The Peasants Are Coming: Brexit, Free Trade & Mass Migrations

Brexit & Refugees

On June 24th Great Britain shocked the world by voting to exit the European Union (Brexit). Some celebrated the succession as a left wing “Peasant Revolt” against so-called “free trade agreements.”  They were right. Europe (and the world) needs an economic revolution from below. And Brexit was a shot across the bow of corporate globalization.

Others however ascribed the Brexit to narrow right wing anti-immigrant nationalism. They were also correct. However right wing focus on immigrants as if they were the root and sum of Europe’s problems obscures potential connections of interest between the right and its revolutionary counterpart seeking lasting solutions to the problems Brexit lays bare. Those solutions must go far beyond building walls and otherwise restricting immigration. They have to address globalism’s inherent contradictions and the various causes of the largest movement of peoples in world history.

For starters, think of those unprecedented migrations in the light of globalism’s contradictions as reflected in free trade pacts in our hemisphere as compared with the European Union.

Over here, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its Central American analogue (CAFTA) grant owners of capital the right to cross borders with abandon regardless of the destruction they wreak on local economies in Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere in the Global South. For instance, the dumping low-priced U.S. corn on Mexican markets has converted innumerable peasant farmers into urban workers seeking employment illegally in the United States.

The illegality results from NAFTA’s refusal to recognize that labor is just as essential as capital in the free market paradigm.  If so (and capitalist theory tells us it is), then logic dictates that the freedom of movement accorded one element, must also be granted the other.

However if labor were to enjoy the mobility of capital, the detrimental effects of globalism’s so-called “free trade” would become apparent to all. Workers from Mexico would be free to go where the money is – to the U.S. and Canada. In turn, workers in those countries would see their jobs threatened. They would rebel and reject corporate globalization by demanding the repeal of NAFTA and CAFTA.

Multi-national employers in the U.S. and Canada protect themselves from such reaction by formally pretending to stand with U.S. and Canadian workers against unrestricted immigration. Politically and with great bluster they support building walls. Actually, however, they find immigration essential because Global South workers are required, for example, to harvest tomatoes and lettuce in the United States. Immigrants also exert downward pressure on U.S. wages generally and in construction and service industries in particular. All of that is good for business. The wall-talk is just window dressing.

That’s what’s happening on this side of the pond.

By way of contrast, the granddaddy of all free trade agreements, the European Union (EU) has been less illogical than NAFTA and CAFTA. It has granted labor the same mobility as capital. So workers in the European Union are free to cross borders from economically depressed member states such as Bulgaria and Greece to where the money is in Germany and Great Britain. The results are predictable. In the context of a tight labor market induced by the Great Recession, a huge backlash has resulted against immigrants for reasons described above. Brexit was the outcome.

But the immigrant problem is far more complicated than meets the eye. Ignoring that complexity blocks necessarily nuanced responses. It also blocks union of those right and left wing concerns earlier referenced.

The fact is: not all immigrants are economic. Instead, there are really three types of immigrants taking part in today’s mass migrations. True: some contemporary refugees are economically driven. Many others however are war refugees; a third group seeks refuge from the effects of climate chaos. The legitimate interests of each of these groups dictate separate policy changes that are generally ignored in xenophobic rhetoric about building walls, and protecting national identity.

Economic immigrants are those earlier-mentioned working people who demand the same rights as big capital. Within the European Union, and as already indicated, they have been moving legally from low wage countries to higher wage venues.  In our hemisphere, workers from Mexico and Central America have intuitively followed free-trade logic. They have voted with their feet against the labor restrictions of NAFTA and CAFTA despite the trade agreements’ legal prohibitions.

For their part, war refugees are flooding the world as a result of United States’ and U.S.-supported bombing campaigns (including drones) in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Palestine, Yemen, and elsewhere. Such campaigns have demolished the refugees’ homes, and destroyed their communities and jobs. It’s no wonder then that they reluctantly seek refuge in Europe and the United States. Under international law, they have the legal right to do so. Morally speaking, those responsible for the bombings are most obliged to receive them. The culprit United States should lead the way.

Finally, refugees from climate chaos form a separate category. Many migrants from Syria, for instance, are fleeing not only U.S.-sponsored bombing raids; they are farmers whose fields have been devastated by a years-long drought. Other refugees from island nations and coastal regions find their homes swallowed by rising sea-levels caused by melting polar icecaps. As global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, this category of refugees will soon dwarf the other two.

In light of such distinctions about free trade, the logic of globalized capitalism, and the three classes of refugees, clear remedies suggest themselves – all inspired by Brexit. In a word, the basic remedy is democracy. More specifically, required policy changes include: (1) Exiting all free trade agreements responsible for economic refugees; (2) Stopping the bombing and wars that create homeless refugees, and (3) Leaving fossil fuels in the ground while adopting mandatory regulations to prevent further warming of the planet.

Though unlikely, all of this is possible. As the Brexit vote demonstrates, there is nothing mandatory or inevitable about free trade agreements. In developing countries, they all can be replaced by what in the past was called “import substitution.” That meant industrialization by Global South economies and instituting protectionist policies to keep imports out and economic emigrants at home.

Such substitution is based three realizations: (1) that no country has ever achieved “developed” status by reliance on supplying raw materials and agricultural products to industrialized nations, (2) that such policy of protectionism and import substitution was itself responsible for the economic advancement of the United States, and (3) after World War II, it worked in Global South countries such as Costa Rica with the result of separating it from its unindustrialized neighbors as economically successful.

[Please note that if free trade agreements remain under consideration, democracy demands that their discussion involve all affected parties with equal representation and vote. Such negotiations would include environmentalists and their concerns for air, water plants and animals. They would involve workers whose jobs might be lost, and community members whose neighborhoods and cities might be devastated by mass emigration, increased pollution or by waves of immigrants. Here absolute transparency is required.  There can be no secret negotiations, top-secret documents, or one-sided elite authorship of policies that end up affecting millions of disenfranchised workers including women and children.]

If Brexit was the start of a peasant revolution, it’s time for all of us to join our brothers and sisters at the barricades across the pond, pitchforks in hand. Our enemies in this struggle are not immigrant workers victims of our wars, or those whom one-percenters call environmental extremists. They are instead the extremist negotiators of secret trade pacts, belligerent prosecutors of wars and obtuse deniers of humanly-induced climate change.

Those are the exploiters whom the Brexit vote indicates we must unite to overthrow and replace.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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