BARRY WINTER argues for more plural ways of thinking, if we are to meet the challenges posed by racism and the far right.
The title of this article, ‘Racisms, Multiculturalisms and Fascisms’, may at first, appear perverse. But it is not meant to be. The reason for adding an ‘s’ to the three terms, is to expand their range of meanings and stress their complexity. Hopefully, this makes us less likely to see them as static and ahistorical. We are dealing here with dynamic, social and political processes that take many forms. These are meanings on the move and we have to struggle to keep up with and, if possible, to get ahead, of them.
Because we live in a society characterised by continuing social change and upheaval, largely generated by the instabilities of capitalism, we cannot stand still. To have any relevance as socialists, we regularly need to review and, if needs be, revise our understanding of a world that we want to change. Racism has been around a long time, fascism for long enough, and multiculturalism now occupies significant parts of the political landscape. But where are they today and where are they likely to be tomorrow?
I should add that the term ‘racisms’ is not particularly new. To my knowledge, it has been knocking around the academic world for almost a decade. Multiculturalism is also recognised as taking a variety of forms and, I would argue, that this is also true of what we call fascism. So I am making no claims for great originality here. Only a desire to embed more plural ways of thinking into our politics, better to meet the challenges they pose. To clarify how the far right can best be tackled, for example, we have to understand the mercurial nature of the beast.
Perhaps it is useful to see racisms as processes that inferiorise, discriminate against, marginalise and, sometimes, exclude social others. These actions can take different forms in different places and they can vary over time. Clearly, some people have more power to implement their prejudices than others (not that I want to see power simply in zero-sum terms). Some forms of racism become institutionalised. But even when particular forms of racism decline in significance, they can leave a social residue that, in certain circumstances, can be reworked and resurrected.
Two main forms of racism are often identified: ‘scientific racism’ and ‘cultural racism’. The former is particularly associated with colonial justifications for conquest and colonisation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is based upon notions of biological difference. From this perspective, physical differences between peoples are seen as reflecting a natural, global hierarchy. At the pinnacle are white Europeans while the rest of the world’s peoples are graded into varying degrees of subordination – intellectually, culturally, economically, morally, and so on. ‘Whiteness’ is the standard against which all else is measured. One’s biology determines one’s fate. Distinct races with different biological and social characteristics exist and the future of civilisation itself depends on upholding these divisions.
Arguably, the Jews did not fit neatly into this particular schema but, for anti-Semites, that made them an even greater threat to European order. While most Africans and ‘Orientals’ were at least in their rightful geographical spaces and usually ‘occupied’ by European colonisers, the Jews were ‘occupying’ European space: the enemy was within.
Although such crude notions of distinct biological races have been widely discredited today, clearly this has not put an end to racism. The earlier forms of racism have been replaced or, more accurately, overlaid by cultural versions.
Culture now replaces biology as the significant determinant of difference. Cultural variations between European and other peoples are seen as quite fixed, particularly in the short-to-medium term. All peoples are seen as having distinct cultures and so, accordingly, ‘we’ have the right to protect our own version. An approach exemplified by Margaret Thatcher who, in 1978, said that the British people were fearful of being ‘swamped’ by people from alien cultures. Social and cultural differences, from this perspective, construct firm barriers between people with different historical legacies. To prevent contamination, these borders have to be patrolled and protected (although some gradual assimilation of more pliable others may be allowed).
Both broad versions of racism draw deep from the well of the European tradition based upon justifying capitalism and conquest. That is perhaps why racisms still have such a powerful resonance in modern European society, something which the far right is currently exploiting. The ideas are based upon deep structures in European discourses and history. While this is not something that can be examined here, I suggest that it comes from an in-built duality in western thought: primarily, how Europe thought of itself. Thus, while ‘we’ are civilised, modern, progressive, forward-looking, fair-minded, tolerant, reasonable and rational, and so on, ‘they’ are composed of various elements of the opposite. Not only do these ‘others’ fail to match up to ‘our’ fine values and virtues but, as a result, close contact with them threatens our ‘way of life’.
Often people are unaware that they are drawing from these discourses. But, I suggest, it is why liberal and well-meaning sentiments, such as ‘there are good and bad in all’, don’t take us very far. Certainly not when tackling the arguments from the far right. Nor does the hope that ‘education’ will provide a simple antidote to racist ‘ignorance’ help very much. We need to engage in a more thoroughgoing re-education process that scrutinises, de-centres, the European tradition itself. That does not mean wholly rejecting it, but subjecting it to a critical review. In sum, simply seeking to be fair-minded provides a welcome starting point but it is no more than the first step on a long journey.
Racism is not simply found on the streets and the football terraces, or in the melodramatic speeches of reactionary politicians. It does not have to take the violent forms commonly associated with the death of Stephen Lawrence a decade ago. Most people are horrified by such actions. Anti-racists do not have the monopoly of such emotions. Racism does not have to be shouted, it can be spoken in soft tones, sometimes by people who are not necessarily aware of what they are saying. Sometimes by people who know exactly what they are doing.
