Debating freedom of movement 

David Pavett critiques of Don Flynn’s approach to EU free movement rights

Don Flynn praises Jeremy Corbyn for “setting out the view that there is no obvious limit to the capacity of a country like Britain to absorb newcomers”. He says that, surprising as this may seem to some, it is something every first-year economics undergraduate has to get their heads round i.e. that labour is a positive input to the economy and therefore more of it means benefits for the entire population.


It is further claimed (with no evidence) that free-movement has been “one of the main mechanisms for redistributing wealth between the rich and the poor of Europe for the last forty years”. This, it is argued, is because workers in low wage countries can move to where they can “strike a better deal in terms of the cost of their labour”. This is classic free-market thinking.


Don Flynn is right to argue that these sort of explanations are the staple diet for first-year economics students. What is strange is that he should think that this is a sufficient justification for socialists to agree. This approach is all the more strange given that over the recent protests of economics students about the narrow and dogmatic basis of their courses.


If we treat the economy as a series of abstractions like “labour”, “capital”, “money”, business, banks etc with no critical analysis of the social relations that form their basis then we get a view of the macro economy as a series a quantities which either automatically find an optimal balance (free-market economics) or which need to be brought into harmony with each other by state action (various forms of Keynesianism).


Both of these approaches avoid looking at the social meaning of economic categories. Money is seen a “thing” (pieces of paper, numbers on a spreadsheet) and not a relation based the value creating property of general social labour. Capital is seen as physical machines/property and their monetary expression rather than an outcome of class society giving the owners of capital power over the lives of others.


The socio-historical analysis of the nature of economic concepts is not a part of degree courses. It is, I think, Don Flynn’s apparent acceptance academic received wisdom that makes his article so bizarre.


Another problem with his approach is its simplistic logic. He says that the forces of the right try to exploit immigration to focus worries about housing, services, jobs away from their root causes. True enough, but it doesn’t follow that there are no real issues about housing, services and jobs arising from high levels of immigration. The thing is that like all simplistic logic it is not even consistent because even though it is true that defenders of the social status quo would like people to think that immigration is the cause of our problems but at the same time they also defend the capitalist labour market which which drives immigration. The free movement of labour internationalises the reserve army of the unemployed. That’s not something that socialists should celebrate.


The “fundamental freedoms” of Treaty of Rome included not only the free movement of labour but also that of capital. The two evidently go together and both are required by a capitalism which seeks to be as unconstrained as possible by democratically elected governments. (Keynes, who was no socialist, warned that the free movement of capital would undermine government ability to control the economy.)


Don Flynn says that free movement smooths out the differences between rich and poor forgetting that (1) it has not prevented the overall growth in inequality and (2) the reverse side of the coin is that it sets worker against worker. Defending free movement as Don Flynn does as a good thing sounds uncomfortably like saying “if workers can’t solve their job problems by getting on their bikes then all they have to do is get on trains and boats instead”. I do not think that this is an appropriate socialist response.


Socialist should be arguing for an economic system that does not require people to uproot themselves and their families by planning economic resources in terms of human needs rather than by the need to satisfy the demand for more or less short-term profits.


I wonder if Don Flynn really thinks that Labour’s message to those concerned about the current levels of immigration should be “The benefits of free movement come from the fact that it allow wage earners in low wage…economies to move to places where they can strike a better deal”. How does he think that would go down in Sunderland or Stoke on Trent? Would he say to the same people “Look, I know that in an unstable world population movements amount to millions of people but that doesn’t effect the principle of free movement”? Or is this not a reductio ad absurdum of the “principle”?


Socialists have generally believed that the main economic resources should be socially owned in some form and directed to optimise the satisfaction of general needs. The most fundamental of such economic resources is labour. Its distribution too should be subject to an open and rational form of planning and not to the anarchistic operation of the capitalist market.


The current reasoning among left Labour activists seems to be something like this ‘Racists and xenophobes oppose free movement. We are anti-racists and internationalists so we must therefore support free movement’. It is a shallow line of reasoning which leads its advocates to become sturdy defenders of a policy designed to embed the power of transnational capital and to strengthen it in relation to democratically elected national governments. It’s all highly contradictory and is yet another illustration of how deprived UK political debate is of carefully reasoned argument.

Don Flynn’s original article appears in CHARTIST issue 281


  1. Interesting contribution, worthy of more discussion. Another angle on the migration issue which is rarely broached is the effect of immigration on those countries which the migrants leave. If we look at the present state of the EU countries like Latvia, Ireland, Portugal,Poland and Greece are experiencing big outflows of mrigrants. These migrants are usually the young and best qualified and/or ambitious and this will be to tbe detriment of the aforesaid countries. Demographic problems now plaugeing the EU will be even worse in the Eastern and Southern peripheries with an ageing population and a shrinking workforce. It seems that countries like Germany are scooping up workforces from its EU neighbours to their detriment. Free movement of labour means that the creators of surplus value are being sucked out of the periphery to the core which is more of a problem for the periphery, something that the politically left seldom seems aware of. The thing about capitalism is that it results in DIVERGENCE not CONVERGENCE.

  2. I am really glad that Frank Lee has raised the issue of the impact of ‘free movement’ on countries which lose the labour from which we benefit. I thought after sending my piece that I should have said something about that. In all the left-wing discussions, talks and articles I have come across this has never been mentioned. Joseph Stiglitz makes a few pertinent points on the issue in his Guardian article The future of the euro , 6th August 2016 (strangely not on the Guardian website at the time of writing). He treats the free movement of labour and capital as components of the neo-liberal paradigm. Strange then that so many on the left (including Jeremy Corbyn) should embrace the former an be silent about the latter. Or rather it would be strange if there was any reason to believe that such views had any theoretical substance.

  3. David. You ignore the fact that tens of thousands from Sunderland have enjoyed the freedom to come to London and indeed the rest ofcthe world in search of a better living. It has always been so. As internationalists we should fight against national borders and all manifestatons of nationalism.

    • Peter, I don’t think I have ignored that. The point is that control over the economy is overwhelmingly organised at the level of nation states. The extent to which this is not true is because democratically elected governments are increasingly undermined by global capital. The first step has to be to restore democratic control and that means having control over both the movement of labour and of capital. It is strange that current “socialist” thinking on the Labour left can get no further than left keynesianism (which shows just how far Labour has moved to the right in recent decades). In fact it can’t even quite do that since keynes was clear that government management of the macro economy could not be effective without capital controls. The idea of an open world in which people can come and go as they please is a valid humanistic dream but it is still just a dream. If we behave as if we were already in that world we hand the advantage to the ruling forces on the world stage i.e. those of global capital.

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