Following the EDL’s mobilisation after the Woolwich attack, we must broaden the fight against racism in all its forms
Today’s setback in London – and it has to be seen as a setback for anti-racists given that they were substantially outnumbered by EDL supporters, and forced to weather a shower of bottles while being kettled – should provoke some rethinking. These are some points that immediately come to mind, which I’ll flesh out and redact in the next few days.
1. This 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. 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 following the Woolwich killing was not inevitable. It took place on the basis of efforts by diverse forces to elaborate new racist ideologies over a long period.
2. We cannot fight the EDL without also combating 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.
3. 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. And certainly, the struggles over the capitalist crisis and its resolution has a relationship to the struggle over 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.
4. 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 appear to have 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.
5. 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 Qur’an, 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.
That’ll do for now.