How I became an Afro-Pessimist

All forms of exploitation are alike. They all seek to justify their existence by citing some biblical decree. All forms of exploitation are identical, since they apply to the same “object”: man. ~ Fanon

On March 19th 2011, the UK as part of a multi-state coalition took part in a military assault on Libya in order, allegedly, to prevent Qadhafi’s forces from killing helpless residents in the Libyan city of Benghazi.  The propaganda embraced quite rapidly from the start by people in Britain, and indeed around the world, by both sides of the political spectrum went something like this: Qadhafi could not rely on Arab Libyans whom he had oppressed for decades and instead was forced to utilise paid mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa who were now killing and raping Libyans. While international media opinion-shapers were swallowing the propaganda – some located in the offices of Al-Jazeera and many having vast followers on twitter to amplify the message – graffiti started to appear on the walls of buildings around the nerve-centre of the NTC’s operations in Benghazi depicting Qadhafi, simian-like, equipped with a long tail, thick, bulbous lips and crinkly afro hair. The general thrust of these representations was to depict Qadhafi, due to his past beneficence to Black Africa, as having betrayed his identity and that of true Libyan people.  He was as Black as the Africans rampaging through Libya to prop up his authority and thus, an enemy of the state. The PR contingent in the Benghazi offices of the NTC aimed to use the bodies of Black Africans to create a sense of horror in the anglo-phone world at the bestiality of these alien monsters who were disembarking at airports (photographs that were disseminated from the NTC nerve centre show them, looking like night street cleaners in hi viz yellow wellington boots and not carrying anything that could reasonably be concluded to be weapons ) in order to satisfy their lust for Qadhafi’s black gold and nubile Libyan girls. This graffiti depicting Blackness as bestial was no new political language. It is part of a rhetorical code that has come to symbolise the way in which Black Africa is represented. [Outside of Disney and the Lion King, you can watch charity ads begging for you to save baby girls from genital mutilation in Africa which has more or less outlawed the practice across the continent. Or others that show mothers feeding their children microbe-infested water, as if aeons of progress had not already alerted mothers and significant others to this fact.  Never let facts stand in the way. There’s money in them thar representations]. I wanted to understand how the Arab world had embraced it. I had seen it before in the depictions of Colonial French African soldiers later captured by the Nazis which showed them raping German women and killing their dogs. I began to tweet my concerns about the way in which the conflict was being racialised. Nobody was listening. Everybody had a handle on the way the war was being managed and it mostly followed the narrative of the Arab Spring having migrated to Libya where now an oppressed people were seeking liberation from their tyrannical leader. Race and gender were absolutely marginal to the desire of an international community who wished to rid Libya of the evil Qadhafi. It bothered me that US Arab academic feminists who I had grown to admire and who I expected would pick up on the way the civil war was being racialised by forces within Libya would come to my side. And when they didn’t, I began to despair and then my despair turned to rage. When it became clear that Africans – and I need to contextualise this further – were being killed by Arab Libyans, I was reprimanded for describing those Black Africans as Africans … “weren’t Libyans Africans?”.  In order to head off that argument so that I could detail the abuses I was seeing beginning to be reported by people on the ground, a narrative that was easily drowned out, I started to refer to Africans as sub-Saharan Africans. The idea that there was an Africa and a sub-Saharan Africa I found difficult to accept but as I said, I just wanted the facts out there … strict adherence to what was happening rather than losing focus and slipping into abstract arguments about what was sub about everything south of Libya? etc. But still, for them, there was no urgency to consider whether the international community had been duped into launching military strikes on Libya based on what I saw to be a racist representation of Black Africa by the duplicitous NTC who were engineering the PR for their side in Benghazi in order to alienate Qadhafi.  How could it be? When the stories of African migrant women sheltering in the ports were being raped and when African men were being lynched, I wondered at how smart these women really were.. And they were smart. At the best US universities. Harvard, etc. Middle class academics. They were enamoured of Graeber who was then de rigeuer reading for anyone wanting to tap into the radical wave, rippling out of Cairo. So well placed too. They read  Puar and Butler and dabbled in Fanon and they were critical about European universalism but they’re not critical about what is happening to Africans on the ground in Libya?  At this point, I realised there was a problem to do with how we see African people. At this point I realise that my voice is as marginalised as the voices we are not hearing in Libya. That is , not those Libyans mollycoddled by Qadhafi and given everything thanks to their oil wealth… you know houses and free university education but those ultra-poor Africans who came to Libya to do the dirty work Libyans are too privileged to do for themselves in order to earn their passage on those boats we, the United Kingdom, are about to sink. As if that will solve the natural movement of people out of war zones. At this point I am feeling something akin to disgust for Arab academic feminists. I guess they’d never really looked at the situation from the position of being lynched. Or raped. But I want to understand how they fit in with what I come to understand later as anti-Blackness. And how they could continue to play the identity politics game. This was the starting point for me. My foray into Afro-pessimism really began with this deliberate ignorance of Black death in Libya. What kind of indoctrination can lead there? What kind of alienation is this? How does this apartheid cleave through Europe and the Middle East so that educated Arab feminists are … I want to say “blaise” about Black death after 9/11 particularly? How is it that they accept the maintenance of an apartheid in their own countries while enjoying their diasporic existence, without seeing how contradictory that is? An apartheid that is really a European creation? An apartheid that speaks to the myth of a superior people who need boundaries… this Africa marked by the sub-Sahara, for instance. This looking at those who are from the sub-Saharan killed, held in their very own Libyan zoo where bananas are thrown… as beneath them while the liberated as masters of their own destiny look on laughing?

