Migration in the age of Imperialism’s four horsemen: part 2

The intensification of capitalist competition has created global markets and in the process has led to an imperialist period of capitalist development that has seen war, the uprooting of whole populations and environmental degradation push the fabric of societies and our planets intricate network of ecosystems to the point of crisis. 

This is the second part of an article by Brian Parkin that looks at the links between climate change, imperialism and migration.

Photo: Jean Mohr. From John Berger, Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man (1975)
Photo: Jean Mohr. From John Berger, Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man (1975)

Migration in the age of Imperialism

Capitalism as a mode of production characterised as commodity production based on wage labour is also a set of social relations of production prone to crisis. As such when the ‘system’ is booming there is an almost insatiable demand for labour. And when it slips into reverse labour is shed. And although at its inception and at the stage of primitive accumulation the demand for labour can usually be sourced from the internally displaced indigenous population, further phases of expansion require a larger pool of labour.

In the years following the Second World War much of Western Europe was rebuilt through the combined agencies of the US funded Marshall Plan and massive state infrastructural investment. As a consequence economies such as the UK and France as they were entering the ‘long boom’ were able to draw on their former colonies to meet the shortfalls in labour supply. And for the better part of 30 years this economic ‘pull’ in drawing in workers and their families in their thousands did much to transform the cultural mix of the host countries. Initially, migrant populations to the UK from Ireland or Eastern Europe[1] often faced a xenophobic reception from an already impoverished settled population- a situation usually exploited by employers eager to see workers compete in a wage race to the bottom. But with the arrival of black or Asian migrants from the former colonies, the experience could often be one of discrimination and out-right racist hostility.

For a country like Germany with no former colonies upon which to draw labour and an economy experiencing a massive industry-led recovery, the sources of available labour were more constrained and with no post-colonial ‘obligation’ required, the treatment of migrant workers as Gastarbiters (guest workers) marked by an outright denial of basic civil rights let alone the opportunity to integrate and seek permanent settlement.[2]

But by far the greatest migration of modern times has been the flow of a Chinese rural peasant population into the booming cities during China’s 15 year industrial transformation. It has been estimated that over 300 million people have undertaken an internal migration which requires them to have employment contracts as a basic right of settlement and to stay in barrack-like dormitories on the perimeters of pollution-choked mega-cities. With a growing appetite for the fight against poverty wages and government official ‘unions’, this mass of humanity in flexing its muscles could become a revolutionary force for change.

Climate and Imperialism: welcome to the imperialist Anthropocene

With the concept of an Anthropocene we are in effect overlaying a transparency of late human activity measured in less than three centuries over a geological record of periods measured in millions of years. We are also suggesting that it is within such a period of a few human generations that the Earth’s climate has been subjected to stresses that now threaten the viability of sustainable human existence on this planet.

It is clear from the carbon record dating from the late 18th century that levels of carbon dioxide have been building up in our planets troposphere. The natural ‘greenhouse’ which has made our world inhabitable and sustainable for millennia has been progressively augmented by emissions to critical levels datable from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of around 250 years ago. The result has been to trap reflected ultra-violet radiation from sunlight within our greenhouse with an inevitable result in a progressive rise in global mean temperature.

Having once got going, the capitalist mode of production, forever calling upon science and technical innovation, has grown exponentially. And with that growth has come the spread of industries on a global scale demanding ever more labour power and natural resources. By the time that Frederick Engels was collating Marx’s Capital [3], the internal combustion engine had not been patented, electricity was only just emerging from the entertainment stage as a bourgeois parlour trick, the principal source of horse-powered transport was the horse, airborne travel was the stuff of Jules Verne or HG Wells and street lighting was by town gas, the sole source of which was coal which was mined by men crawling in a darkness and danger with hand-tools little changed since Roman times.

Yet even by then capitalism was leaving its indelible imprint on the carbon record. But it is within the intervening 117 years that capitalism has evolved through the processes of consolidation and monopoly into its ultimate and most barbaric phase of imperialism. Scientists divide the natural history of the earth into periods defined by particular geological characteristics. We are presently living in a period called the Pleistocene, which is 65 million years old. Modern humans became widespread within the Upper Pleistocene, which began 126,000 years ago. Within this is a period called the Holocene, which began 11,700 years at the end of the last ice age. Recently, scientists have noted marked variations in both the climate and carbon records which have led some to suggest an alternative name for an ‘intermediate’ period we are living in.

