Migrant Justice and (Anti)Imperialism

A review of Immanuel Ness, Migration as Economic Imperialism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2023).

Manny Ness is a tireless labor historian whose many works occupy significant space on any well-stocked bookshelf. His latest release, Migration as Economic Imperialism, ties together one of the world’s currently most contentious political issues, migration, with a concept many see as antiquated, imperialism. Ness shows that there is an urgent need to tie both together. After all, the analysis of imperialism remains at the heart of understanding how capitalism works, and it impacts all of the contentious political issues of the day, migration included.

Ness argues against theories proclaiming that labor migration serves as a tool of development for countries in the Global South. In his introduction he writes: “Migration as Economic Imperialism challenges the narrative set forward by the world’s leading economic development agencies, finance capitalists and western governments that international labour migration is beneficial to the entire world economy and is the primary means for the economic development of poor countries.”

Ness painstakingly shows why remittances by foreign workers do not help to build sustainable local economies: “This book finds that, while remittances are sent sporadically and may pay for emergencies, such as medical care of sick family members, rent to prevent eviction, or funeral expenses for family members, they do not contribute to the economic development of most people in poor countries.”

Ness ties the realities of today’s labor migration to Arghiri Emmanuel’s theory of unequal exchange (have a look at the new website dedicated to Emmanuel’s work, unequalexchange.org) and suggests that it cements the imperialist order rather than undermining it. Instead of helping poor countries out of poverty, labor migration enlarges the gap between the rich and the poor: “Migrant workers … are in fact improving the standard of living and providing essential services in Europe, North America, East Asia, Oceania, emerging southern economies in the Arab Gulf (Gulf Cooperation Council) and South East Asia by adding value to consumer goods and services in host countries.” Add to this separated families, communities torn apart, and the hopes of millions of migrant workers crushed (as Ness points out, some don’t even make enough money to pay for the journey home), and you understand why Ness would argue for a “right to stay” alongside a “right to move.”

Treading on delicate political terrain, Ness wisely dedicates much time to condemning the discrimination and racism experienced by migrant workers. Right-wingers are quick to exploit any analysis of migration’s social and economic effects for nativist, ethnopluralist, and chauvinistic arguments: peoples are better off being separated, and the poor can only help themselves. Ness does not question the motives of migrant workers, nor does he trivialize the ordeals they go through in their search for a better life. Instead, he argues for migrant workers coming together in labor unions, something that is increasingly happening around the world. The example closest to home is the Solidariska Byggare branch of the SAC. Ness writes: “In a setting of growing xenophobia that is expanding in the Global North and South, it is essential to advance the rights of international labourers, many of whom are fleeing poverty and violence instigated by imperialist rivalries and local ethnic and economic disputes.”

Ten years ago, I reviewed one of my favorites book on migration: Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism. While Wallis focused on the political aspects of migration, using imperialism as a framework, Ness focuses on the economic dimensions. Together, the books outline the ongoing injustices caused by imperialism and how they are expressed in twenty-first century migration patterns. Ness concludes: “Once the migration-development nexus is seen to be continuing long-standing imperialist agendas that built this world of inequality, it becomes clear that any policies, debates or initiatives seeking to address labour migration must start by tackling the real crisis we face: a system of global apartheid dividing North and South.”

Gabriel Kuhn

(September 30, 2023)