Migration, Race, and Class Today

Rafeef Ziadah and Adam Hanieh
race and capital Hanieh and Ziadah

This paper addresses the role of global migration and the nature of national borders within the co-constitution of class and race. We begin with Marx’s critique of the value-form – a critique that rests upon a distinction between the ‘essence’ of social reality and its immediate appearances. The paper elaborates how Marx’s understanding of the emergence of a society based upon generalised commodity production leads to a certain conception of the ‘political state’ and citizenship – and thus borders and national belonging. This reveals the distinctive territorial forms of capitalism vis-à-vis those found in pre-capitalist societies, and moves us away from transhistorical conceptions of borders and the nation-state.  In the second half, the paper turns to look at what this conception of borders and migration might mean concretely for how we think about the co-constitution of race and class today. Here the focus is on three crucial aspects of the contemporary world market: (1) the relationship between the cross-border movements of labour and processes of class formation (2) migration and the determination of the value of labour power, and (3) coercive and unfree labour.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.


Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

In recent decades, a rich current of Marxist literature has insisted that categories of race and class under capitalism cannot be separated from one another, in either a theoretical or historical sense.[1] The basic premise of this work is that processes of class formation are always racialised in specific, historically concrete ways; and that, likewise, racialised groups are necessarily marked by class inequalities and differences in social power.[2] While race and class are not identical they are simultaneous and co-constituted, and as such, positivist and crudely reductionist forms of Marxism that demote race to a ‘secondary contradiction’ or even a distraction from working class struggle need to be fully rejected.[3] The production (and exploitation) of difference needs to be considered as internal to the logic of capital[4] and thus, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes, “racism, capitalism, and class rule [are always] tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other”.[5]

This insistence on the co-constitutive and entangled character of race and class builds upon an earlier generation of Marxist work that sought to unpack the enduring character and legacies of racism in the US, Britain, and elsewhere, as well as attempts to understand why the experience of class itself was typically expressed through racial categories.[6] Overlapping considerably with debates around gender, sexuality, and imperialism, these earlier theoretical contributions were largely generated from (and served to corroborate) the lived experience of anti-racist and communist movements throughout the 20th century – including, most critically, the work of black feminists.[7] Activists and intellectuals involved in anti-colonial struggles examined and conceptualised the mutual ties of race, class, and imperialism, including the emergence of national bourgeoisies within their respective societies.[8] This connection with struggle is often omitted in the sanitised versions of social theory inherited from the past; for this reason, it is crucial to recognise that much of the recent debate on race and class is similarly rooted in the practical politics and theoretical challenges presented by movements such as Black Lives Matter.

All of this has proven exceptionally invigorating to Marxism, and our argument in this paper draws heavily upon many of the insights generated by this existing literature (both new and old). In what follows, however, we single out one dimension of this work that we feel needs to be explored much more systematically: the role of global migration and the nature of national borders within the co-constitution of class and race. By this, we are not at all suggesting that migration, the migrant experience, and the crossing of borders have not figured centrally within Marxist analyses of race and class. There is a strong tradition, particularly exemplified in the work of some British black writers[9], which has paid close attention to the intersection between racial formation, migration, and labour.[10] This work has opened up critical insights into the relationship between migration, class, and processes of racialisation, particularly through the post war period. However, in our opinion, this work often takes the national scale and its borders as an assumed given, and does not go far enough in problematizing and demystifying the particular place of migrant labour and borders in global capitalism. In what follows, we seek to challenge these common-sense perceptions of national borders, and ask what can be learnt about the interconnections of race and class through more systematically foregrounding migration within the circuit of capital accumulation.

In doing so, our intervention is also aimed as a contribution to recent critical scholarship on borders and migration. A key theme of this literature is an insistence that borders should not be viewed as fixed or immutable lines, but rather understood as sites of social and political contestation that are productive of what Novak describes as ‘socio-spatial criteria’.[11] By allowing the movement of some and denying that of others, borders act like filters that work to create difference and inequality, both inside and across the world market.[12] As such, “[a]ny definition of borders is in itself a representation of the social [while] any representation of the social rests on a conceptualisation of borders”.[13] Borders are thus deeply entwined with the making of modern bureaucratic and state power – evidenced, for example, through the securitisation of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as a ‘threat’ to citizen populations, or the externalisation of border controls deep into migrant origin and transit countries. As numerous scholars have emphasised – particularly those associated with the Autonomy of Migration (AoM) approach – the movement of people across borders is a constitutive and untameable force, possessed of its own diverse sets of desires, aspirations, and needs that are not reducible to those of capital.[14] The migrant’s battle against the border is thus part of what shapes the form of the border itself. This complex dialectic is inextricably bound up with the production of migrant (and non-migrant) subjectivities[15], including that of race.[16]

Nonetheless, despite a range of important insights that have helped explicate the role and nature of contemporary borders, much of this critical literature tends to adopt rather functionalist interpretations of border practices.[17] Borders are assumed to exist because they ‘do’ certain things for capital (or capitalist states) – they cheapen labour power, fragment populations, provide a national base for the projection of international power, and so forth. Without a doubt, all of these border ‘effects’ are indeed fundamental to how capitalism works, but the form itself – the ‘border-ness’ of the world as it appears in popular consciousness – is typically assumed as an unproblematic and a priori fact, an already-given backdrop that forms the canvas on which categories of race and class come to be inscribed. One of our goals in what follows is to interrogate this form in greater depth – to ask why, within everyday perception, global capitalism appears to take the territorial form of nationally-organised sovereign units, demarcated by borders, and regulated through border practices and different citizenship regimes. It is our contention that starting with this question not only helps to better understand the interplay of race and class across the world market today – it also points to the enduring relevance of Marxist work on race and class to the study of borders and migration.

Our approach to this question begins with Marx’s critique of the value-form – a critique that rests upon a distinction between the ‘essence’ of social reality and its immediate appearances. We elaborate how Marx’s understanding of the emergence of a society based upon generalised commodity production leads to a certain conception of the ‘political state’ and citizenship – and thus borders and national belonging. This approach reveals the distinctive territorial forms of capitalism vis-à-vis those found in pre-capitalist societies, and moves us away from transhistorical conceptions of borders and the nation-state. Crucially, however, Marx’s critique was a critique of form – an attempt to understand why the forms in which the world appears to us serve to misrepresent how social reality actually operates. In exploring this theme, we draw upon a certain Marxist tradition that has been somewhat overshadowed by a widespread interpretation of Marx’s work that insists on a sharp separation of the ‘material’ and the ‘ideal’ (frequently encapsulated in a vulgar reading of Marx’s ‘base-superstructure’ metaphor). This alternative tradition includes Derek Sayer’s powerful reframing of Marx’s critique of ideology, and the related ‘internal relations’ approach ably articulated by writers such as Bertell Ollman, Dorothy Smith, Himani Bannerji and others.[18] This work, we will argue, offers a useful way of conceptualising both the ‘form of appearance’ of borders, as well as a deeper understanding of what borders and migration do in relation to race and class.

In the second half of this paper, we turn to look at what this conception of borders and migration might mean concretely for how we think about the co-constitution of race and class. Here we focus on three core features of the contemporary world market: (1) the relationship between the cross-border movements of labour and processes of class formation (2) migration and the determination of the value of labour power, and (3) coercive and unfree labour. Each of these themes powerfully illustrates the centrality of borders – and, crucially, the misrepresentation of borders in our everyday consciousness – to processes of class formation and racialisation. Our discussion of these themes is not meant to be exhaustive and in no way fully encompasses the complexities of the issues involved. Rather, as we discuss in the conclusion, our goal is to more fully centre migration within discussions around race and class – challenging the dominant forms of left-nationalism and valorisation of national borders that mark much of Left political debate today. 

