Sunday, September 26, 2010

Racism and the recession talk

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A crisis of capitalism is not just a crisis of the economy. It’s a crisis that wracks the whole of society – politically, ideologically, and culturally. It is, in that sense, also a crisis of the racial structure whether that expresses itself in planetary migration systems, domestic hierarchies, or imperialism. And globally, since the crisis began with the credit crunch in 2007, we have seen an intensification of racist crackdowns.

In the United States, the state of Arizona has passed a new law that makes it a crime for immigrants to be in public without carrying documents, and which allows police to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant whatever the circumstances. This isn’t uncontested, and the immigrant movements are one of the signs of real hope in America. The ‘tea party’ Right is also leading a vicious campaign not just against the so-called ‘ground zero mosque’, but against a wide array of actual mosques or mosque-building projects. In Italy and Hungary, there have been fresh pogroms against Roma gypsies. Across the continent, the far right has made gains – in Holland and Belgium, for example, and recently in Sweden.

The era of the ‘war on terror’ has, of course, seen a revival in civilizational discourse that sees Muslims in particular as a barbarian and antipathetic menace, a solvent of ‘Western values’. Thus, in a very obvious way, imperialism has intersected with and amplified already existing domestic racism towards largely South Asian and North African minorities in Western Europe. The global economic crisis is accelerating this, partly by the way in which it intensifies competition between different groups of workers, so that migrant labourers are increasingly seen as a problem rather than a solution, but partly also because of the way in which it adds appeal to the false security offered by integrationist models of nationality and citizenship.

With echoes of the 1930s so abundant, this accelerating political polarisation should not surprise us. But the racism of the 2010s will not be the racism of the 1930s. This is not the colonial world any more. Antisemitism, though it still matters, is unlikely to be the major focus of European racism - although it has an occult fascination for the authentic far right – and it is certainly marginal in the United States. The primarily somatic discourses of race have been largely supplanted, notwithstanding the confused and ultimately hapless attempts to revive biological discourse through the genome. Not that biological reductionism is irrelevant here. As I will come to argue, it has played an important role in legitimising new forms of racism. But the idea that there are colour-coded races – white, black, red, yellow – or that you could refer to someone meaningfully as being of the ‘Mongol’ race, for example, has become faintly absurd.

Today, in place of rigid schemas assigning people to races based on some supposed ‘bloodline’ or ancestry in an original human family – Aryan, Semitic or Hamitic as the case may be - we increasingly have a slightly less static, less schematic, but nonetheless essentialist hierarchy of cultures: we have moved from colour to culture, from body to belief. A recent example of this, though seemingly a relatively benign one, was when Richard Dawkins described the Pope as the head of the second most evil religion in the world. Number one, I suspect, was Islam, which has since the colonial era been characterised by its opponents in the tropes of fanaticism, irrationalism and violence. This should also alert us to the changing gender codes to which racism relates. Racism has always been bound up with patriarchy, with the nuclear family as the privileged site of racial reproduction. In ‘old Europe’, as it were, the supremacy of white men was exercised over women and children as much as over colonial subjects. However, there has long been a trend, dubbed ‘imperial feminism’, wherein non-white men are depicted as being particularly savage in their treatment of women – and thus, the defence of empire was seen as somehow coextensive with the protection of women. ‘Imperial feminism’ in this sense has come to the fore – we’ve even had attempts by the boneheads of the English Defence League to claim that they support womens’ rights. They even purport to have a ‘gay division’, which is probably as populous as their ‘Newport Pagnell division’

And that shift has facilitated a certain amount of confusion about what racism is, and has provided an alibi not merely for anti-Muslim racism, but for more traditional forms of racism that single out, for example, young black men. The latter were the subject of a short screed by the Spectator’s in-house provocateur and shock-commentator Rod Liddle last year. The basis of his attack was that these men were responsible for the overwhelming majority of robberies, muggings and violent crimes in the capital. The statistics for convictions did not actually back this up, although intriguingly, statistics on police actions against individuals for these crimes was later cited as if it did – in fact, a Home Office report published some years back pointed out that research on youth crime had shown that while young white men were far more likely to have committed a crime in a given a year, young black and Asian men were more likely to have been proceeded against by police. However, the empirical claim was almost secondary. When challenged on his claim, Liddle explained that he wasn’t talking about ‘race’, but about ‘culture’. He suggested that there was a particular culture among these men that valued and encouraged anti-social attitudes and behaviours. This implies that there is this ‘thing’ called culture which is not a complex, evolving, interwoven process, but which is soluble into discrete, relatively imporous and stable entities. This, ironically, is precisely the reified model of culture that was promoted by the official multiculturalism that Liddle is attacking.

