As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier post, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.
The fifth talk was made by Mercedes Lee, who is a member of the organization No One Is Illegal (Toronto), which is a group of immigrants, refugees and allies who fight for the rights of all immigrants to live with dignity and respect.
The problem right away with this approach is that what is meant by dignity and respect is never elaborated. Does that mean with a standard typical of left-reformists and social democrats–a “decent” job (unionized) and treatment according to human rights codes?
Ms. Lee indicated that the group believes that granting citizenship to a privileged few is part of a racist policy that is designed to exploit and marginalize immigrants.
What does this mean? To be sure, the use of the lack of status as a citizen to exploit more intensely or more extensively certain kinds of workers needs to be resisted. But this seems to imply that, if you have citizenship, then you are not marginalized. There are of course degrees of marginalization, and immigrants and refugees certainly often experience more oppression and exploitation than citizens. However, it is also necessary to see if citizens who are members of the working class are in many ways marginalized in order to consider critically whether being a citizen should be a standard for evaluating whether human beings are treated “with dignity and respect.” As this blog has persistently argued, workers who are obliged, due to their economic circumstances, to work for an employer, do not “live with dignity and respect.”
Ms. Lee does raise her criticism to a higher level by contending that it is necessary to criticize the international economic systems that lead to war and to the creation of a flood of immigrants and refugees in the first place. However, this high level of criticism needs to be brought down to earth in the form of a criticism of such platitudes among union reps and the social-democratic left that refer to “decent work,” “economic justice,” “fairness,” “a fair contract,” and the like. To be radical requires such a move to a more concrete level in order to ensure that the daily lives and experiences of workers as exploited and oppressed are recognized and measures can thus be taken to fight explicitly against them in the locals where they exist–including the country where one lives, such as Canada.
Ms. Lee seems to move in this direction by arguing that it is necessary to recognize indigenous sovereignty rights. But why limit the criticism to this level? Why not the sovereign rights of workers to control their own lives? How can they do that (and how can indigenous peoples do that) unless they control the conditions required for their continued living (such as machines, buildings, raw materials and so forth)? There is no mention of this need for this general form or kind sovereignty here–which is what is required if a radical program is to be developed that does not limit itself to sovereignty in particular forms while failing to criticize the general lack of sovereignty of citizens over their own lives as they produce those lives on a daily basis.
She considers it to be a radical principle for people to move freely, to return freely and to stay in one place freely (presumably, not be deported). This freedom in Canada is apparent–when Trudeau for example engages in photo-ops to welcome refugees, but in reality, for a country of its size and resources, Canada accepts a miniscule amount of immigrants and refugees.
There have been struggles over the issue of immigrant detention, which has involved hunger strikes for sixty days, and this has led to victories. There are now less people detained, and those who are detained are detained for less time. On the other hand, the Trudeau government has, as a result of this organization, allocated $138 million to expand immigration centres (where immigrant detainees are incarcerated). It has also expanded the forms of detention and used so-called more humane forms of detention in order to appear to institute more progressive immigration policies. The Trudeau Liberal government is astute in that it tries to appear to be progressive, and this approach contrasts with the former federal Canadian government under Stephen Harper (Conservative), which simply did not hide its indifference (or indeed its hostility) towards immigrant detainees. Under the Trudeau government, immigrant detainees may not be physically detained, but they are subject to ankle-bracelet monitoring and voice-recognition phone check-ins.
Ms. Mercedes attempts to unite the Trudeau federal government’s more subtle approach to controlling immigrants to the more explicit anti-immigration position of such politicians as Doug Ford (premier of Ontario). She also provides a concrete example of how, in 2004, the Canadian Border and Services Agency arrested and dragged some immigrant students (Kimberly and Gerald) from classroom and placed them in a van, along with their mother, grandmother and Canadian-born babysitter. No One Is Illegal found out about this through some students informing them, and No One Is Illegal, with the support of parents, teachers and students, organized a rally in front of the Immigration Detention Center at Rexdale (a community in Toronto).