Borders and the Mystifications of the National Form

The deployment of race as a social category is closely bound up with the emergence of discrete national states enclosing putatively free individuals, each possessed with the rights of citizenship, located within sovereign and clearly bordered territories.[19] As one of the key markers of national ‘belonging’ and territorial attachment, notions of racial difference and racial superiority came to underpin the competitive aspirations of national states in their conquest of territory and resources from the 15th century onwards.[20] A wide panoply of other social categories also emerged in complex interaction with these racialised notions of identity – sovereignty, citizenship, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth – all of which were fundamentally linked to the gradual development of a world that appeared to be ordered by and through national states. The existence of borders was crucial to this process – borders demarcated the boundaries of supposedly discrete national units, and thus all the various social categories that rested upon the national form necessarily presupposed and posited borders as their sine qua non

It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully disentangle these social categories, their different manifestations across time and space, and their relationship to the national form. Instead, our focus here is on the form itself – the enduring everyday perception that we live in a world constituted by discrete national states delineated by national borders. What we hope to show in this initial section is two-fold: first, to demonstrate how this perception of the national form (i.e. the existence of borders) emerges directly out of the nature of capitalism as a society based upon generalized commodity production, and, second, to illustrate that this perception is ultimately a mystification, an ideological misrepresentation of social reality.[21] Thus framed, we will then be able to move in subsequent sections to understanding how the (mis)perception of borders is so closely tied to the ways that race and class are co-constituted.

Making these two arguments necessitates beginning with Marx’s value theory and his understanding of the commodity-form. As is well-known, a central objective of Marx’s theoretical project was an attempt to grasp what was distinctive about a society based upon the generalised exchange of commodities, rather than the incidental, or territorially limited use of exchange found in pre-capitalist societies.[22] Unlike pre-capitalist forms of human society where direct relations of coercion and compulsion regulate social life, in capitalist society we confront each other as independent and individual owners of commodities. At the same time, as in all human societies, our relationship with nature and the reproduction of ourselves must take place through society – we are gregarious social animals – and this demands the distribution of social labour in particular proportions.[23] Under generalised commodity production, the mechanism for this distribution takes place through the private exchange of the individual products of our labour (commodities). The paradox of capitalist society is that the decisions about what, when, and how to produce are made autonomously by independent private holders of commodities – yet society is somehow able to regulate the distribution of social labour in definite proportions that more or less guarantees its continued existence.[24] Marx’s key goal is to show how and why this is possible. Beginning with the ‘simplest cell’ in which this exchange takes place – the real commodity – Marx traces the two-fold nature of the commodity as a both an object of utility as well as a bearer of a certain proportion of abstract social labour. From this he draws out the existence of value as a means of regulating the distribution of abstract social labour time.

But for Marx, capitalism “is not simply an ‘exchange society’ but rather one built upon the exploitation of labour power”.[25] For the majority of us, the only commodity we are consistently able to bring to the market is this labour power, or our ability to work. Following from this, Marx describes the nature of human labour under capitalism as ‘doubly-free’: we are freed from the means of subsistence, yet simultaneously free to sell our labour power as we see fit.[26] The latter implies the removal of direct force outside of the moment of production – although, as we explore below, this does not mean that labour is actually free, or that various forms and different degrees of coerced labour are not present within capitalism. Likewise, the owners of the means of production relate to each other as free and equal commodity owners, and political power is no longer directly constituted through customary privilege. But this nonetheless remains a society of class domination. It is therefore dependent upon organised force and forms of social regulation that guarantee private property rights and the process of exchange. Political power must exist somewhere – and in capitalist society, it is uniquely constituted outside of the capital-labour relation as an autonomous sphere of politics. This appears to us as the separation of the political and economic spheres.[27]

Extending this argument, numerous authors have connected the generalisation of the commodity-form as the principal mechanism for mediating material and social exchange to the constitution of particular legal and juridical subjects and the capitalist state form.[28] For our purposes, the key point to emphasise here is the relationship between the commodity-form and the emergence of our personhoods as abstract citizens (i.e. without regard to the particular work we perform or any inherited or perceived status) who are located within territorially-delimited sovereign states.[29] The apparent separation of the political and economic spheres involves the positing of both the worker and the bourgeois as abstract figures who are formally equal bearers of rights within the territory controlled by the political state.[30]

It is this process that we perceive through various social categories – citizenship, race, ethnicity, nationality etc. –which ultimately carry within themselves a sense of national belonging and connection to territory (and thus state). The nation represented “the institutionalisation of the difference between citizen and foreigner, between 'us' and 'them'”.[31] I am from here, and others are not - this is my territory, and not that of others who exist outside of it.[32] At the same time, the nation was also a “destroyer of parochial divisions and ancient privileges and ... guarantor of the rights of citizenship”.[33] My fact of belonging brings with it a certain set of privileged rights (vis-à-vis those who exist outside of this space) and simultaneously establishes a formal (equal) relationship with other fellow citizens. These rights exist as law, guaranteed by an abstract force (the state) that exercises force over my sovereign territory and constitutes my personhood as a sovereign subject of this impersonal power. In other words, the social categories through which we perceive the world are necessarily bound (both logically and historically) to the everyday notion of the world as a patchwork of mutually-exclusive, discrete national territories, delimited by borders, and conceived in isolation from one another.

Of course, this territorialisation of the commodity-form within apparently distinct geographical units did not occur immediately and everywhere at once.[34] In Western Europe, the protracted crisis of the feudal system, numerous wars, and intense social conflict drove the emergence of the national form and the appearance of categories such as citizen and foreigner that came to mark national belonging. The temporal and spatial unevenness of this process meant that these social categories developed in very different ways across the world market. In all cases, however, the consolidation of the citizen/foreigner divide was deeply bound up with the racialisation of difference, which, as Malik has convincingly shown, involved the transformation of the concept of national belonging into identification with a particular ethnic, linguistic or racial identity.[35] The birth of this racialised worldview drew upon earlier logics of racism forged within Europe itself – notably the “racialized religious superiority” of Christian armies seeking to overcome Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula through the 13th century.[36] With the building of colonial empires and the forceful imposition of national borders on subordinated areas of the world, racial classifications were generalised as part of marking certain populations as unfree.[37] This was closely associated with the reworking of a wide range of earlier forms of social categorisation within the newly constituted national borders of dominated states, including caste, ethnic and sectarian identities that continue to reverberate today.[38] In all cases, these processes indicated that the emergence of capitalist states was marked by a tendency “not to homogenise, but to differentiate – to exaggerate regional, subcultural and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones”.[39]

At this point, however, it is crucial to clarify a key aspect of Marx’s method that is often poorly understood: the relationship between the ideas and categories through which we think about the world, and the underlying social relations that mark capitalism as a social system of generalized commodity production. Marx’s key analytical thrust is not to establish some kind of economic determination by the ‘material’ over the ‘ideal’ in the ways sometimes thought to be implied by the base-superstructure metaphor, but rather to deny the very possibility of separating out the ‘ideal’ as a really existing order of reality that is distinct from the ‘material’ in the first place.[40] Derek Sayer makes this point persuasively, noting that Marx’s critique of idealism (articulated in the German Ideology and elsewhere) consists of a challenge:

