In an article on race and British cultural studies, Roxy Harris noted that the field’s founders – E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams – ignored “the place of black and brown British subjects in the national polity”. Thompson’s classic 1968 study, The Making of the English Working Class, for example, while covering “topics such as the liberty of ‘the free-born Englishman’” was silent about “the part played by the Empire, the slaves, plantations, the East India Company and so on”.
These great theorists of British society were race-blind.
But it seems that little has been learned from this partial and parochial view of British social and economic history, especially in the writings of a small but vocal group from what we will refer to as “the white Left”.
Since last Friday’s #Brexit vote, where a referendum was held in the UK to determine whether Britain would exit the European Union (EU), Australian writers John Pilger and Jeff Sparrow wrote in New Matilda and Overland respectively that the vote to leave the EU was a knife in the back of neoliberalism (Pilger) and testimony to the success of participatory democracy (Sparrow).
These sentiments are in line with the crowing to be heard from the Left Exit (#Lexit) camp that #Brexit is a nail in the coffin of austerity-Europe. Admonishing those on the Left who voted to remain in the EU as out-of-touch, metropolitan, middle class elite who are comfortable with anti-working class government policy, this brave vanguard presented an analysis that was blind to the fact that Brexit was fought and won on a campaign of racism and xenophobia that played divide and rule with the actual black, brown and white working class.
Tacitly accepting this line, many voices from the white Left, such as that of sociologist and anti-austerity campaigner Lisa McKenzie, repeatedly claimed that to speak of racism was to deride the “real” concerns of ordinary British people. There is no remorse, despite the rapidly unfolding reports of post-Brexit attacks on Eastern Europeans and racialised minorities on the streets of the (dis)United Kingdom.
‘Whenever working-class people have tried to talk about the effects of immigration on their lives, shouting “backward” and “racist” has become a middle-class pastime,’ McKenzie writes in her Guardian opinion piece.
But we do not need to lay the blame for racism at the door of the white working class to nonetheless accept the fact that the cornerstone of Brexit was a fear of immigrants “taking our jobs”, and that “taking our country back” is a vision that never included those already excluded from the national story – that is, the descendants of Britain’s postcolonial immigrants and the more recent arrivals from eastern Europe.
The fact that immigration and multiculturalism were at the heart of a large majority of Leave voters’ concerns – as opposed to capitalist exploitation and democratic deficit – has been borne out. UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, whose supporters David Cameron had been appeasing by calling the Referendum, quite clearly fought on these lines. In fact, it was Farage who, brazenly ignoring the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far right-wing activist, claimed victory “without a single bullet being fired“.
But on the Left too, the dog whistle of anti-immigration sentiment can be heard in the desperate attempt to turn the Brexit campaign to socialist advantage. John Pilger, for example, while admitting in his New Matilda article that today’s refugees were created by “invasions and imperial mayhem”, claims that “all this has now come home to Europe, enriching the likes of Tony Blair and impoverishing and disempowering millions”. While refugees might not be responsible for their own plight, according to Pilger, they nonetheless impoverish and disempower Britons.
We share the sentiments behind the call to heed the utter desolation of the British working class, betrayed over and over by an elite in thrall to its own power and enrichment. But it must be noted that it is black and other racialised people who have lost out most as a result of the UK government’s cuts, and it was middle class voters in the least culturally diverse regions, with no interest in the fortunes of any part of the working class, who mainly voted to leave.
A failure to employ an intersectional analysis linking class and race in a reading of the referendum results is to fall into a racist trap: one that equates the working class with whiteness and conflates a pro-immigration stance with the support of big business interests over the interests of the “everyman”.
Despite years of anti-racist activism, to which they perversely lay claim, today’s white Left pundits are as race blind as Thompson and Williams were fifty years before them.
The reduction of racism to a distraction, or what Sparrow referred to as “identity politics”, is also a failure to take seriously the material capacity of racism, as though the processes of racism were but an abstraction from class politics rather than being productive and destructive in their own right. It is a reduction that implies the battle against racism is about winning back an injured image rather than a stolen country – as if anti-racism politics is about fending off an insult rather than an occupier.
Further, a reading of the Brexit results that explains away the racism of many Leave voters as an understandable reflex in the face of cuts and joblessness is one that is ignorant of the actual history of race. This is particularly galling from an Australian perspective, where it cannot be argued that anything like the European levels of post-2008 impoverishment exists. Nonetheless, deeply embedded systemic racism and visceral everyday racism are a durable feature of Australian public culture.
Race developed in tandem with the expropriation of the majority of the world by Europeans, and is inextricable from the project of dividing the deserving from the undeserving, the desirable from the undesirable. It was a pseudo-scientific taxonomy invented to justify European wealth and domination over the globe. It may play out through situations of deprivation and exploitation in the postcolonial world, but it is not reducible to ‘understandable reactions’ of the have-nots, constantly undercut by Schrodinger’s immigrant. Against the backdrop of such a history, the leftist dismissal of racism as a distraction is a post-racial continuation of that same taxonomy; again justifying European decisions that overwhelmingly impact – and kill – today’s undesirables.
It is here that the abject failure of the white Left discloses itself: in failing to address racism, or reducing it to a diversion from the ‘real’ (and ‘separate’) issue of class exploitation, they once again ignore ‘the place of black and brown British subjects in the national polity’. They might justify it as a necessary cost of some lofty, deferred ideal – The Movement, The Impending Revolution, The People – but outside and against the buy-in of those most affected by the decision, such a gesture is little more than a sacrifice of (predominately) brown bodies for white ideals.
Hardly the materialist politics such groups applaud themselves for.
By Alana Lentin and Mohamad Tabbaa
Alana is Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University. Her website is www.alanalentin.net