Monday 22 April 2013

The State and Anti-Racism

One of the first things imbibed at far left school is that the state is essentially and irreducibly racist at an institutional level. But is that really the case? Well, officially, yes, it was. According to the 1999 Macpherson Report into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence case, whose appalling murder took place 20 years ago today, institutional racism was “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. I am sure large numbers of socialists would accept the Macpherson definition, but sharpen it up by replacing 'collective failure' with 'active discrimination'.

That said, at the time and not long afterwards on the then-notorious UK Left Network discussion list, debates around institutional racism, anti-fascism and 'bourgeois' vs 'proletarian' anti-racism were among topics visited and gone over time and again. Looking back at those arguments, which were pioneered by the cpgb/Weekly Worker on the far left, I thought there was some merit to their view that the ideology of the British state was officially anti-racist as part of an establishment-friendly embrace of multi-culturalism. And 20 years after Stephen, and one year after the bravura London Olympics opening ceremony, I still think that now.

Some thoughts.

1. Capitalism and the capitalist state emerged soaked in the sweat and blood of peoples colonised, exploited, and enslaved by the early bourgeoisie. This was still the case until capitalism's recent history, where overt forms of colonialism have largely given away to the "hidden" economic exploitation by the west of the east and the south, and the subsequent rebalancing of the world economy away from the west and toward the east. In the former colonises, 'freedom' often led to weak state structures that tended to found themselves on a particular (local) ethnicity to give new governments a base of support. More often than not, the link between ethnicity and governance stretched back to the control of the colonial powers. Obviously the legacy of this has left deep, racist imprints on the ideologies of coloniser and colonised countries, be they labourist/social democratic, liberal, or conservative.

2. Capitalist societies are in constant ferment. As the dynamic nature of capitalist production ascends peaks and tumbles down troughs, state hegemonies, power balances, the relations of classes within and across borders are forever shifting. Befitting this state of affairs a constant churn of ideas rise and fall with the ebb and flow of conflict and economics. The state, as the first and last institutional guarantor of the prevailing system of things reflects change as much as it effects change. Its limits are the material wealth of the economy it rests on and the character of the class relations that structure it. Within a certain range states can possess large differences while retaining their identity as thoroughly capitalist entities.

3. The operation of markets spontaneously generate an indefinite number of appearances (ideologies), some of which will be racist. The state, which can embody, co-opt, and be changed by political and cultural struggles "from below" is also a political instrument with the weight of a diffuse commonality of powerful economic interests behind it. But unlike the day-to-day operation of the market, state power can be consciously utilised for policy implementation. For example, a diffuse official ideology can be promoted via the state's ability to legislate education, and therefore determine the content of what can be taught in schools, colleges, universities, etc. (The power to do so is not limitless, it is always conditioned by the struggles between classes and fractions of classes). Racism and sexism will always find an echo in the capitalist state apparatus, but because it is flexible it can institute policies that seek to tackle the attitudinal and material effects of prejudices, for example. However, total eradication is impossible because ultimately they are perpetually generated by the unconscious operation of capitalist relations.

4. The 'choice' of the British state to promote an officially anti-racist ideology is not really a choice at all. It is a culmination of a long process rooted in post-war immigration; of the identification by far sighted members of the establishment of the need to integrate racialised minorities (e.g. The Scarman Report); the slow but steady embourgeoisement and mainstream integration of *layers* of these communities; the struggles of these minorities and their allies against racial discrimination; the decline of organised labour and the inability of the labour movement to code race as a 'class' issue; the colonisation of mainstream politics and the state's administrative apparatus by, in the main, liberally educated people; and the decline of overt racism in popular culture.

5. Official anti-racism and multiculturalism were a specific political/cultural orientation pushed by Blair and New Labour to modernise the British state. As Thatcher had accomplished a new economic settlement but had put the legitimacy of the British state into question through her overt pursuit of class struggle policies, so Blair sought a new constitutional settlement. This meant devolved administration for Scotland, Wales, and London; peace and self-governance in Northern Ireland; city mayors and regional assemblies across England, a more modern-looking monarchy, and the promotion of a new British nationalism. Where it was once unashamedly white, protestant, imperialist, and xenophobic, the "new" nationalism presents itself as multi-cultural and multi-racial. In this view colour and religion doesn't matter anymore: liberal tolerance and self-identification does.

