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.
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.