Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Borders, Migration and Class in an Age of Crisis



Time to read

5 Minutes

Post by Hallam Tuck, DPhil Student, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Hallam is a DPhil Candidate at the Centre for Criminology, researching the intersections of privatization, borders, and punishment within Criminal Alien Requirement prisons in the United States of America. This project is supervised by Professor Mary Bosworth and supported by the University’s Clarendon Fund, and Lincoln College’s Kingsgate Scholarship. Hallam is on Twitter @HallamTuck.

Review of Borders, Migration and Class in an Age of Crisis: Producing Workers and Immigrants by Tom Vickers (Bristol University Press, 2020)

In April 2020, Reuters published an article titled ‘Picking for Britain’, warning that the border closures and travel restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to leave ‘millions of tonnes of fruit and vegetables unpicked in British fields.’ Three months later, a spike in the rate of infections in Leicester was linked to the city’s food processing factories and ‘fast fashion’ sweatshops, both industries employing a high proportion of migrant workers. At the same time as the pandemic put the National Health Service under critical stress, thousands of medical and care workers faced increasingly precarious conditions because of their immigration status. Altogether, the COVID-19 crisis has drawn new attention to the intersecting patterns of vulnerability and exploitation produced by harsher migration and border controls, changing conditions of work, and increasingly conditional access to welfare and benefits.

Although written largely before the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tom Vickers’ recent book presents a timely and compelling analysis of these intersecting forms of crisis. Taking Britain as a case study, Vickers examines how race and citizenship have been mobilized within narratives of ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘welfare crisis’ since 2008 to shape labour and class relations. Elaborating his concept of ‘mobility power’, Vickers provides an extremely compelling analysis of the ways in which class solidarity has been fragmented, and how it might be re-consolidated in the future.

Throughout the book, Vickers lays out three key themes of analysis: imperialism, migration, and class. Drawing on Lenin, imperialism is defined as ‘a stage of capitalism characterized by the domination of the economy and society by monopoly finance capital, resulting from intrinsic capitalist tendencies towards expansion and concentration’ (Vickers, 2020: 24). Within Vickers’ materialist account, the state is fundamentally a tool of exploitation ‘geared to maintaining the conditions for the survival of British capitalism’ (Ibid, 29). Capitalism too is theorized as the primary force structuring patterns of migration and migration control. Broadly, this analysis reflects a historical-structural account that explains migration as a function of the displacements caused by the increasing global penetration of capital and unequal concentrations of wealth (see Wallerstein, 1974, Piore, 1979, Sassen, 1988, 2014, De Haas 2021: 4).

Vickers’ discussion of the formation and fragmentation of class identity is very compelling. Examining the period after the 2007 crisis, Vickers charts the shift towards ‘various forms of insecure and low-waged work’ rather than simply mass unemployment (2020: 37-38). Rather than mass unemployment, Vickers shows that the return to the piecework ‘gig economy’ signals a shift in the balance of power between labour and capital. These shifting forces, expressed through controls on mobility, employment, and access to welfare, are key to the mutable, fractious character of contemporary class identity.

For Vickers, the proliferation of narratives of ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘welfare crisis’ are a direct result of the contradictions within the system of imperialist capitalism. ‘Migrant crisis’ is contextualized internally through discussion of Britain’s hostile environment policies, and externally through discussion of Britain’s role in the externalization of EU border controls. In both cases, Vickers examines how articulations of crisis shift attention away from the operations of the state and capital towards the racialized figures of migrants and refugees. Overall, Vickers’ central argument is that what appears to be a crisis caused by the mobility of people is in fact a crisis within systems of control that underpin the division of land and labour for the purposes of accumulation.

Similarly, the shift towards austerity and welfare conditionality after the 2007 crash is understood as a symptom of crisis. Rather than balancing public finances per se, austerity’s key goal is to intensify pressure on increasingly precarious workers to submit to work on lower wages (Vickers 2020, 130). Examining how these policies have shaped the provision of medical and social care, housing, and the benefit system, Vickers argues that the intensification of austerity in general, and the differential treatment of migrants in particular, is a symptom of capitalism’s protracted crisis.

The threads of ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘welfare crisis’ are tied together in the fifth chapter. For Vickers, restrictions on migration and on state welfare are part of a linked process whereby the ‘mobility power’ of workers is limited and exploited. This analysis provides an interesting expansion upon Vickers’ (2019) earlier work, which theorized mobility, precarity, and labour power by considering the three interrelated forms of job mobility, geographical mobility, and the dynamic motion of human bodies encapsulated in the Marxian sense of work. Precarity, Vickers argues, can be understood as a reduction of these forms of ‘mobility power’ (2020: 164) for growing sections of the working class. Narratives of ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘welfare crisis’ legitimate forms of discipline that fracture the working class along racial and national lines in order to increase exploitation and contain the contradictions of the imperialist crisis. Focusing on these interrelated forms of mobility, Vickers argues, can help to create a shared subjectivity that can make sense of collective experiences of precarity.

At times, Vickers’ commitment to drawing very directly on Marxist and Leninist thought leads to an overwhelmingly structural explanation of complex social phenomena. To take one example of particular relevance to Border Criminologies, human mobility, and the state’s attempt to control migration, are both understood as outcomes decided by ‘structural tendencies’ (Vickers, 2020: 31). Indeed, Vickers (2020: 32) himself acknowledges that this account of the relationship between imperialism and mobility leaves little room for the agency of migrants themselves. To paraphrase Alessandro De Giorgi’s (2018) description of materialist sociology, the challenge is precisely to imagine a structural critique that is capable of overcoming the false alternative between structure and culture at the same time as it addresses the important theoretical concerns that emerge from different theoretical paradigms. Similarly, as might be expected given Vickers’ theoretical frame, hierarchies of race, nation, and immigration status are understood primarily as tools of class rule, used to secure allegiance to the interests of capital. While the discussion of how race and citizenship shapes access to medical and social care and housing is excellent, in other sections I wished that there had been a more detailed description of how the specific mechanisms of racialization and class formation interact.  

Nonetheless, the book is a timely and engaging read. Vickers balances the polemic style of ‘activist sociology’ with the detail of an academic study well. I would highly encourage scholars who might not otherwise gravitate towards materialist or Marxist analysis (of which I might count myself apart) to engage with the text. For scholars of migration and (im)mobility, the discussion of ‘mobility power’ in the fifth chapter will be of particular interest. Similarly, Vickers’ book is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature on migration and border control. While there have been many accounts of how recent migration crises have involved transformations of state power, very few have taken class so seriously. For border criminologists, it may be of particular interest to consider Vickers’ materialist account of migration crisis alongside other accounts that foreground concepts of race or nation

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Tuck, H. (2021). Book Review: Borders, Migration and Class in an Age of Crisist. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/09/book-review-1 [date]

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