[to] the very possibility of distinguishing the material and the ideal as separate spheres in the first place. The primacy of the ideal is not denied simpliciter; this denial is a consequence of one that is logically prior, that of the existence of the ideal as an independent entity. So whereas the idealists, according to Marx (and Engels in 1846), severed consciousness from the real individuals whose consciousness it was and were thus enabled to construct the fictitious subjects of their ideology, The German Ideology does not propose merely to turn the idealists right side up again. If the ideal as constituted by the philosophers is fictitious as a subject, it would be no less so as an object. Marx and Engels focus their attack on precisely the separation of consciousness from 'the individuals who are its basis and from their actual conditions' … which makes idealism possible.[41]

Seen from this perspective, the categories through which we think about the world – state, law, citizenship, race, borders, national belonging etc. – are the forms through which the world appears to us in our thoughts. Their effects, in that sense, are real (because these categories belong to us as active, thinking human beings) – but we should not mistake these phenomenal forms as actually-existing things that are separate from ourselves as real, active human beings. They are “forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production”[42]; ideal forms through which the material relations that make up society are manifested to our consciousness.[43] To think otherwise is to reify these categories as a separable ‘really existing’ order of reality. Once again, Sayer puts this succinctly:

“Law, state, religion and so on can be conceived as independent, self-acting spheres only by virtue of a reification… they are not, as they immediately appear to be, levels of reality which are substantially separate … They are, rather ideological forms of appearance – Erscheinungsformen, to use [Marx’s] own concept – of the totality of social relations … and their ideologicality consists precisely in their appearance of real independence … They are the ‘social forms of consciousness’ in which the ‘essential relations’ of society are immediately grasped, and their analysis is coterminous with Marx’s critique of immediate appearances”.[44]

At the end of this paragraph, Sayer points to a further critical aspect to Marx’s perspective that must also be grasped: the “critique of immediate appearances”. Not only do the conceptual categories through which we perceive the world constitute the ‘forms of appearance” of the “totality of social relations”, they simultaneously serve to misrepresent this social reality. This was the overriding theme of Marx’s critique of political economy, and it is also precisely how Marx frames the emergence of the supposed equality of the ‘citizen’ alongside the generalization of the commodity form. For Marx, the double-freedom of labour and the apparent equality of commodity owners does not mean that the political and economic spheres are actually separated in capitalist society; rather, they appear to us in this way as a result of the basic property relation, and the effect of that appearance is to obfuscate the real processes of exploitation embodied in the commodity-form and the social power that the bourgeoisie continues to hold within society. The ‘political emancipation’ implied in the notion of the juridically free and equal citizen acts to hide the reality of the state as “a form of class rule… the form in which the modern bourgeoisie publically organizes its social power”.[45] Or as Colletti puts it: “One obtains man as an equal of other men, man as a member of his species and of the human community, only by ignoring man as he is in really existing society and treating him as the citizen of an ethereal community. One obtains the citizen only by abstracting from the bourgeois”.[46]

Importantly, however, this argument should not be taken to imply that the categories through which we comprehend the world are false, in the sense that we err in how we see reality. The world actually does appear to operate according to these concepts – we behave in accordance with them, they are regulated in particular ways through the laws and social institutions that we establish, and to the degree that we feel that the particular rights attached to concepts such as citizenship are infringed, we seek redress. But we must not mistake the appearance of reality, for reality itself (‘otherwise all science would be superfluous’, as Marx famously commented). These categories appear to us in a manner akin to a mirage – we really see them, but they obscure their status as forms of thought expressing the ‘essential relations’ of the commodity-form, and we invest in them explanatory and causal effects as independent powers separate from sensuous human beings. We thus fail to see how these forms of appearance serve to conceal the true substance of the basic property relation.[47] In this sense, Marx can write that the idea of citizenship “should read: domination of the bourgeoisie” and the citizen is an “imaginary member of an illusionary sovereignty” which, as Sayer contends, we should understand in a very literal sense.[48]

One of the consequences of this reification of the state and its associated categories of citizenship and sovereignty is a deeply-ingrained tendency to view the territories demarcated by national borders as discrete, separable units that contain within themselves neatly bounded sets of social relations.[49] Within the everyday popular imaginary, national units are thought of as isolatable fragments akin to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which are “ontologically prior to the whole; that is, the parts exist in isolation and come together to make wholes… the parts have intrinsic properties, which they possess in isolation and which they lend to the whole”.[50] In this manner, we see the parts (the national units) as existing first, and the social whole (the international) as emerging subsequently through the interactions of these individual parts (Paolucci 2011: 87). There are two separable orders of territorialisation at play in our minds – the national and the international – with the latter coming into being through the additive summation of the (pre-constituted) first. At the core of this spatial disjuncture is the presupposition of the ‘national’ as a reified, discrete unit – a mistaking of the surface appearances of reality, for reality itself. And as Paulucci notes, “When the researcher accepts the level of appearance, that is, when relations are grasped as things, the view of the whole is rendered less complete, even distorted” (2011: 89 italics in original).

A critique of this kind of atomistic ‘Cartesian reductionism’ (Levins and Lewontin 1985) can be found in Marx’s ‘internal relations’ approach (Ollman 1976, 2003; Sayer 1979, 1987; Smith 2004; Paolucci 2011). According to this perspective, the relations existing between objects (and concepts) should not be considered external to the objects themselves but as part of what actually constitutes them. Any object under study needs to be seen as “relations, containing in themselves, as integral elements of what they are, those parts with which we tend to see them externally tied” (Ollman 2003: 25). Objects, in other words, are not self-contained, preexisting, independent, or autonomous things but are actually made up through the relations they hold with one another. These relationships do not exist ‘outside’ these objects but are intrinsic to their very nature. As these relations change, so do the things themselves. The analytic method thus focuses on exploring the manifold relations that exist between things and the movement of these relations over time, rather than considering objects of study as discrete building blocks that can be compared or contrasted but remain understood, in an ontological sense, as existing a priori or separate from one another.

Such an approach helps move us away from methodologically nationalist perspectives that take “the nation-state as the self-evident container of political, cultural, and economic relations … [and] the organization of the inter-state system as a series of mutually exclusive, spatially bounded nation-states”.[51] Ultimately, these perspectives stem from taking the mystified appearance of the national form as actually existing social reality. Instead, we should understand these national spaces as internally-related elements of a broader totality – the world market – which “is global in content and national only in form”.[52] In other words, rather than a dichotomous view of the national and global, we need to consider both the unity and interdependencies of a single world market, which simultaneously recognizes the persistence of multiple states, and the sharp hierarchies and unevenness within the global.[53] As Dale Tomich, who employs a similar framework in his highly perceptive work on the development of colonial slavery, notes: “The whole [i.e. the global] is understood as being formed and reformed by the changing interactions among its constituent elements. Each particular element derives its analytical significance through its relation to the totality ... Each contains, encompasses and expresses the totality of world-economy while the totality expresses, unifies, and gives order to the relations among the particulars”.[54]

This account helps to explain both why we tend to see the world as a patchwork of discrete national territories and simultaneously how this form of appearance is a fundamentally misleading and deceptive perception (because it denies the internally-related character of these spaces). Borders are essential to maintaining this perception in both its actual and illusory forms. As the apparently ‘hard’ edges of our national containers, they work to circumscribe and delimit discrete sets of social relations from one another. Things – money, people, goods, ideas etc. – ‘cross’ borders, and in doing so they appear to leave one set of social relations and enter into another. This appearance is real, has substantial material effects, and is underpinned by human practice – most sharply felt by those trying to cross borders ‘illegally’ – but it is an appearance that ultimately rests upon a mistranslation of reality in our thoughts: a reification of the state as a discrete, pre-existing space that is externally-related to other national spaces. In truth, cross-border flows are internal to the social relations of these national spaces – they simultaneously exist in both the ‘here’ and ‘there’, and it is the fact of this simultaneity that feeds into how both the capital-labour relation and the value-form are constituted across the world market.