This sordid little tale is representative, I think, of the broader trend. It exemplifies the shift that I’ve been speaking of, from biological reductionism to cultural essentialism, and what I want to do is first contextualise this shift in a particular British history, and secondly to elaborate, briefly, a theoretical understanding of racism that can comprehend this change

Cultural racism, if you like, is not new. It has a long-standing history in imperialist ideology, it was central to the foundation of apartheid, it was an alibi of Jim Crow, and it played a crucial supporting role in even the most scientistic and biologically determinist forms of racism – an example being the Nazi extermination of the gypsies which, because of the confusion about their racial status (race theory had it that they were originally Aryan) had to be justified in part on the grounds of culture, namely the allegedly anti-social propensities of gypsies, a stereotype that is still with is today when we hear scaremongering stories about Roma gypsies and Travellers.

But the shift in emphasis in racist ideologies that we see today really began after WWII, and in the UK it tracked a move from an aggressive global white supremacism to a defensive white nationalism. In the immediate years after the war, British capitalism faced a number of challenges. It faced the rising dominion of the United States alongside its own diminishing ability to maintain its colonies, losing the ‘jewel of the empire’s crown’, India, in 1947. It faced a national economy with labour shortages, and labour insurgency. Many of its core industries were weak, and nationalisation was the only answer in some cases. The British state, under both Labour and Tory governments, elaborated a consensual answer to this, a social democratic settlement based on extensive public ownership, the pursuit of economic stability through Keynesian demand management, and the maintenance of some form of British dominion through a close, though subordinate, relationship with the United States, which was then encroaching on many of its colonies and ex-colonies. To answer the labour shortage, it was agreed that some 1.25m workers were needed. There was a bipartisan belief that Britain could not tolerate a rapid influx of non-white workers from the ‘New Commonwealth’ – for the sake of social peace, they maintained that such immigrants as did arrive in the UK had to be of “good stock”, which meant white.

There was at that time freedom of movement within the UK and colonies. Subjects of the colonies had their status confirmed as ‘Citizen of the UK and Colonies’ in 1948. But the state preferred not to encourage such migration if they could avoid it. Inevitably, the needs of capital meant that at first small numbers of African-Caribbean migrants started to arrive in the UK. And the state responded by trying to come up with ways to discriminate against non-white labour without appearing to do so. In 1962, with the passing of the Commonwealth Immigration Act, they hit upon a legal measure that would enable the government to discriminate through the use of quotas. Now this wasn’t because the demand for migrant labour had fallen. Actually, by 1982, about 80% of ‘New Commonwealth’ migrants who lived in the UK had arrived after 1962. What the legislation did was not reduce the amount of black and Asian workers moving to then UK, but make their citizenship – remember they were citizens – dependent on the needs of capital. If the demand for labour fell, the quotas could be tightened. And Labour, in time-honoured fashion, opposed the legislation for a bunch of racist eyewash in opposition, but embraced it and tightened its provisions with further legislation once in office.

In that climate of a racist state crackdown on immigration, right-wing Tory politicians began to find that they could gain support not only for themselves but for a whole policy mix that challenged the social democratic consensus by attacking immigrants in the name of a politics of ‘the nation’. The most notorious example of this trend is Enoch Powell, who had until he lost the 1965 Tory leadership election, never expressed anti-immigrant sentiment. He had always been a right-wing free marketeer, and he was a committed imperialist. He had entertained ambitions to become Viceroy of India, the local proxy to the British crown, and about as close to being a King as the progeny of lower-middle class Black Country folks could dream of being. His attitude on migration was shaped by this imperial perspective. As long as Britain could dominate non-white labour through empire, it didn’t need immigration restrictions. But from 1967 he began to attack immigrants for driving down house prices and making life difficult for white neighbourhoods. The burden of his polemic was that too large a number of immigrants brought with them a culture that was inappropriate to Britain, and which the white majority would not be able to live happily alongside. This was a claim that was given some dubious support in the claims of socio-biology in the 1970s, which maintained that it was natural for people to be hostile to those with whom they were unfamiliar. People had hardwired ‘tribal’ instincts, and the tribe in this case was white Britons.

