SOAS University of London

Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies

Challenge of Mobile Value-Subjects: East Asian capitalism and struggles of migrant labour

Dae-oup Chang (SOAS)

Date: 12 December 2012Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 12 December 2012Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: G51

Type of Event: Seminar


Neoliberal globalisation has transformed East Asia into a centre of the global capitalist economy. A major consequence of this transformation is that most of East Asian population has become capitalist ‘value-subjects’ who for survival have to rely directly or indirectly on the different moments of the expanding circuit of capital. 

This transformation is not a process in which capital freely moves around the continent and exploits labour tied to families, communities and nation states and sharing same national or communal identities. Contrary, labour constantly moves, wants to move and often has to move in this process. 

Labour required by and necessary for the expanding circuit of capital is not fixed within local and national boundaries but exists as mobile value-subjects who are in motion between jobs and occupations, rural communities and cities as well as one and another nation state. Indeed, the movement of these value subjects is allowed in a highly selective manner, depending upon the changing needs for capital accumulation of given national economies. 

Nation states in East Asia continue to utilise measures to control labour mobility, which are based on segregation and discrimination along the line of race, gender, nationality and residential status. However, while these tools certainly made migration more costly, uncomfortable and risky process, they could not stop the increasing flow of migration. In fact, mobility of labour has been always central to the reproduction of capitalism while excessive mobility of labour or ‘escape’ of labour often threatens the smooth reproduction of capitalism. 

This article criticises the usual economic theories of migration – both mainstream and heterodox - which describe mobile labour as subjects without agency moving from one to another area to fix labour market disparity or as victims of uneven development and peripheral and unusual labour. I contend that we need to see mobile labour as a political subject by bringing the mobility and agency of labour back into the centre of our analysis of capitalist development. 

This is not a purely theoretical claim but based on the recognition of the importance of the various struggles of migrant labour against nation states, their regime of migration control and exploitation at different moments of the expanding circuit of capital. There are a number of ways that migrant labour challenge the smooth reproduction of capitalism, including escape, evading border control, sabotage, strikes and direct actions. 

This article focuses on the ways in which migrant labour, despite all the constraints imposed upon them, struggles to form ‘citizenship from below’ by exercising activist citizenships and thereby ruptures the fixed concepts and institutions of citizenship, migrant control regimes as well as the inter-state system of managing the global capitalism. I do so by presenting two cases of struggle of mobile value subjects: struggles of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and China’s internal migrant workers. 

These struggles of East Asian migrant workers acting as activist citizens at different moments of the expanding circuit of capital dynamically demonstrate the dual role of migrant labour in the reproduction of capitalism. While mobile value-subjects sustain neoliberal globalisation by being cheap labour-power commodities, they constantly acquire different identities, build their social networks, self-claim universal rights and undermine the existing systems controlling labour mobility.

Organiser: Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies

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