The issue became national as the media got wind of what had happened. The students were released, and they and others went to the Toronto District School Board to demand a policy that undocumented students would have access to schools without fear and that immigration enforcement officials would not be allowed to enter the schools.
The Toronto District School Board initially resisted this campaign, arguing persistently that they could not order its staff to break laws. No One Is Illegal explained persistently as well that it was the Board’s job to educate students and not to enforce immigration laws. The Board refused to listen. Kimberly and Gerald organized a rally of around 5,000 along Bloor Street, calling for immigration justice. The Board would still not budge. Parents, teachers, students and other supporters and allies began protesting weekly at the Board office. The Board finally agreed to debate the issue. The room was packed with organizers and supporters, who wore pins with the label “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Board voted unanimously to make schools accessible to undocumented students and to refuse access to immigration enforcement officers in schools. Immigration Enforcement, which initially defended its actions, also indicated that it would not enter schools.
In terms of organizing lessons, Ms. Lee argues that it is only mass mobilization and direct action that is effective and that the success of No One Is Illegal has been based on addressing specific incidents and hence specific needs, with some of those directly affected taking a leading role (along with other activists not directly affected, presumably). The success of the actions depended on having an immediate positive impact on community members. Government policy that is not backed up by organizing strength at the community level will always face the real threat of the government backtracking on its policy. Policy ultimately is about solidarity, which ensures that everyone has the right of access to basic services without fear and with dignity.
Ms. Lee argues that it is necessary to build safe zones that permit the right of access to such basic services without fear and with dignity, shutting out immigration enforcement. The work of No One Is Illegal is thus about creating a world where immigrants and migrants are no longer dehumanized.
This presentation, as noted above, has limitations in that the standard of what constitutes human dignity is left unspecified, which the reader can then fill in as s/he sees fit. Leaving such a conception of human dignity unspecified then allows the typical standard of a life characterized by working for an employer to fill in as the standard. This limitation definitely needs to be overcome if No One Is Illegal is to become truly radical.
Compared to all the presentations so far, though, it is indeed the most radical since it, potentially, does call into question capitalist society by calling into question an essential aspect of that society: the capitalist state. The capitalist state requires, among other things, two components in order to protect the monopoly of control over the means of production by a minority called employers: the monopoly by the capitalist state of the means of force in order to protect the monopoly of control over the means of production by a minority called employers, and a way of identifying those individuals who are subject to its power and those who are not.
Passports and other similar kinds of documents have been an administrative way in which to identify those who are legitimately in its borders (and overseas to a certain extent) and those who are not so that it can legitimately demand services from such individuals (such as taxes) and–simultaneously–those who are subject to such power can also demand services from the specific capitalist state. (See John Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State; also see the view that the capitalist state is increasingly characterized by administrative law in order to control workers: Mark Neocleous, Administering Civil Society: Towards a Theory of State Power). In Canada, for example, landed immigrants and Canadian citizens have the obligation to pay taxes if they work for an employer (after earning a certain level of income), and they also have the right of access to health care (regardless of the level of their income).
No One Is Illegal, by contravening the nature of the capitalist state as controller of who legitimately has access to services of the Canadian capitalist state, potentially questions one of the linchpins of the power of the Canadian capitalist class.
However, this potentiality needs to be nurtured to the point that it becomes a reality by making an explicit criticism of the standard characteristic of most leftists–decent work, a fair contract, and so forth. If such leftist clichés are left standing, then the potentiality of No One Is Illegal to be radical will be wasted, and it will become just another reformist organization, demanding that all immigrants be treated in the same way as landed immigrants and Canadian citizens. Such a demand is both progressive and regressive since it is certainly better to have immigrants, whether documented or not, to be on the same footing as others within a capitalist state (thereby limiting the ruling class tactic of divide-and-conquer); on the other hand, it is regressive because the inadequate standard of being treated the same as other residents (mainly members of the working class, although there is also definitely a section of small employers) in a capitalist context.
