Sunday, October 27, 2013
This is a document I submitted for the bulletin of the last IS Network conference. It is partially based on a post I wrote a few months ago.
I. The EDL may be finished, its method of street demonstrations having run out of steam according to its former orange eminence, Tommy Robinson. The scattered forces of the far right may be declining - if still resourceful, still too numerous, still dangerous. However sanguine our assumptions on this point may be, though, the wider situation is as toxic as it has ever been, fertile ground for a more effective populist-racist formation. The strong performance of UKIP demonstrates this potential. This new organisation Robinson intends to form with his wooden double act, Kevin Carroll, backed by his comprador allies, the state-sponsored ex-Islamist Qilliam Foundation, will surely seek to plough the same terrain.
II. The EDL was formed in 2009, fusing a number of heterogeneous energies. In one sense, it was a belated expression of a certain type of ‘war on terror’ politics, defending good old British boys against Anjem Choudary’s coffin-botherers. In another, it represented a perverse reanimation of Ulster Loyalism in the English context - the slogan ‘no surrender’ being taken straight from the death squads of the dear six counties. But it also represented the failure of New Labour’s ‘Britishness’ project. Having English, Scottish and Welsh defence leagues was not merely a function of basing the organisation on football casuals and thus deferring to the national division of teams. It underlined just how the axis of xenophobic nationalism had shifted. It also very effectively drew upon and organised the popular mytheme of ‘the white working class’ - supposedly ignored by liberal elites, abused by multicultural politicians, and oppressed by political correctness. This ideology initially began to be articulated under New Labour, and represented a right-ward shift within the Blairite section of the ideological-state apparatuses. But as with so much material that begins life as part of a neoliberal triangulation strategy, it was far more potent in the hands of bovver boys. At the core of it, of course, is the EDL’s contention that Islam is ‘extremist’, that it wages a genocidal war on all Christians, and as such represents an enemy within ‘Christian’ or ‘Western civilisation’. The spread of this style of thinking, conspiracism, is linked to the rise of political paranoia in an increasingly competitive, dog-eat-dog social world. At any rate, this interpellation of ‘culture’ - or a racialised conception of culture - into the political terrain of post-credit crunch Britain achieved one very salient effect. It articulated the concrete experiences of decline - relative national, imperialist decline; economic decline; the declining living standards of workers and a section of the middle class - within a single narrative of resentment structured by Islamophobia. The EDL’s narrative obliquely ‘mentioned’ real social facts, and provided a schema through which supporters could live their relationship to those facts. And of course, it mobilised those supporters to address the ostensible ‘cause’ of those facts in what was at first a highly effective strategy of street mobilisations with football casuals at their core.
III. This immediately posed a unique kind of challenge to traditional anti-fascist strategy in the UK, as the pivot on which a wider anti-racist politics turned. The logic went something like this: fascists are both the most dangerous spearhead of racist reaction and potentially its weakest point. We can and should mobilise the broadest possible unity against the far right; in doing so we have to challenge their racism and we can force our allies in this fight to adopt a more consistently anti-racist position. Of course, even where we do not succeed in this wider objective, a conjunctural defeat for fascism is no small thing. However, the EDL, for all that it knowingly drew in significant strata of the old far right, never became a fascist organisation. This is why the formulations from the SWP and UAF were, some slips notwithstanding, generally very careful: for example, the EDL was “a racist organisation with Nazis at its core”. It resembled a fascist organisation in some respects. For example, its emphasis on control of the streets. Or, its forms of alcohol-greased, macho solidarity, its rabble-paramilitarism. Or, its focus on visual communication and symbolism invoking a cod national mythology (the crusades). Or, finally, the fitful tendencies of the EDL leadership to try to broaden its range of targets (to include students, for example) so that its counter-subversive activities begin to vaguely resemble traditional fascist anticommunism. Yet, it did not become a fascist organisation dedicated to the overthrow of parliamentary democracy and the smashing of workers organisations. In its overall make-up, its strategy, its ideological orientation, it was closer to Geert Wilders, a populist-rightist on the far right of liberal democracy, than to Nick Griffin. And the existence of such an ambiguous, ‘contradictory’, hybrid formation posed, as I say, a challenge to the anti-fascist strategy. The tactical response of antifascists, sensible in its way, was to treat the EDL as a kind of fascism-in-becoming. Since fascism was its telos, it had to be dealt with as would any fascist organisation operating in the same way: broad antifascist coalitions harnessed, where possible, to a strategy of militant confrontation led by the radical wing of the antifascist movement. This usefully limited the EDL’s physical advances, in part by forcing the police to adopt different containment strategies, and among other factors it helped prevent their demonstrations from acquiring a certain critical mass. However, this was only ever useful as a holding response. The underlying problem was that the EDL were building on ideologies that were profoundly mainstream. This is why the media, and certain politicians, can often be found treating the EDL as if they were merely misguided and pursuing counterproductive strategies. And a strategy of harassing the EDL without also doing work on the underlying political and ideological ground could only ever yield short term results.