6. Since 1997 and after, as far as the state was concerned institutional anti-racism was the game. This was institutional in the sense it was consciously and actively promoted by policy and guaranteed by statute (and, in some cases, came attached with criminal penalties). This was not a mere matter of appearance behind which the taint of the racist state remained hidden. Rather the practices traditionally described in leftwing analysis as racist underwent a significant revision of content and were re-branded in accordance to the logic of "inclusive" Britishness. But like all nationalisms, there are always some outsiders. The new nationalism defines itself culturally against foreigners in general, but also groups portrayed as antithetical to western civilisation per se (radical islamists) or an economic threat to Britain in particular (asylum seekers, East Europeans). When government attacks these groups it doesn't do so out of malicious racial hatred in a manner akin to the BNP but to separate them from those minorities the state wishes to officially co-opt. i.e. "Law abiding" muslims, "genuine" asylum seekers, "hard working" Poles.

7. Some "native" Britons lie outside the new, anti-racist nationalism. The BNP and the far right are beyond the pale of mainstream politics because they do not accept the logic of official anti-racism. They argue minorities can never be a fully integrated part of British culture because of blood/culture/religion/whatever, and should therefore be removed. They are a crude throwback to the kind of ideologies the state used to promote when it presided over a colonial empire, and is therefore completely at odds with the new national project. To demonstrate how powerful this line of demarcation has become, public displays of overt racism by Tory and UKIP activists tend to be met with a swift boot.

8. While the state promotes official anti-racism, racists continue to occupy posts in the state apparatus. The police are still more likely to target asian and black people. Immigrants from non-white backgrounds have a harder time securing UK citizenship. Racialised glass ceilings still persist. This itself is not a solely a product of individuals with power and influence holding racist views, but reflects the racist ideologies spontaneously generated by capitalism as a system. In other words, the state as an entity that is part of and presides over capitalism finds itself officially combating racism and embodying it at the same time. The state therefore is not unproblematically anti-racist, and neither is it straight forwardly racist. It's a contradictory unity of both.


Anonymous said...

I can recall Blair, Blunkett and Straw producing the usual soundbites about inclusivity, etc. I can also recall the absolute hysteria over asylum seekers and immigrants - and significant abuses at the the privitized detention centres the Blair govt proudly set up. Blunkett was a racist thug, I'm afraid.

I don't think it requires too much analysis. Someone has to get the blame for the problem's caused by the Banks. Only a social minority will do. It can be single mothers, asylum seekers, religous minorities or 'chavs.' There's nothing inherent in markets or monetary policy to make racism inevitable. Diverting attention from the crimes of the rich and powerful takes many forms. Racism and whitewashing Labour's record are just two examples.

Speedy said...

A very elegant and scientific analysis although I'm not sure the issue is either as elegant or scientific as that (at least I'm incapable of being either).

Certainly capitalism appears to have driven the initial waves of immigration into the UK but I don't believe it was the only factor that drove Labour policy post 1997.

I seem to recall a Labour adviser saying they wanted to "rub the Tories noses" in multiculturalism.

For me, this is the point at which we saw the definitive split of the Labour Party from its class roots, memorably summed-up a decade later by Gordon Brown's failure to comprehend "that bigoted woman".

I suppose it is a highly complex, part-planned, part-accidental process which basically saw an explosion of UK immigration, opponents furiously beaten with the "racist" bat until they disappeared back down their holes.

Whole areas and communities (inevitably working class) were transformed by this policy which was almost unanimously supported as you illustrate by the Establishment. Britain was so dull, I remember one bourgeois commentator on R4 lamenting, before immigration, and now we had these wonderful restaurants and hard working young people... his cleaner, in short.

However many, many working class people from pre-97 settled communities (whatever their colour) have found this process highly alienating (speaking from the experience of my own family, friends etc, behind closed doors of course). I'm sure you can always wheel out WC folk who embrace the whole shebang, but it does not convince (not least in the polls).

