Borders and corporate domination over land, resources and labour: an interview with Hannah Cross

In an interview with ROAPE’s Hannah Cross, we ask about her work, research and her new book Migration Beyond Capitalism. A book that asks what kinds of political alliances, programmes, policies and arguments do – and do not – work in the interests of global worker solidarity.

Hannah, could you introduce yourself to readers?

I’m the chair of ROAPE’s Editorial Working Group and a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster.

Can you talk a little about your research and activism?

I’ve been researching migration for more than 15 years. I was fortunate to be a postgraduate at the University of Leeds and gain a new way of seeing the world from socialists like Ray Bush  and Hugo Radice, and to get PhD funding after a time working as a medical secretary.

At this time, in the 2005 election campaign, the Conservatives put up chilling billboards in working class areas about limiting immigration. There was a televised debate, ‘Immigration on trial’, for which I’m glad to say immigration was found not guilty, but it was absurd and harmful to my mind, the idea that people can choose whether or not to have immigration and decide whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There was no attention to why people are really migrating and who they are. That the Conservatives lost that election was hardly a win for humanity: the Home Office under Blair’s Labour government was criminalising asylum seekers, even those displaced by the Iraq War, and creating a hostile environment that tried to match the Conservatives’ national chauvinism.

I often thought about how my maternal great grandparents and grandma’s family, fleeing the pogroms and the Holocaust, would have fared under this regime, the bureaucratic indignities they would go through and if they would have been able to build such a life and legacy in the UK, not that it was ever easy. I was also seeing how shocking and frightening deportations could be for people who had long established themselves in the country.

A friend from Uganda, who had been in England with her family since primary school, completed the wrong visa form after finishing her MA and then turned 30 by the time it came back to her. This meant she was not earning enough for the visa renewal as she was doing care work at the time. She had no real connections in Uganda and had to work underground in London with an uncle to get some income, then try to leave the country undetected to avoid a 10-year ban on returning. The thought of someone having their whole life pulled away from them like this was incomprehensible and I hoped that one day this atrocious order would end and be seen for what it is – not as an issue on the edges of the Western liberal democratic system but something that defines it.

I had a growing interest in Africa after such an inspired period at Leeds, which transformed my ideas of the continent, and went on to do ethnographic research in Senegal, Mauritania and Spain. This incorporated life history research among migrants, those who remained and their families with a Marxist political economy understanding, ultimately identifying a regime of ‘unfree labour mobility’ in the not-so-contradictory agendas of borders and deregulated labour markets. There was a strong element of chance in where people may end up in the ‘stepwise’ migrations towards the Maghreb and Europe that I was looking at. In the Senegalese communities I went to, the state’s fishing agreements with the EU were destroying artisanal fishing and other opportunities were closed down by the long-term effects of structural adjustment and continuing neoliberalism – factory closures, no safety net, rising food prices etc. A local women’s collective, led by bereaved mothers after young people were lost at sea heading to the Canary Islands, managed to obtain visas for people to work in Spain and gained support from President Wade, but with or without visas, people ended up in precarious labour. The EU system contributes to ‘surplus labour’ and controls migration movements with visas, border regimes, amnesties, deportations and managed labour markets, and this aggravates inequalities with Africa, as the great Marxist scholar and activist Samir Amin identified.

In terms of activism, I joined various protests over time – the Iraq War, defence of refugees, anti-racism etc. but didn’t have much of a political home beyond ROAPE. I joined the Labour Party and Momentum when Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader and had local officer positions in both for a time. I also joined Jewish Voice for Labour and found the group courageous. A Jewish socialist, non-zionist tradition was being cast out by the party, and Jewishness essentialised and used against Corbyn and left critics of Israel, to the loss of anti-imperial struggle, the fight against Islamophobia and fascism, and socialist politics. I was not particularly active though – I felt conflicted as someone who was called to action by the cynical instrumentalisation of my heritage by the party’s right, but for whom Judaism has not really been an active part of my life since childhood. Through this debacle, it was clear how the state machinery produces class antagonisms in the most detestable ways and prevents unity between the labouring classes, and how wider consciousness of these methods and strength against them will be essential to any transformative programme. I am also a UCU rep [University and College Union – the main academic teaching union].

Your new book, Migration Beyond Capitalism, continues work you have done on global remittances, migration and labour mobility in West Africa. What were your objectives with the book?

