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