Borders, Migration and Class Formation

This demystification of borders and the national form can help us better understand the immense significance of cross-border migration to processes of class formation in any particular national context. Many authors have noted that we need to understand cross-border migration as a means through which a ‘global reserve army of labour’[55]  is accessed in any given country, particularly by capital located in wealthier zones of the global economy.[56] Surplus populations from across the world provide a ready pool of labour – “a mass of human material always ready for exploitation”[57] – that can be drawn upon depending upon the ebbs and flows of capital accumulation. Of course, the precise character of such flows is a historically determined question – with huge variability across different sectors and countries.[58] But the key point is that the international mobility of labour disrupts any assumed national-boundedness to where working classes come from and how they are continually made; migration is thus a process of class formation – an association of labour in one part of the world with capital from another.[59]

In this respect, scholars have long noted how migration has underpinned the making of class in capitalist states. In Britain, of course, we can see it in the successive waves of migration that were so closely tied to the contours of Empire and often targeted particular nationalities or displaced groups (e.g. Caribbean workers; Bangladeshi women workers in textiles; Jewish, and more recently, workers from the European Union).[60] All of these migrations express the movement of surplus populations from across the globe to Britain – which, as a result, have made the British working class what it is today.[61] Similar patterns are seen across other European states, as well as in all the settler-colonies.

Outside of Europe, the massive scale of cross-border displacement as a result of war or other crises also needs to be seen as part of the process generating new reserve armies and class configurations. Regardless of rights, status, or employment, such displaced populations make up a very significant proportion of labour in many countries today. Syrian refugees, for example, are currently the largest population of displaced peoples in the world, and many have sought refuge in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey (in addition to being internally displaced). In these ‘host’ countries, Syrians now constitute a very large proportion of the population itself (alongside earlier waves of displacement, e.g. Palestinian refugees) – currently more than 10% of Jordan’s population and 25% of Lebanon. As such, these displaced peoples now essentially constitute a significant component of the ‘reserve army’ in these countries (Hanieh 2018a). Cross-border displacement as a result of war and conflict, in other words, also needs to be viewed as a crucial dimension of contemporary class formation.

Framing migration as a process of class formation allows us to see the critical role of borders in shaping how various fractions of labour are demarcated, contained, and brought into relation with one another.[62] Capital needs to both keep labour ‘in place’ as well as allow it to move.[63] Through the differential constraints they place on various types of movement, borders act as constantly-shifting ‘filters’ that regulate the speed, volume, and type of migrants that can (or cannot) enter into any national territory.[64] They are, in this sense, polysemic – that is, they “never exist in the same way for different individuals belonging to different social groups”.[65] This filtering role is established through the exercise of state sovereignty as well as the agency of migrants themselves[66], and results in processes of ‘differential inclusion’, where a multiplicity of mobility routes and different forms of ‘status’ are regulated through border controls.[67] All of this acts to generate different subjects of labour.[68]

As James Anderson observed a decade ago, this means that “capitalism’s ‘reserve army of labor’ is now effectively globalized”.[69] But borders do not create this global reserve army, and analysis cannot stop at simply describing their functional effects. Rather – as with the processes that Marx discusses at the national scale – it is the capital-labour relation that posits particular populations as ‘surplus’. This is a dynamic process generated by the uneven consequences of capitalist accumulation at the global scale, and any historically specific account of this would need to incorporate a variety of aspects to this process: including histories of colonialism and imperialism, the international concentration and centralisation of capital, war, economic, political, and ecological crises, etc. In this context, borders mediate how the various aspects of a globally-constituted capitalism manifest themselves, concretely fixing[70] the distribution of surplus populations – and the ways that they interlock – across various national spaces.

Such an understanding returns us to the mystifications of the national form that sit at the root of how we usually think about class in an everyday sense. Instead of considering borders as the ‘hard edges’ of territorial silos that enclose separately formed and distinct sets of social relations, we need to consider the ways that any ‘national’ class of labour actually comes into being through the relations that exist between different national spaces.[71] The relations between these different geographical spaces are internal (in the sense posited by Ollman and others), i.e. they are part of, and help to constitute, both spaces. This can be seen very clearly in the case of countries such as Britain. Sitting among the top ranks of the global hierarchy of states, British capitalism’s relationship with the rest of the world is an integral part of the processes that generate labour surpluses at the global scale; simultaneously, these very same labour surpluses help to constitute British capitalism itself. This relation has long been well-understood by migrants to Britain – it is elegantly captured in Sivanandan’s maxim “we are here because you were there”, or Stuart Hall’s famous aphorism, “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea”.

This approach provides a powerful critique of the typical ‘push’/‘pull’ approaches that are so pervasive within the common-sense imaginary of cross-border movement. Migration is not a consequence of disparate, contingent, and unconnected factors –– it is ultimately a process of separation and dispossession (and hence class formation) that arises from the way that capitalism reproduces itself at the global scale. Concretely, this cannot be appreciated without taking into account the effects of imperialism – both in its contemporary forms and its historical development. What Britain, the US, and other imperialist states do overseas – not just through violent acts such as war and military intervention, but also through the multiple ways in which they superintend the financial and political structures of the world market in ‘peaceful’ times – lies at the core of how dispossession occurs. Marx commented (at the end of his discussion of the reserve army of labour) that the “accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole. i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital”[72] – this is precisely how we should understand the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ of cross-border movement today: internally related factors, mutually-conditioned by the accumulation of capital and the hierarchies of the global state system.

The role of borders in mediating these processes of class formation not only sets particular geographically-dispersed groups of labour in relation to one another, it is also critically tied to the construction of race and racial categories.[73] Here again, however, we should note that racism is one form of appearance of the misrepresentation of social reality noted above: the reification of citizenship and the nation-state is expressed through the projection of a racial identity to those from ‘over there’, while the abstract citizen of a distinct sovereign territory is simultaneously constructed as being ‘from here’. This may certainly occur through overt forms of direct racism, but it is similarly expressed in many Western states through liberal terms (e.g. multiculturalism, tolerance, respect for difference, and so forth) – all of which implicitly presume a primordial (typically white European) identity that serves as the innate, organic measure through which the fact of ‘difference’ is construed[74] and, as a result, working classes are always “reproduced as … racially structured and divided”.[75] This is not a new phenomenon. From the very birth of capitalism, the positing of racial difference to those living outside Western borders has been immutably linked to the emergence of the abstract citizen as one who belongs organically inside the preternatural borders of a distinct national territory.[76] As CLR James noted more than half a century ago: “the national state, every single national state, had and still has a racial doctrine. This doctrine is that the national race, the national stock, the national blood, is superior to all other national races, national stocks, and national bloods. This doctrine was sometimes stated, often hidden, but it was and is there, and over the last twenty years has grown stronger in every country in the world”.[77]

As such, Marx’s ‘imaginary member of an illusionary sovereignty’ is always saturated through-and-through in categories of race. Moreover, precisely because racial categories serve to express the reification of the nation and its borders, forms of racism are indubitably arrayed against the migrant as the consummate violator of national sovereignty. Of course, we should not deny the complex histories of race that vary irreducibly across both time and space – the forms taken in Europe are not the same as they are in the US, the settler-colonies of Australia, Israel, and South Africa, or places such as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon[78]– but nonetheless, the figure of the migrant necessarily looms large in the diverse forms that racism takes globally. Today, this is perhaps most sharply illustrated in the ways that racism is so often configured against the so-called illegal migrant, whose crime lies in the act of border ‘transgression’.[79] But it can also be seen in the ways that the sedimented populations of earlier waves of migration (both in its forced and voluntary variants) are racially constructed in on-going and ever-shifting forms – one never ceases to be from ‘somewhere else’, however differently that might look from generation to generation.[80]

