Lampudesa tragedy: Capital and its politicians are responsible

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At the beginning of October, an overloaded ship went down near Lampedusa in Italy. More than 350 immigrants died. A few days afterwards, another boat carrying migrants sank, and another ten people drowned. Every year in the Mediterranean 20,000 people lose their lives on the verge of reaching the sought-after Fortress Europe. Since the 1990s, the corpses of human beings fleeing from poverty and war have been piling up at the frontiers, along the coasts, in the deserts of the Sahara – like the 92 women and children from Niger abandoned by people smugglers to die of thirst and exhaustion in the Sahara at the end of the same month.

The hypocrisy of the ruling class

The ruling class has shed copious crocodile tears about the Lampedusa tragedy because its scale, and its proximity to ‘home’, made it impossible to ignore. To have done so might have stirred up too much anger, too much thinking.

The sordid polemic about the failure of Italian fishermen to help the victims has also served to divert people’s attention towards the hunt for scapegoats – even though the current laws actually criminalise those who help illegal immigrants and in previous cases captains of fishing vessels have already been prosecuted for trying to “give assistance to illegal entry”.

The grand media coverage of the Lampedusa tragedy is aimed at creating a mental fog and obscuring the huge repressive apparatus set up by in a coordinated manner by the states. The ideological trap is made up, on the one hand, of overtly xenophobic propaganda and, on the other, by ‘humanitarian’ speeches which, by emphasising the ‘rights’ of the victims, serve to separate immigrants from other proletarians.

One thing should be clear: capitalism in crisis and its politicians are indeed responsible for this new tragedy. It’s they who compel thousands of hungry people to embark on ever-more suicidal adventures to get round the obstacles placed in their path. It’s therefore not surprising if these same politicians were jeered at the airport by a shocked and disgusted local population[1].

The proletariat is a class of immigrants

Like these immigrants, all proletarians are really those who have been ‘uprooted’. Since the beginning of capitalism, they have been torn away from the land and from artisan labour. In the Middle Ages the majority of the exploited remained tied to the land; the rising power of capital subjected them to a violent exodus from the countryside

“The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this ‘free’ proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition”.[2]

Historically capitalism developed on the basis of free access to labour power. To extract surplus value it generated enormous population shifts. It was the unity of the new conditions of the exploited that led the workers’ movement to recognise that “the workers have no country!

In addition, without the slave trade from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, capitalism would not have been able to develop so quickly in its industrial centres and through the slave ports of Liverpool, London, Bristol, Zeeland, Nantes and Bordeaux. In the 19th century, with the black labour force ‘freed’ into wage labour, economic growth fuelled even more massive displacements of populations, especially towards the American continent. From the early 19th century until 1914, 50 to 60 million Europeans headed towards the USA in search of work. At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly a million immigrants entered the USA every year. For Italy alone, between 1901 and 1913, nearly 8 million people became immigrants. During the ascendant phase of capitalism the system was able to absorb this mass of workers whose labour power was needed by an expanding economy.

In decadent capitalism, the state becomes a bunker

With the historic decline of the system, migration and the displacement of populations have not stopped. On the contrary! Imperialist conflicts, especially the two world wars, economic crises, and disasters linked to climate change have fed ever-growing migrations. In 2010, it was estimated that there were 214 million migrants in the world (3.1% of the world population[3]). On the basis of climate change alone, certain projections estimate that there will be between 25 million and one billion extra migrants by 2050[4].

Because of the permanent crisis of capital and the overproduction of commodities, migrants have come up against the limits of the market and the increasingly brutal rules imposed by the state. Capital can no longer integrate labour power on the same scale as before. Thus, in contrast to the period prior to the First World War when it opened its doors to the ‘huddled masses’, the USA has set up a whole system of quotas to drastically restrict entry, and is now building walls to halt the flow of migrants from Latin America. The economic crisis which opened up at the end of the 1960s has led all governments, especially in Europe, to set up heavy-handed patrols around the southern Mediterranean, employing an armada of boats to control the flow of migrants. The undeclared aim of the ruling class is clear: migrants should stay at home and rot. To ensure this, the good democrats of Europe, and notably France, have not hesitated to use the muscular services of a Gaddafi in Libya or the authorities in Morocco to make sure that those trying to reach Europe don’t get through the desert.

These controls at the frontiers, which have got tougher and tougher, are the product of decadence and of state capitalism. They are not new. In France for example:

The creation of identity cards in 1917 really overturned administrative and police practices. Today we are habituated to having our passports stamped and we no longer think about the police origins of the process. But it was by no means neutral that the institution of identity cards was initially aimed at the surveillance of foreigners in a period of open war”.[5]

Today the paranoia of the state towards foreigners suspected of being troublemakers has reached unprecedented heights. Huge metal or concrete walls at the frontiers[6], topped with barbed wire or electrified, are a sinister reminder of the death camps of the Second World War. In 1989, the European bourgeoisies celebrated the fall of the ‘Berlin Wall’ in the name of freedom. This was indeed a barbaric materialisation of the ‘Iron Curtain’; but those doing the celebrating have shown that they too are builders of walls!

