In May 2019, John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, showed his support for trialing universal basic income if the UK Labour party won power. A few months later, at the party’s Annual Conference, he also announced Labour’s goal to implement over a ten-year period a 32-hour working week without loss of pay. Both of these measures appear in the Labour party’s 2019 election manifesto. Although the Labour party advocates these policies in a tentative and gradualist manner, it shares them with many contemporary post-work theorists. But whereas post-work theory has been largely silent on the question of borders and migration, the Labour Party has recently reversed its 2017 manifesto position by taking a strong stand in favor of freedom of movement.
Labour party members passed a motion at the 2019 conference asserting that “free movement, equality and rights for migrants are socialist values and benefit us all.” This socialist framing of freedom of movement emphasizes that migrants are workers and marks a clear contrast with Bernie Sanders’s description of open borders as a “right-wing proposal.” The Labour party motion insists that limiting freedom of movement and migrants’ rights harms everyone’s wages and working conditions, as well as weakening the political power of workers by dividing them along national lines. Party members also approved enfranchising all UK residents. In what is presumably intended to placate the likes of Len McCluskey, who opposed the motion, the Labour party manifesto commits to freedom of movement if Britain remains in the EU, but concedes that if it leaves “it will be subject to negotiations.”
Freedom of movement and equal rights for migrants might seem to undermine the prospects for the transformation of society toward post-work. We cannot simply dismiss concerns about the effects of open borders on the infrastructure, resources, and solidarity needed for any society, let alone a post-work one. But a post-work society would contradict its own values by excluding migrants in order to liberate its citizens from paid work. The left, including post-work activists, should champion open borders, but given global inequality, we also need a global basic income.
To see why, let’s first look at some of the ways that borders currently help maintain the work-centered society. Borders delineate the jurisdiction of states, but they are not just “lines in the sand.” In addition, they are processes that allow states to block and control the entry of goods, services, and people onto their territories. In terms of migration, while borders may deny entry to whole groups of persons, as with US President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” they more commonly admit migrants with a specified set of rights laid out in visas. This means that the majority of unauthorized migrants in the US and Europe overstayed their visas rather than entered unlawfully in the first place.
One of the main functions of border and migration policies is to ensure that states admit migrants who can either add jobs through investment and enterprise, or supply skills that are in short supply in the domestic labor market. So, for example, many countries offer investor visas. The EB-5 Immigrant Investor visa in the United States was created specifically to “stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors.” Once their investment has generated ten new jobs, these investors then qualify for permanent residence. Italy and the UK also offer investor visas.
Countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK also determine the admissibility of migrants on the basis of points, which Lea Ypi (a political theorist at the London School of Economics) points out, tends to favor those with “higher skills, more money, and a demonstrably greater capacity to adapt to the host environment.” Even though the United States does not have this type of system, it offers temporary visas to agricultural workers as well as those with more specialized skills. Despite being authorized to work, these migrants do not enjoy the same rights and protections as citizens, meaning that they are easier to subject to unsafe and exploitative conditions without fear of legal reprisals. This powerlessness is compounded in the case of undocumented migrants, for whom the fear of detention and deportation acts as a further form of discipline and discourages activism.
A final function of borders is to contain workers within particular labor markets. Global labor arbitrage refers to the practice whereby transnational corporations based in the global North seek out the cheapest available labor so as to maximize their profits. In fact, a 2008 report by World Bank researchers finds that “for many countries, the wage gaps caused by barriers to movement across international borders are among the largest known forms of wage discrimination.” Given this, the researchers suggested that increased labor mobility more effectively reduces poverty than most other “in situ anti-poverty interventions.”
Despite differences between theorists, we can understand a post-work society as a community that no longer treats paid employment as a prime duty of citizens, the source of social order and harmony, and thus a central goal of public policy. Continuing to deploy the sort of migration policies just discussed for the sake of the labor market would clearly go against the spirit of post-work.
However, even without these employment-related policies, a post-work society would still face a choice about whether and how to regulate migration. In fact, such a society could well become even more attractive to migrants looking for a better life. Would a post-work society be justified in excluding or limiting the entry and rights of migrants to prevent them from depleting resources and eroding solidarity? This question is not just hypothetical, given the recent claims by some parts of the left that immigration has become excessive.