In this manner, we can understand how the common-sense perception of borders – ultimately an ideological misrepresentation of social reality – actually makes possible the various functions of race and racism within processes of class formation. These functions have been thoroughly analysed in the literature, they include: the essential role of race in justifying imperialism, overseas settlement and colonisation[81] the ways that racial difference serves to accentuate and mark hierarchies among workers, thereby fragmenting and atomising working class struggle[82]; the function of race in creating relatively privileged layers of workers, in both a material and psychological sense[83]; and, of course, the centrality of race to settler colonialism, where the destruction of indigenous societies and the on-going growth of settler capitalism are so closely coupled with notions of racial supremacy.[84] As is widely acknowledged, these critical functions of race confirm that racial categories are neither biologically-determined nor static, but socially constructed. However, this well-established conclusion does not fully grasp the root of the issue: the misrepresentation of the border as an ideological form, which, to a considerable degree, actually enables and makes racial difference possible, and therefore underpins the functionality of race to capitalism.

Taken as a whole, all of this points to how the racial categories posited by borders are simultaneously part of the ways in which class in any given national space comes into being. Borders mediate both the distribution of surplus populations across various national spaces, as well as the forms of racialisation that arise as part of the reification of these territories. These two processes – class and racial formation – happen concurrently and as part of the same act. In this sense, while Stuart Hall is certainly correct to note that in national contexts such as Britain “the class relation … function as race relations” – it is also necessary to recognise the ways that this ‘co-articulation’ of race and class is ineludibly mediated through the reifying effects of the border. Class, as Satnam Virdee rightly notes, is “a representational form and material relation [that is] indelibly nationalized and racialized”[85] – the stress needs to be placed equally here on the nationalised as much as the racialised dimensions of class, both of which can only be posited through the border. The concrete ways in which this occurs may certainly vary immensely across time and space – but foregrounding borders and migration helps us understand race as fundamentally internal to the capital-labour relation in any given context.

Borders, Race, and the Value of Labour Power

Framing migration under capitalism as a process of always-racialised class formation opens up a whole set of questions around how borders and race play into the determination and mediation of the value of labour power. In general, Marx understands the value of labour-power to be “determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special commodity”.[86] This includes all of the various means of subsistence required for labour-power to be brought to the market and exchanged with the capitalist for wages, and thus the socially-necessary labour time required for the production of labour power is equivalent to that “necessary for the production of those means of subsistence; in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner”.[87] It follows from this that the value of labour power (as opposed to its price) can only change as a result of two factors: a change in the value of the means of subsistence, or a change in what makes up those means. It is due to the latter that Marx speaks of the “historical and moral element” that enters into the determination of the value of labour power – a factor that can differ due to a myriad of factors, including “the level of civilization attained by a country” and “the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed”.[88]

On the surface, these and other comments by Marx on the value of labour power appear relatively straightforward, yet – as the subsequent vigour of the Marxist debates attests – this is not the case.[89] Numerous issues have been raised: including whether labour power can actually be considered a commodity (as it is produced outside of capitalist production relations); to what degree the class struggle ‘determines’ the value of labour power, and how autonomous this factor is from the materiality of the production process itself; how to conceptualise the reduction of ‘skilled’ to ‘simple’ labour that occurs at the moment of exchange; the relationship between productive and unproductive labour; and how to theorise the place of gendered social relations and the household in the production of labour power.[90]

It is beyond the scope of this paper to enter into these debates fully, but for our purposes, one aspect of Marx’s approach to the value of labour power remains under-explored: the effects of cross-border labour mobility on the determination of labour power’s value, and the interaction of this with the wider circuits of value production and realisation. Marx’s comments on the value of labour power (mostly elaborated in Chapter 6 of Capital Volume 1) are largely a-spatial, and put forward at a level of abstraction that assumes the determination and realisation of labour power’s value occurs within the single and same set of social relations. What happens if we break with this assumption (however valid it may be at a certain level of abstraction)? In other words, what happens to our conception of the value of labour power if we admit that the place where labour power is actually sold (i.e. where the valorisation of capital takes place) may be separated by borders from the place where labour power is produced (and reproduced), but that these two spaces are nonetheless internally-related to one another, and thus mutually-constituted?

Consider, for example, the socially-necessary labour time required to produce the labour power of a productive worker in their home country – Country A. This has undoubtedly involved a whole range of costs over the lifetime of the worker such as training and education, health, infrastructural expenditure, the costs of social reproduction, and so forth.[91] But when the worker migrates to Country B, none of this earlier socially-necessary labour time has been borne by capital in their new abode. When the migrant worker arrives in Country B, she arrives, in effect, as fully-formed; the value of her labour power is thus cheaper than the average value of equivalent labour power raised over a lifetime in Country B. In practice, this is a subsidy provided by Country A to capital located in Country B – “a direct transfer of wealth” as Cindi Katz has noted in regard to gendered migrant labour and social reproduction, which occurs “from generally poorer to richer countries … [that] is no less a capital transfer than the extraction of raw materials, debt servicing, and the like”.[92]

It should be stressed that these transfers apply to all forms of migrant labour (skilled and non-skilled, forced migrants, refugees, and so-called ‘economic migrants’) – it does not matter why and how people may have moved from one place to another. Such a value-theoretic approach can thus help us go beyond the rather sterile debates around ‘brain drain’ that typify contemporary migration discussions. The key question is not whether an individual migrant (or country) ‘wins’ or ‘loses’; more fundamentally, it is the fact of the border between where the production of labour power takes places and where it is exchanged that serves to increase the mass of surplus value appropriated by capital in Country B. This observation points to the critical significance of national borders in mediating such differentials in the value of labour power.

Once again, however, these national differences in the value of labour power are profoundly seeped in categories of race and processes of racialisation (and, of course, gender). Workers from ‘over there’ can be paid less than workers ‘from here’ because ‘after all, that’s all they expect to get paid’ – indeed, ‘they should count themselves lucky, at least they have a job’! Through such tropes, we can see how spatially constituted differences in the value of labour power take an ideological form, habitually expressed in racial categories. This form of appearance is real (we do tend to see the world in this way, and race does actually mark differences in the value of labour power), but this appearance is nonetheless an inverted – and thus ideological – misrepresentation of reality (it ascribes causal powers to arbitrary genetic phenotypes rather than the social relations that actually determine the value of labour power). Most importantly, as is always the case when appearances are mistaken for essence, acceptance of such ideological forms ultimately serves to legitimate and naturalise the existing status quo.

