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Monday, June 26, 2006

An analysis of Caffentzis' essay

Today I spent some time reading George Caffentzis' interesting essay, The “Si Se Puede” Insurrection: A Class Analysis.

Here are some of my thoughts on the piece:

George Caffentzis has written a pretty good analysis of the immigrant uprisings many of us participated this Spring. The piece does a decent job of analyzing the conflicting positions of both the capitalists and the working class when it comes to immigration. It also highlights the autonomous organizing and political positioning of the working class.

According to Caffentzis, the capitalists themselves are tactically in conflict about what direction to take, although their long-term goals are not in dispute. We've seen this divide in the ruling class play out in the Republican Party in particular, as local politicians and some members of the House have found themselves in opposition to the Bush Administration and the Senate. However, collectively, their goal is singular. They seek to undermine worker autonomy at the same time they need to keep immigrant workers mobile (codeword: "labor flexibility"). The author points out the cause of the crisis, from the capitalists perspective:

[t]he problem with officially sanctioned immigrant workers who have various forms of work authorization is that within a relatively short time they can become resident aliens and then citizens, with all the rights of other US workers (however meager they might be). This transition reduces their “flexibility” both individually and collectively.

This situation has led to the development of an alternative source of immigrant labor—the unauthorized or undocumented worker who arrives in the US without official sanction and hence is without the contractual protections that other workers normally have. These almost right-less workers have the maximum of “flexibility” to the point that capitalists can decide to fire them, not even pay them for their work and not face sanctions. Undocumented immigrant laborers have therefore been in much demand, especially by capitalists in industries where mechanization is too expensive and the available US-born workers are relatively few. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the undocumented now constitute almost 5 percent of US waged workers (Migration News 2006a).

But this “labor flexibility” for the low-tech capitalist can turn into exactly its opposite, “worker autonomy,” for undocumented workers who use their very status as unofficial workers to come and go as they will, independent of the micro- or macro-conditions of employment. They can use their very undocumented situation to shape the conditions of their lives and create communities on both sides of the borders they are crossing to aid their self-activated movements. The undocumented can turn their right-less status into a power of movement. When these can’s are realized in action and habit so that a whole world of cross border movement is created independent of the needs of capital, labor flexibility turns into worker autonomy.

And, so, he continues, the capitalists'

...problem is to destroy the immigrants’ labor autonomy while preserving and even more precisely controlling their flexibility. This will require a refined and, on the surface, contradictory set of policies. Once one understands this dilemma, the conflict between the congressional supporters of HR 4437 and S 2611 can be more clearly seen not as an all-or-nothing battle, but as a disagreement over how strong a dose of repression is enough to destroy labor autonomy and how enticing must the incentives remain to preserve labor flexibility. The mixture is not easy to determine and must be continually reassessed, since its subject is clearly in the process of responding to the very policies being devised and to larger forces in the world political economy.

Surely there is much to discuss, since the empirical consequences the passage of an HR 4437-type immigration law are hard to predict. Such a law aims to destroy the autonomy of immigration not only by criminalizing individual undocumented immigrants, but also by criminalizing the organizations that are at the center of a supportive immigrant community: the Church, the union, the local political machine, and the network of family and homeland friends and associates. The problem with such a law from the point of view of Capital is that if it were applied successfully, it would be so rigid it might destroy the capitalist function of immigration--the preservation of labor flexibility--and therefore it would be a worse catastrophe!

On this point, I think Caffentzis is right on. Clearly the capitalists are walking a tightrope here, not wanting to destroy the goose that layed the golden egg at the same time they hope to divide not just the working class, but also the immigrant movement itself. Consider the implications of the current Senate bill S2611, which passed last month.

The Senate deployed a classic strategy in this bill to defeat the immigrant workers’ new power and unity: divide and conquer. S 2611 literally divides up the present set of undocumented immigrants into three mutually exclusive subsets: (a) those who have been in the US for less than two years, (b) those who have been in the US between two and five years and (c) those who have been in the US for more than five years. Group (a) members must leave immediately on passage of the bill or face deportation. Group (b) members “must leave the country, and apply to re-enter through some currently unknown process.” Group (c) members would be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, provided they pay back taxes, learn English and have no serious criminal records.” This division, the senators clearly thought, would tempt many undocumented immigrants to turn against each other, especially those who were in Group (c).

Divide and conquer is a familiar strategy for the ruling class in this country. The great weakpoint of capitalism is the threat of a united working class.

The author does a good job highlighting the power of the immigrant movement here and to locate its action as not only central to this struggle, but to remind the reader that the working class is a political actor, not some dumb mass reacting to or parroting the will of the ruling class. The immigrant movement here took a great political risk in coming out against anti-immigration legislation and in so doing, they forced the ruling class to back off its most extreme accomodation of white working class demands.

Caffentzis goes to some lengths to investigate the division in the working class, pointing out that legalization and unionization of illegal workers would make sense for white workers to support since it would bring wage gains for everyone and increase working class power. This makes sense on a level, however, the author fails to investigate the role that white skin privilege plays in the equation, falling into the common trap of economic reductionism.

It's true that, all things being equal, white workers ought to support the unionization and legalization of illegal workers. But, since they don't, the question is, why not? Why is a significant section of the white working class in opposition to the legitimate demands of immigrant workers? The answer is white skin privilege.

White workers have entered into a contract with the white ruling class, in which they receive a social wage in exchange for their loyalty to whiteness and, in the end, the continued domination of the capitalist class. White supremacy is a deal that white working class people in this country make with rich white people. It guarantees them certain advantages as long as they continue to support the oppression of people of color and the maintenance of the capitalist system that keeps rich people rich and in power. It is this fundamental deal, and the resulting oppression, that forms the basis of American capitalism.

And, so, because of this failure to understand the fundamental nature of white supremacy in the United States, when
Caffentzis makes his case for working class unity, he winds up shouting his conclusions at us in exasperation:

The same holds true, though for different wage gains, for white and Hispanic workers as well. If such an eventually appears throughout the economy, then there would be a dramatic increase in wages due to the increase in the rights of immigrant workers. One can conclude from Borjas’ work that if immigrants come to the US and have no rights they will be a drag on the wages of native-born members of the US working class, but if they come to the US, get the rights to organize and they use them, they will be an important stimulus to an upsurge of increased wages for all workers in the US!

What he fails to recognize is that much of the white working class is, in its opposition to undocumented and marginalized immigrant workers, fighting to preserve those very privileges that set it apart from the non-white working class. In this sense, the white working class is organizing and acting politically and automously as well. Certainly, this white organizing can't be good for immigrant workers, but we have to recognize that it's not merely a question of economics. White skin privilege transcends in many ways mere economic benefits to include job security, better access to school and health care, less police oppression and risk of incarceration, among many other non-wage privileges.

Thus, our strategy for organizing must recognize this key division and fight to explain to white workers that their defense of their own privilege, coming as it does at the expense of the non-white working class, does not translate to a long-term strategy for liberation, since it merely reinforces the capitalist system. Nor does herding workers back into failed white supremacist institutions like unions.

The question is, are white workers interested in putting the struggles of immigrant workers at the front of their organizing? Can they be persuaded away from their rearguard defense of their own privileges? A successful revolutionary strategy in the US must put the undermining of the privileges of whiteness and the support of immigrants and people of color at the center. To do otherwise leaves the door open for the white working class to continue to maintain its privileged position, and that's no recipe for unity.


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