Remco Bouma: People, market value and mobility

21 June 2018

Remco Bouma: People, market value and mobility

Under globalised capitalism a person's market value is the principal determinant of his or her mobility. Expatriates are welcomed as human capital; refugees do not meet the demands of the market. As no price can be put on a community, the system records no loss of value when one is destroyed.

Two messages from the Dutch government to foreigners:

'Don't do it. It costs a great deal of money. Deadly risks and you come bottom of the list.'

'We are totally dedicated... We help you to find housing for your families, schools for your children, and a job for your partners. Don't worry, we will be there all the way.'

One of these is aimed at the people who work for the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which, after much lobbying, will move from London to Amsterdam. The other is a message on Twitter from Prime Minister Mark Rutte to 'refugees contemplating crossing (the sea)'.  You don't need to ask which message is for which group. Humanity and human rights have been linked to people's market value in a way which is so self-evident that the logic behind it is no longer questioned. 

“I can travel the world over for my work”, says Farish Noor, a professor of International Politics from Malaysia. Quoted in the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, he explains that this is “Just like the expats, the professionals, the 'human capital'. I'm a good traveller, because I can deliver a service which meets market demand. Refugees don't meet the demands of the market.”

In fact we treat people scarcely differently from how we treat capital. If it provides something to us, then we want it; or if it's a corporation, or a postbox company set up by a multinational undertaking which uses the Netherlands as a means of transferring profits earned abroad, tax-free. But if it's going to cost money, we don't want it.  

“The terms human capital and refugee are two sides of the same coin,” says Noor. “It's the market which decides who can travel and who can't. We don't, also, have people any more. Only consumers and producers. We have become factors in market calculations.”

Selective inclusion, selective exclusion

Are we living in a time of unprecedented mobility or of involuntary confinement? Both are true, in the view of migration expert Hein de Haas. It all depends on where you were born. The two concepts go together. The greater the possibilities for mobility, the more we will see the involuntary confinement of those whom nobody wants. 

The movement of people, goods and capital have always been linked to each historically. This time, however, they are being separated, with open borders for capital, goods and ideas, but not for people. Capital generated in the mining industry in Malawi, for example, can pour freely into the Netherlands and from there disappear into tax havens, but people from Malawi are rejected. A Syrian must, in order to apply for asylum in a member state of the European Union, first get here. After the investment of a billion euros in the closure of the EU's exterior borders, this is getting ever closer to impossible. Of all the deaths in the world of people migrating, three-quarters  occur on these borders, making them by some distance the deadliest in the world, with more than 30,000 deaths since 2001.

Globalisation is far from an evenly spread, balanced process, according the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells. We should rather regard it as a process of selective inclusion and exclusion of certain regions, products and groups of people. The rules governing this process may be drafted, defining what is legal and what isn't. That is the definition of power. Polish sociologist Zygmund  Bauman talks about 'human detritus', the groups left over when this selective globalisation has assimilated everything of value. 

In the prevailing logic everything which boosts our GDP – itself a completely misleading reflection of our economy – is also good for the Netherlands. That's how you can explain that Amsterdam was able to advertise itself in London last year with the text, “When you realise that it is monthly rent, not weekly.” The arrival of firms and expats from London increases our GDP. “While Amsterdammers who have their roots in our city have to move out because housing has become unaffordable,” then SP councillor Tiers Bakker complained during an interview on the state broadcaster NOS, “Amsterdam Marketing recommends the city because the rents are lower than they are in London.”

The same logic means that expats (defined as foreign residents with an income above €37,000 p.a.) are allowed to count 30% of their income as tax-free. Other labour migrants pay their social charges in their land of origin, which makes them cheaper to employ than Dutch workers.

This is the thinking behind the European internal market and is based on the assumption that the market works more efficiently when supply and demand converge in a bigger zone. But mobility of people does not work in the same way as does mobility of capital. In an open market capital can at any moment search out the places where it will be most profitable. Apply the same logic to people and what ensues is oppression and exploitation, deceptive constructions, downward pressure on wages and the breaking up of communities. Every structure becomes temporary, lasting as long as it's profitable. This can be seen even in the way we design our surroundings, with more and more offices having the internal décor of a departure hall.  But as no price can be put on a community, the system records no loss of value when one is destroyed.  

Support for the welfare state                                                                           

It's paradoxical that nation states are increasing their control over population flows, says Bauman, at a time when they are giving up ever more powers. Control is being ceded to scarcely democratic supranational bodies such as the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. Within national borders collective structures in health care, housing and public transport are being dismantled and privatised. Utrecht University Professor Cok Vrooman has calculated that income security of the working population has declined by 34% since 1980, while the purchasing power of the poorest 30% of people in the Netherlands is now lower than it was in 1977. 

In this way the government itself is undermining people's security, reducing support for immigration, according to researchers at the University of Groningen. The 'Other' is seen as more of a threat when a person's own sense of security falters and people have to compete in a situation of scarcity.

Statements from the government also influence support, according to the same study. A government which 'strives towards zero', in Rutte's own words, sees refugees as a problem to be solved rather than a reality which will always exist and an issue which, via our foreign policy, we can influence. Such a form of discourse also reduces the space available to social movements which question the status quo surrounding refugees via direct action, says criminologist Sharon Rickering. 

At the end of 2011, the main official body charged with receiving and accommodating asylum-seekers, the COA, decided to close a number of centres, because 'the number of asylum-seekers in the centres is falling and the expectation is that this decline will continue.' The war in Syria had just exploded into life. When refugees from the war began to arrive in Europe seeking asylum, the Netherlands appeared completely unprepared. It suited the CAO as an unremunerative non-profit state body to ensure that as small a number as possible should be accommodated, rather than interpreting international treaties and solidarity in a way befitting one of the world's richest countries. 

In 2015, Klaas Dijkhoff, at the time the Secretary of State for Justice, arrived in the tiny village of Oranje in the province of Drenthe in the north-east of the Netherlands., just before buses disgorged some seven hundred asylum seekers, doubling the number to be housed there. The village's inhabitants, who number 140, were outraged. They had not been consulted, or even informed. “It's not about the refugees,” said one of them. “It's about the fact that politicians don't keep their promises.”

Looked at in this way, accommodating asylum seekers is little different from the placing of windmills. People fully understand their importance, but the benefits and burdens must be fairly shared out.   70% of the Dutch population are in favour of accepting refugees. The problems often come in relation to implementation. Sudden transformation of your surroundings can leave a sour taste when others enhance their reputations or gain a financial advantage.

We also need to put an end to people having to compete for scarce facilities. What if every form of support for a refugee were also available to the population already present? 

In 2015, Beverwaard, a low income neighbourhood of Rotterdam, became national news because of protests against a planned asylum seekers' centre. At a drop-in evening organised by Rotterdam SP, it turned out that residents of the district perceived the asylum centre as nothing more than the latest insulting gesture from the political elite. The SP supported the asylum centre, but also presented motions demanding the tackling of poverty, debt, insecurity and tardy maintenance. In addition, an SP motion was adopted calling for the asylum centre to source necessary goods and services, as far as possible, from local suppliers.

Some two years later around a million euros has been invested in the neighbourhood. The refugee centre has gone ahead without any problem. 

Everything begins anew when you look at the value of people differently from the way which accompanies the prevailing market logic; a look which gives a person's value as a human being a central position, rather than simply his or her value to the market. 

The author, Remco Bouma, works for the SP's research bureau.

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