The imbrications of racial categories, borders, and the value of labour power, can best be seen in the proliferation of ‘temporary labour migration’ (TLM) programmes – a situation where migrant workers are contracted for limited periods of time by employers in another country and are then expected to return to their country of origin. These programmes have a long historical pedigree irrevocably stamped in race and racism – from the indentured labour schemes utilised by the British Empire after the formal end to slavery in the mid-19th century[93], to the ‘guest worker’ programmes that brought workers from North Africa and Turkey to Western Europe in the post-war period.[94] In recent years there has been a considerable boom in these schemes, particularly in seasonal agricultural programmes such as Spain’s use of Moroccan women to pick strawberries, or Canada’s use of Mexican workers in Ontario fruit and vegetable crops.[95] Indeed, in the case of Canada, a dramatic rise of TLM in the early 21st century actually saw the number of temporary migrants exceed those from permanent migration for the first time in history.[96]

Much of the academic and policy debates around TLM have been highly Eurocentric, largely focused on the North American and European experiences.[97] At a global level, however, the most important zone of TLM is actually found in the six Gulf Arab states of the Middle East, where the majority of the labour force is made up of temporary labour migrants.[98] Importantly, the case of the Gulf illustrates that the race-making and value-mediating role of borders is not simply a European or North American affair. In the Gulf states, as elsewhere, the category of citizen plays a pivotal role in this process – through the sharp demarcation of a tiny proportion of the resident population from the majority of the labour force in ways that are irrevocably racialised and gendered.[99] The subsequent production of racial difference both legitimates and embodies the diminished value of a Gulf migrant worker’s labour power. Here, the value of labour power is not only affected by the historical costs of producing the migrant worker, but the current measure of that worker’s labour power value is also largely established by the socially-necessary labour time required to produce and reproduce the worker in their home country (perhaps with a small difference that induces the worker to migrate). An Indian temporary migrant worker in Dubai, for example, receives a wage that is more or less proportional to the cost of reproducing the worker (and his/her family) in India – not in Dubai. [100] This is true not simply in relation to the value of the means of subsistence in India, but also in relation to the concrete use-values that may enter into these means of subsistence (i.e. the determination of the ‘historical and moral element’). Thus, not only do Indian workers constitute part of the Gulf’s reserve army of labour (in the sense argued above), the magnitude of surplus value extracted by, say, a construction firm in the Gulf, is also established through the ‘moral and historical’ value of labour power extant in India.

The materiality of these kinds of relations appears palpably in the global economy through the massive levels of cross-border remittances. Indeed, it is estimated that around 1 billion people today – a remarkable figure of one in seven people globally – are either senders or receivers of remittances.[101] Yet while these flows may be based on a physical move of the worker from their home, at the same time they express the ways in which sets of social relations across different territories are mutually-constituted (internally-related) with one another. In this manner, the valorisation of an individual labour power sits concurrently in both the migrant’s place of origin and their place of work. And once again, the category of race serves as one of the ideological forms of appearance through which this actual unity of the ‘here’ and ‘there’ is misconstrued in our consciousness as a relation of separation.

Migration, Coercion, and ‘Unfree’ Labour

At the root of these various value transfers is the physical separation of the migrant from a particular territory (and thus an associated set of social relations) and their imbrication with another. While a variety of different proximate reasons may appear as the cause of this separation – war, economic or political crises, ecological pressures, and so forth – we should avoid any dichotomous categorisation of migration as either ‘forced’ or ‘economic’. The movement of refugees, trafficked people, and other forms of displacement may certainly be linked to the immediate reality of violence – but those who migrate in the face of neoliberal restructuring or economic dispossession are also subject to forms of coercion.[102] Indeed, all of these various ‘causes’ inevitably intersect and reinforce one another; for this reason, separating out the ‘pushes’ of migration – much less locating these at the level of the individual or national scale – is an impossible task that can only be resolved in the tidy ontologies of Cartesian reductionism. In the same way that Jairus Banaji urges us to reject the ‘fictions of free labour’[103] – noting that Marx’s critique of wage-labour was ultimately based on demystifying its apparent voluntaristic form – so must we reject an understanding of cross-border labour flows as somehow the ‘free’ choice of rationally-acting individuals.

In this sense, there is an intimate connection between one of the ‘double-freedoms’ identified by Marx as foundational to the capital-labour relation – a worker’s separation from the means of subsistence/production – and a migrant’s separation from a specific territory. This is not simply true at an analogous or conceptual level – cross-border movement has often been the actual form through which labour is first ‘freed’ from the land and other means of independent survival, and then becomes inserted into capitalist commodity circuits. The transatlantic slave routes of the 15th-19th centuries, for example, were (particularly brutal) examples of the separation of the direct producers from their means of subsistence and their conversion into commodity producers for the world market[104] – indeed, the scale of this separation far exceeded coterminous movements of European peasants from the land into waged-labour markets. Following the formal end of slavery in 1833 the emergence of indentured labour replicated this pattern, with the removal of South Asian peasants from their land coming to underpin commodity production across the far-flung territories of the British Empire. As Radhika Mongia demonstrates in her fascinating history of this moment, the latter case saw the development of sophisticated means of classifying and filtering the movement of these indentured workers, many of which were to presage modern border technologies (including the passport).[105]

Clearly, all of these historical movements of people are overlaid by the creation of racial categories – indeed, to a considerable degree, the very idea of ‘race’ has its origins in these violent cross-border displacements that were constitutive to the early genesis of capitalism.[106] But here we can see a further way in which racialised migrant labour is bound up with the trajectory of the value-form. Most specifically, these earlier histories illustrate how physical separation from home can serve to accentuate greater vulnerability to coercive capital-labour relations. Indeed, the owners of colonial plantations explicitly identified the separation of enslaved peoples from their native territories as a productive factor in their ability to compel them to work – transplanted into new sets of social relations, they lacked the continuities of social and familial structures that made indigenous labour more resistant to capitalist modes of work.[107]

In the contemporary moment, beyond the obvious cases of ‘modern slavery’ and trafficked people, we can see the link between territorial separation and vulnerability to coercion (whether sanctioned by contract or not) throughout all forms of migration. In the case of TLM programmes, for example, migrant workers typically experience restrictions on where they are allowed to work and live, their ability to leave the country, and their access to political and labour rights.[108] These kinds of restrictions are usually legally codified in various laws and regulations, and always sharply gendered. They are further buttressed by ideologies of xenophobia and racism that configure migrant labour as ‘not from here’. The precariousness that migrants face –– which is as much about residing in a particular space as it is about economic marginalisation – works to accentuate vulnerability to coercion.[109] Increasingly, this precariousness is now a permanent fact of a migrant’s racialised existence; experienced even by those who have obtained citizenship but nonetheless remain vulnerable to the withdrawal of their right to live within a certain set of national borders.[110] Banaji (2010) is absolutely correct to argue (following Marx) that all forms of capitalist labour are marked by some degree of coercion; but migration needs to be understood as one way in which this fundamental element of the capital-labour relation is further intensified.

All these processes reduce the price of racialised migrant labour power (allowing it to be paid at below the value of non-migrant labour), and further serve to fragment and sharpen the divisions of how class is experienced in any particular national context. But in line with the arguments made above, we also need to consider the ways in which racialised migrant labour helps to constitute the value of labour power in general. At a global level, migrants working under varying degrees of coercion are deeply involved in the production of a significant number of commodities that we consume on a daily basis (including services).[111] Feminist scholarship has been crucial to mapping the gendered nature of these processes, including in global care chains.[112] The vulnerable nature of this labour – reinforced by all of the other factors outlined above – means that there is a tendency towards the overall cheapening in the value of the means of subsistence (and hence in the value of labour power) for all workers, including non-migrants and those in better conditions of employment.[113] Once again, this is not a new feature of capitalism – scholars of slavery have long noted the significant role that the cheaply produced commodities such as tobacco, sugar, coffee, and tea played in lowering the value of European waged-labour.[114] But in the contemporary world, the pervasive use of highly coerced – and always racialised – migrant labour is a key element to determining the value of labour power everywhere.