It has little to do with racism, IMHO, but it's like this: the educated bourgeois Left attach themselves to universal values - they're not just multicultural, their multinational. Into travelling, exoticism, change. Citizens of the world! To them, their national identity is not half so important as it is to many working class people - indeed they see their rejection of it as a symbol of their superior status.

In this sense, the "open door" NewLab policy was not only about rubbing Tory noses but working class noses in immigration - with maybe an edge of, well you swine deserted us over Thatcher, so we'll invite in some really poor people who will perhaps appreciate us more for the all-knowing, all-wise Saints we are.

Only half-joking. The Left lost its class bearings post '89 and fumbled for alternatives - anti-racism/ multiculturalism is one of them. You see it with the Left throughout the West: this rage and contempt toward the traditional working class, and rush to supporting inward migration perhaps as part of a subconscious desire to regain the loyalty of a more "old-fashioned" working class. Certainly the SWP/ Galloway et al, appear to see in Muslim communities the same kind of solidarity and identity they once experienced with the traditional WC. This all seems to be a part of the process of the Left forgetting what it actually exists for, and becoming ever-more out of touch and unelectable.

TJR said...

Something further to add - even more salient post-Hillary, Rishi, Suella - is that anti-racism and anti-sexism can be strategically weaponized against employees who fight back.
Picture a 58-year-old manual worker, who left school at 15, getting up at a strike meeting and using a word that has been out of favour since 1980[*] to describe their intransigent boss.
The right response, of course, would be for a union activist to have a quiet word with that worker and say, Look, I know you’re angry with management but please don't use the P-word again for Rishi Sunak. Our grievance with him isn’t that his family comes from the Indian subcontinent; it’s that he’s attacking workers’ wages and conditions - something that plenty of white British bosses do as well. We don't use words like that any more, because it hurts a lot of fellow workers - and lets the real villains off the hook.
What would actually happen, as we all know, is that (a) the right-wing media would swarm all over this incident - “Left-Wingers The REAL Racists!” and (b) a lot of tertiary-educated millennials, many of them white, would go extremely online about how damaged they have been by hearing that word uttered. The legal structure reinforces this. HR will call you in for a talk if you use “a black day” in an email; they won’t call your bosses in for a talk if they blacklist you for standing up for workplace conditions, or expect you to work unpaid answering emails over the weekend.
Manual workers - which may include a lot of people who sit at keyboards or knock on doors for a living - tend, understandably, to think in highly specific, concrete terms based on their experience. If they live in a suburb with high youth crime and an above-average proportion of Black people, then the kid who breaks into their car will probably be Black. This will then become proof that Black kids are crime-prone. What, you don't want people to believe their own lying eyes? If a white woman goes to a doctor who dismisses her health concerns, and he happens to be Indian, she will probably process that as “All Indian doctors are arrogant”. And if someone in management at your place of employment, who can lord it over you, is a person who is not a white male, that’s going to stick in your memory more. Simply telling these workers “You're racist” - without explaining why their individual experiences are not the end of the story - will go nowhere, because then it’s your university jargon vs their direct experience with the world.
Here in Australia, we’ve seen examples of this such as (a) Gautam Adani’s company claiming that opposition to its coal mines was motivated by racism/ xenophobia against Indian people; (b) claims that union and Labor Party concerns about short-term work visas (easily-exploited foreign workers who can be deported at will if they stand up to the boss) is a relic of the White Australia policy, which was abolished in 1973 and disavowed by Australian Labor a decade before that; (c) claims by a Liberal (ie, conservative) MP, Nicolle Flint, that climate activists who picketed her office were engaged in misogynistic sexual harassment.
In the US, Donald McNeil - a veteran New York Times reporter who was sacked after some teenagers basically tricked him into speaking The N Word aloud - had been active in staff union organising. How convenient for management that a group of Gen-Zeds started complaining that he was literally Hitler for using the word in their hearing.
So, classifying “use of racist/ sexist terminology” as the crime above all other crimes (not just as something to avoid) can have the effect of turning capitalist exploiters into victims. For left-wing activists, no doubt, this effect is not intended. For others I am sure it is entirely intentional.
[* Have picked 1980 as the cutoff because as recently as that year Thurgood Marshall himself was still using “Negro” in his US Supreme Court judgments. As far as I can tell he switched to “African American” shortly afterwards.]