Nation-states do currently enjoy significant the latitude to determine their own border and migration policies as a matter of sovereignty. But as Joseph Carens, one of the foremost proponents of open borders has pointed out, the freedom that states currently enjoy to exclude foreigners amounts to an unearned privilege that is a throwback to feudalism. Carens thus proposes open borders, since it respects the modern idea that all humans are equal, and recognizes the importance of freedom of movement to the exercise of freedom in general, especially in such a deeply unequal world. So should post-work activists also advocate open borders?
Arguments for both post-work and open borders often share a commitment to freedom and equality, which at least establishes a conceptual affinity between the two policies. We can also see that open borders would undermine the process of global labor arbitrage since workers who were previously confined to low-wage labor markets could now cross borders to find better-paying jobs more safely and easily.
But as we saw above, borders are not just open or shut. Likewise, in Carens’ version of open borders, while anyone should be able to live and work in their country of choice, they would not automatically qualify for the full rights of citizenship. This is because he argues that these rights come from being a member of society, which entails living there for several years. If a post-work society adopted this sort of policy, then more recent migrants would not have access to universal basic income, meaning that they would remain stuck within a sort of shadow work society until they earned full citizenship. To avoid such patent hypocrisy, a post-work society should either grant citizenship automatically to migrants or make sure the basic income is available to all present within its territory.
Justice also demands to extend the basic income to all present on the territory of a post-work society. Consider that the development of countries in the global North relies upon the confiscation of labor and resources in the South, with an estimated $16.3 trillion flowing from poor to rich countries since 1980. This transfer is enabled by the advantages that former colonial powers continue to enjoy in the global economy and the dominance of powerful countries over international institutions like the IMF, WTO, and World Bank. Finally, the unstable and impoverished conditions from which many migrants flee are, in many cases, at least partly the result of meddling by developed countries seeking to maintain influence and privilege in the region.
We have a responsibility to lessen the structural injustices that our actions, however indirectly, create and maintain. Granting basic income to migrants who have fled such injustices might not be the only or even the best response to them. But denying migrants access to the opportunities that we enjoy, either by closing our borders or withholding rights from them, would clearly perpetuate that injustice.
Still, as much as post-work societies must remain open to all migrants, it is difficult to dismiss the concern that too large and rapid influx of immigrants could overwhelm existing infrastructure and resources. For any society to function, there also needs to be some measure of solidarity. The sudden arrival of a large number of outsiders who speak different languages, come from different cultural and religious backgrounds, and who have not yet contributed visibly to the receiving society could also erode the solidarity needed to keep the post-work society running.
But limiting migration is not the only, or the appropriate response to these concerns. While some people migrate out of a sense of adventure, many do so from necessity and would rather stay where they are. For this reason, post-work societies ought to do all they can to improve living conditions around the world.
Solutions to global poverty are too complex to consider in detail here. However, post-work societies must not endorse the approach currently sponsored by the World Bank, which promotes economic growth “in an inclusive, labor-intensive way.” Trying to limit immigration to post-work societies by boosting employment elsewhere would be as hypocritical as adopting open borders but excluding migrants from full citizenship, including entitlement to the basic income.
An alternative anti-poverty measure that is more consistent with post-work values is a basic income paid to every person in the world. The amount of basic income paid would depend on the available funding. The UK-based group World Basic Income estimates that global taxes on carbon emissions, aviation and shipping, financial transactions, intellectual property, land, and wealth, as well as collective shares in global corporations, could raise enough revenue to pay everyone in the world $71.09 per month.
This sum would still not remove the coercion that members of more affluent countries experience to sell their labor. But it would be a promising first step, and hopefully, give rise to broader societal shifts around the meaning of work as well as how we obtain the things we want and need. As society becomes less geared towards paid work and reliant on the purchasing of commodities, cooperative and non-monetary activities would hopefully expand. With less need for money, the amount of basic income also matters less.
Admittedly, both basic income and open borders enjoy support from across the political spectrum, a fact that can make leftists wary of both. Basic income can serve the broader goals of post-work politics, but not when justified on the grounds that it will boost employment, as for example, when advocates claim that it helps people start new businesses. Similarly, while freedom and responsibility for justice provide strong reasons for supporting open borders, they also appeal to free marketers who recognize the profitability of introducing new human capital into domestic labor markets. But post-work societies would contradict their own values if they excluded migrants to protect themselves. Advocating open borders and a global basic income would make sure post-work politics respects the left’s historic commitment to internationalism. Post-workers of the world, unite!
James Chamberlain is assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University. His research focuses on capitalism, work, and borders, and he also serves as chair of the Socialism, Capitalism, and Democracy research committee of the International Political Science Association. This article was originally published by Menelique. @theoryjames