The tragic fate of the immigrants

The decadence of capitalism has become a period of vast displacements which have to be ‘controlled’. It’s the era of deportations, of concentration camps, of refugees (the number of Palestinian refugees went from 700,000 thousand in 1950 to 4.8 million in 2005). The genocide of the Armenians in 1915 led to the first mass movements of refugees of the 20th century. Between 1944 and 1951, nearly 20 million people were displaced or evacuated in Europe. The partition of states and other divisions have also resulted in massive displacements. While the ‘Iron Curtain’ blocked an exodus from Eastern Europe, the search for cheap labour power led the European countries to draw on the southern Mediterranean and Africa. Economic impoverishment and the ‘national liberation’ struggles produced by imperialist conflicts during the Cold War also fed the distress and displacement of a ruined peasantry, serving to create vast megacities surrounded by slums in the peripheral countries. These have become breeding grounds for mafia gangs involved in prostitution and the traffic of arms and drugs. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, refugee camps have sprung up like mushrooms, especially in Africa and the Middle East, where the population lives on the edge of survival, prey to famine, illness, and gangsters of all stripes.

The explosion of ‘illegal’ work

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the eastern bloc, two major events have intervened, on top of the growth of military conflicts, to weigh on the labour market and increase the flow of migration:

  • the deepening of the economic crisis, especially in the central countries;
  • the emergence of China.

For an initial period, workers from the eastern countries went west; this coincided with the first relocations of industry and it helped to exert a powerful pressure on wages. In addition, countries which had previously been on the margins of the world market, such as India and China, opened up the possibility of uprooting millions of workers who had come from the countryside, swelling the ranks of a reserve army made up of unemployed proletarians who could be dragooned for work when needed.

The very low level of wages paid to these workers in the context of a saturated world market makes it possible to put further pressure on wages and results in even more relocations. This explains the fact that in the central countries since the 1990s the number of illegal and clandestine workers has exploded in certain sectors, despite the strengthening of controls. In 2000 there were about 5 million clandestine workers in Europe, 12 million in the USA and 20 million in India. The central states make ample use of this workforce, generally poorly qualified and without official papers, and whose extremely precarious position makes them ready to do pretty much anything for very low wages. Under the watchful eye of the state a whole parallel market has been created, sustained by workers who are subject to all kinds of blackmail and live in atrocious conditions. The majority of agricultural harvests are now being taken in by foreign workers, many of them illegal. In Italy, 65% of the agricultural labour force is illegal. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, 2 million Romanians migrated to southern Europe for agricultural work. In Spain, the housing ‘boom’ which came before the crash was to a large extent based on the sweat of underpaid clandestine workers, often from Latin American countries like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, etc. To this we must add the grey areas of the economy, such as prostitution. In 2003, in a country like Moldavia, 30% of women aged between 18 and 25 had gone missing! In the same year, 500,000 prostitutes from eastern Europe were working in western Europe.

In Asia and in the Gulf monarchies, we see the same phenomena for domestic workers and building workers. In Qatar, immigrants make up 86% of the population, and, as the recent scandal about the preparations for the 2022 World Cup has revealed, many are working in conditions of near slavery.

Today, with the development of military tensions, we can already seeing an influx of people escaping war zones, especially from the Middle East and Africa.

The proletarian combat

In the face of growing barbarism, of brutal police measures against immigrants and the xenophobic campaigns disseminated by the ruling class, the proletariat can only respond with indignation and with international class solidarity. This means rejecting any idea that immigrants and ‘foreigners’ are the cause of crisis and unemployment.

The media, especially those aligned to the Right, are constantly bombarding us with images of immigrants who foment crime and disorder and live as parasites from the ‘generous’ benefits handed out by western countries. In reality, it’s the immigrants who are the first victims of the system. This nauseating right wing propaganda has always been used to divide workers. But the more insidious traps are the ones laid by the ‘humanitarian’ Left, with its false generosity and good old common sense, which also divides the working class by treating immigrants as a special case.

Today, when factories are closing one after the other, when the order books are getting thinner despite all the talk of ‘recovery’, it is becoming increasingly clear that all proletarians are being hit by the crisis and growing poverty, whether immigrants or not. What meaning can there be in the idea of competition for jobs from illegal workers when jobs for everyone are disappearing?

Against this ideological offensive, against the policy of repression, the working class has to reaffirm its historical perspective. This begins with basic solidarity and advances towards recognising its own revolutionary strength in society.  

WE 21/10/2013

[1].  Alongside the Italian Prime Minister A Altano, there was the president of the European Commission M Barroso and C Maimstrom, the internal Chargé d’Affaires, who had come mainly to stress that, in the name of humanitarianism, they supported a hardening of the surveillance of the frontiers by the forces of ‘Frontex’


[2].  Marx, Capital, Vol 1 chapter XXVIII


[3].  Source: INED


[4].  133 natural catastrophes were recorded in 1980. The number has gone up to over 350 a year in the last few years. See www.


[5].  P-J Deschott, F Huguenin, La république xenophobe, JC Lattès 2001


[6].  For example, at Sangatte in Northern Europe, in southern Europe (Ceuta, Melila), on the US-Mexican border, in Israel faced with the Palestinians, in South Africa faced with the rest of the continent, or in Gabon where the authorities are in the process of constructing an electrified wall 2.40m high and 500 km long




Recent and ongoing: 


Treatment of Immigrants