Why should I be kind and give you paragraphs?

More to follow

Dire Straits

Imagine a memory. Here it comes >>>>>>> Dire Straits. And all you have of this memory is a feeling, a movement, an emotion. But you can’t remember the name of the band or their song so you can’t share that emotion. You wrack your brain looking for the key that will let the other person into this memory, this feeling. But all the things, the signifiers have disappeared. You struggle and struggle for what seem eons until you realise that this part of you has evaporated. You’re sure that what you wanted to tell the other person about was a singular memory and Dire Straits encapsulated it. So it began with wanting to share something intimate to you, to give off yourself and then you find that you no longer have the signifiers that do this. Oh Yeah Dire Straits … We’re back people. No pressure now while you try to remember the lyrics and that line that spoke to you and you are losing it, losing it. Was it Brothers in Arms, you wonder as you plug into Google. But no, it isn’t. When you see it, you know straight away. It was Private Investigations from the Love Over Gold album. And it begins… it’s a mystery to me. Then everything is alright again. You found it. You found it and then everything you lost and worked to find in the terror of losing your mind, that process now makes absolute sense. You can return to forgetting knowing. Here’s what I wanted to share with you. And what was that about Dire Straits again? “What have you got at the end of the day?”

Call ~ Audre Lorde

Holy ghost woman

stolen out of your name

Rainbow Serpent
whose faces have been forgotten
Mother  loosen my tongue or adorn me
with a lighter burden
Aido Hwedo is coming.

On worn kitchen stools and tables
we are piecing our weapons together
scraps of different histories
do not let us shatter
any altar
she who scrubs the capitol toilets, listening
is your sister’s youngest daughter
gnarled Harriet’s anointed
you have not been without honor
even the young guerrilla has chosen
yells as she fires into the thicket
Aido Hwedo is coming.

I have written your names on my cheekbone
dreamed your eyes    flesh my epiphany
most ancient goddesses    hear me
enter
I have not forgotten your worship
nor my sisters
nor the sons of my daughters
my children watch for your print
in their labors
and they say Aido Hwedo is coming.

I am a Black woman    turning
mouthing your name as a password
through seductions    self-slaughter
and I believe in the holy ghost
mother
in your flames beyond our vision
blown light through the fingers of women
enduring    warring
sometimes outside your name
we do not choose all our rituals
Thandi Modise    winged girl of Soweto
brought fire back home in the snout of a mortar
and passes the word from her prison cell    whispering
Aido Hwedo is coming.