Nor is racism the exclusive preserve of white people. In our society, we have to be very alert to the racism directed towards the black and Asian populations because it tends to carry more clout. But we cannot, indeed must not, pretend away racisms towards white people. Or those forms directed by members of one particular ethnic minority towards another. We have to be honest about it all, or we play into the hands of those who seek to exploit such social divisions.
When it comes to multiculturalism, the picture is complicated. There are, I suggest, clear signs of growing tolerance in our society. There are layers of people today for whom racism is a dangerous nonsense. Or, as Stuart Hall puts it: “One group can’t understand modern life without it [multiculturalism]; they are mainly young and live in cities.” There are others, who as he says are “militantly hostile” to living in a cosmopolitan society. And presumably there are a lot a people ranged somewhere between.
Perhaps what it is important to recognise is that living in a multicultural society is about living with changed social conditions. Everyone is adjusting in some form or another and this is not easy. Recently, when I visited the part of the city where I spent my childhood, it had visibly changed. What was once a white working class ‘community’ (a too generous term in some respects) is primarily populated by a Muslim working class with high levels of unemployment and students from the nearby university. My white friends, who have chosen to remain there, have had to make adjustments, something which is insufficiently acknowledged. I guess that this has not been entirely easy.
In other words, many people are working out lives for themselves in a cosmopolitan society, while alongside that is a range of communal conflicts taking place at different levels of intensity. The trouble is that all these matters are largely left to drift, that is until something gets out of hand. Only when people riot is some attention paid to what is happening on the ground and, by then, it is rather late. A great deal of damage has already been done.
If we want a future with societies composed of people from different cultures and backgrounds (although it is often forgotten that we have interlocking histories), then it has to be worked at. Neglect and silence leave social tensions to fester.
We have to delineate what forms of multiculturalism we find acceptable and what forms we reject. As Hall argues, conservative multiculturalism seeks to absorb ethnic minorities into the dominant majority. Liberal multiculturalism subordinates difference to claims of universal citizenship (and pretends away difference).
Pluralist multiculturalism recognises difference but tends to sectionalise people into sealed cultural groupings. It fails to address what people share, or to recognise that cultures interact and change over time. It overlooks how conflicts are endemic within cultures and that some forces should be supported while others opposed. It tends to confirm and consolidate difference, and thus plays into the hands of those who want to preserve ‘white culture’ by socially excluding non-whites.
A pro-active, democratic multiculturalism (as I define it) has to acknowledge the differences and tensions that exist, as well as seeking what unites people across cultural divides. So often, we see one group of victims of the system blaming other victims. Different voices have to be heard, even when they jar sometimes, especially when they jar. The question is how best can this be done.
We should not dismiss any section of the community as intrinsically beyond redemption, however objectionable their views may sometimes be. We should try to avoid erecting barriers. When the Anti-Nazi League failed to leaflet the white community in Oldham because of their presumed racism, this left the field open to the British National Party (BNP). Not a wise move.
The emergence of the BNP as a small but significant electoral presence in parts of the North and Midlands has sent a shudder across the political system. Its political arrival raises four related questions:
- What is the political character of the BNP?
- What are the internal factors that have allowed it to rise to some prominence and notoriety?
- What are the external factors working in its favour?
- How are we to respond?
Only a very sketchy answers can be attempted here but I hope that it provides sufficient encouragement for more extensive discussion.
It should be noted that, compared with the formidable far right presence in Europe, the BNP remains relatively small fry. This is no argument for complacency, however. The question is whether the party has the potential to grow and, in my view, it does. In part, this will depend upon whether an effective opposition to its politics emerges. There have been earlier waves of far right, political currents. In the 1970s, the overtly fascist National Front was met by an explosion of opposition (including Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League) which helped to stunt its development. Today, the BNP poses more subtle challenges.
In relation to the first two questions, I think it necessary to offer an ambivalent answer about the party’s political character. It is possible to chart its rise to a new leadership which, over several years, has carefully studied the far right in Europe and seeks to emulate its electoral successes. It has carefully honed its political message, utilising a democratic and liberal discourse for the purpose. All this has required a substantial change in its presentation and style. Whether this signifies a change in character is harder to determine. Certainly the BNP presents itself as a nationalist and populist party, not a fascist one.
A cursory examination of its politics suggests to me that it has also borrowed from the ‘parochial’, community politics of the Liberal Democrats, from the environmental movement and the left, from the co-operative movement, and from Sinn Fein. It is radical, conservative and reactionary but liberal in tone. It can be argued that earlier forms of fascisms were also contradictory, eclectic mixes and this has to be conceded. On coming to power, Hitler cancelled peoples’ debts to the state, a radical move which, understandably, won great support. It can also be argued, however, that the BNP’s political mixture is equally the stuff of right-wing populism.
