To begin, I will start by stating that I am mixed race, half Scottish, half Pakistani. I have been on the receiving end of racism, though thankfully that has not happened much in my 30 years. I say this not to make any claims to speak for anyone else, but to make clear I know what racism is. World events often peak a sense of vulnerability, particularly when it comes to the racist backlash that comes with terrorism, and the growing demonisation of Muslims. Everyone knows that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or how irrelevant terrorism is to it, if you are brown, you are a potential target for racism. So to with immigration. The politics of immigration is not really about numbers of people, but about the ability to provoke the alienation and persecution of immigrants based on their nationality to rationalise economic failure and injustice.
In a taxi recently, the driver, an Asian man, started talking to me about immigration. He said he was worried about the growth in the Roma community. He recited the same rhetoric deployed against his family once upon a time. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone of immigrant origin say something like this. At an anti-fascist stall in Brick Lane some years ago, I had a black guy come over and tell me about why he was voting BNP. Then recently, we’ve seen this happen more. Video clips post-Brexit often include similar stories. It is a genuine phenomenon.
Yesterday I was asked about this. How could black people, and Asian people, denounce immigration? It didn’t seem to compute. But there is really a very simple reason. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is so hegemonic in parts of the UK, that it is seen as a form of self protection to assimilate to it. It is to say: all I can do is save myself, so I will join the chorus of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and build the idea that people like me are really okay, it’s these new ones coming that are arriving that are the problem.
Brexit has brought the reality of anti-immigrant hegemony into focus. And, it is not going away. The Left needs to accept we have lost a lot of ground on this territory over the past decade, and we need to work out a way to claw that ground back.
First let’s talk about the Leave vote. It is seen as an anti-immigrant vote. A large section of it is – but not all. I have seen people say about the anti-immigrant vote in particular that it is based on racism, ignorance and misguided patriotism. Again this is true. Incidentally, if we are to extrapolate this tendency from the Leave vote then it must also exist in Scotland where over a million people voted to exit the EU.
The point is Brexit is both an anti-immigrant vote and an anti-establishment vote, because immigration has become a proxy for the impact of neoliberal globalisation. Not enough decent housing? Immigration is at fault. Schools too full? Blame immigration. Wages being cut? That’s because of immigration.
This is the politics of Nigel Farage, who has been quite successful in displacing class issues onto immigration. The political consciousness of many Leave voters directly connects any defence of immigration with ‘the liberal establishment’.
But how we react to this, as racist incidents increase is, key. Analyse the results, and review the footage. You can tell the ideological racists apart from anyone else. They don’t talk about the strain on jobs, services or homes. They talk about Muslims, terrorists and Pakis.
Let’s stop for a moment and think about the reality of life in a clapped out town, with crumbling services, and no sense of a future. People here are stressed. They are penniless. Life is about getting through each day. Forget ambitions about traveling Europe. Life is about survival. Prospects for a well paid job are scarce. This is the result of neoliberalism.
In these areas, the left is absent. I don’t mean the organised Left, though they don’t exist here in any real sense. I mean the entirety of what passes for the left in the UK. The trade unions once flourished here but they receded as industry and jobs evaporated. In its place a public sector, which now lies in tatters after years of austerity. In this world – a different planet to Bob Geldof – jobs that do come along are low paid, precarious, workfare. There is a yearning for identity, and having a place in the world and a deep sense of injustice.
The answer to this has been provided on a plate by the Right. Everything – from stretched services, insecurity, unemployment and alienation – can be blamed on immigration. It is a very simple solution. Immigration as an issue provides a weak target for people without power. And conversely, it provides a toxic smokescreen for the failures of those with power.
It is blared from every right-wing rag. It is pushed by the British State. It is an ever present discourse fed by the need to keep the powerless divided. It has been a permanent feature of modern human history. And everyone knows it.
David Cameron knows it too. And yet he stands in post-Brexit Westminster and says that ‘we cannot tolerate intolerance.’ And liberals who generally don’t like Cameron give him credit for saying racism is bad. It provides me with no solidarity. I am not thankful to him. It is his government, and his system, which have bred division in our society. He cuts services and hands them over, at a knock down price, to his class. He launches schemes like Prevent which demonise Muslim youth. He is no friend of anti-racism.
It got me thinking that words are cheap and that the medium is sometimes more important than the message. Who cares if The Guardian commentators and the white beneficiaries of globalisation don’t like racism? They have a role to play – sure. But they can’t lead the argument. What is needed is to give voice to the voiceless. Working class anti-racism will always mean more – because it stands on the side of the weak and against the strong. It sweeps aside the notion that you can be in favour of grinding austerity at the same time as being a solid anti-racist.
In the context of post-Brexit UK, this differentiation – between liberal ‘anti-racism’ and socialist ‘anti-racism – needs to be made. Liberalism looks to smooth over the cracks. I have been shocked by the way people have responded to the Leave vote by instinctively attaching themselves to institutions of power like the EU, rather than seeing it as a wake-up call that large parts of the UK, especially northern England, have entrenched anti-immigrant positions and could be alienated by liberal UK so much that they only see one possible political home: Ukip. We live in the era of neoliberal decline – and it’s not going to look pretty. It’s going to require stripping back every contradiction in the capitalist system. It doesn’t matter whether you agree to that or not – you are going to see it happen anyway.
Anti-racist politics are not just the meetings and demonstrations about why racism should be opposed, though these are both needed. Anti-racist politics is the local campaign to keep the library open that can give rise to class unity over racial division. Anti-racist politics is the articulation of an economic plan for de-industrialised towns and cities that redefines the meaning of ‘take back control’. Anti-racist politics is countering right-wing populism with a left-wing populism that demonises the billionaire banking class in a much more powerful way than immigrants could ever be demonised. Anti-racist politics is the rebuilding of trade union organisation among precarious workers who are vulnerable to racist arguments. The crisis of capitalism is here to stay, and that will threaten the comfort zone of what we understand to be mainstream political discourse. The years ahead are the kind of years that will dictate all of our future.
Right now the EU is not being discussed in the UK. Mad – you must think. But it’s not. What is happening is that the built up social, economic and constitutional crisis is being refracted through the EU referendum and now the Brexit aftermath. Underneath the entire conversation lies class and race, and their intersection with the political elite, austerity and capitalist decline. Whatever happens going forward, we will only win the argument on immigration if it is located within those fault lines.
The EU itself is part of those contradictions, not our saviour from the ignorant hordes, as The Guardian would suggest. On the one hand the EU will punish the people of Greece with brutal austerity and use any means to suppress Greek democracy. On the other it is the pivot around which immigration politics is being debated in the UK. In the end we need to exert our own agency as an independent force to build a new world. In the words of Malcolm X – it is impossible to be both a capitalist, and an anti-racist.