I wanted to intervene in the conversations about migration on the left in the UK and elsewhere because I felt they were at an impasse. A ‘revolutionary theory’, as Amílcar Cabral put it, might bring some clarity. While there were new ideas and possibilities for radical change in Corbyn’s Labour, there was little to tackle the imperial division of the world and its consequences for labour on an international scale. This need also seemed to resonate with the left in Germany, the US and Canada. The overall research question was to analyse what kinds of political alliances, programmes, policies and arguments do – and do not – work in the interests of global worker solidarity and progression out of cheap labour as a mainstay of wealthy economies.

As Marx argued, and then Stephen Castles and Godula Kosack in their 1973 book on Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe, humanitarian appeals against antimigrant sentiment will not convince the workers being forced into competition while the state and capital actively divide them. And being ‘pro-migration’ as opposed to ‘anti-migration’ could sustain divisions between migrants and native-born workers as well as the class divide. The divisions between workers do not only allow cheap labour to continue but are also the secret of capitalism’s success – and left-liberalism can also be divisive.

Further, it does not help to have largely middle-class people, who benefit from the growth of the economy, arguing for the economic benefits of migration. It is alienating to those who have been directly affected by the deregulation of labour and these native-born workers are often workers of colour. It was important to separate migrants from the regime – i.e. to recognise that it is not progressive to defend the regime and this does not dignify migrant workers.

Jeremy Corbyn, when he talked about cheap labour and undercutting, faced disapproval from his underlying movement and there seemed to be a fear that talking about these things will stir up anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism. There is truth in that because of the way immigration debates have played out and been polarised to the benefit of capital, but if the labour movement cannot deal with the concrete problems of cheap labour in its international dimensions, what is it for? I thought my approach may be similarly misunderstood and not win me many friends, so the support of ROAPE comrades and others has meant a lot.

It has been proven in numerous workplaces around the world that working people are perfectly capable of separating the groups they are pitted against from the regime that forces them into competition. Racism and antimigrant sentiment is largely a top-down phenomenon of the capitalist, imperial state and exists in the middle classes at least as much as the working classes, while there are also ‘the traditions which haunt human minds’ as Walter Rodney put it. At a time of empowerment for the left that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime, I felt that we needed to stop worrying about what the right thinks or does, or what the media will say, develop our own concrete analysis and go forward with it.

You tackle the abstract and utopian thinking of liberals and leftists on the question of migration, these thinkers and commentators you argue downplay patterns of displacement and can divide working people. Can you give us some idea of these arguments and why they are important?

Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas of ‘empty utopias’, and of measuring the strength and aspiration for these utopias by speculative reason, resonated when I saw arguments being made for open borders or free movement that are contradictory and unable to address the underlying causes of border repression. Such utopianism, which Luxemburg saw in anarchic revolutionary movements, can risk contorting reality and making alliances with opportunistic and harmful forces.

On one hand, the human rights of migrants are rightly being defended; on the other, it is being argued that they are ‘good for the economy’ and this is supposed to deter the nativist arguments. It is contradictory because people become such useful workers, in massively undervalued and degrading jobs, as a consequence of displacements that should worry humanitarians, whether by conflict or in capital’s struggle against the natural economy.

The migration of labour is not comparable to the international travel opportunities enjoyed by the middle classes, even if there are times of success, mobility and agency for migrant workers within this apartheid-type regime. They are being treated as a resource, not people, by bourgeois economics that look at migration from a national perspective and do not adequately capture precarious and outsourced work. There is the maxim that migrant workers do the work native-born workers don’t want to do and therefore should be celebrated – but this plays into divisions. Why is it acceptable for racialised ‘others’ to do undesirable jobs, and why would it be acceptable that useful work, often known as ‘unskilled’ work, should have such a low value and become so undesirable in areas like agriculture, food production, care, cleaning etc.? All of this work could be more rewarding or at least less burdensome on individuals in an economy oriented to the needs of society.

Luxemburg also showed that capitalist imperialism can demolish borders, as well as create them, for the interests of capital. There was a fixation by liberals and leftists on free movement in the EU, as though defending this at the time of Brexit may naturally lead to more free movement globally. But the EU framework is racist and exclusionary, and free movement within the EU came at the expense of immigration from outside it, historically shutting down established migration channels from Africa at a time when its economies were struggling with debt and structural adjustment. The deadly EU borders and those around other wealthy countries follow a militarist logic today and this militarism is a product of capitalism for Luxemburg just as imperialism was for Lenin; thus any strategy to prevent border repression and support the rights of migrants needs to deal with the social relations of production on an international level.