IV. The fight against racism is a long-term fight that has to be conducted on many different levels. It is not just a question of winning immediate political battles - a glorious victory in Walthamstow or whatever. The tempo of political struggles is extremely rapid, and the half-life of a particular struggle can be very brief indeed. But these struggles are fought on a terrain formed by years of cultural and ideological work, between forces shaped by that same work over a long duration. The tempo of cultural and ideological battles is, compared to political fights, glacial. But just because there are no immediate successes in these fronts doesn't mean they are of no value - they are absolutely central. The intense racist backlash around the English riots, or that following the Woolwich killing, was not inevitable. Such episodes take place on the basis of efforts by diverse forces to elaborate new racist ideologies over a long period.
V. We cannot fight the EDL without also combatting the other major forces of racism in society. The EDL would be nothing without the tabloids, the police, the neoliberal parties in parliament, and so on. The ideologies which legitimise the EDL's actions or at least render them as explicable reactions to extreme provocation, originate in Whitehall, the BBC, the press, parliament and the business funders of reaction. And to defeat those forces we need a different range of tactics. The EDL is primarily based on street violence, so the onus is on counter-mobilisation and self-defence. The same tactics could not be deployed against UKIP, the Murdoch press, or the Home Office. I don't propose a smorgasbord of alternative tactics here; I merely highlight the need for something more than counter-mobilisations.
VI. There is no future in attempting to collapse anti-racism into anti-austerity struggles. Such attempts represent a strain of workerism, and have emerged from some surprising quarters - including Alexis Tsipras. Racism does not simply emerge as a displaced form of despair over deprivation or insecurity. Its development and spread may be accelerated by profound political crisis, the breakdown of authority, crises of overproduction, financial collapses, and so on. As I have suggested, one of the things that EDL racism organises is the experience of certain social classes in the context of crisis and decline. And certainly, as a consequence, the struggles over the capitalist crisis and its resolution have a relationship to the struggle against racism: this means that initiatives such as Left Unity and the People's Assembly should take anti-racism seriously as a semi-autonomous component of their broader strategy. But to understand the relationship between racism, economic crisis and emerging political subjectivities requires an analysis light years ahead of the lingering 'capitalist crisis = hard times = racism' model.
VII. There can likewise be no attempt to collapse anti-racism into the antiwar movement, such as it is. That is no less reductive. For example, the analyses of the Woolwich killing that attempt to ascribe it to the 'war on terror', and therefore to orient analysis primarily toward antiwar activism, strike me as unconvincing. Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale certainly seem to have responded to the context of the 'war on terror', and to have explained their actions in that context. But the processes through which they decided to join the most marginal and militant of Islamist sects in the first place are likely to be rooted in the daily processes of British capitalism. We need to fight and win that argument: that Britain is a profoundly racist and unjust society in which black people are humiliated and deprived in all sorts of highly visible ways. More generally, the forces of racist reaction in our society are not monomaniacally obsessed with the categories of the ‘war on terror’. UKIP, for example, is Islamophopic, but just as importantly it is anti-immigrant and xenophobically anti-European. There is a rich brew of bigotries fusing together in provincial, parochial England, and their specific relationship to the daily workings of capitalism must be grasped as well as their imbrication with imperialist violence.
VIII. It's been obvious for a while, and it is more obvious now. One cannot segment off different types of racism as if they are completely separate; they are mutually reinforcing. The rise in Islamophobia, as we saw during the riots, and as is becoming clear from the intriguing raciologies arising from the Woolwich killing - the EDL speaker in Newcastle urged his audience to "send the black cunts back" - is not exclusive of a long-term regeneration of other types of racism. Indeed, Islamophobia's role as the dominant form of culturalist racism permits the rehabilitation of the discredited elements of racial essentialism, while at the same time articulating them in a new form. What this means is not simply that Islamophobia is simply a cover for 'traditional' types of racism. It used to be argued that it was merely a way of being racist toward Pakistanis. No, current forms of racism do not simply reanimate older forms. As Stuart Hall put it, "Racism is always historically specific. Though it may draw on the cultural traces deposited by previous historical phases, it always takes on specific forms. It arises out of present - not past - conditions, its effects are specific to the present organisation of society, to the present unfolding of its dynamic political and cultural processes - not simply to its repressed past." The current forms of racism refer to and organise current antagonisms, expressed in complex political struggles, from the 2001 riots to the 2012 riots. And there is something very specific about Islamophobia and its content - the obsession with religious identities, with the amateurish hermeneutics of the Quran, and so on - something very current. The point is not that Islamophobia is a cover, but rather that there is a convergence in the techniques of racialisation, the political forces involved, and the ideational content involved in the types of racism in Britain today. I think this means that it would a political mistake to try to identify one type of racism as the 'respectable racism' and simply campaign against that - the tendency is for racism in general to be made 'more respectable', and therefore we need a multi-pronged assault on racism in general.