Such was the politics that the New Right espoused, and it became the basis of Thatcher’s Poujadist crusade after taking the Tory leadership in 1975. Attempting to restore the Conservative Party’s hegemonic role in British politics, she sought to use a kind of authoritarian populism to fuse a new electoral coalition uniting capital with the petit-bourgeoisie and a sector of workers. She notoriously gave an interview in which she referred to a supposed popular fear of being ‘swamped’ by people of other cultures to justify immigration crackdowns. Like Powell before her, her key reference was to nation and culture not biology and skin colour, and her mandate was a sort of ‘common sense’ – if people couldn’t help reacting negatively to ‘outsiders’, then it was not racist but merely an articulation of natural grievances to oppose immigration. Thatcher’s British Nationality Act (1981) crowned the repeated anti-immigrant acts since 1962 by revising the category of ‘Citizen of the UK and Colonies’, and effectively ensuring that primary migration from the ‘New Commonwealth’ came to a near standstill

I would say that this politics of ‘the nation’ was exhausted by the time of the Poll Tax riots. Inner city riots, black political advances both in the trade union movement and in the Labour Party, official multiculturalism and the transformed demographic situation meant that it was impossible for explicitly racist politics to survive in a mainstream electoral vehicle. There were still occasions for politicians to whip up a coded racism toward immigrants. Asylum was the main issue in the 1990s, as the Tories sought to justify blocking the entry of refugees to the United Kingdom – which they really weren’t permitted to do because of Britain’s commitment to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. They did this by trying to find ways to re-classify them as economic migrants, thus subject to the same racist legislation that all other migrants were. The language of the time suggested that asylum seekers were ‘bogus’ – a term first used by Michael Howard as Home Secretary, and then popularised by the media. Refugees, far from being needy, were greedy, anti-social, and parasitic. Britain was a ‘soft touch’.

Again, as is traditional, the Labour Party opposed two rounds of legislation designed to curb asylum rights in the 1990s. But when it came to power, it embraced these laws and added new restrictions including a system of detention camps run by private security firms to imprison refugees while they had their cases processed. Importantly, this was related to another trend in New Labour thinking, which was to revitalise this politics of ‘the nation’ with a new progressive veneer. So while the Lawrence Inquiry delivered a relatively progressive verdict on policing in the UK, David Blunkett was upset by it because he believed that we were not sufficiently proud of “what we’ve got”. The justification for racist immigration legislation in the UK has always been the Powellite one: by controlling the fears of the white majority, it will be possible to legislate against the discrimination of existing ethnic minorities and ensure a tolerant, harmonious society. But in fact the logic, as Roy Hattersley pointed out, is to say that ‘they’ are a problem and a danger who have to be controlled. It leads inescapably to domestic repression and discrimination.

So, fast-forward to 2001, when riots broke out in northern towns and cities. These were places where manufacturing industries were breaking down, where local councils had practised de facto segregation in housing, and where the police had a long-term conflictual relationship with Asian youths. These riots followed racist provocations by fascists and football hooligans in Asian areas, which the police refused to prevent. Instead, when local kids defended themselves, the police suited themselves up in riot gear and attacked the victims. The government response, in the form of the Cantle report, instead of blaming the institutional racism of the police, and the violence of the fascists, was to accuse local Asian communities of being ‘self-segregating’. The problem was that they needed to ‘integrate’. David Blunkett, as Home Secretary, delighted in expressing this integrationist politics in the most provocative manner possible, ordering Asian families to speak English when in their homes and so on. And this became a rallying cry for New Labour-friendly intellectuals, especially in light of the ‘war on terror’, and the drive to contain politically assertive Muslim communities

The long-term effect of this has been to erase oppression, exploitation, inequality and injustice as issues. By treating ‘racial’ issues as problems of how to ensure that everyone internalises some ‘core of Britishness’, whatever that may be, New Labour blamed the victim. It has also led to a situation where significant minorities of the British population feel threatened by mosques, believe that Muslims are given too many advantages, and think the real victims of racism are white. This is obviously related to global dynamics – pressingly, the need to justify the invasion of Iraq by reference to a supposed worldwide threat from ‘radical Muslims’. But it can’t be stressed enough that it is not just a special case inflamed by imperialism, but has roots in the daily processes of British society, and specifically in the insecurity experienced by millions of people, workers and small businessmen, and by the intensified competition that leads people to think that their being unemployed or on low wages is somehow caused by the presence of other workers.


To finish, I want to outline an account of ‘race’ that can help us understand better how culture can replace biology as the main reference for racism, and how Muslims can be subject to racism even though – as many earnest Islamophobes take piteous pains to explain – “Islam ain’t a race”.