Conclusion: Border Politics Today

There can be little doubt that the issues of borders and migration have moved centre-stage in political debate over recent years. From the global resurgence of far-right and xenophobic movements that seek to mobilise popular support through racist tropes and physical violence directed against migrants and foreigners; to the ways in which parties of the ostensible left have also adapted themselves to concepts of national sovereignty and ‘responsible’ approaches to migration. The latter cohort of left-nationalists is particularly important to highlight in the current political moment – represented through leading figures in the DSA, Die Linke, and of course that long-standing bulwark of imperial sovereignty, the British Labour Party. In all these cases, defence of the national border is recast as a foundational corollary of ‘social democracy in one country’, with refugees and migrants depicted as potential fifth-columnists who – inadvertently or not – serve to undermine hard-won working conditions and the fast-diminishing accoutrements of a putative welfare state.

In this context, it is crucial to move beyond a view of racism as simply an opportunistic vehicle used by political elites to divide workers and cultivate a support base for far-right movements and capitalist restructuring. While these ideological explanations certainly capture a key element to how race operates at a functional or instrumental level, they do little to elucidate the origins of racial categories as modes of thought connected to the mystification of the national form. Here, Marx’s key insights into the emergence of bourgeois notions of citizenship, the modern political state, and the apparent separation of the political and economic spheres under capitalism are essential to understanding why we have come to see the world as one divided into a patchwork of discrete national territories to which we ‘naturally’ attach our identities and sense of belonging. This common-sense view of the world is at root a reification of the state and its borders – one that mistakes the appearance of reality for reality itself. Foregrounding cross-border migration helps to demystify this reification and the assumed national-boundedness of labour, but to do so we must situate the ‘flows’ of migrant labour within the internally-related nature of various national spaces. Migration certainly represents a physical movement, or uprooting from one set of social relations to another – but at the same time, it confirms and expresses the simultaneity and co-constitution of these social relations. In this manner, we can begin to think about categories such as class and race in ways that move us beyond the obfuscations arising from the reified categories in which the world immediately appears.

Throughout this discussion, the role of borders has repeatedly emerged as central to how these obfuscations take concrete form. While borders appear to us as hard ‘edges’ – a necessary corollary of the way we think of the world in distinct, separable national containers – in reality, they mediate the internally-related character of different national units. At one level, borders demarcate potential pools of relative surplus populations – attempting to contain them within particular territories and filtering their movement when needed. The relations between these geographically dispersed labour surpluses – even when they are stationary – are part of how class actually exists in any given national space. Additionally, by circumscribing particular sets of social relations, borders fix the customary living standard of workers – in both its ‘historical and moral’ as well as physical and technical components. As migrants move, the value of this labour power is realised in another national space through its exchange with capital, while the reproduction of the labourer and their family is simultaneously made dependent upon this act of valorisation. Borders act to condition the precise shape of this relation, giving concrete form to the magnitude, intensity, and direction of value transfers, and the distribution, selection, and movement of labour surpluses. The net effect of all these processes is that the social relations of both national spaces cannot be thought of in separation, they exist through their relation to the other.

Such an approach opens the way to a powerful critique of the dominant forms of migration politics. Precisely because we internalise the reifications of the state and its borders, our approach towards migration typically begins from a judgement of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our nation or (in supposedly left-wing versions) our nationally-bound class. This is not simply a discursive feature of the far-right racist tropes that posit migrants as an existential threat to jobs and living conditions, moral standards, or cultural values. It is just as evident within much of the language used to defend migrants from such racism. Attempts to support migration on the basis that it ‘creates jobs’ or is ‘good for business’ ultimately start from the same vantage point, a judgement framed around what is beneficial to ‘us’ (however nebulously that may be defined).[115] They thus frequently reinforce the distinction between the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ migrant, and, in the worst examples, end up valorising national sovereignty as a supposed path to socialism.

The approach we have outlined in this article also allows us to understand the significance of borders and migration to moments of capitalist crisis. As workers are expelled from production and capital confronts barriers to its self-valorisation, moments of crisis are both generative of surplus populations as well as symptomatic of the breakdown in the value-form. As a result, moments of crisis are also always moments about migration, in which capitalist states attempt to overcome crises through channelling their effects in ways propitious to capital itself.[116] To be clear, this is not at all about stopping migration; rather, states seek to ‘manage’ migration through a multiplicity of means, including the current proliferation of new techniques aimed at border securisation and externalisation. All of this is necessarily expressed in ideological forms such as anti-migrant racism and xenophobia, which help to configure and enact border techniques, and depend ultimately on the mystifications of the national form discussed above. For all these reasons, it is no accident that in a contemporary moment marked by multiple forms of crisis throughout the world system – a global health pandemic, overaccumulation and financial bubbles, widespread war and violence, the relative decline of US hegemony and the rise of new powers, the reality of ecological collapse, the breakdown of political legitimacy, and so forth – we see questions of migration, race, and borders emerge so centrally to the strategies of capitalist states. An analysis of these issues must therefore be placed central to Left politics today.


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[1] The authors would like to thank Sue Ferguson, Robert Knox, Paolo Novak, Parvathi Raman, Dale Tomich, and Jeffrey R. Webber for valuable criticisms and comments on earlier versions of this article. We dedicate this piece to the memories of Mary-Jo Nadeau and Aziz Choudry, dear friends whose writings and activism helped inspire many of the arguments herein.

[2] Bannerji 2005.

[3] Roediger 2017.

[4] Lowe 1996; Roediger and Esch 2012.

[5] Taylor 2016, p.217.

[6] Alexander 1979; Hall et al 1978; Roediger 1991; Ignatiev 1974.

[7] Davies 2007; Davis 1983; Bhandar and Ziadah 2020.

[8] Fanon 1963; Rodney 1972.

[9] David Roediger nots that debates in the US context – particularly those around theorising whiteness – have paid much less attention to “non-white immigrant labor” and thus have “contributed, even among its critics, to keeping left attention focused on Black and white” (2017).

[10] Brah 1996, Gilroy 1991, Sivanadan 1978, Virdee 2014.

[11] Novak 2016.

[12] Casas-Cortes et al 2015, p.57.

[13] Novak 2016, p.4.

[14] Mezzadra 2011; Mezzadra and Neilson 2013; Moulier-Boutang 2011; Rodriguez 1996; Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and Tsianos 2008; De Genova 2017. Drawing inspiration from the Italian workerist tradition, the AoM framework considers migration through the lens of labour’s contradictory position as an “incorrigible subject” (De Genova 2017) – that is simultaneously both ‘for and against capital’. Despite heavy repression directed against those attempting to transgress borders, the AoM approach emphasises the migrant as an autonomous and insubordinate figure whose struggle against immobilisation cannot be fully controlled. This has important methodological and political implications, not least in how to view the border in relation to the making of labour itself (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013).

[15] Isin 2002.

[16] Tazzioli 2021.

[17] Novak 2016.

[18] Ollman 1976; Smith 1987; Bannerji 1995, 2005.

[19] Malik 1996; Nisanciglu 2019; Bhandar 2018.

[20] Knox 2016.

[21] To be clear, we are not suggesting that race and racism should primarily be understood in terms of ideology. Our concern here is to explore how the emergence of the value-form is connected to ways of perceiving borders, and what this might say about the relationship between processes of racialisation and class formation. Camfield (2016) presents an insightful critique of the racism-as-ideology approach that accords with many of our arguments here, although he does not explicitly theorise the place of borders and migration within his critique.

[22] Mandel 1975; Smith 2014.

[23] Rubin 1972; Pilling 1972.

[24] Rubin 1972; Smith 2014.

[25] Knox 2016, p.89.

[26] Banaji 2010.

[27] Sayer 1987; Anderson 2012.

[28] Clarke 1991; Sayer 1987; Pashukanis 1980; Meiville 2005; Knox 2016.