Rainbow Serpent who must not go
unspoken
I have ottered up the safety of separations
sung the spirals of power
and what fills the spaces
before power unfolds or flounders
in desirable nonessentials
I am a Black woman    stripped down
and praying
my whole life has been an altar
worth its ending
and I say Aido Hwedo is coming.

I may be a weed in the garden
of women I have loved
who are still
trapped in their season
but even they shriek
as they rip burning gold from their skins
Aido Hwedo is coming.

We are learning by heart
what has never been taught
you are my given    fire-tongued
Oya    Seboulisa    Mawu    Afrekete
and now we are mourning our sisters
lost to the false hush of sorrow
to hardness and hatchets and childbirth
and we are shouting
Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer
Assata Shakur and Yaa Asantewa
my mother and Winnie Mandela are singing
in my throat
the holy ghosts linguist
one iron silence broken
Aido Hwedo is calling
calling
your daughters are named
and conceiving
Mother    loosen my tongue
or adorn me
with a lighter burden
Aido Hwedo is coming.

Aido Hwedo is coming.

Aido Hwedo is coming.

-Audre Lorde (From Our Dead Behind Us)

Who’s Blacker than You?

In a recent piece Nathan E. Richards writes, “Many young black academics … have expressed concern about the ability of ‘politically black’ academics to adequately represent and eludicate the experience of ‘ethnically black’ women”. Richards informs us that he is no fan of the term ‘polictically black’ and urges caution in how we use it. Without providing an explanation, Richards tells us that it is “highly contentious” to conflate the ‘ethnically black’ under an umbrella term like ‘politically black’. And the reader is just supposed to know why this is so. I will argue that if this is indeed the case then it is due to the loss of historical memory more so than the fact the term might be entering its death throes, as Richards claims.

Obviously, I see there are concerns expressed here about an enforced homogeneity under the rubric of Blackness or in Richard’s lexicon ‘political blackness’. While on closer reading I discover that what is being alluded to in Richards piece is a belief that there are some members of academia who use political blackness to further their own careers at the expense of ‘ethnically black’ post-graduates. More simply put: there are ‘brown’ academics positioned as ‘politically black’ who are hoovering up opportunities within the academy thus preventing the entry of qualified ‘ethnically black’ candidates into these same positions. So I’m surprised to discover that Richards is resurrecting an old argument once voiced by Tariq Modood , once a senior research fellow at the Policy Studies Institute and who has since been awarded an MBE for services to social sciences and ethnic relations in 2001. Only Richards has turned Modood’s argument on its head.

Positioning himself as a spokesman for the Asian community while the manichean controversy over The Satanic Verses raged in the late eighties, Modood claimed Black identity could no longer serve the interests of Asian communities because it was rooted in the Pan-Africanist and Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s which, for him, implied Asian subordination to an Afro-Caribbean political leadership. He believed ‘political blackness’ was harmful to Asians because it falsely equated racial discrimination with colour discrimination and encouraged a disregard for the particular discriminations Asians suffered which he said was based on their cultural and religious practices.

Modood opposed the idea that in the British context blackness could denote an hybridity of identities and experiences capable of resisting notions of phenotypic specificity. Blackness as an identity in the UK has always been wielded quite differently from the way it is in the US. At least here, in the face of the virulent racism of the Thatcher years, Black identity never embraced a single homogeneous identity and was able to contain within it a multiplicity of difference. But Modood saw in blackness a hierarchy which he believed favoured those who were ‘more black’ by virtue of being able to claim a direct African connection.

Recognition of a radical political identity among working class immigrants was occurring while the Powellites in the Conservative party asserted that ‘Britishness’ had remained essentially unchanged as white and superior by the presence of ‘alien’ immigrant communities – a disorderly and dangerous other – who were incapable of assimilation. This idea continues to echo today. Ask yourself why it is, for instance, that Polish migration is not seen as a threat to British culture? It is because Poles, unlike the Roma, are not marked visibly by blackness and are able to disappear into the mainstream of British society.