What does your use of a Marxist framework bring to our understanding of migration and alternatives?

Particularly the points made in Marx’s 1870 letter on the ‘Irish Question’ underpin the book’s structure, argument and strategy and offer quite a rounded picture of the political economy of migration. He argued here that the only way to wrest power from the English ruling class was through the emancipation of Ireland, and that this required a social revolution in England that sided with Ireland. Migration was at the centre of this strategy because colonial land evictions in Ireland forced people to migrate to England. This movement of labour lowered the position of the English working class and created antagonisms between English and Irish workers. The ruling class aggravated these antagonisms using all means possible, including through the media and entertainment, allowing it to gain even more from cheap labour than from the imported meat and wool produced on expropriated Irish land. This division of people was the secret of ruling class power in England as well as in Ireland and agitated international working-class cooperation too. By this logic, the defence of migrants’ rights and of workers’ rights more generally requires an internationalism shared by all workers in oppressing and oppressed countries, against the domination of the ruling class in countries that both send and receive migrants.

On this basis, the book analyses the relationship between migration and imperialism today, found in capital’s destruction of the natural economy and the creation of racialised patterns of labour mobility. It then examines, in turn, the relationship between borders, militarism and inequality, the nature of today’s bitter labour conflicts, the ways that class antagonisms have been produced through racial ideologies and other social oppressions, the existing modes of internationalism and labour struggle, and finally ideas for a socialist approach to migration.

Your final chapter imagines an emancipatory or emancipated future and the programmes and approaches the world needs to promote global worker solidarity. It seems that today, with multiple crises of capitalism, we need to exercise our creative capacities – what could the future look like, and how is this a universal project applicable to the Global South?

There is so much to learn from the thinking of Amílcar Cabral, Walter Rodney and other revolutionaries about class analysis, methodology, visions for the future and strategies to get there. Based on the theories and praxis in the book, the chapter sketches out a future without cheap labour – where peasant uprisings and labour insurgencies in the global South as well as grassroots antiracism, working class solidarity and democratisation of the media in the global North can inform progressive politics. Work is revalued and countries have a simple and fully egalitarian entry process. The logic of borders is destroyed by the decline of corporate domination over land, resources and labour, autonomous development and the end of imposed competition between workers. My thinking was that such a sketch of states and the international system could suggest where energies might be focused and could also illuminate how brutal and senseless the current order is for the vast majority of people. It draws particularly on the work of Samir Amin and Ben Selwyn for imagining a different future.

As it stands, many Northern progressive/ social-democratic strategies, even those that call themselves socialist or radical, continue to mystify how national wealth and the food, devices and other goods that are available to people appear, how they are extracted and produced and the social relations they embody. Global South countries are seen either as competitors- ‘emerging powers’, or continuing paternalism is presumed. This perspective has emptied these ‘luxury communist’, ‘post-capitalist’, ‘post-work’ etc. visions of meaning and ambition and leaves no hope for eradicating racism either. The logic of the Irish Question remains – upending the ruling class, and a real change in social relations, requires anti-imperial struggle or the labouring classes in oppressing and oppressed countries will continue to suffer.

Please join Review of African Political Economy and the University of Westminster for the launch of Hannah Cross’ new book, Migration Beyond Capitalism (Polity 2021) with discussant Femi Aborisade – labour and rights activist, lawyer and contributing editor to the ROAPE. The event will be chaired by Peter Dwyer (University of Warwick/ROAPE). Wednesday, 24 March, 17:00 – 19:00 GMT. Please register here.

Hannah Cross is author of Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism: West African labour mobility and EU borders, Routledge 2013 and the new book Migration Beyond Capitalism. She is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster, and the Chair of ROAPE’s Editorial Working Group.

Featured Photograph: Anti-racist demonstration on 9 June 2018 in London (Steve Eason).


  1. I shall certainly be ordering Hannah Cross’ book on ‘Migration Beyond Capitalism’. Having worked in many parts of Africa and Asia where labour migration, both within the country and abroad, has played an increasingly important part in people’s lives over recent decades as one aspect of globalization, I am very conscious of its complex relationship to the struggles in which working people are engaged within their own countries. I am also all too aware of its significance in the countries which are destinations for those involved in foreign labour migration, like Britain. The crucial issue of divisions and alliances between workers both ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’ needs to be addressed in a holistic way by those on the left as an integral part of the struggle to transform the ‘combined and uneven development’ of capitalism on a world scale into something more humane and socially progressive. International socialism was never so much needed as it is today.


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