First of all, the origins of race as a political category have little to do with the pseudo-scientic anthropological classifications that sprang up in the late eighteenth century, took hold in the nineteenth century and led to colonial genocides and ultimately the Nazi holocaust. Race emerged as a practise before any of these discourses were solidified. According to Theodore Allen, the first example of a racial or perhaps proto-racial system of oppression is in the colonial plantation of Ulster where, he argues, the racialised minority (Catholics) were systematically excluded from certain basic civil, political and legal rights that Protestants, however poor, were entitled to. And this system, pioneered in Ulster, was transplanted to North America’s colonial, indentured labour system. In response to the Bacon Rebellion of 1676, where it seemed possible that a more numerous population of Europeans labourers and farmers might take up arms against their masters and successfully overthrow them, the ruling class began to divide labourers on the basis of new ‘racial’ categories. Whiteness was invented as a legal category, and non-whites were subordinate in various ways – African labour was demoted to chattel slavery with no prospect of manumission, while Native Americans were subject to extermination where they could not be ‘Christianised’. It is important to see that this couldn’t have happened without the emergence of a specifically capitalist social order, as it was the emerging norm of free labour with equal political and citizenship rights that was being tested on the colonial frontiers. And stratifying workers by ‘race’ was a very effective way of depriving some workers of those full rights, and ultimately of reducing the total bargaining power and long-term remuneration of those workers.

That being the case, ‘racialization’ is a process, a political act, and not a static category. Throughout the 19th Century, ‘race-making’ processes were very important to American capital, and David Roediger has written of industry’s use of ‘race management’, wherein different groups of workers would be assigned different payrolls and statuses based on race, nationality, gender, etc. Many groups of workers who would today be called ‘white’ were not necessarily ‘white’ in the 19th Century – Jews, the Irish, Hungarians, Poles, Italians, and so on. They had to fight a socio-political struggle to achieve ‘whiteness’. Other groups, such as Indian Americans, who fought legal battles to win ‘whiteness’, (on the basis of their ‘Aryan’ roots), were unsuccessful. The demarcations of ‘scientific racism’ were usually not strictly relevant to these processes. Indeed, like fascism, racism could be said to be a ‘scavenger ideology’, appropriating ideological bric-a-brac from other traditions – incorporating regional, national, ethnic, religious, class and gender stereotypes. Biology just happens to be the most convenient form of essentialism.

Once this is understood, it is easy to see how Muslims in particular have been subject to ‘race-making’ processes. I will argue that this is happening in the following ways: 1) Muslims are subject to suspicion and hostility in the press, and to persecution from politicians who spread moral panics alleging that they are not ‘fitting in’, and that their customs are somehow a threat to ‘British values’. They are held collectively responsible for acts of terrorism by Muslims, though not even the Prime Minister is prepared to be held responsible for acts of terrorism by the British armed forces; 2) They are subject to political oppression in the form of police harassment, beatings, internment, kidnapping, torture flights, and in some extreme cases, unlawful shootings by police; 3) They are increasingly subject to politicised surveillance, particularly on university campuses, and recently through CCTV recording of goings on in estates in Birmingham; 4) Partly as a consequence of the above, they are more likely to be subject to racist violence and harassment in communities. A study by the University of Essex found a direct correlation between political statements and media reports vilifying Muslims, and violence by fascist and racist thugs on the streets. Thus, Muslims are de facto deprived of the normal range of political and civil rights that every other member of the society claims, and stigmatised with the usual racialising tropes to justify this. The role that this fulfils for the state is to manage a potentially troublesome minority that has suffered particularly from the evisceration of manufacturing economies, from the low wage economy of neoliberalism, while offering everyone else the false security of a robust national belonging. This preserves a divided, stratified labour market in which Muslims are generally among those who suffer lower pay, higher unemployment, less access to good education and more bruising confrontations with the criminal justice system. That is how race-making lends itself as easily to creed as to colour.

This doesn’t have to stay that way, of course. It may be that biological racial schemas, anti-Semitism, and old school Nazism will return with force. The longer the crisis goes on, the more that millions are exposed to life-wrecking capitalist degeneration, and the less that the Left does to combat racism, the greater are the chances of that happening. But it’s important to recognise that fascism doesn’t necessarily need the biological race theories of the Third Reich, and we shouldn’t expect tomorrow’s enemies to look the same as yesterday’s.