For Modood the idea that such militancy could successfully pressurise the state into greater recognition of African, Caribbean or Asian identity or that it could ever be the cornerstone of a left-wing movement was something he wished to decentre by playing off race against culture. Even as communities of Afro-Caribbeans and Asians had similar histories of oppression having been enticed here as cheap exploitable labour and even as they experienced disadvantages in terms of housing, education and employment. It was these commonalities that the ideological identification as Black had been based on.

During the 1970s and 1980s Black Power had fired Asian militancy among the youth and women workers who took industrial action against employers in defence of their rights. In one particularly bitter strike action, Grunwick women workers had struck in anger after a fellow worker had miscarried due to the long hours and conditions on the factory floor. Management clamped down on the time workers were allowed for lunch and toilet breaks, hours were long. This was in a climate when workers who had to see doctors and arrived at work late were told to go home and return to work the next day, thus losing an entire days pay.

The strike action had less to do with cultural practices specific to Asian women. It was about anger at the their mistreatment as women; as human beings. This resistance was happening even as it was becoming increasingly difficult to strike due to anti-union legislation introduced by the Tory government. So much legislation had been introduced to outlaw strikes that so often Asian women found themselves confronting their employers without the backing of their unions and thus having to draw on the support of the wider Asian and Afro-Caribbean community. At this time there had been an upsurge in women’s groups that defined their constituencies as comprising members from the Caribbean, African and Asian communities such as the Brixton Black Women’s Group, Southall Black Sisters and the Brixton Defence Campaign.

Collective militant values were under constant attack as Britain’s manufacturing base – the practical point of existence for the working class and the source of its political identity and solidarity – was exported abroad. Consequently, working class solidarity had begun to diseintegrate by the time of Modood’s criticism of the black/white paradigm. In an attempt to reorganise consent as jobs disappeared and the welfare state was subject to cut backs, the state heaped further injury on the ‘white’ working class condemning it as lazy, feckless, racist, sexist and homophobic. In my view, Modood’s interjection was particularly useful to the state at this time because it helped to reorganise the ‘common sense’ around race and identity by restructuring and re-dividing a once militant Black working class that now had to stand on its own against unsupportive union leaders who said we had to learn the ways of this culture.

And further, it is difficult not to infer from Modood’s comments a certain touch of the native informant and his embrace of the anti-black racism prevalent within Britain. Unlike African culture which was and is still seen as primitive in comparison to British ‘civilization’ which structured ‘primitive’ identities as targets for super-exploitation, Asian cultures were deemed to possess a level of development and cultural cohesion not generally attributed to Africans. The end goal of Modood’s argument – that solidarity among Asian communities rested on their cultural identity as Muslims and not “political blackness” – was wielded as a weapon to disparage the leadership of those whose blackness has historically carried overtones of inferiority.

‘Black’ as an appellation for non-whites was coined at a time when labels like coloureds, blacks, nig nogs, browns, darkies, Pakis were in common circulation. Radicals asked themselves what was the absolute worst … the most negative thing they could be called in Britain? Black – because of its symbolic association with evil, dirt and the devil incarnate in opposition to white purity – was chosen. One can also see a deep-seated aversion to ‘Black’ as a political identity coming from more recent ranks of non-white immigrants who are not aware of this history and regard its usage as literally tarring all non-whites with these negative overtones. For instance that Chinese woman who tells you that she bristles at the idea of having to check the black box on the census form because she also unconsciously ascribes to these notions of purity and evil.

However, remember it came into usage as a political ideology rooted in challenging British racism and anti-blackness. As Sivanandan says, “black is a political colour, not the colour of your skin… the colour of oppression today is black”.

Social identities such as race, ethnicity, gender and disability work through physical markers that predict which occupations you will go into, what your outcomes in life will be. They do not displace class but work alongside and through it, intersectionally. Academics have failed to explain the relationship between class, race and gender against their critics on the left who argue identity politics poses a problem for forming alliances and is a threat to any political agenda that seeks majority support. Too often identity has been used opportunistically to exaggerate differences or enscribe a forced homogeniety but just because it has been used in this way does not mean that identity-based movements will always devolve into these adversarial tendencies. And when they do, it is often because dominant groups are unable to understand how an identity-based political movement advances the interests of the entire class as part of their own struggle for a better society.