Without doubt, scratch the membership of the BNP and there, aplenty, are an unsavoury set of political thugs, fascists and racists with criminal records. The BNP counters this evidence by claiming that its people have changed, that they have learnt the lessons (playing upon the liberal discourse). Equally true, there exists the Red List website which gives details of people known to oppose the far right. This cannot be attributable to the BNP but it presents a not-so-subtle threat to those who wish to contest any form of racist politics.
My guess is that the BNP includes a mix of people with fascist ideas and an increasing number of people who are right-wing populists. The party may be in a process of transition from the former to the latter (which is grotesque enough), or it may be caught in a tension between the two. Whilst it gains electorally, the trend towards ‘respectability’ will be strengthened, in the short term at least.
The opposition towards the National Front that grew quite rapidly in the 1970s does not appear to be happening today. The exposure politics of the Anti-Nazi League, that portrays them simply as Nazis, is having rapidly diminishing returns. Before the local elections in May 2003, the Daily Express ran a sustained campaign against BNP council candidates with fascist or violent pasts. It does not appear to have had much effect.
People associate fascists with uniforms, flags, parades and insignia, not the two polite, well-dressed people on the doorstep. People listen to their messages and it is these that have a resonance – it is the arguments of the BNP that must be responded to in full. The BNP goes with the grain of a conservative culture and with the widespread unease over a range of liberal ideas and values. In other words, whatever its precise character, if that can be determined, the party must be tackled on the terrain that it has chosen to fight. Sure, where its members have chequered pasts, this should be recorded. But that kind of politics cannot provide the focal point to any opposition.
It is also a matter of some concern that, if the BNP continues to establish itself, then many of us will be dealing with its presence in our ‘communities’ and at work. At the moment, its arrival in a few council chambers is mainly a matter for a few local politicians and parties. The BNP will be eager to exploit any ‘unfair treatment’ it receives. It will be happy to play the underdog and this requires people to tread rather carefully. Purely gestural politics against it will not suffice.
The third question suggests that the BNP’s advances are not entirely of its own making. There are a range of social and political factors that have fed its growth. What are they? Again this is a big issue but, for me, crucial here is the crisis in liberal democracy. This is exemplified by the decay of the mainstream political parties at local and national levels and by poor electoral turnouts. We have also seen a decline in social deference, not of itself a bad thing, but coupled with an increase in cynicism about mainstream politicians, and all accompanied by materialism and a series of moral panics encouraged by tabloids.
A recent edition of the Daily Express, which showed outrage at the BNP, also carried an article expressing alarm about asylum seekers. There has been a barrage of material in the popular press on these issues and it has had an effect. The result is that many people think our society is being ‘flooded’ by illegal immigrants, that they are simply an economic burden paid for by taxpayers, that our usual tolerance is being taken for a ride, and that Britain has for too long been a ‘soft touch’ and it is time to take a stand.
Labour politicians have bent with these populist pressures (while in other moments denouncing racism). They have thereby fed the fears. Local white people see a mosque being built and proclaim that Muslims are taking over the country. They fear that in our ‘overcrowded’ island white people will soon be minority.
It’s terrible stuff. This nonsense, which so many are ready to believe, needs counter arguments. But it also needs more than that. It requires initiatives in which robust dialogues can take place at local level within a framework of reconciliation. It needs properly funded activities to bring people of different ages together from various communities. These already take place. A lot of valuable but unrecognised activities take place although they tend to be very local and, of necessity, small scale. Well-resourced community centres where people can meet, mix and, where needs be, argue, are a must. Public awareness of what is happening needs to be encouraged.
We need spaces where people can learn their histories together. Our history is not only of racism and exploitation, although there is plenty of that. British working people also have histories of opposition to slavery and racial injustice too. But where the history is one of slavery, then it needs acknowledging and symbolic reparations made. I am a great enthusiast for encouraging those stately homes, based on slavery in the Caribbean, to acknowledge where their great wealth came from.
It is not a devaluation of the West that’s needed (which leaves many people with nothing) but a revaluation. One of the few things that the former leader of the Conservative Party did which I admired (to dark mutterings from Norman Tebbit) was to participate in the Notting Hill Carnival. We need more of this. Anti-racism has to have its fun as well as a serious side. The far right is best exposed for retreating into closed worlds that never existed, that offer little, that fail to recognise that creativity is often at its best when there are cultural crossovers – in music, dance, fashion, drama and the arts generally.
In racisms and fascisms/populisms we face dangerous foes. We have to respond on a variety of fronts against the undoubted threat that they represent. That response has to be based on genuine forms of democracy and participation, and it is better served by greater control of our economic life, so that there can be a redistribution of resources to those communities living on or near the edge. This is not something that can wait for some ideal future. It has to be undertaken now and we all have a part to play.