them. And some of these changes do affect the position of the working class, or of some sections of it. If a more liberal view is taken of immigration, it could be that some of the immigrants will be prepared to work for lower wages, and thus exert a depressing influence on wage levels. In the nineteenth century, capitalists in Britain welcomed many thousands of Irish immigrants, in the belief that they would keep wages down.
So some English or Scottish workers may have felt that their pay was less than it might have been, without the competition from these Irish newcomers. From this point of view, then, immigration might be a minus for British workers. On the other hand, the arrival of people from other countries, who have not been brainwashed from birth with notions that the British are clearly superior to all other peoples, may make it harder for chauvinists to whip up anti-foreign feeling in wartime. So from this point of view, immigration might count as a plus for the British working class.
Nationalist feeling
Some members of the capitalist class take advantage of any "foreign" immigration to whip up nationalist feeling, which is always valuable to the ruling class in its struggles (in peace or war) with the ruling class of other countries. Without the constant propaganda against "foreigners", where would "nationalist" feeling come from? Such feelings are not inborn. Small children are not hostile to other children with different-coloured skin, any more than they are to those with different-coloured hair, or different-coloured shoes. Why should they be? No two human beings are identical. If each individual member of the human race could not get on with other people despite their differences, then there would be no human society at all. Nationalist feelings arise because of the incessant propaganda of the ruling class in each country to persuade the working majority that they are in some way essentially different from and superior to everyone from other countries. Without this propaganda, each country's government would find it very difficult to get its people to join up and fight in its unavoidable wars with foreign states.

What an extraordinary notion it is that so many members of the human race should be forced to remain on that small section of the earth's surface in which they happened to be born. Who gave the world's rulers the right to tell us which bit of land we should live on? These restrictions apply chiefly, of course, to members of the working class. Members of the capitalist class don't stay put. They travel freely round the world, from London to Paris, from grouse moor to ski slope, from Caribbean island to Mediterranean cruise, from the chateau in Switzerland to the ranch in Arizona. And no-one dreams of telling them that they can't. Like many laws enacted by the ruling class, restrictions on the crossing of borders really only hit at members of the working class. The apologists for capitalism who try to foment ill-feeling towards "foreigners" landing here, whether they come to escape persecution, or to obtain slightly higher wages, never attack those many members of the upper class, including many newspaper proprietors, who swan about the world as if there were no such thing as state boundaries. But then, in a capitalist society, you can't really expect the rulers and the ruled to be judged by the same yardstick, can you?
Alwyn Edgar

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