The case for global freedom of movement

refugeesby Diane Fieldes

National identification is today taken for granted by virtually the whole of humanity. An underlying assumption is that such identification is natural and therefore of very long duration.

Similarly, the idea of national borders and the need to police them is assumed to have a long history. A daily diet of stereotypes about “national character” and television shows like Border Security, Customs and Border Patrol reinforce these ideas.

Yet, as British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner pointed out in his Nations and Nationalism, “Nations as a natural God-given way of classifying people are a myth; nationalism which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them and often obliterates pre-existing cultures – that is the reality.” The nation is a recent phenomenon, and so are the closed borders that surround it.

Passports and capitalism

English “safe travel” documents were in use from the 1400s. But they weren’t associated with citizenship – a concept not yet born. They were written in French and freely available to foreigners until the mid-1800s, when the passport began to assume the role of a national identity document.

The nation-state was a product of the rise of capitalism and the reordering of the world into associated economic competitors. There were certainly states prior to capitalism – every class society requires one – but they were not national states. Capitalist markets required greater administration, both within individual firms and within the state. From its inception, the system required increasing state intervention to guarantee the currency and banking system, provide infrastructure, enforce taxation, keep the poor from rising up and engage in wars, to name just a few.

British Marxist Chris Harman summed up the development: “What became the first nations began their life as networks of trade, administration and language which grew up in the hinterland of major cities … The growth of the new linguistically based state had great advantages for the rising [capitalist class]. It made it more difficult for traders from elsewhere, who spoke ‘foreign’ languages, to challenge their ‘home’ markets. And it made the administrators of the state increasingly subject to their influence and eager to pursue their interests, especially when it came to helping them compete with rival groups of traders on world markets.”

However, the rapid expansion of rail travel in Europe in the late 19th century made the restriction of human movement difficult, and little official effort was put into maintaining the “integrity” of state boundaries. Europe was a melting pot at this time. Capital cities across the continent were often brimming with émigrés from neighbouring states. And people’s allegiances often lay not with their own “nation”, but with personal bonds or more universal causes. By 1914, passport requirements had been eliminated practically everywhere in Europe.

World War I focused ruling class attention more firmly on national borders, both for international security and to control the movement of skilled workers. An orgy of nationalist sentiment was also required to prosecute a war that offered only misery to the vast bulk of the population. There was little other incentive than a concocted sense of national duty for people to engage in what was, at the time, the greatest slaughter in human history. Passports and visas from this time became the universal requirement for travel that they are today.

The role of nationalism

Nationalism, however, was not simply ideological manipulation from above. As Harman again explains: “The strength of the ideology of nationalism. . . is part of the reflection in people’s consciousnesses of the experience of living in a capitalist world. Just as living under capitalism makes the great mass of people take for granted that commodity production, alienated wage labour and competition are more common than co-operation, so it makes them take for granted the necessity of the nation state.

“And nationalist consciousness makes sense so long as they do not challenge the system as a whole: within it the individual capitalist is in a very weak situation unless he has a state to enforce his interests on others. . . the individual worker knows he or she has to belong to a state to be allowed to work and live freely, and to apply for welfare benefits when necessary.”

So, for example, the competition on which capitalism is based, when combined with nationalism, produces the common sense idea that workers in one country have to compete against workers from another, all of which can lead to acceptance of the idea that we should accept lower wages and worse conditions to stop jobs from being “offshored”.

The capitalists do not rule directly; they rely on the state to maintain exploitation of the working class and protect their interests against the rival capitalists of competing nation states. The state is also the primary means by which nationalist ideas are shaped and promoted. Loyalty is demanded of citizens, regardless of class, in the “national interest”. This is reflected not just in ideas but in a whole range of institutions and arrangements, whether passport control, formal citizenship or the raising up of particular religious, language, racial or cultural prerequisites for migration or citizenship.

The changing names of the Australian government department concerned with immigration – Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Immigration and Citizenship, Immigration and Border Protection – give a flavour of “them and us” built in to it. This is the other great advantage for the rulers. The nation, with its common language, supposedly homogeneous history and exclusion of foreigners, helps to sow illusions in some common cause between exploiting bosses and exploited workers.

This is the key reason for the invention of national traditions. These traditions have to be constantly reinforced or reinvented. Education minister Christopher Pyne’s claim in an opinion piece in the Australian in January about “the history curriculum not … giving important events in Australia’s history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day” is just one recent example.


One of the key ways in which the state replenishes nationalism is by reference to external and internal threats. So it is accepted wisdom that border control is a sovereign right of all nations.

Borders are often presented as something to do with geographic features – coastlines, mountain ranges, rivers. But as the former Labor government’s excision of the Australian mainland from its own “migration zone” shows, even the most obvious natural boundaries are no match for legal magic, which can disappear entire continents.

Consider the borders throughout the Middle East. They often trace no natural features, but instead are lines on a map reflecting the carve-up of the Arab world by the European imperialist powers in the 19th century. Where borders lie depends on the relative strength of competing states (or their imperialist backers) – as the East Timorese found to their detriment when Australia liberated much of their oil by asserting that relevant areas of the Timor Sea were in “Australian waters”.

Borders do not just demarcate the end of one nation and the beginning of another. The racist British saying from World War I, “The wogs begin at Calais”, sums up another aspect of borders: their association with ideas of the racial inferiority and danger of foreigners. Nineteenth century European nationalism virtually equated race and nation, insisting on “racial purity”. For Western states today. the importance of the border continues in reinforcing national identity and providing legal and institutional rationales for racism.


