‘Migration Beyond Capitalism’ by Hannah Cross reviewed by Gustavo Racy

Migration Beyond Capitalism

Polity Press, Cambridge, UK and Medford, MA, 2021. 202pp., £17.99 pb
ISBN 9781509535958

Reviewed by Gustavo Racy

About the reviewer

Gustavo Racy is a researcher at the Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center (ViDi), at the …


Hannah Cross’ Migration Beyond Capitalism rescues an undoubtedly critical question for the twentieth-first century: the consequences of neoliberal politics over the displacement of the working class throughout the world and, more specifically, the movement from the Global South towards the North. What is more, Cross does so not only through a rich collection of data, but by an important theoretical discussion surrounding Marx’s thought and, as its unfolding, the disputes between Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin. Migration Beyond Capitalism stems from an empirical observation. Having previously analysed what she calls ‘unfree labour mobility’ related to the migration of West Africans towards Europe, Cross widens her theoretical approach to the issue of migration in neo- and post neoliberal societies by considering it ‘on the basis of a world-historical understanding of capitalism’ (vii). Considering the dominance of right-wing politics throughout most economies worldwide, when not explicitly fascist as in Trump’s USA, Bolsonaro’s Brazil or Orban’s Hungary, the take on migration allows us to understand how working relations are being modelled from within the framework of a neoliberal world-system. Throughout the book, Cross shows how labour, national chauvinism and class prejudice come together as the three main premisses of the neoliberal political economy of migration, and she does so by articulating these premisses in different moments and places of our recent past, making it explicit how, from a Marxist perspective, there is plenty of room, still, for international solidarity, one which may envisage ‘a future in which cheap labour ceases to be a structural feature of capitalist development’ (3).

Labour is, in fact, the key concept around which migration is thought throughout the book. This relation engenders an important rescue of Marx’s reflection on the ‘Irish Question,’ a series of correspondences between him and US collaborators from 1870 onwards, in which Marx analyses English colonial enterprise over Ireland, giving attention not only to the processes of land eviction and forced emigration, but also to the consequences of imperial polities for the English working-class itself. These observations are not anachronistic in any way, however. They serve as cases whose structures and functioning may be observed in the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. This comes as no surprise, of course, since we still live under capitalistic conditions. Yet, there resides one of Cross’ original contributions. In some way, when it comes to migration, the author shows us that ‘things remain the same’, to quote one of Walter Benjamin’s most reproduced remarks.

In her historical trajectory on the role of migration for the consolidation of the capitalist mode of production, Cross shows how industrial development had a significant change in character, from a settled to a migrant one. Though migration varies from developmental stage to developmental stage and society to society, the centrality of a migrating workforce in relation to the consolidation of productive forces is a historical, seasonal and economic variant. In a world divided by borders, as different communities of workers are forced to migrate due to ecological, social and economic conditions, the state plays a pivotal role in work conditions and relations that will be produced not only within the migrating working class, but within the working-class structure of the country of destiny. As shown by Cross, the mise en scene of a new, foreign working-class creates an enormous field for understanding how base and superstructure relate, since they set forth cultural – and political – relations that comprise issues of race and gender, as well as redefining international relations, demanding, under the capitalist optics, polities regarding border control, significant readdressing of military personnel and, overall, a soft/hard power struggle between national governments.

As the author approaches the twenty-first century, it becomes increasingly clear how the agency of transnational corporations appears as a contemporary innovation of the liberal economic organisation. As new agents of the global market, transnational corporations are determinant for mediating offer and demand; they are, indeed, the responsible for the organisation of the available workforce, which is, in part, determined by the control of mobility, establishing and determining the price of (legal and illegal) migration, and allocating them respectively to the demands. Many times, while reading the book, one feels as if the role of migration for capitalism is simply sorted through worksheets with which a Kafkian-like bureaucrat simply allocates people according to available spaces and expenses. And perhaps that is not far from the truth; the meticulous organisation of migration is attested by immigration systems carefully legislated, such as those in vigour in Australia, the UK, South Africa, the USA or Israel. In the far-end of such systems, as Cross shows, we may observe the action of state power by heavy expenditure on military armament and personnel, which work as law enforcement and contributes to the structuring of a phenomenon parallel to that of migration, i.e. the penal system and the transformation of detention structures into a market of its own via outsourcing.

