Fighting a protean force

Pretending that it's not racism that motivates the BNP vote, or that we can defeat the BNP simply by proposing a left alternative, is to misunderstand the nature of racism in Britain today

June 16, 2010
8 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.

Last year, in the wake of the BNP success in the Euro-elections, this magazine ran a debate about anti-fascist strategy (Red Pepper Aug/Sep 2009). Although a good start to a necessary discussion, too much of it was polarised between an attack on and a defence of existing strategies and structures. While these have to be debated, we won’t get far unless we widen and deepen our perspective.

What exactly does the BNP represent and what dangers does it pose? Here our reliance on the model of the 1930s has limitations. Mid-20th century fascisms grew and ultimately achieved power in response to a threat from the left, specifically from organised workers. State corporatism and imperial expansion – the hallmarks of those fascisms – have little do with the ideology, appeal or likely effect of today’s far right. In the current context the BNP’s main impact is, first, to intimidate minority communities, and second, to drag the centre of political gravity to the right. As we’ve seen in the recent general election, the major parties seek to pre-empt the BNP by adopting anti immigrant policies and rhetoric.

All the contributors to the Red Pepper debate argue that at least one of the necessary responses to the BNP is to build social alternatives, to mobilise on community issues and thereby bring together the people the far right wish to divide. While that is certainly necessary, it begs some questions.

I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe a BNP vote is merely a misdirected protest against neglect by the major parties. Unemployment, crap housing and poverty are without doubt the critical context. But if that were the whole story, if the BNP was merely an anti-establishment cry of despair, then one would expect BNP voters to convert directly to the far left when given the chance, which by and large they do not. People vote for the BNP not in spite of its racism but because of it. Racism remains the core of its appeal and its raison d’etre.

A vote for the BNP is not merely a negation, but a positive endorsement of a racist ideology (or to put the same thing another way, an emotional vent for hatred, resentment and bigotry). And both this ideology and these emotions are shared far beyond the confines of the far right. The BNP draws strength from them, but it is not their source.

It’s true that in the absence of other explanations for social problems, racial ‘explanations’ have freer run. But the left sometimes treats racism as some kind of ‘natural’ if misguided response to a material situation. It is anything but. As a way of looking at the world, as an ideology and a material force, racism is constantly constructed, nurtured, revised and bolstered (because it serves the pursuit of profit, power and privilege). Therefore it has to be (and can be) contested and criticised. It is not so much that the BNP have to be exposed as ‘racists’ as that racism has to be exposed in all its irrationality and malignity and in all its guises.

Keiron Farrow (‘Anti-fascism isn’t working’) seems to believe we can somehow circumvent the problem by building ‘working class alternatives’ that would fight racism, apparently, by ignoring it. The reality is that the defence of asylum seekers, Muslims or immigrants is divisive in working class areas as elsewhere. To have any hope of healing that division you have first to make it explicit.

Widespread and deep rooted

I wish I could believe that the BNP, or even the BNP plus UKIP vote, represented the extent of the ‘racist vote’ in Britain. The reality is that racist ideas, myths, assumptions, stereotypes and ‘explanations’ are widespread and deep rooted in British society. The far right is part of a nexus that includes the racism of the state (in immigration, policing, criminal justice), the media and educational institutions – a racism that has its elite, middle and working-class variants.

One of the weaknesses of the left approach has been to fix on the latter – on working class racism – as if it existed separately from the others. Perhaps that’s why we sometimes sidestep the question of UKIP, whose election campaign relied heavily on anti immigrant and anti-Muslim messages. Its xenophobia is no less noxious than the BNP’s, though it is deemed more ‘respectable’, a fact not unrelated to its different – middle class, Tory-voting – constituency.

In particular, the current virulence of anti-Muslim racism cannot be isolated to the far right, which in this case has taken its cue from the middle class and a significant section of what passes for the intelligentsia. ‘Islamophobia,’ writes A Sivanandan, ‘in its most sophisticated form, is the province of middle-class opinion formers, erstwhile liberals, defenders of the true liberal faith against the encroachments of illiberal Islam, as defined by them, the “liberati”. Anti-Muslim racism is the province of the working class and is no different from past working class racisms. Except that now it finds its justification in Islamophobia – suitably translated into the vernacular of stereotype and scapegoat by the tabloids, the carriers of racist culture.’ Crucially, Islamophobia ‘is not just a body of ideas in a vacuum. It is connected to the war in Iraq and the war on terror and tied therefore to the state, its laws and executive decisions.’

We need to see racism as a protean force, varying in its targets and its definitions, though with a shared underlying logic. If we are to trace it from its multiple effects to its common source we have to look not only at its objects (the feared and alien others) but also its subject (the collective, privileged western self). We pay too little attention to the ideology and psychology of white or western supremacy, to the power and material prerogatives of ‘whiteness’, though they permeate our foreign and domestic politics.

White identity

Critiques of ‘identity politics’, including some from the left, tend to ignore the most potent form of identity politics in our society: the politics of the white-identified majority. It draws its strength precisely from this unexamined assumption: that the white / western perspective is normative, ‘neutral’ or ‘colourless’, free of ‘identity’ in a way that the non-white, non-western cannot be.

The right know the power of this identity and exploit it shamelessly. In its promotion of ‘British values’ and ‘cohesion’ and its treatment of asylum seekers, New Labour sought to appease it. But we on the left tend just to ignore it, hoping to displace it (largely by sentimental abstractions) without confronting it.

This is in no way a call for cultural relativism. On the contrary, it’s asking that white, majority identities and the powers they acquire or presume are scrutinised with the same critical regard, the same measurements of human welfare and freedom, we would demand in relation to other social categories.

Historically, racism, and specifically white supremacism, was the consort of western colonialism, and it continues to act in that capacity. It’s effective today in the bizarre assumption that ‘we’ act in Iraq or Afghanistan without self-interest, that ‘we’ transcend the ethnic, tribal or religious animosities of the natives; in the imposition of neoliberal ‘development’ strategies; in attempts to control the movements of people; in the curbs on (some people’s) civil liberties; and quite nakedly in the detention of asylum seekers, including children.

The practice is clearly barbaric and condemned internationally, yet during the election there was not the slightest pressure on politicians to distance themselves from it. The victims here are perceived as belonging to a separate category from ‘us’. They are not embraced by that western norm that champions freedom of movement for some while denying it to others.

We won’t finish off the far right unless we also overturn the more disparate bigotry of which it is an outgrowth. To do that, we need a clearer understanding of racism and its role in an increasingly unequal world. And we need to do much more than harass the BNP, important as that remains.

The agenda has to be as broad as the problem. It might include a positive campaign to build solidarity with hunger strikers in immigration detention camps, a concerted effort to expose the government’s ‘Prevent’ programme (the domestic anti-terrorism initiative, primarily a vehicle for surveillance and control of the Muslim population), and last but not least, action against the likes of the Daily Mail, a far more prolific disseminator of racist ideas than the BNP.

Contending for the Living is Mike Marqusee’s regular column for Red Pepper


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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