Anindya Bhattacharyya reflects on the changing nature of racism under neoliberal austerity, and its lessons for activists today, UN anti-racism day, 22 March 2014.
I walked through Bermondsey in south east London the other day and past a row of bijoux little eateries and vintage shops. And there I saw it, the nadir of austerity chic nationalism lite: Lovely & British, a boutique specialising in “eclectic British-sourced lifestyle shopping”. I recognised it from a tweet from September by @AntiRaids. It pictured a UKBA van parked outside the shop, conducting an immigration raid somewhere in the area:
I thought this little incident captured a lot about racism today, under neoliberal austerity: the ruthless gentrification of Bermondsey, the cheesy cupcake nationalism, the brutality of policing neoliberal immigration law – and the new resistance networks springing up against it all.
We see this shift to a new kind of racism elsewhere. The rise of UKIP is an obvious example. This has gone hand in hand with a decade of capitulation over immigration by politicians of all stripes (and by Labours New and Old). But there is also a populist backlash brewing now, in the unlikeliest of places too.
Of course we know that racism changes its targets over time, in response to economic pressures and political ones from anti-racists. And in fact the racist right has been retooling its ideological arsenal steadily over the past decade.
Racism against asylum seekers was channelled into Muslim terrorists over the war on terror – that much is understood. But the generalised attack on migrant labour, especially Eastern European workers, was a new turn that came in around 2006.
It has since mutated into a new attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities plus Bulgarians and Romanians. It also came with a shift in Islamophobia from fears about terrorism to fears about overbreeding. And this all went hand in hand with the post war on terror intensification of stop & search, urban riots in 2011, and TV presenters such as David Starkey bemoaning how young white people were turning black.
The underlying shift is from racism under conditions of neoliberal boom to racism under conditions of austerity. This shift has consequences for our theory and consequences for our practice.
Theory will necessarily play catch-up with reality for political activists. But nevertheless the left has been slow to cotton on to these new kinds of austerity racism. There has been a pressing need for some sort of counter Migration Watch blog or thinktank for a little while now, along the lines of Islamophobia Watch but focused on immigration myth busting. But myth busting can only be the first step. Today’s anti-racist mobilisation could be the first step towards that wider ideological retooling on our part, ones that gives us the initiative for a change.
Certainly the circumstances are favourable. The call for an international day of demonstrations against racism and fascism to mark the United Nations anti-racism day has come from way on high but is nevertheless being picked up and run with to a surprising degree, especially to perhaps jaded eyes such as mine. Greece’s anti-fascist movement initiated the demo call, and all Britain’s major trade unions are committing resources. One Unison activist in the south west of England reports that “we have over 100 booked so far from Bristol coming to the demo”. So the indications are that the big battalions of the workers’ movement are kicking into gear.
But none of this absolves us of the need to get our heads around the new racism against migrant workers and young black people that has growing since 2006. We must underline the following: the left in Britain could defeat the BNP and EDL in the late 2000s because it could build on the legacy of the Stop the War movement in the early half of that decade. Stop the War won the argument on the left over anti-Muslim racism. That is why today you see a great deal of ideological unity on the anti-racist left, with even groups once strongly inclined to “secularist” backsliding on the Muslim question now accepting the isomorphism between Islamophobia today and antisemitism a hundred years ago.
But immigration is now beginning to eclipse Islamophobia as central driver of racism. The latter will limp on of course, and will flare up murderously from time to time. But for the short term at least it has been dealt a terminal political blow: the BNP was driven out of Barking and driven out of Stoke, the EDL was stopped three times in Tower Hamlets and dealt a crushing, humiliating blow in Walthamstow. Breivik’s horrific murders finally shut up the last remaining Eustonites.
The immigration discourse is different. It started in 2005 with the infamous Tory dogwhistle poster, and was followed by a concerted effort by politicians of all stripes to verbally decouple immigration from racism. This of course has been a boon to all those inclined to say “I’m not racist but…” Restoring this coupling, and supergluing it tight, is the primary ideological task of the global anti-racist left today.
