Only a year ago, the London Olympics were being hailed as ‘a defining moment’ in the emergence of a proudly multicultural Britain. That claim was always inflated but it looks decidedly hollow, indeed dangerously self-indulgent, in light of recent developments: the electoral advance of UKIP, the enhanced menace of the English Defence League (EDL) and most of all the attacks on Muslims and mosques in the aftermath of Lee Rigby’s murder at Woolwich.
The far-right resurgence, here and across Europe, poses challenges of many kinds for the left. But whatever else we do, we have to recognise that the far right feeds off and reinforces a more diffuse phenomenon: the racism, national chauvinism and xenophobia that are part and parcel of the mainstream.
The racism of the mainstream isn’t hard to find. Just look at the pages of the Mail or Express (far more efficient deliverers of racist propaganda than the far right) or at entertainments like Homeland or Argo (where in accordance with hoary stereotypes the Muslim enemies of the west are portrayed as unappeasable, brutally irrational and at the same time calculating and duplicitous). Then look at how racism has been shown to infect nearly all our major social institutions – from football to police and prisons to Oxford and Cambridge.
The supposedly ‘unsayable’
Politicians of all three main parties dabble in it. Here the trick is to claim to be saying something ‘unsayable’ but widely thought. Jack Straw on the niqab a few years back was a classic example of the ploy. Now we have Ed Miliband arguing that Labour failed to ‘listen’ to ‘people’ on ‘immigration’ (all three words have to be placed in quotes because none actually means what it’s supposed to mean).
Currently the political centre in this country appears to be taking the line that the far right is voicing some kind of genuine complaint to which the rest of us must listen. Thus the perverse rationale of racism is given legitimacy and the real message of the far right goes uncontested. The scariest thing about UKIP’s election performance was the speed with which it elicited knee-jerk concessions from Cameron and others. Once again we’ve seen that the big danger of the far right is the way they drag the political mainstream in their direction.
Far from being repressed by ‘political correctness’, supposedly unsayable thoughts about race are the common currency of all kinds of polite conversation, including in the media and among the intelligentsia. Nothing the EDL says is any cruder than Martin Amis’s musings on Muslim culpability. And Tony Blair’s malign wooden-headedness was fully on display in his recent declaration that somehow, when all is said and done, ‘Islam’ is indeed to blame.
As for the BBC, the heart of the ‘liberal’ establishment, it has conferred legitimacy on both UKIP and the EDL, but more importantly it acts as one of the great propagators of the us versus them worldview. Its standard treatment of ethnicity, at home or abroad, is one in which a supra-ethnic commentary (western liberal and in fact very ‘English’) confronts everything outside its privileged purview as Other – as all the things that ‘we’ are not: tribal, fanatical, sectarian, beyond reason – and above all not our responsibility. Mainstream commentary, liberal and conservative, is permeated by this habitual optic, which assigns to the Other society’s own dark side (hatred, violence, corruption).
Racism is pliable, elastic, shifting its targets, its grounds of complaint. The line between us and them is drawn and re-drawn. In that process, the ‘them’ is a construction, a phantom, a projection, as is widely recognised. But the same is true of the ‘us’: the us that is the heart of white and western supremacism, an us that is also blithely, routinely invoked across mainstream commentary.
Racism’s global context
Domestic racism has a global context. In the war on terror Muslims (and others) become representatives of the enemy abroad, living in our midst but always suspect. In the dehumanisation of drone killings and the denial of responsibility for death and destruction on an immense scale in Iraq and elsewhere, the double-standard of racist consciousness is unmistakeable, as it is in the easy acceptance as a future Indian prime minister of Narendra Modi, deeply complicit in the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002, and in the casual assumption of prerogatives to ourselves that we deny others, including possession and use of weapons of mass destruction. It’s there in every unexamined use of the pronoun ‘we’ in the discussion of foreign interventions.
Contrary to right-wing myth, Britain’s imperial past goes largely unexamined and unacknowledged, and therefore its assumptions remain active in forming our views of the present. We still live in a world shaped materially and imaginatively by the high imperial epoch, during which a small number of European states dominated the economies and polities of the bulk of humanity. This is not the sort of episode that leaves either party unscarred. White supremacism, racism and xenophobic nationalism are as much a part of our western cultural heritage as what are loosely referred to as Enlightenment values. This is a legacy that has to be systematically unlearned.
The racist response to Lee Rigby’s murder was not automatic or natural. Racism is not a default setting. It’s an ideology, a construction, a hulking psycho-social edifice, one that has to be demolished plank by plank. It’s not a disease that can be cured on a case-by-case basis. The therapy has to be collective – some trauma of confrontation and contestation that alters what people have in mind when they think of ‘we’.
Living under a global capitalism that reproduces all manner of social hierarchies, anti-racist consciousness cannot be a fixed, once-in-a-lifetime conversion; it’s an ongoing struggle, a process that has to be engaged in consciously. There’s no point of rest because the ideology we’re contesting is never at rest.
An example of that is the way that multiculturalism has been turned into a whipping boy, declared a failure by Merkel, Cameron and an army of pundits. On no basis at all, a variety of unappealing phenomena are blamed on it, from the ‘grooming’ of girls by Asian men to the alleged self-segregation of minorities. In fact, like other racist bugbears, multiculturalism is largely a phantom. The bundle of policies herded under that rubric were concessions made in the past in response to mobilisation in black and Asian communities. There were always objections from the left to the multicultural framework, which conceived of minorities as homogeneous communities with fixed cultural identities.
The right’s campaign is not, however, about the theory but the fact of multiculturalism – that is, the presence of people seen as belonging to alien cultures. Modern European societies are and will continue to be comprised of numerous ‘cultures’ – in fact, of a wealth of sub- and counter-cultures, overlapping and intersecting. To deny or lament this reality is to deny and lament the presence of those seen as belonging to other cultures. In this context demands for integration are demands for adherence to a cultural norm set by the dominant group. It is amazing that some who boast of an Enlightenment heritage see this as anything other than tyrannical.
Under the guise of an attack on the relativism of multiculturalism, what’s going on is a reassertion of the historically pre-eminent form of ethical relativism, the assumed superiority of the western norm. The most strident and powerful form of identity politics in our society remains that of white or western identity: the dominant, majority identity that likes to conceive of itself as a threatened minority, under siege in its own land.
The answer to the real as opposed to imagined shortcomings of multiculturalism is not a reversion to Eurocentrism or mono-culture or the creation of a new, all-embracing cultural synthesis. It lies in the political struggle for equality (not mere representation) and the practise of a solidarity that reaches beyond culture. Olympics-style multiculturalism is of no use. The only antidote to the culture of racism is the cultivation of resistance.
Mike 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.