Racism, Liberty and the War on Terror
September 18, 2006 — Comment
Written by A. Sivanandan
Below we reproduce the keynote address to the conference on Racism, Liberty and the War on Terror (held on 16 September at Conway Hall) by A. Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations.
This conference is the end-product of a series of lunchtime seminars held at the IRR, to discuss the impact of anti-terrorist legislation on civil liberties and race relations with particular reference to refugees, asylum seekers and the Muslim community.
Hence the subjects under discussion at this conference and the discussants themselves arose directly out of those seminars, which showed us that a unity of purpose could be achieved despite a diversity of struggle if we will only give ear and heart to each other’s causes and not enclose ourselves within our own.
We may disagree about ideology, belief or political line. But this above all we have in common: a common, visceral hatred of injustice, all sorts of injustice. That is the highest common factor that binds us.
And now globalisation, with its free market system and imperial ideology has thrown up the objective circumstances which, in showing the relationship between our struggles, demand that we connect them. The way that globalisation has altered the role of the state, for instance, from welfare state to market state and so altered so many aspects of our lives. Or globalisation and the displacement of whole populations leading to forced migration and the consequences of that; globalisation and its racisms and their fall-outs; globalisation and the creation of unending poverty in the midst of growing prosperity, globalisation and imperialism – and war.
Hence, the struggles against globalisation and its ills are not separate struggles. The globalisation that throws up our several ills is also the globalisation that connects our resistances. In fighting our specific causes we need also to be aware of the common cause they spring from and address ourselves to both at once – and so forge the alliances we need to win the battle. For globalisation is a complete system and unravelling one strand of it at a time does not unravel the whole. Single issue struggles may usher in piecemeal reform but not radical change.
That will do for the evangelical stuff. Now for the analysis that makes that evangelism material.
Take a look at the issue of immigration, for instance, and the different groups tackling the different problems thrown up by immigration laws and asylum policies – from incarceration and detention and deportation to deprivation, destitution and death – organisations such as JCWI, NCADC, BID, Black Women’s Rape Action project, Medical Justice Network, Campaign to Close Campsfield, the Yarl’s Wood Campaign, Statewatch, ILPA, CAMPACC, Stop Political Terror, Inquest, regional refugee networks and asylum-seeker-led campaigns – almost all of whom are represented here today. But they all address issues which originate in or derive from the policies of the government and strictures of the state. And the state in the global era is no longer, primarily, a nation state working on behalf of its people but a servitor of the global economy run by multinational corporations and the market. We have moved, in other words, from the welfare state of late industrial capitalism to the market state of global capitalism. If the nation state was the vehicle of industrial capitalism, the market state is the vehicle of global capitalism. It is the market, for instance, that sets the agenda for government policies on immigration and decides who are needed for the economy and who are not. And on that reckoning, asylum seekers are considered so much disposable waste and treated as such. Whereas the real waste is the waste of their talents and education.
But what has landed refugees and asylum seekers on these shores is the displacement of whole populations caused by the marauding incursions of global corporations into Third World countries in search of new markets, cheap labour, raw material, natural resources. OIL. (‘Blood is thicker than water’, a wag once remarked, ‘but oil is thicker than both’.) To be successful, however, such incursions need the backing of friendly regimes in these countries. And what induces these regimes to be friendly is first the soft-soaping aid and development packages offered to them by the World Bank and the IMF, and the expertise and advice that come with their programmes, such as Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPS) – which require the withdrawal of state subsidies for education and social services in favour of debt repayment (sops for SAPS). All of which ties the dependent countries into further dependency. If that doesn’t work, there is always regime-change – through assassination or economic sanctions, effected this time by the government of the United States and its satraps as agents of the multinationals. Or, failing that, through bombing the hell out of the offending regime and its people in pursuance, ostensibly, of a mission of mercy to save them for free elections and democracy. If, however, they, the people, fail to vote-in a friendly regime, they’ll be bombed out of existence again, to make sure they understand that their liberators are our terrorists, and get it right the next time round.
That, in sum, is the trajectory of American-British imperialism today. Claiming to be democracies, however, and needing therefore to obtain the sanction of their electorates for their actions (often after the event) the American and British governments spin out false information based on faulty or twisted intelligence within a fundamentalist philosophy of good and evil, resurrecting a culture of primitive racism (we good, them evil) surrounded by a politics of spurious fear promoted on the back of the real fears of 9/11 and 7/7 and braced by anti-terrorist legislation. (That’s a long sentence, but I put it like that to show the circuits of power.) All of which leads, on the one hand to the degradation of British values that the government so hypocritically upholds, and signifies, on the other, the Islamic war cloud hanging over your heads and the Muslim terrorist in your midst, squeezed in the tube train next to you.
Already immigration legislation had selected out asylum seekers for indefinite detention without trial, and summary deportation. Now anti-terrorist legislation is extending the same treatment to those who have already obtained the right to remain – and even to settled Asian communities. And the convergence of the two – the war on asylum and the war on terror – one the unarmed invasion the other the armed enemy within, has produced the idea of a nation under siege, and, on the ground, a racism that cannot tell a settler from an immigrant, an immigrant from an asylum seeker, an asylum seeker from a Muslim, a Muslim from a terrorist. All of us non-whites, at first sight, are terrorists or illegals. We wear our passports on our faces – or, lacking them, we are faceless, destitute, taken from our children, voided of the last shreds of human dignity.
