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In the second extract from Ignoble Displacement, Stephanie Polsky outlines the continuities of racism and imperialism from Dickens’ London to the present

Ignoble Displacement: Dispossessed Capital in Neo-Dickensian Times’

Extract from Stephanie Polsky, Ignoble Displacement: Dispossessed Capital in Neo-Dickensian Times’ (Zero Books 2015) 321pp

Such arrangements in the Victorian era made possible the divorce of capitalism and imperialism in the public’s imagination, allowing nonetheless for market rule to govern both home and imperial populations. In more recent decades, Jane M. Jacobs argues there have been critical counter-flows to what in the past was ‘a spatial imaginary of British imperialism based on the forceful flow of power from what came to be understood as the “core,” to what was relationally designated as the “periphery”, which in a contemporary situation must be revised to accommodate the definition of a global city’ (5). This global city ‘must be competitive on a new playing field comprised from new global and regional alignments that emerged with the reformation of the world in an era of at least ostensible post-colonialism’ (5). That said, empire is never very far from the culture and imagination that continues to shape London as one of the world’s great cities. Even today most Londoners continue to adopt ‘an internalised view of the city’, which imagines itself as the purveyor ‘of hospitality’, towards ‘those who come to “us”, who remain as “strangers”’ despite their being tolerated ‘within the gate’ (Massey, ‘London Inside-Out’ 64). Jacques Derrida elaborates on the concept of ‘“open cities” (villes-franches) or “refuge cities” (villes refuge)’, when he asks us to think of the cosmopolitan city as a space of meeting, reflecting and sheltering otherness, where the city itself becomes an open refuge, where migrants may seek sanctuary (Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness viii).

Doreen Massey reflects on Derrida’s concept of the open city with the caveat in mind that ‘the geographies of places aren’t only about what lies within them’, and that ‘a richer geography of place acknowledges also the connections that spread out from the metropole: the trade-routes, investments, political and cultural influences; power-relations of all sorts run out from here around the globe and link the fate of other places to what is done in London’ (‘London Inside-Out’ 64). Given this perspective, for Massey ‘this tendency towards inwardlookingness’ belies a truth at the heart ‘of the characterisation of London as a multicultural future city of the world’: that alongside its multiculturalism sits ‘a vast and intricate cultural and economic infrastructure’ that is crucial to the functioning of both ‘neoliberalism and globalisation’ (65). The project of the city of London therefore is disproportionately responsible for managing not only the flow of the world’s global foreign wealth, but equally its poverty. This situation relates both to Britain’s colonial past and to its neoliberal future, which relies on a burgeoning population in London drawn out of the confused movement and violent turmoil of neoliberal globalisation that has left millions of individuals economically destabilised in its wake.

The actions of London as a centre of neoliberal power bears responsibility, in part, as the cause of their hardship if we view it as a city with a much larger impact than we might imagine. The wider geographies of place it has occupied historically continue to hold significant resonance in this present era of globalisation. Given this situation it is possible to conceive that a superficial agenda of multiculturalism and a politics of anti-racism exist on some profound level to distract attention away from the morally unsavoury activities of London’s financial sector and multinational corporations, which can be said to routinely and ruthlessly exploit the wealth of economically weaker nations. It is this, rather than the distinctive character of multiculturalism, that defines the basis of London as a global city and to which it is dependent to guarantee its future success. The majority of Londoners remain oblivious to this reality and therefore ignorance prevails when they attempt to grasp the true dimensions of this state of affairs.

The central tenet of being a global city rests upon the premise of its unremitting expansion as a global financial power. An over-reliance on the financial sector in the formulation of London’s success as a global city has led to gross inequalities, on both a spatial and a social level, which take place as a direct result of the skewed prioritisation of capital over individuals that occurs routinely within the metropolitan area itself. Massey argues that while it is important to recognise that ‘London is the most unequal place in the UK’, it is also crucial to grasp that its ‘internal inequality is intimately linked to its economic structure and its global role’ (‘London Inside-Out’ 67). One aspect of this inequality is the fact that London is profoundly dependent on labour from abroad, including from the global South, to sustain its urban living standards. Workers who have been raised and educated abroad flood into London to secure relatively well-paid employment and in the course of doing so deny their countries of origin the benefit of their labour and contribution of their skills to enhance the status of their native economies. In effect this means that places like ‘India, Sri Lanka, Ghana, South Africa are subsidising the reproduction of London’ (69). This ‘perverse subsidy, flowing to the rich from the poor’, echoes earlier patterns of colonial domination and ‘yet in its postmodern guise is tolerated because this mechanism is able to drape itself in the philosophy of transterritorial labour markets’ (69). Criticism of such practices is deflected by the spectre of racism through the denial of immigration rights to these black and Asian postcolonial nations. Little if anything is ever said about the losses suffered by these same nations when it comes to their workforce, nor how it relates back to the economic legacy of slavery that continues to impact them economically, through these modern-day schemes of labour-plundering by the West. Such practices deny these countries the full benefit of their prior investment in cultivating their native human capital, without a thought given to any form of restitution which might make up for the perversity of this profoundly asymmetrical financial arrangement which slants wealth in the opposite direction of need. It is for this reason that we have to reconsider the expansion of multiculturalism through a prism of economic necessity as opposed to a more banal understanding of London’s diversity, which fails to take into account the potential neocolonial ramifications of its largely diasporic workforce.