But if the new racism is globalised, so is rebellion and rebellion against it. The growing new mood on streets instinctively gets this question as it instinctively gets other questions of oppression. We first saw it with the Gaza protests of 2009, then Millbank, then Tottenham. Today we will see the Justice for Mark Duggan bloc take part in the march alongside Defend the Right to Protest, and no doubt be the focus for the younger and more militant end of the movement. And we will have something to celebrate: the decision to prosecute G4S guards for the death of Jimmy Mubenga and the successful campaign to kick G4S off campus at King’s College London.
Yesterday saw 70 attend a meeting at KCL to highlight the Justice for Mark Duggan campaign, racism and the 22 March demo. Areeb, from Tottenham and a KCL student union officer, spoke of how his two worlds, student life and Tottenham, collided at the recent #copsoffcampus demo as people chanted Who Killed Mark Duggan? at police.
So while it is good that things are moving finally, there is a danger that the top down mobilisation will not catch the new mood and the required traction will not take place. There is a danger that the propaganda for the day can descend into nothing more than a hall of mirrors of celebrity endorsements. Our message needs to be sharper – these are harsher times and appeals to sentiment and people’s better natures no longer cut.
Part of problem is that the new neoliberal racisms involve a prominent role for the domestic state: electoral machine and security apparatus. This leads to tension over the roles of say, immigration workers in the home office, or politicians associated with racist policies and laws. One legacy of the war of terror has been a crackdown on protest. The young are all too aware of this.
There is a strong mood for horizontal cooperation between grassroots groups: this is happening already. But the vertical relations between the movement and the state and the NGO quasistate remain fraught, mysterious and full of mutual suspicion. We see this particularly in Scotland where the role of nationalism in the new left movement is prominent. This brings added complications to the question of racism for BME communities in Scotland – complications I shall not venture to broach.
We will also need every hand to the pump over the campaigns to unseat BNP euro MPs Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons. As Emma notes about the Griffin Must Go campaign: “I don’t think it will be easy to get Griffin out in the current climate. We will need a concerted effort by everyone who considers themselves to anti-fascist to campaign and vote against Griffin.” But she adds: “I left the rally worried whether just more of the same tactics will get Griffin out, especially today when racism is on the rise.” We heed these warnings at our peril.
More fundamentally we see problems in the ideological weapons we used to defend immigrants from racism. Much of the left accepts the decoupling between racism and immigration outlined above. Much of the left thinks we should argue that immigration is good for the economy: including brilliant arguments from Jonathan Portes, a former chief economist for the cabinet office, who is currently tearing strips off Demos’s David Goodhart. But the radical anti-racist movement should treat the very concept of “good for the economy” with extreme suspicion. It is unlikely to mean good for the workers in the short, medium or long term.
How should revolutionary socialists start to bridge that gap and cohere that radical emergent anti-racist movement from below? The #justice4mark bloc in London on 22 March will certainly attract the livelier edge of the demo. There will also be material calling for Justice for the Antifascist Five who face prosecution next month for protesting against the BNP in London last year. That is where I will be and where many of my comrades will be: join us.
But anything that happens today will be a baby step one in a long long battle. We need to up our game. Time is short. The threat posed by the political establishment and by racist parastate movements is grave. The anger felt by black people and by all working people is boiling over. We thankfully are in a lull, with the BNP and EDL temporarily abated, an ideologically unified anti-racist movement with a clear line on anti-Muslim racism. We have to use this window to take the next step and start articulating how we fight anti-migrant racism in an era of neoliberal austerity.
Thanks to everyone who commented on earlier drafts of these ideas, especially rs21 comrades in Oxford, Tithi, Shanice, Mark P and Hannah. Comments welcome to email@example.com and debate welcome at the rs21 political weekend.