Emergence, insurrection

As usual, George Caffentzis requires very little time to come up with an insightful analysis. This time it’s about the springtime protests against the anti-immigrant legislation still wending its way through the U.S. Congress and the emergence of a working-class immigrant movement.

In other words, HR 4437 is the kind of law the anti-immigration movement has been calling for, one that categorizes undocumented workers as criminals to be tried, convicted, jailed and then deported…pure and simple. If enacted, the bill would transform almost every person in the US (not only police officers) into either its violators, its enforcers or classify them as criminally complicit with its violators. […]

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 rightless status into a power of movement. When these cans 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.

There is evidence that this transformation is taking place in the US, and the occurrence of the “Si Se Puede” insurrection is definitive evidence of it. In that sense capitalists are now in a situation similar to one they faced with the rise of the “hobo worker” in the late 19th and early 20th century (after “Coxey’s Army’s” march on Washington). […]

The struggle over a strategy to preserve the hoboes’ flexibility but destroy their autonomy was fought out among the capitalists in the first part of the 20th century. Eventually, from the 1919 Palmer raids, through the railroad police attacks on hobo “jungles,” to the New Deal housing programs, a complex strategy of violence and incentives was worked out that gradually eliminated the hobo workers’ autonomy.

The capitalists in the US are having a similar dilemma now. The conflict between capitalists represented in this spring’s debates in the Congress is not about the profitability of immigration, both documented and undocumented; on this they are united. Their 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.

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