The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Human Migration, Immigrants, and Capitalism

Jun 5, 2017

The following was based on a presentation at a SPARK public meeting in Detroit on April 23.

We hear it over and over again – that this is a country of immigrants, people who migrated here from other places.

Well, yes, that’s true. For most of the history of this planet Earth, there were no human beings living on this part of the planet.

In fact, until nearly 100,000 years ago, there were no modern humans living anywhere on earth except in the land mass we call Africa today. Africa – that’s where modern human beings first evolved, at least 160,000 years ago. For about 100,000 years, they continued to live in Africa, migrating through its continent, driven by changing weather conditions.

Then, a few of those humans, descended from the same stock of people who first grew up in Africa, migrated to other parts of the globe. Arriving probably on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, some of their descendants went to Southeast Asia. From Asia, still later, descendants went into the island chains including Australia, and others later went into Europe. And still others went through Asia into Siberia.

Descendants of people in Siberia are probably the ones who first came through to what today is Alaska. Human beings got to this part of the world, roughly what is North America today, sometime around 20,000 years ago, maybe even before. Some of those who arrived in North America migrated into Central America, then down into South America.

Tracing its roots back to Africa over tens of thousands of years, this human species – of which we are all part – made its way around the globe, more or less just on their own two feet. In different parts of the planet, the human species, like other animals, was migrating.

Migration or Exploitation?

There is still migration today, that is, groups of people move from one place to another. But now we do it within the framework of the capitalist system, which is based on the exploitation of labor, that is, on an organization of the economy that allows someone with money to make profit from the labor of other people. That someone, the capitalist, takes part of the value stored up in the goods produced by other people’s labor for himself.

This country was born as capitalism was coming into being. The merchants and traders who came here, first looked for precious metals. But when they didn’t find any, they sought to make money off of other people’s labor.

But whose labor? Which people? There weren’t many in the northern part of the Americas, and those who were here either found ways to evade the Europeans or died from European diseases or were killed off.

Indentured Slavery

The first labor exploited by the merchants and traders came from England, at a time when people were being driven off the communal land. Unable to find a way to survive in English cities, many were imprisoned for what was called “vagrancy” – being without a job.

They could have stayed rotting in prison in England and starved if they didn’t want to come here. Some came, working for little more than enough to stay alive for the five years of the contract they had to sign – the so-called indenture, which made their labor belong to the person who had bought the contract.

Not all of the indentured came from England’s prisons. But in one way or another most of the indentured were hit with – as the gangsters say – an offer they couldn’t refuse.

There were about 250,000 indentured who came to North America before the American revolution – but nearly half of them died before their indenture was finished. Some of these indentured workers were the ones whose labor transformed southern land into tobacco plantations, helping to enrich the new class of plantation owners.

Tobacco traded back to Europe produced a profit not only for the landowners in the South, but for the traders in the North. To keep that profit coming in, they needed ever more labor.

A New Source of Labor: the Slave Trade

The slave trade was the basis of wealth accumulated in what was to become the United States – wealth dripping, from the beginning, in blood. People were taken by force by African slave catchers; sold to European traders who brought them, by force, to this side of the Atlantic Ocean; then sold to planters who put them to work by force. They were turned into a piece of property – just like a mule is property, or a shovel or some seeds to plant in the ground.

They were turned into something to be bought and sold – those people ripped out of Africa, along with all their children, including generations still to be born.

About 10 million people, somewhat more, may have arrived on this side of the ocean from Africa. Many more died in some aspect of the slave trade, including in Africa itself. Maybe two times 10 million people. No one knows.

About 400,000 of the ten million Africans brought to this side of the ocean came to what were the first 13 colonies, eventually the United States. They were the ones, through their labor, who established the economy of this country. The benefit of their work went to the southern plantation owners. It was an enormous benefit. A recent estimate by Atlantic Monthly put it at 250 million free hours of labor.

But the much larger value, that is, the benefit of the slave trade itself, went to Britain’s and then New England’s merchant classes. They accumulated an enormous mass of capital by buying and selling human beings, capital that was the backbone of world trade, of the first great fortunes of this country, and even of small scale production in the Northeast.

Does indenture and slavery seem very far away from the immigration we see today? Maybe, but all subsequent immigration was built on the same motive: a thirst for more profit, which drove the new capitalist class to search for more labor in order to wring out profit. But they wanted not just any labor – they sought labor which really had no choice but to come, and therefore would be more vulnerable when it got here, and thus forced to produce more while earning less.

Waves of Immigration

Immigration, in the form we know it today, did not really start much before 1820. That was only a few years after the slave trade itself was made illegal, cutting off the source that had provided a plentiful supply of labor to this country for almost two centuries.

