A few months ago Channel 4 had a section on their ‘4 OD’ internet site, titled ‘Can we live together?’ There were four programmes, to do with the BNP, the EDL and Bradford. I won’t go into what they were about, I’m sure you get the gist. The question the section raised, ‘Can we live together?’, set in a sensationalist (even racist) context, frames a whole range of issues in a way that is a gift to the right.
This invidious question, in all its facets, is therefore very much in the public domain. The debate is not just British; it is a question that is today being raised by forces of the right all over Europe. Moreover, this is not a new discourse, but a recurring one from well before Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, continuing through Margaret Thatcher’s ‘swamped by people of a different culture,’ to David Cameron’s attempt to reinvigorate the topic, with his speech in 2009 proclaiming the ‘failure of multiculturalism’. Cameron’s speech was made on the same day the EDL marched through Luton, but he made no mention of the potential threat the far right still poses to British society. Cameron’s choice of words is unsurprising, looking as he is to divert attention away from the agenda of this Tory government.
The prime minister’s ‘critique’ of multiculturalism came at a dangerous time, during which the economic downturn has been helping to fuel the recent resurgence of the right in Europe and the ‘war against terror’ has given license to all kinds of new racism and Islamophobia. Defending Multiculturalism becomes ever more important in this context. The book is a selection of essays written by a range of figures, among them Ken Livingston and Zita Holbourne, and edited by Hassan Mahamdallie, one of the founding members of Unite Against Fascism. The book maps why multiculturalism has, in fact, not failed, and attempts to tackle some of the more commonly held myths about immigrants and their awkward dance with the British state.
The essays range from discussing the varied European assaults on multiculturalism, to examining different notions of ‘integration’. Of particular interest is social geographer Danny Dorling’s piece. Dorling refutes the usual arguments about immigrants draining the welfare state. Accommodation being one of the most common bones of contention, Dorling points out that the UK has ‘never had as much housing’ as we do now, and yet that we have ‘never shared it out as badly’, meaning it is not immigrants but the wealthy who own two or three properties that are creating the housing shortages today. He also suggests that had it not been for immigration to cities like Bradford, mass house demolition would have had to have taken place as it did in Glasgow (p.90). Furthermore, commonly levelled accusations of ‘self-ghettoisation’ hold no water as ‘residential concentrations have resulted more from poverty, fear of racism, natural growth and ‘white flight’ (p.62).
When David Cameron attacks multiculturalism, he intends these arguments to come up. It is part of the wider Tory attack on the welfare state and feeds into their long-held agenda of dismantling it. While the Tories keep the wider working class in their cross-hairs, it is no coincidence that migrants are also generally working class; thus new migrants and old become the easiest sector of the working class to target. However, to credit Cameron with this idea would be to do a disservice to generations of hard-working bourgeois who have been tireless in their efforts to divide and rule their own people as well as the subjects in the colonial territories they have occupied. In reference to English reactions to Irish migrants in the 1800s, Marx noted that the native ‘becomes a tool of the aristocrats’ – the very same aristocrats that have imported cheap labour from abroad (p.126). Yet, instead of turning against his employer, the native affirms his ties to the indigenous aristocrat by turning against the immigrant. These tendencies have been intrinsic to the notions of ‘nation’. A ‘nation’ could only be built on the ‘equality’ of culture and so this ‘culture’ became the ‘common outlook that could obscure the class differences’ (p.125).
In order to justify imperialism, it was also necessary for the British people to feel superior to the people their government had colonised. Racism, whether ‘moral’ or in cruder forms of superiority, has always served as a justification for imperialism. This was shown, for instance, in a 1918 in a survey that ‘highlighted ‘race prejudice’ as especially strong towards the colonised people’ (p.136). Defending Multiculturalism explains why it is through this two-pronged attack, against the working class in this country and in aid of imperialism abroad, that Muslims are singled out for inspection today. The widest range of immigrants to the UK can be labelled ‘Muslim’, from the old Pakistani mill-workers to East African Indian traders, to modern-day Somali asylum-seekers. These various groups have far less in common than people like to imagine. Yet, just as the subjects of various parts of the Empire were dehumanised in order to legitimise foreign control and occupation, so contemporary imperialism adopts similar strategies as it seeks to control the Middle East, (more ‘Muslims’, of course, but, again, very different from Bangladeshis in the East End). Yet differences between Muslims matter little to those that seek to attack them as a block, or to those, like the Tories, who are still juggling the twin agendas from the nineteenth century: attacking the working-class at home and fomenting imperial control abroad.
Understanding this history and rationale for governmental racism is important. Edie Friedman’s chapter on Jewish refugees in the early 1900s draws interesting parallels to today. Hassan Mahamdallie’s discussion of South Asian youth movements in the 70s and 80s, fighting against fascism in the UK, give us some important lessons about tackling fascism today. Mahamdallie talks of the unity that existed between black minorities and white anti-racists that has been missing in the last two decades. One of the reasons for this lack of unity is attributed to state funding being ‘increasingly organised on ethnic and religious lines’ (p.146). Without wanting to use the term too often, hints of divide and rule again appear. Staying united is essential, so when fighting the EDL and the Tories, this history of unity needs to be revived.
While obviously all aspects of multiculturalism cannot be covered, omission can be a dangerous thing if that omission is of a wide sector of the people one intends to defend. Much of the book talks about the new racism the mainstream elite has encouraged, but which the EDL is able to use to target Muslims. However it should not be assumed that just because there is a new racism against Muslims that the old racism, especially against Afro-Caribbeans, has disappeared. There is mention in the book of Afro-Caribbeans ‘remaining economically marginal’ (p.67), but apart from that there is an absence of discussion on the problems they face. When defending multiculturalism it is vital that we defend it on all on fronts. The classic racism that fuelled Brixton in ‘81, Broadwater Farm in ‘85 and the Tottenham riots of last year needs to be addressed in a book like this. After all, the EDL and Cameron may target Muslims, but their racism runs deeper and wider, and while the Tories retain their old colonial prejudices their battle remains against the working class.
Defending Multiculturalism aims to be a guide for the movement. In this movement it is imperative that we show Channel 4 and all the rest of the ‘doubters’ that we can and do not only live together, but resist attempts to divide us. A start would be to roll back the loaded questions of identity and integration, and raise instead questions of discrimination and structural racism, while joining together to fight the class war of the austerity agenda.
A demonstration against the EDL has been called in Luton on 5 May by We are Luton and Unite Against Fascism. Details can be found here.
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