Today’s anti-refugee scare campaigns reflect the contradiction between increasing pressures and aspirations to migrate and increasingly restrictive border controls. Globally, means of communication and travel are increasingly available, yet while trade liberalisation increases the freedom of movement of money and commodities, for most people on the planet the right to move has become more and more constrained.

Yet the nationalism of colonial and imperialist powers generates refugees in a range of ways: the arbitrary boundaries drawn with little reference to economic, social or cultural divisions; the divide and rule policies instituted within colonies, which set ethnic groups against each other; the backing of undemocratic regimes that suit their interests; or direct invasions. Each of these has created huge refugee populations.

The various social, economic and political factors that underpin migration of all kinds are rarely discussed or considered. To acknowledge the lack of meaningful choice for many who move across the globe (let alone the responsibility of the West) would undermine a key source of legitimacy for the nation-state’s monopoly and exercise of force, from wars to internal threats.

Instead, the supposed deviance of asylum seekers and unwanted immigrants is manufactured by Western states seeking to exclude them. This has been done in a range of ways: official hostility to refugees, their redefinition as “economic migrants” or their portrayal as alien outsiders, quite possibly terrorists, or at least the bearers of exotic and dangerous diseases.

The war on “people smugglers” legitimises the exercise of military power. The construction of exclusion zones by the West legitimises punitive border control measures by automatically criminalising asylum seekers who breach them.

The idea of refugees who actually move around the world seeking asylum as “queue jumpers” not only demonises refugees but also generates an “acceptable” refugee who doesn’t jump queues but stays in camps a long way away instead – preferably forever. And everywhere there are deliberate government strategies to make border protection a domestic political issue, including advertisements apparently directed at refugees that are really for domestic consumption, in a grand tradition of racist divide and rule.

Australia as a case study

Australia’s contemporary anti-refugee policies reflect a long tradition of racist exclusion. Not only were the colonial empires of the European powers created and sustained by force, but settler states like Australia were similarly constructed by invasion and the marginalisation or destruction of the indigenous population.

Colonial settler states generally have stronger attachments to ideas about racial superiority than the imperial powers that set them up. A major reason for this is the need to justify the dispossession of indigenous people. But racism in Australia also served a broader purpose – maintaining an ethnically homogeneous population and using its supposed racial superiority to dominate the region both economically and militarily.

The ideology of racism served the interests of Australian capital from the outset. Racism and the corresponding fear of invasion were the best way to convince white workers that they had something in common with the white ruling class. As far as they were concerned, it was for the best if bitterness at the workings of capitalism were deflected onto a racialised target rather than a class one.

Hence it was during an economic downturn that the colonial anti-Chinese legislation of 1877-88 passed amid a manufactured political crisis about “invasion” by Chinese. Prefiguring control measures that are today directed against refugees, the only Chinese then allowed to enter Australia were those who were “British by birth”, and even they could live only in designated areas.

All Chinese had to register with the police and were required to carry and produce on demand a licence. Given the widespread idea that racism is the product of working class rednecks, it is worth pointing out that this moral panic against the Chinese was generated and led by “respectable citizens” (See Liam Ward, “Chinese women workers forgotten by history”, Red Flag #10.)

From the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act – the basis of the White Australia policy – successive governments entrenched migration control as an important internal and external national security concern. The infamous dictation test (which involved having to write out 50 words in any arbitrarily nominated European language), used to exclude Asian migrants, was also directed against radicals and subversives. Working class activists who were not born in Australia could also be deported. In a seamen’s strike in the 1920s, the strike leaders were subjected to deportation proceedings (unsuccessful in the end because of mass opposition).

From federation until the end of World War II, most migrants to Australia were British or Irish in origin. Government-sponsored mass migration after World War II began to undermine the British and Irish composition of the Australian working class. It was argued for in terms of the national interest, the need to develop the Australian economy. But when postwar immigration surged, the Labor government maintained the racism of white (and British) Australia. Non-English-speaking and darker skinned migrants from southern Europe might have been allowed in as factory fodder, but they could expect racism when they got here.

The politics of racial exclusion operated in another way to sustain the postwar migrant intake. Fortified by the ideology of “populate or perish”, Labor MP Arthur Calwell and later immigration ministers played on anxieties about Australia’s alleged vulnerability to invasion from the north. The Cold War, especially after Australia entered the Vietnam War, gave another element to border protection – fear of the “yellow peril” from Communist Asia.

The shift from White Australia to the policy of multiculturalism represented not the end of nationalist exclusionary policies but their reformulation, both as a sop to Asian trading partners that were increasingly important to the Australian economy and as a way to discourage militant action by migrant workers by incorporating their “communities”, denuded of class content, into the nation.

Australian national identity and nationalist ideology are not fixed. Traditions of exclusion have been a constant feature, but expressed in different ways and with different targets.

Who benefits

Nations and nationalism are constructs forged in the capitalist era. The prime beneficiaries are the ruling classes, who use narratives about the “national interest” to divide workers and restrict our movement, while their corporations move investments with ease across the globe, exploiting and pillaging as they go.

Nationalism acts as glue binding us to the very class that exploits us and demands that we work harder and for less. By accepting the narrative about border protection, we concede the legitimacy of the ruling class determining where workers can and can’t live, and therefore how we can live our lives. That’s why we need to recognise the right of all people to move freely around the world.

The fight for refugee rights needs to be a fight for all of us. As Karl Marx wrote, “We have a world to win.”

The above article first appeared in Red Flag, paper of Australia’s biggest Marxist group, Socialist Alternative.  Further reading: New Zealand’s immigration controls – not in workers’ interests  and Depriving Samoans of immigration and citizenship rights


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