To return to the hints and allusions in Richards’ piece: the place for Richards to start is with the fact that – within the UK – Asian, Black and ethnic minority academics are under-represented in our universities. The research is out there. No one group is getting more of the pie than others. Insinuating that “brown” academics might consciously massage this under-representation for their own benefit by appropriating “political blackness” is to fall victim to a competitive and fragmented identity politics. And how are we to determine who is “ethnically black”? Ethnically black implies an essentialised identity which leads us into the horror of binary thinking. An Us and Them. The kind of thinking that not so long ago pitted Hutus against Tutsis or today encourages Brits to look impassively on the apocalypse visited by Britain on the Middle East.

While once Modood might have set culture against race, Richards crudely pits the “ethnically black” against “browns”. How is this essentialising of race different from the Aryan race espoused by Nazis? There is absolutely no reason why I can’t accuse Richards and those who espouse similar ideas of fostering anti-Muslim, anti-Asian or anti-Arab racism; a move which also puts us in danger of undoing the gains made by antiracists and Black feminists in the past. A more inclusive articulation of political consciousness under the rubric of Black identity has always proven to be an effective way to mobilise against imperialism and racism. Oppression can not be fought in a piecemeal way. One can not authentically struggle against, for instance, racism, while remaining complicit with other forms of oppression. We must instead struggle with the full matrix of oppression. Together. And if I don’t fight for you, who will fight for me?

Ukip Fears (2012)

Schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children. All of these examples, real and imagined, were mentioned in focus groups by Ukip voters and considerers to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority ~ Lord Ashcroft

Ukip Blackface

There’s been a somewhat confused reaction to Michael Read’s Ukip Calypso from The Voice who seem to think it’s a poor attempt at reaching out to older Black voters, to others who argue that it’s a racist appropriation of Calypso. It becomes understandable if you locate Ukip Calypso in the tradition of British black minstrelsy, a once popular form of entertainment with roots reaching back to at least the 1830’s Britain. Then blackface in theatre was a way to discuss issues of the day by transposing that onto the bodies of people blacked up on stage. It’s complex. That aspect is complex, it’s more than just merely racist. I hope to put something up on the history of British blackface minstrely shortly. In the meantime… In a jingoistic ditty whose lyrics decry the capitulation of Britain’s elite to the imagined vagaries of the EU, Read, ventriloquizing in a Caribbean dialect sings:

The leaders committed a cardinal sin
Open the borders let them all come in
Illegal immigrants in every town
Stand up and be counted Blair and Brown

The whine about the oppression of the Englishman in his home by the diversity police can already be heard across Little England. And from Ukip’s Greek chorus, “It was only a bit of fun.” Naturally, Read denies the tune is in anyway racist, recycling that old canard “some of my best chums are black” and as long as we’re talking about the minstrelsy, and not the intention of his lyrics, Ukippers will continue to vent about political correctness gone maaaad while their own racism need never be acknowledged.

Read’s minstrelsy, while inscribing racism through the caricatured performance of Black people, is also an act by which a resentful petty-bourgeoisie disrupt the “politically correct” values of the “metropolitan class”. Read’s vulgar serenading of these white men and women about a dreaded inferiorisation of whiteness brought about through racial integration; a view shared by the lower middle classes who fear losing white power and privilege. For these white men and women, to lose position and power is to be poor and to fall into white poverty is to become – how awful – black. It is an evasion of these resentments to berate Ukip Calypso as “distasteful” and “vulgar” as Chukka Umunna does. Having studied Read’s lyrics I wondered how such a witless tune could be construed as political satire until realising that it is precisely the reaction it elicits from the middle classes which forms the basis of the satire to be enjoyed. It becomes an act of resistance of the repressed lower middle class against dominant controlling cultural and social mores. It’s performative trolling. Now libidinal enjoyment is to be found in exercising one’s right to be offensive, check Suzanne Moore.