The merchants and traders of the Northeast turned back toward Europe. Within 50 years, from 1820 to 1870, they brought about 7.5 million people to this part of the world. By far the largest number came from just two countries: Ireland and Germany. Ireland lost half its population to the U.S.

And it’s true that no one waved a gun in front of the Irish and the Germans, nor put them in chains. But they hardly came by free choice. In Ireland, a disease rapidly spread through potatoes, the staple crop. In a country already bled dry by Britain, Irish people were starving, literally to death. During the same period, some people fled Germany after a revolution was crushed; others left as one war followed another, making some sections of the country unlivable.

In other words, both the Irish and the Germans were vulnerable – meaning that, when they got here, they could be thrown into the hardest jobs, created as the country industrialized, and paid the lowest wages. For 50 years, they built the canals, dug the coal, built the railroads and cleared and developed agricultural land. It was back-breaking work, and it paid little. Oh, yes, a part of the Germans seemed to escape, because they made it on to land that hadn’t been occupied. But farming was unremitting work.

Several decades later, the railroads pushed to bring in workers to California. From the West Coast, Asia was closer. Over 100,000 Chinese were dragged here, often hijacked by Chinese gangsters trafficking in people – much like the coyotes who bring people up from Mexico today. The Chinese were put to work building the western half of the railroad way, and digging the gold and silver mines of Nevada. Women were sold into prostitution.

When the so-called “Long Depression” hit, the agents who went looking for immigrants were called back. Signs went up: “No Irish need apply.” Anti-immigrant legislation passed. Reactionary forces organized anti-Irish riots, and anti-German riots in the East, anti-Chinese riots in the West.

Eventually, the economy picked back up, and American capital went back to Europe looking for more people, but this time it sent out agents to Southern Europe, then Eastern Europe, then to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean – to entice new groups of desperate people.

An Italian immigrant wrote home, saying, “We thought we were coming to a country where the streets were paved with gold. But when we got here, we found out three things. The streets weren’t paved with gold; they weren’t paved at all; and we were expected to pave them.”

The countries from which the new immigrants came may have changed, but their circumstances forced them to work whatever job was offered. Whatever was the newest, deadliest, dirtiest industry – that’s where they were hired, and for the lowest wages.

Over and over it has been the same story – a boom of migration, when capital finds a need for more labor, a reversal when the unbridled capitalist drive for profit torpedoes the capitalists’ own economy. Including right up to today. Migrants try to flee desperate situations in Mexico and Central America, situations that U.S. corporations have enforced on their countries. People from Syria are driven to find a place in other countries because wars led by the U.S. in the region have made their country unlivable.

And always, always, always we find reactionary forces acting to stoke anti-immigrant attitudes and to stoke anti-black prejudices among the waves of new immigrants.

A Country Born, Bred and Raised on Slavery

It’s been only 154 years since slavery was legally prohibited in this country. But it existed legally for 234 years before that. In other words, slavery is the foundation stone and bedrock of the United States of America.

When the slave trade was made illegal in 1806, the plantation owners set up “farms” to breed and raise new slaves. When slavery itself was made illegal in 1863, the slaveowners shifted over to sharecropping agriculture, keeping the former slaves in a new kind of slavery, overseen by the KKK and given validity with Jim Crow laws, which declared that black people legally had no rights that the courts need respect. Southern agriculture lived on their labor. Northern factories benefitted from migration of black people from the South.

The growing capitalist class used the black people streaming into Northern cities as what Marx called, a “reserve army of the unemployed”: desperate for work, but thrown out of work as soon as things turned down; last hired, first fired, for 154 years, and still counting. The first jobs they could get – and often the only ones – were as scabs during a strike.

All the groups of immigrants, one after the other, made their way in this society, in part by stepping on the shoulders of the black population, which had been here before any of them. They may not consciously have chosen to do it – they just moved into a capitalist economy organized to keep the black population on the bottom rungs of the ladder. But among those immigrants were many who soon subscribed to the racist ideology of American society. Not only did they assimilate the views of their oppressors, some of them took part in the pogroms against black people that swept through northern American cities.

It’s obvious that such a situation could create bitterness and sharp divisions in the working class.

At the same time, it has created a class that has enormous possibilities. So many of those who were oppressed at one time or another became the best fighters the working class has known, leading some of the biggest, most important strikes. Among the black population, the working class has a force that already showed itself ready to take on the state power directly.

With people who have come from so many areas of the world, having so many experiences, so much different knowledge, the American working class could have a wide view of the world.

So, finally, no matter how capitalism has deformed migration, using it for its own purposes, the working class can use what we gained from it for our own purposes – which is to organize together to get rid of this capitalist system built on so much human misery.