To answer whether No One Is Illegal (Toronto) is more than a social-reformist or social-democratic organization, I sent an email to them twice. I sent them the following:
It has been two weeks since I contacted you. I have not received a reply. Would you please clarify your position since I am debating whether to join your organization or not.
Fred Harris, Ph. D
From: Frederick Harris
Sent: May 19, 2019 10:16 AM
To: No One Is Illegal – Toronto
Subject: Non-exploitation of temporary immigrants
I have looked at your website and was wondering about two points. It is claimed that No One Is Illegal is anti-capitalist and opposed to the exploitation of temporary workers.
My understanding of anti-capitalism is that it is the opposition to the power of employers as a class since they, by their very nature, exploit workers (in the private sector) and oppress them (in both the public and private sector) by using them as means (things) for purposes foreign to the workers themselves.
Is No One Is Illegal opposed to the power of all employers as a class?
The second point–about opposition to the exploitation of temporary workers–implies either that No One Is Illegal against the exploitation of all workers (including temporary workers), or it is opposed exclusively with the disadvantages which temporary workers experience relative to non-temporary workers in Canada (in which case the standard is the worker who is a landed immigrant or Canadian citizen so that temporary workers should be put on a par with such workers). This needs clarification.
Would you please clarify these two points.
I did eventually receive a response, to which I replied in Spanish and English since, on the one hand, I knew the person to whom I was replying knew Spanish and, on the other hand, to show that despite my linguistic abilities my services were not considered to be useful for the organization “at this time”:
Re: Non-exploitation of temporary immigrants
Mon 2019-06-10 4:00 PM
Gracias por la respuesta. Me acuerdo de ti. Discutimos, brevemente, de la idea de oponerse al poder de los empleadores como clase cuando trabajabamos en un proyecto con Justin Panos . Me diste la impresion de que no era posible.
Cuando no se integra la oposicion a la clase empleadora en su trabajo cotidiano, es uno en contra del capitalismo en realidad? Lo dudo. Es facil decirlo–pero mucho mas dificil integrar tal punto de vista en su practica cotidiana.
No me soprende de que yo no pueda participar en tal organizacion.
Incluire tu respuesta en mi blog algun dia. Practico la politica de exponer.
Thank you for replying. I remember you. We discussed, briefly, the idea of opposing the power of employers as a class when we worked on a project with Justin Panos. I got the impression that for you this was not possible. You gave me the impression that this was not possible.
When opposition to the class of employers is not integrated into one’s daily work, is one really against capitalism in reality? I doubt it. It is easy to say it–but much more difficult to integrate such a point of view into one’s daily practice.
It does not surprise me that I cannot participate in such an organization.
I will include your answer in my blog one day. I practice the politics of exposure.
From: Stuart Schussler email@example.com
Sent: June 10, 2019 12:21 PM
Subject: Re: Non-exploitation of temporary immigrants
To respond to your questions, yes, we are opposed to the fact that there is a class of people who profit from the work of others, to the exploitation of labour by capital. In practice, opposing capitalism is a more complicated question and we frequently work in coalition with NGOs (for example), which are also employers. Since we’re a migrant justice organization we’re looking for practical ways to oppose the systemic exploitation of temporary workers and non-status workers.
With your second question, we’re opposed to any exploitation of workers but we recognize that temporary workers are especially exploited, so we focus our attention on their issues.
We are not bringing in new members to the group right now, but we appreciate that you’re learning about our work. All the best,
Stuart, on behalf of NOII- Toronto
I will let you draw your own conclusions concerning the issue of the extent to which No One Is Illegal (Toronto) is really anti-capitalist or whether it is just rhetoric–whether it is realizing its potential for being radical through questioning the very foundations of the employer-employee relation or diverting its potentiality by restricting its actions within the confines of the employer-employee relation in general.