Friday, 19 December 2014

What does it mean if "the masses" are racist?

Nobody likes to be called a racist. And calling someone out as a racist is probably not going to win them over or encourage them to consider alternative views. But the thirty percent of Britons who describe themselves as holding negative views towards non-Brits or British minorities, however, force us to confront some uncomfortable thoughts: what if apparently tolerant Britain is full of racists? And if so, who are these racists? A  typical answer by liberal and left-wing writers is to write off racism as an elite phenomenon that simply contaminates vulnerable sections of the masses. In Bloody Nasty People (2012), Daniel Trilling's insightful account of the British far right (organised throughout much of the '90s and '00s around the locus of the British National Party), the story is told from a variant of this position:

While the BNP attracted a layer of working-class support, it kept some roots in the middle classes, the traditional bedrock of fascism. Griffin was the privately educated son of a businessman; party members included company directors, computing engineers, bankers and estate agents. The genesis of the English Defence League indicates similar foundations... The origin of this group, which was conceived of in a £500,000 apartment, and shaped by a group of anti-Muslim ideologues including a director of a City investment fund and a property developer, suggest a more complex picture.1

The model used here of a middle-class "genesis" followed by a particular method of working-class "attraction" works in a flat, linear way to show what happened to BNP and EDL support over time. However, it leaves the social dynamic which explains why working-class support could be rallied to fascistic ideas unexplored. This is partly because the metaphor of "middle-class" political actors and their "working-class" audience/supporters - who hit approval buzzers via means of poll ratings and votes - only works at a very high level of abstraction. It removes the processes through which discursive elements - say, nationalism, economic protectionism, or anti-immigrant sentiment - are articulated into a "common sense" worldview. In other words, it ignores the way ideas are changed by their use in different contexts - and how working-class use of ideas that originate in other settings will inevitably change how those ideas work, what concerns they appear to address, and what other ideas they come articulated with. A working-class racist ideology is not that same as a middle-class one. More than this, the two rarely exist in splendid isolation from one another, but exist in conflict. Racism is not a monolithic phenomenon but is in fact usually highly internally explosive.

As a demonstration of this point take UKIP, whose leadership and membership is, much more than the BNP ever was, a party of the professions: founded by an LSE professor (Alan Sked); led by a former commodities broker (Nigel Farage); their support base being initially rural, elderly, and well-off. Yet, as Robert Ford and Matthew J. Goodwin show in their exhaustive book Revolt on the Right, UKIP's growth as a party has been fuelled by their ability to invade working-class constituencies and build support among poorer voters. The social and economic transformations of the last thirty years have

hit particular groups in British society very hard: older, less skilled and less well educated working-class voters. These are the groups we call the 'left behind' in modern Britain... as Britain has been transformed, the relentless growth of the highly educated middle classes has changed the strategic calculus [of the mainstream parties]. Both Labour and the Conservatives now regard winning support from middle-class swing voters as more important than appealing to these struggling left behind voters... The emergence of UKIP changes the game...2

Two things are striking here: first, the explanation of working-class support for UKIP - i.e. that a liberal, cosmopolitan elite is being challenged by a conservative and 'left behind' mass - is based on largely the same assumptions made by the right themselves: Bruno Megret, "a key Front National strategist", was responsible for recasting the BNP's rhetoric and image during the 2000s in terms of a conflict, in his own words, between "nationalism and cosmopolitanism, between identity and internationalism."3 This is odd enough for an account that purports to critique popular support for the radical right (be it UKIP or the BNP). Second, it frames both the "working class" and "middle class" as relatively stratified social actors with discrete political opinions based upon some identifiable social and economic interests. If UKIP attracts a good deal of "working-class support" it must be because UKIP is coming to represent the real (or at least apparent) self-interest of the working class. On the other hand, Trilling's strategy of viewing support for the radical or extreme or even fascist right as emanating from declasse, ex-working-class or lower-middle-class voters who cannot be assumed to represent the interests of some "authentic" proletariat simply won't do either. This leads to an interminable cycle of attributing views to classes in a static, expressive way. Both are in a sense victims of class determinism: they see class interest as emanating from some material or ideal conditions and attempt to make ideas and ideologies hang on those interests, in one or other direction.

Trilling does however provide an excellent example of what happens to relatively homogeneous communities when placed under extreme market pressures. Becontree in Barking and Dagenham is an estate of 100,000 people, with some 27,000 homes built to house workers at the local Ford factory. It is the largest of its kind in the world and was at one point entirely council owned. Yet when the Thatcher government introduced the Right to Buy schemes in which council-housing started being sold-off; when Ford began mechanising or internationalising production; and when the Big Bang of finance and property speculation in the nearby City, leading to rising house prices, kicked in, people started selling up. Private landlords scooped up family homes, divided them up very cheaply into flats, and rented them out to as many people as they could fit in them. The urban poor - often immigrants - in the process of being shipped out of the centre of London due to spiralling housing costs, ended up moving out to places like Becontree, where a newly-minted rental sector awaited them in the form of the privatised homes that had once been the preserve of privileged Ford workers. Thus the social and ethnic composition of the estate radically altered under financial pressure and privatisation at the very same time as employment in the local factory was dwindling. Racial tensions rose. This area became a prime stomping ground of BNP "community activism" and in 2010 BNP leader Nick Griffin contested the seat for Barking and Dagenham. His party was defeated not by the Labour establishment but by local and national anti-fascist social movements.