[29] Clarke 1991; Holloway and Picciotto 1978. Knox, following Pashukanis, notes the importance of sovereignty within this framework, tracing the commodity-form to the emergence of an international legal-form that is closely connected to imperialism: “The formal, abstract equality that Pashukanis ascribed to the legal form very closely resembles one of the key elements of international law: sovereignty. Pashukanis argued that ‘sovereign states co–exist and are counterposed to one another in exactly the same way as are individual property owners with equal rights’, since the territory of a state is functionally its private property and states engage directly in exchange. Since capitalism was only generalised through imperialism, international law is also intimately connected with imperialism.”

[30] Hirsch 1979.

[31] Malik 1996, p.136.

[32] Nyers 2009; Bhandar 2004.

[33] Malik 1996, p.136.

[34] Holloway and Picciotto 1978.

[35] Malik 1996, p.137.

[36] Virdee 2021.

[37] Lowe 2015.

[38] Shehabi 2020.

[39] Robinson 1983, p.27.

[40] Sayer 1979, 1987; Smith 2004; Camfield 2016.

[41] Sayer 1979, p.4.

[42] Marx 1990, p.169.

[43] Sayer 1987, p.84. Sayer presents a powerful critique of ‘traditional’ base-superstructure models of Marxism – most clearly embodied in the work of G.A Cohen – to argue that Marx’s critique of idealism was not, as it is traditionally conceived, an attempt to place ‘material’ factors in front of the various ideal categories proposed by Hegel and his subsequent followers (such as the Spirit, ‘the cunning of reason’ etc.) as primary drivers of history and social change. Rather, Marx’s much more fundamental point is “to deny the very ‘existence’ of the ideal as a separable entity … [Hegelian ideal categories] cannot for Marx be the subject of history for the simple reason that they do not exist. They are reifications: philosopher’s fictions, abstractions made flesh, speculative constructions” (p.85).

[44] Sayer 1987, p.91.

[45] Sayer 1987, p.103.

[46] Colletti 1975, pp. 35-36.

[47] Sayer 1987, p.110.

[48] Sayer 1987, p.104.

[49] To be clear, we are speaking here of ‘commonsense’ consciousness – not the work of scholars who foreground a critique of methodological nationalism and the socially-constructed nature of borders.

[50] Levins and Lewontin, 1985, p.269, italics added.

[51] Goswami 2002, p.794.

[52] Arboleda 2020, p.26, italics added.

[53] Gordon and Webber 2020.

[54] Tomich 2016, p.30–31.

[55] Foster and McChesney 2011; Anderson 2012; Battarchaya 2018.

[56] Castles and Kosack 1973; Miles 1986, Hanieh 2018a; Vickers 2019.

[57] Marx 1976, p.784.

[58] Ferguson and McNally 2015.

[59] Castles and Kosack 1973.

[60] Raman 2018.

[61] Gilroy 1991; Virdee 2014; Ramdin 2017; Battarchaya 2018.

[62] Hanieh 2018a.

[63] Harvey 1999, p.381.

[64] De Genova and Peutz, 2010.

[65] Balibar 2002, p.79.

[66] Papapodopoulos et al 2008; Mezzadra and Neilson 2013.

[67] Anderson 2012; Yuval-Davis 2018.

[68] Sharma and Wright 2008; Casas-Cortes et al 2015.

[69] Anderson 2012, p.149.

[70] We draw this formulation (i.e. the idea that borders mediate, or fix the form of, labour surpluses, but do not determine the content of these surpluses) from an analogous argument made by Starosta and Fitzsimons in respect to the role of class struggle and the value of labour power. They write: “the material conditions of the reproduction process of capital constitute the content of the determination of the value of labor power. They do so by determining the differentiated forms of productive subjectivity that compose the collective laborer and, as consequence, the quantity and kind of means of subsistence that workers need to consume to reproduce those variegated qualitative attributes (both technical and moral) of labor power. In turn, the class struggle becomes the necessary form that mediates the establishment of the material unity between the productive and consumptive requirements of the reproduction of the total social capital.” (Starosta and Fitzsimons 2017, p.110).

[71] Calavita 2005; Castles and Kosack 1973; De Genova 2005; Hanieh 2018b.

[72] Marx 1976, p.799.

[73] Balibar 1991.

[74] Balibar 1991; Bannerji 1995; Sharma and Wright 2008.

[75] Solomos et al 1982, p.46.

[76] Lowe 2015; Mongia 2018.

[77] James 1953, pp.10-11.

[78] Chit and Nayel 2013; Wolfe 2016; Alexander 1979.

[79] Walia 2021.

[80] Bannerji 1995, p.65.

[81] James 1963, Cesaire 1972, Fanon, 1963, Rodney 1972.

[82] Allen 1994, Hyslop 1999; Ignatiev 1979.

[83] Virdee 2014; Camfield 2016; Roediger 2017; Schilliam 2018; Battarchaya 2018.

[84] Byrd 2019; Coulthard 2014; Dunbar-Ortiz 2016.

[85] Virdee 2014, p.5.

[86] Marx 1976, p. 274.

[87] Marx 1976, p. 274.

[88] Marx 1976, p.275.

[89] Starosta and Fitzsimons 2017.

[90] Mies 2014; Arruzza 2016; Bhattacharya 2017; Ferguson 2019; Mezzadri 2020.

[91] Castles and Kosack 1973, pp. 409-411.

[92] Katz 2001, p.709.

[93] Lowe 2015; Mongia 2018.

[94] Castles and Kosack 1973.

[95] Choudry and Smith 2016.

[96] Choudry and Henaway 2012.

[97] Most of the academic and policy debate on TLM focuses on assessing the ‘success’ of these programs, i.e. whether migrants actually return to their country of origin at the end of their contract (in this respect, the post-war Western European schemes are generally viewed as a ‘failure’ due to the long-term settlement of ‘guest’ workers and their families in France, Germany and elsewhere).

[98] Khalaf et al 2014.

[99] Buckley 2014; Longva 2000.

[100] Workers in the Gulf’s construction sector, for example, are typically housed by the company in sub-standard dormitories and transported to work on company buses. In addition to paying off any debts accrued for work visas, the bulk of their actual wage is remitted to their family back home, not spent in Dubai.

[101] IFAD 2017, p.5.

[102] Hanieh 2018a.

[103] Banaji 2010, p.131.

[104] McNally 2020; Tomich 2004.

[105] Mongia 2018.

[106] Williams 2014; Roediger and Esch 2012; Allen 1994.

[107] Patterson 1982.

[108] Choudry and Smith 2016. More recently, in the case of the Gulf Arab states, the pronounced shift away from Arab to Asian workers through the 1990s and 2000s was likewise conceived as a means of discouraging workers from forming bonds of cultural and belonging, and was also organised through the spatial separation of these workers from local Gulf citizens (Hanieh 2018a).

[109] Calavita 2005; Anderson 2012.

[110] Kapoor and Narkowicz 2019.

[111] Chang 2015, Shelley 2007.

[112] Farris 2020.

[113] Of course, this is not an automatic outcome – it is possible, for example, that the changing bundle of the means of subsistence seen as necessary for the ‘average worker’ could mean an increase in the overall value of these commodities. This tendency may also be experienced differently for different groups of workers. It nonetheless appears to be an observable phenomenon, and the presence of coerced migrant labour throughout global value chains (particularly at its base) can be seen in many sectors of the world economy today.

[114] Blackburn 1997.

[115] They are also typically analytically incorrect – it is the tempo of capital accumulation that creates (or more frequently, destroys) jobs.

[116] Anderson 2012.