Ex-boxing promoter, Winston McKenzie, and Ukip’s Commonwealth spokesman, was parachuted into Newsnight’s studios a few nights ago to argue that claims Ukip is racist “all stems from the pc brigade and the media. You know we all got to walk away from this. People have got to grow up and be sensible.” So says the man not unused to the notoriety of the soundbite gained from being abusive and just the kind of man Farage will have within his ranks until public opprobrium makes him a media liability. McKenzie’s search for a political vehicle to propel him into power has seen him stand as a candidate for every political party in the UK, all bar the Monster Raving Looney party whom I hear wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole. In order to distance himself and the party from charges of racism, Farage relies on McKenzie to play the supporting role of the assimalable Black man.

The jingoism of Ukip Calypso is merely the anthem of the core Tory base who share the values of the Powellite/Thatcherite wing of the Conservative party with its deep antipathy to all things European rekindling the myth of the victimization of the British people at the hands of the political establishment.

Chorus: Oh yes, when we take charge
And the new prime minister is Farage
We can trade with the world again
When Nigel is at Number Ten

The British people have been let down
That’s why Ukip is making ground
From Crewe to Cleethorpes, Hull to Hendon
They don’t believe Cameron’s referendum

Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech forged an alliance between the Tory right and the National Front which enabled both to significantly extend their base particularly among poor whites. On the back of this London dock workers and meat packers took to the streets chanting “Back Britain, not Black Britain.” According to Powell, immigration had taken place behind the backs of the British working class ‘[f]or reasons which they could not comprehend and in pursuance of a decision by default, upon which they were never consulted.’ Yes, Powell who, ironically, in a previous incarnation as Minister of Health had been instrumental in encouraging NHS recruitment of Caribbean nurses to Britain at the start of the sixties.

The radical Right does not appear out of thin air. It has to be understood in direction relation to alternative political formations attempting to occupy and command the same space. It is engageed in a struggle for hegemony, within the dominant bloc, against both social democracy and the moderate wing of its own party. Not only is it operating in the same space: it is working directly on the contradictions within these competing positions. The strength of its intervention lies partly in the radicalism of its commitment to break the mould, not simply to rework the elements of the prevailing “philosophies”. In doing so, it nevertheless takes the elements which are already constructed into place, dismantles them, reconstitutes them into a new logic, and articulates the space in a new way, polarizing it to the right.

Here Stuart Hall dismantles the mechanics of Farage and the far right of the Conservative party. Taking hold of Powellite-Thatcherite elements Farage is reworking them into a new narrative in which responsibility for the destruction of British identity by menacing alien invaders is placed at the feet of a Westminster elite (the Tory liberal centrist wing) kowtowing to the EU on immigration without the consent of the British people. However, polarized by this maneouvre, Cameron is forced to distance himself from Farage’s “grand conspiracy” leaving him with few options. He can do little more than promise a referendum on a British exit (Brexit) in 2017.  He can say to Barroso, “I am very clear about who I answer to and it is the British people. They want this issue fixed… and I will fix it.” What Cameron’s means by “British people” is specifically the base of the Conservative party which is crazily splintering under pressure from the Powellite-Thatcherite wing. Because a majority of the British people, seventy percent in fact, are moved by other issues.

In order to win an outright majority in 2015 the Tories will need to appeal beyond their traditional voter base. Cameron knows he can’t swing too far to the right without making the Tories unelectable and so he watches helplessly as the party, as if infected with Ebola, haemmorhages core members and voters to Ukip – left, right and centre. Labour MP Jon Trickett in The Conservative Dilemma, makes clear the extent of the Tory problem. Since 1931 there has been a steep decline in the percentage of the electorate voting Tory. In 1931 their share of the vote was 55 percent. In 2010 this figure had fallen to 35 percent. Citing Trickett, Maunders writes, “the Tories have not won a majority at a general election for over two decades now. In 1992, the last time the Conservatives managed a majority at a general election, John Major received 14.1 million votes (41.9 percent) – since then the Conservatives have never won more than 10.7 million.” (Ukip and the crisis of Conservatism, Socialist Review No. 376).