This tightly connected relation between the exploitation of a workforce via migration as a last resource, the reinforcement of borders, the outsourcing of detention centres and the comfortable instigation of race, class and gender hatred toward immigrants, exposes the situation of a phenomenon well-known to mankind as an important economic asset for contemporary capitalism. Not only are immigrants relegated to second-class citizenship (if they are lucky), but they are also put in the lower level of working relations once they are ideologically presented as antagonistic to the local working-class. This is yet another important contribution of Cross’ work. Even though her argument demands many informative explanations, quoting legislations and historical episodes, the role of ideology is shown crystal-clear throughout the construction of her argument. This becomes clear, for instance, on the fourth section of the fourth chapter ‘Borders, Militarism, and Inequality’, titled ‘The Making of the European Union: From the “Golden Age” to Neoliberalism’, in which Cross shows how the demand for migrant work was stimulated – racism notwithstanding – all the while the welfare state prevailed, being suddenly cut with the oil crisis of the 1970s. From this point onwards, migration ‘became increasingly constructed as a threat to public order, domestic integration, national identity and provision of welfare’, allowing for the emergence of ‘Fortress Europe’. Even the Schengen Agreement of 1985, which seemed to pave a new way for an open, borderless Europe, was nothing, in terms of migration and labour, but an episodic hope, since it transferred border security resources ‘from Europe’s internal borders to the eastern and southern frontiers [which] created labour reserves in the periphery that could be dominated by means of flexible border management’ (82).

Considering these few observations presented here, which represent one small portion of Cross’ arguments, the key for an upbuilding of migration beyond capitalism may be found in the last chapter of the book, ‘A Socialist Approach to Migration’, where the author clearly states that, ‘[b]eyond capitalism, it will not be working people who are declared illegal, but instead the employment practices that lead them to exhaustion, injury and death and the private interests that are enriched from cuts in health, social care and other public goods’ (160).

It becomes evident that the ‘problem’ of immigration is a problem only for individuals subjected to displacement. For the capitalist class, it is an opportunity, whether through the deepening of control apparatuses via border treaties, detention centres and disassembling of worker’s unions and movements. It is obvious that the struggle against capitalism in the neoliberal world cuts right across this ever-present phenomenon of migration. From Marx to Lenin and Luxemburg, the diagnosis of capitalist migration seems to remain the same. One may call this phenomenon a ‘control apparatus’ that articulates different forces which, in the last analysis, are concentrated in the hands of those who own the means of production. As a human phenomenon, migration is used by capitalism for the commodification of the human being as it turns them into tools, instruments, mere workforce for the continuation of spurious business first, and of low intensity war and free market competition which fuels and maintains international relations’ status quo.

Despite the accuracy of the overall argument however, Cross seems to pay little attention to the unfolding of such relations for interpersonal, subjective and cultural relations. Even though the author points to the fact that gender, sex and race are not immune from the catastrophic consequences of migration within capitalism, she nonetheless seems to restrict her argument within an economic paradigm. This is, of course, the consequence of a fair and important theoretical choice, but the work could have benefited greatly by referring to anthropological and sociological works that explore the consequences of neoliberalism on migrant life, such as the work of French sociologist Jules Falquet, for example. Many references that are not necessarily Marxist in essence could have been a great contribution to this work. By no means does this make Cross’ work less important, original or powerful, but it seems important to emphasise alongside this somewhat insistent dwelling on an economic paradigm, which may give the impression that migration beyond capitalism is only possible by an economic determinant, when, at the same time, the author states that the solution for the problem demands a renewal of working-class cultures around the world. This is, I think, a powerful statement that could have been strengthened by the approach to alternative epistemologies that may re-signify the very core of Marxist contemporary thought which, throughout the twentieth century, in its so-called ‘classic’ form, has dwelled too long on economic arguments. There are plenty of epistemologies that are not necessarily antagonistic to Marxist theory, even if they may not be considered as such. These epistemologies are present in the South, in the autochthonous thinking of leaders such as David Kopenawa or Ailton Krenak, in the organisation of the Zapatista movement in Mexico and all around, and they may help us understand contemporary sexual, gender, class, work and migrant relations anew.

This is but one of the many reflections that Cross’ book provoked while reading, and the critique I devote to this specific question is by no means an attempt to detract from the book as a whole. On the contrary, it is a line of thought that the book leaves open for those who would like to further their knowledge and study on the topic. Afterall, be it by a more economic paradigm, or any other alternative, for us in the left it is clear – and this is really what I think Cross’ book is about – that the neoliberal world does not suffer from a lack of wealth; its problem is not the insufficient generation of wealth, but the fact that this wealth is concentrated in the hands of few. The qualitative renewal of the society to come is a responsibility of all those who suffer from the exhaustion of earth’s resources and of their own vital strength. Solidarity, internationalism, subjective and communal transformation are central for these relations to be overcome. And I cannot see any possibility of disagreeing with this.

5 September 2021

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