But more insidious still, is the damage done to the whole fabric of society and to the fundaments of democracy – constraining freedom of speech and assembly, undermining the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, threatening the separation of powers and the conventions of an unwritten constitution, and Magna Carta. And then there is the increasing concentration of power in central government accompanied by the weakening and dissipation of local government – which is the closest thing there is to direct democracy, giving people a say in their own lives and engaging them in the political process. Finally, there is a whole range of laws (3,000 new criminal offences since the government came into power – i.e. one a day) which penalise anything from minor anti-social behaviour to demonstrating within a kilometre of Parliament, thereby treating largely social problems to criminal solutions and ignoring the distinction between crime itself and the social causes of crime – which you’ll remember was the avowed position of a government that once was Labour.
It is that adamantine resolve to deny the connection between cause and effect that has also prevented the government from seeing that in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the systematic dismemberment of Palestine, it is they and their American bosses who have declared ‘jihad’ on Muslims the world over and given sustenance to terrorism. And having refused to acknowledge it, they have no choice but to stir up more and more fear in order to pass more and more draconian legislation that further erodes our liberties.
And in the interstices of an increasingly authoritarian state sprouts the culture of nativism, white ethnicism, in search of a flat colourless, etiolated homogeneity, built on the shifting sands of assimilation and based on shifty British values. Inevitably, multiculturalism, which to me means simply unity in diversity, and which this country uniquely achieved in the ’60s and ’70s in the course of anti-racist struggles, has been ditched in favour of assimilation, meaning absorption of the lesser into the greater. To make the term palatable, however, the government and the media have taken to substituting the word integration and/or cohesion for assimilation. The precise meaning of integration in practice, however, was set out as far back as 1966 by Roy Jenkins, an enlightened Labour Home Secretary who defined it ‘not as a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’.
As for British values of tolerance, fair play, individual freedom – where, one might ask, do they count in the practice of government and its ministers? And one could reply with Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, ‘it would be a good idea’. Why, besides, have the principles of the Enlightenment – liberty, equality, fraternity – not been extended in their fullness to the non-white peoples of the world? Surely, what we should be addressing in the era of rule by global corporations is not British values but universal values – embodied in Human Rights. Yet, it is this government which is making every effort to withdraw from the Human Rights Act, to which, in a moment of old Labour conscience, it acceded.
In the final analysis, though, all this talk of British values, social cohesion and individual responsibility is meaningless, given the government’s commitment to the free market system, the sine qua non of globalisation. The market speaks to profit, not to values, to social control not to social cohesion, to personal greed not to individual responsibility. Its life-blood is privatisation not public ownership; its heart beats to the tune of giant corporations. It pauperises the Third World and feeds them scraps from the imperial table; it pauperises a third of its own people and feeds them scraps of social reform. It weighs up personal relationships in a balance-sheet of profit and loss – till we no longer listen to each other or hear the pain of the world. The market corrupts, and the free market corrupts freely.
That is what I mean when I say that globalisation is a complete system, and unravelling one strand of it does not unravel the whole. But the ills it throws up are so clearly connected – and overlap – that our struggles against them demand to be connected too. The fight against racism is connected to the fight against immigration laws, asylum and anti-terrorism, anti-terrorism to racism (anti-Muslim racism in particular) asylum and immigration, and so on. And they are all related in one way or another to the erosion of civil liberties, imperial foreign policy and the rise of the authoritarian state.
Or let me come at it from the other end. Let’s leave the big picture for a moment, look at the enormity of the little everyday things that are happening to us. An old man, a life-long member of the Labour Party is muscled out of the party conference just because he heckled the Foreign Secretary. (An individual error, maybe, but where does the authority come from?) A 47-year-old is asboed and sent to prison for 60 days because he sang too loud in his Housing Association flat. Two Asians are taken off a flight because passengers found they were wearing too much clothing and speaking Arabic. (It happened to be Urdu.)
On another level, when did you ever hear of a neighbouring country kidnapping and imprisoning your elected MPs just because it didn’t like the colour of their politics? The sheer arrogance of it is mind-boggling, and yet Britain’s ethical foreign policy closes its eyes to it because Israel is the corner-stone of American-British imperialism in the Middle East. Not only is Britain moving towards an authoritarian regime; it is promoting authoritarian regimes elsewhere.
Wherever you look there is something rotten gnawing at the vitals of a free society. But it is hidden behind a façade of fake prosperity, lies made feasible by fear, and empty talk of democracy and values. But values come out of rights. And the rights that the struggles of the industrial working class won for us and the values they bred, are under attack. And it is up to us campaigners, dissidents, insurgents, as custodians of those rights and values, to connect with each other’s struggles and take up the fight.
But how do we make the connections in practice and how do we turn that into a movement? Of course there’s no strategy that is valid for all of time. But my experience in the Black, anti-racist struggles of the ’60s and ’70s – when we made Black the colour of our politics and not the colour of our skins – when we fought on the factory floor and in the community, as a people and a class, and as a people for a class – tells me that only in being involved and supporting each other’s struggles that we can forge an organic relationship between us, not just ad hoc coalitions.
We cannot let ourselves be bogged down in our particularities and miss the wood for the trees. We need to have an international perspective even as we take on national or local issues. We need to move, in our thinking, from the particular to the general and the general to the particular, both at once. And it is then that we can successfully turn individual cases into social issues, social issues into civic causes, and civic causes into a national movement.
This keynote address is available to listen to in MP3 format.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.