According to Lord Ashcroft, the tory core vote would not be sufficient to form a majority at the next election. 2010 was the year that Cameron was supposed to deliver a Tory majority. Even though he drew in about 2 million new voters they have more or less deserted the Tories over issues like the NHS and the impact of deeply unfair Budgets.

So when hearing the thunder emitting from various media organs and the Tories about Ukip, remember, this is a message for their core voters and not about a rightward turn of the nation. The ridiculous thing is that Labour play into it.

The Beloved Country

With new racism (nee cultural or neo racism) it is not even necessary to use the word race. In Etienne Balibar’s formulation, new racism is a form of racism which puts culture in the place where biology or nature once stood. Its aim is not to politically exclude or eliminate cultural differences but rather it seeks to manage and regulate them through “differential inclusion.”

In 1969 Enoch Powell,when asked by David Frost if he would admit to being a racialist responded, “It depends how you define the word “racialist”. If you mean being conscious of differences between men and nations, and from that, races, then we’re all racialist. However, if you mean a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believes that one race is inherently superior to another in civilisation or capability of civilisation, then the answer is emphatically no” (Heffer p.504).

I do not talk about black and white. I would very much doubt if you can find a passage, you might find one, where I have used the terms black and white. I certainly have never talked about differences in quality. Never. Never. Never. (in Smithies and Fiddick 1969: 119, 122)

For Balibar, ‘The new racism is a racism of the era of “decolonization”, of the reversal of population movements between the old colonies and the old metropolises, and the division of humanity within a single political space” (p.24). It focuses not on biological heredity but ‘the insurmountability of cultural differences’, a racism which, at first sight, does not appear to posit the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but only the harmfulness of abolishing boundaries because of our incompatible life-styles and traditions. One is superior. One is inferior; prone to criminality and unrestrained sexuality. New racism’s solution is the establishment of apartheid-style boundaries. In its unguarded moments new racism often descends into its most extreme distillation of Powellian and Malthussian ‘commonsense’ musings on the dangers of unrestrained population growth of les autres which is the wish to repatriate all immigrants from British soil. As Powell put it,

I would have thought that a glance at the world would show how easily tensions leading to violence arise where there is a majority and a minority … with sharp differences, recognizable differences and mutual fears … when the numbers of the minority are small, then this danger hardly exists. It is as the numbers of the minority (which in some areas is the majority) rise, that the danger grows. Consequently the whole of this issue to me … is one of numbers (my emphasis).

This garbled rhetoric underpinned the ideological assault on the working class by Thatcherists in the 1980s through mobilising for political ends – the differences – Black youth’s criminality and promiscuous sexuality. The implication was that Afro-Caribbeans could never assimilate because of their inherent violence and irresponsible child breeding (read primitivity). This prejudice was used to begin the dismantlement of the welfare state which Nigel Farrage today, employing its circular logic, exercises when he blames migration because it fits a commonsense understanding that was brought into the foreground of white consciousness back then. Referencing Powell, he says, “The indigenous population found themselves made strangers in their own country, their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition”. He’s not referring to the past here when he cites Powell’s formulation but the present. It’s been proved wrong over and over again even in the midst of the most intense ideological assault on our minds blaming the Polish for the lack of housing, good schools and so on.

To this day it is used to normalise the burgeoning idea that legal rights and citizenship can be revoked for the entire group if an individual is judged to have acted in ways deemed hostile toward the UK. This covers a lot of ground: from Muslims preachers raging against Britain’s wars in the Middle East to despoilations of Romas accused of defecating on the doorsteps of Mayfair. The imagined community, this nation, has yet to grant full citizenship to colonial subjects who remain “second class citizens” no matter how many generations in. Quoting Powell:

The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still (Heffer )

New racism assumes that the dominant metropolitan culture is different from the culture of ethnic minorities who are understood in an essentialist and reified sense.