Processes of this kind have been theorized by the French philosopher Etienne Balibar, who describes in his essay 'Class Racism' the way in which the working class, which is fundamentally "heterogeneous and fluctuating" since new workers must constantly join it or leave it for higher social ranks, attempts to protect itself from the instabilities of capital processes by making of itself "a 'closed' body".4 In long-standing industries notions of social heredity are invented on the part of working-class communities. Fierce commitments to industry or to union or indeed nation are turned into transcendent principles that structure daily life and give it meaning. Precisely because of the threat posed to social and material stability by capitalist creative destruction, factors that promote social cohesion are privileged. Not only does the working class exist in a contradictory relationship - a relationship of tension and struggle - with other classes "externally"; it is also constituted "internally" by contradictory identifications.

Yet again, however, Balibar's theory of class racism can only grasp the detail of racist thinking - its complex origin and its synthesis of different prejudicial, 'biologizing' or 'ethnicizing' elements - up to a certain point: it conceives of class ideologies as being all-too-whole, almost pre-packaged as they "interpellate" individuals into a discourse that entirely precedes their own involvement. In this conception, the working class doesn't so much construct its own racial discourse as enter into one that pre-exists it. He takes a trans-historical and decontextualised view of racism as emerging necessarily where there is both "an unbridgeable gap between state and nation" and "endlessly re-emerging class antagonisms."5 However, were there not, in Third World liberation movements, many examples of nationalisms that emerged in the context of a faltering state and endlessly re-emerging class antagonisms that precisely did not result in racism? Nationalism is conceived solely as an enemy of the class struggle - and racism is the "internal excess" which follows from it.

Racism is not a single phenomenon that we can isolate in an abstract way from its position of enunciation. Balibar is right to draw a connection between nationalism and racism, though not even ruling-class nationalism is always explicitly racist. The presence of nationalism in public discourse is, in the advanced West, very often a sign of a reactionary current: it would be absurd for the Conservative Party to rename itself the British Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats to come out as the United Kingdom Liberal Democratic Party. They assume that we don't need to be told; that we are all confident enough to not need reminding of their origin. Not so the British National Party or the UK Independence Party. See also that peculiar cultural phantom the "white working class". As specific class fractions experience the vulnerability of a "de-centring" process of immigration and economic and social decline, the implicit is made explicit. What we all implicitly assumed before - that the ruling class is white and British - emerges in discourse; indeed ethno-national identity comes to overdetermine all other elements in the position of enunciation. Ethnicity is fetishized, fixed as the unifying characteristic of the group.

What is it that ultimately allows a variety of different outlooks to be unified under a single party banner? The answer is not, and cannot be, class. UKIP is not popular because racist ideas are inherently popular with either working- or middle-class voters. UKIP supporters differ in a variety of ways from their leadership. Indeed, as Owen Jones has argued, much of UKIP's popular base has views that are diametrically opposed to the long-term, libertarian goals of the leadership. Yet simply telling them that Nigel Farage was privately educated won't make any difference. What is happening between leadership, membership, and popular base here can only be described according to a theory of "articulation". This means that, through impermanent, contingent connections forged between different ideological elements, a social bloc is developing under the banner of UKIP. This social bloc has inherited imperial ideas about deserved British eminence and its generosity to the outside world; Thatcherite ideas about the ethnic and national superiority of the British and of the supreme suppleness and lasting political depth of the British Union; economic-corporatist concerns about working-class prosperity from the 1950s; and libertarian or anti-state social theories from the hard Tory Right. It doesn't take much to see that this set of articulations between very different, even opposed, ideological elements will exist in a state of internal tension and conflict.

From this perspective, ideological elements have no class basis as such. They can be adapted through a process of articulation - through building connections between different ideas - in order to form a social bloc. This is why working-class and middle-class racism do not appear in the same way: racism is adapted to suit its context. Yet it must also be articulated with other ideas - national sovereignty; economic prosperity; the virtues of the community - if it is to form a coherent, pan-societal bloc. That very process of articulation rests, however, on a series of internal tensions which can be negatively exploited by its enemies. Whatever careful balancing act is currently being achieved by UKIP, it can almost certainly be unbalanced by carefully placed blows. Yet, if we would like some more progressive formula of politics to inherit the ground UKIP eventually vacates, there must be a positive, progressive articulation ready to take its place rather than one that simply attacks the right - and the masses - for their racism.

1Trilling, Bloody Nasty People, Kindle location 2590-96
2 Ford & Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, 2014 Kindle location: 491-500
3Trilling, Bloody Nasty People, Kindle location 924
4Balibar, 'Class Racism', in Class, Race, Nation, 212
5Balibar, 'Class Racism', in Class, Race, Nation, 214

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