In May 2000 climate scientist Paul Crutzen and geologist Eugene Stoermer presented a paper in which they suggested a new age that ‘denotes the present time as an interval in which many natural processes are being profoundly altered by human activities’.[4] This age they suggested should be called the Anthropocene or an ‘age of man’ in which the consequences of human activity, in particular the impact on the troposphere, stratosphere and the oceans, overtaking and negatively ‘enhancing’ the natural rates of change and the impacts on our planet’s eco-systems. Among the outcomes of these changes they marked out global temperature rise, persistent rising in sea levels, stratospheric ozone depletion and the acidification of the oceans.

This is a contentious concept, and some socialists have criticised it for blaming the human species generally, rather than the capitalist mode of production specifically. However, the basis of the concept does locate discernible changes in the carbon record and related climatic change within the narrow historical period of capitalist development. The dates Crutzen and Stoermer denote are also reflected in the ocean sediments and coral reef records indicating a rapid rise in ocean acidification from 250 years ago – more or less the agreed date that the Industrial Revolution began. But what is more compelling is the evidence of acceleration of CO2 build up and ocean acidification dating from 1950 onwards – the date which denotes the beginning of the ‘long boom’ in which capitalism grew fourfold in terms of output in less than 20 years. And it is the extension of this period in terms of hydrocarbon fuels consumption which now marks a speeding up of CO2 concentrations whilst the rate of consumption of petroleum intensifies.

But another dimension of the Anthropocene has to be the sudden and massive rise in migrations which are the result of an intensification of resource conflict which is now blighting the Middle East energy hub region as imperialist rivals put their surrogate dogs into fights by proxy. It is in the present day tragedies of Syria and Iraq and beyond that we now see the terrifying ‘push’ of war without seeming end but without the ‘pull’ of burgeoning economies elsewhere willing to accommodate refugees into their labour markets. So the imperialist Anthropocene period we have now entered is one in which capitalist competition and conflict within and around the world’s most strategic energy hub confronts humanity with economic anarchy, social collapse, mass human displacement and climate catastrophe.

When we then add climate factors to the present period of crisis within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) we see that prior to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the desperate Tunisian food stall holder, who set off the Arab Uprisings of 2011, much of the region had experienced protracted periods of drought since 2006. The resultant food shortages combined with unpopular neoliberal austerity which included VAT on food, combined with the very public suicide of an impoverished food seller became the stuff of which revolutions sometimes happen.

But regardless of deep divisions, the major imperialist players initially recognised their mutual interest in subverting the Arab Uprisings of 2011 in a way that sought to restore despotism and a functioning energy economy to the MENA region. And although chaos has ensued in many instances, the world’s main hydrocarbon hub has been restored to global warming rude health.


In the final part tomorrow, Brian will take a look at the numbers that show how climate change means the refugee crisis isn’t going to go away. He will argue that another world is possible, where people are free to move, but are not forced to move. But it means confronting the climate crisis, and the need for a revolutionary challenge to the system.



[1] Immigration from Europe all but ceased with the passing of the 1904 Aliens Act but resumed to a modest degree following the end of World War 2.

[2] Such workers were usually drawn from Turkey, Spain and Southern Italy and were required to live in barrack-like accommodation and with no tenure once the work permit had expired. Their ‘guest’ status denied them the right to bring their families with them and the mandatory hostel living was designed to make them available for mandatory police and immigration agency checks. For a moving account of their plight see John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man, London 1975. Also see Colin Barker’s tribute to The Seventh Man’s photographer Jean Mohr here.

[3] Volume 3 was edited from Marx’s final notes and published in 1898, the same year that Otto Benz sought a patent for his’ Benzol’ powered engine and Nikola Tesla was being ridiculed by Eddison for his advocacy of alternating current as a means of electricity distribution.

[4] Crutzen and Stoermer, Global Change No 1 letter, 3rd may 2000.


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