Not so long ago David Starkey, commenting on the Rochdale gang charged with sexually grooming young girls attributed their criminality to a culture belonging to “the foothills of the Punjab or wherever it is” by men who needed to be “inculcated in the British ways of doing things.” He tapped into stereotypical racist, sexist and patriarchal representations of Islam in Eurocentric thought; that of Muslim men abusing women which is then distilled by the EDL into demo chants of “Mohammed is a paedo”.

Starkey and the EDL echo decades old fears about national degeneration due to the deleterious effects of assimilation and miscegenation which is not peculiar to the right. You can find the same sentiments shimmering in Ken Loach’s film Spirit of ’45; a nostalgic reinvention of volkish nationalism under Labour rule or more starkly, in the Nazi German longing for the removal of undesirable Jews, the disabled, work-shy, gays and prostitutes in the Final Solution. All of them share a common story about nationhood and belonging to an imperial race.

Britain narrates this story to itself, the latter being spoken of in coded language and dog-whistles. A nation which glories in the defeat of Germany and Nazism yet in the shadows lurks the belief in white supremacy, so there’s really no contradiction in the far right raising Nazi salutes. And the left? They are just more coy about the roots of their own story of nationhood. As Cesaire said in his essay, Discourse on Colonialism, “At the end of capitalism, which is eager to outlive its day, there is Hitler. At the end of formal humanism and philosophic renunciation, there is Hitler.”

Starkey’s racism, infused by ideas which emerged out of the British empire, imagines his ‘other’ in the same stark oppositional terms as Enoch Powell. “British ways” are white and middle-class while the societies dwelling on the “foothills of the Punjab or wherever” are frozen in a state of complete otherness as inferior, rapacious, deviant and uncivilised. One culture is assumed to be universalist and progressive, while the other is branded irreversibly particularistic and primitive. One culture can claim for itself “uniquely individualised identities as a way of freeing themselves from the burdens of collective responsibility” so that a Hitler or a Breivik do not become the essentialised essence of whiteness but the others cannot claim such individuality, stigmatised as they are with, what Memmi calls, the “mark of the plural”. In Memmi’s words,

The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner [but] .. . entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity (‘They are this.’ ‘They are all the same.’). If a colonized servant does not come in one morning, the colonizer will not say that she is ill, or that she is cheating, or that she is tempted not to abide by an oppressive contract. … He will say, ‘You can’t count on them.’ … He refuses to consider personal, private occurrences in his maid’s life; that life in a specific sense does not interest him, and his maid does not exist as an individual (cited in Barla 2004: p2)

Hence, a tiny minority is held up as representative of all colonised subjects who are seen to be constantly in danger of reverting to primitivity. This is the logic of empire that Peter McClaren writes is still with us “bound to the fabric of our daily being-in-the-world, woven into our posture toward others, connected to the muscles of our eyes, dipped in the chemical relations that excite and calm us, structured into the language of our perceptions” (p.142). The logic of empire functions to disavow the excluded with a view to keeping immigrants in a state of permanent vulnerability and precarity allowing for their ruthless exploitation by capital [snitch culture/racist vans/police confiscating food parcels & sleeping bags – they too can so easily steal and they will when the cuts hit them/rounding up spivs/jailing/quotas/repatriation]. As Franco Barchiesi notes, the movement of resources from the provision of social services and welfare to police, juridical and miltitary spheres reflects the reorientation of society into tiers of inclusion and exclusion managed by the nation-state. Re-commodifying and privatising the commons has meant that enjoyment of social rights has come to rely on having a job. Jobs which are increasingly informalised and flexible. It is in low waged/low-skilled jobs – care, cleaning, farming – coincidentally, that immigrants from outside of the EU are finding employment (2004: 3-4).

The new racism explains reasons for poverty and unemployment among minorities as due to cultural values or norms we share and less to do with systemic disadvantages implying an inferiority in relation to the dominant culture and while avoiding attributing these to biological difference. Cultural racism, as an inferior form of logic, is “the process of reification existing within capitalist society which embeds men and women in the particular … subsuming them beneath a false generality (such as their membership of families, states or nations) – an ideological process which must take different forms at different times.”