This contemporary reality brings us back to Great Expectations, and its emphasis on the barring of former colonial (British) citizens from returning to their ‘mother country’. The British Home Office announced in mid-2013 that it is going ahead with a plan ‘to force some visitors from India, Nigeria, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh to pay a £3,000 bond for a visitor visa allowing them to stay in the UK for up to six months’ (Sparrow). The initiative is coupled with the introduction of other measures of racial intimidation, which include the ‘Go Home’ van campaign, which echoes the National Front graffiti slogans of the 1970s and features the message: ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’. This campaign is targeted at poor, racially mixed urban areas, as are ‘the immigration raids on tube stations … which according to Doreen Lawrence and eyewitness accounts, have involved racial profiling’ (Sparrow). In addition to this, the Home Office wants to charge non-EU migrants for healthcare and to require private landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants, opening the door to further incidents of racialised discrimination and public abuse. These initiatives, combined with their inflammatory promotion through recent political discourse on the part of the Conservatives and UKIP, represent an increasing politicisation of Home Office policy. Fears about immigration are now routinely exploited for desired electoral gain, while inciting a local atmosphere of intimidation for migrants and people of colour. The Home Office’s hostility towards migrants takes on a distinctive racial and economic bias when we consider the government’s enthusiasm for appointing mainly white immigrants from the Common Wealth to senior appointments within Britain with little controversy or alarm. Today in Britain a white Canadian is governor of the Bank of England, a white New Zealander (who failed his accountancy exams) is head of the publicly owned RBS, a white Australian lobbyist is head of Tory electoral strategy and he has a white American as his deputy (Sparrow).

The Home Office’s tacit establishment of such racial and class hierarchies in determining the ‘right’ sorts of economic migrant, does a great deal to enliven the climate of fear and discrimination against what is perceived as the ‘wrong’ sort. Today London’s migration trend echoes postwar Britain in the early 1960s, insofar as ‘the free flow of capital is followed inevitably by the flow of labour, as people move from areas of forced economic decline to wherever there is a prospect of work. Employers benefit from cheaper labour but the migrants are blamed for displacing unskilled workers and competing for scarce resources in housing and health’ (Philo, ‘Capital’s role in the economic crisis’). This trend continues because of a concentration of wealth at the top; wherein ‘the £4.5 trillion owned by the top 10%’, which could ‘easily pay off the national debt four times or finance re-skilling, infrastructure, green technology and much else’, remains taxably unaccounted for by an equally elite class of politicians and media who require no accountability as regards the source of these earnings (Harris, ‘The Tories Are Creating a Hostile Environment’). Instead they opt to fervently condemn the migrants, refugees and other victims of the system as the parties responsible for Britain’s contemporary social and economic crisis. UKIP tells us explicitly that this surplus population has to be in some way shipped out voluntarily or by ‘enforced return’.

It is here finally that we turn back to the figure of Magwitch and how his character might be projected onto an understanding of the present debate around migration. James Rhodes argues that contemporary British society would wish to identify itself as postracial. Much evidence to the contrary suggests that whiteness remains the universal guideline for the construction of societal norms, and moreover that they persist in reifying white privilege, even if a certain class of whiteness must be disadvantaged ‘to diminish the significance of racial stratification, obscuring the disproportionate rates of white poverty in comparison to that of black and minority ethnic groups’ (Rhodes 64). This common feature of poverty allows the emphasis to shift from race to class, as an explanation for ‘social, cultural and economic marginalisation’, which allows for the invocation of marginalised white identities to be ‘paradoxically used as evidence of a raceless society, or at least a society where the significance of race is declining’ (64). The advancement of multiculturalism goes hand in hand with the advancement of global capitalism, though few in British society are prepared to admit overtly that the recent financial crisis is also a racial crisis, wherein both financial and racial privileges are being compromised in what appears to be an epoch-defining shift towards larger inequalities across the full spectrum of society. Because of the general unwillingness to address these forms of inequality at their material level, immigration and multicultural policy debates are made to stand in for that vital discussion, with the consequence being that certain whites are now being justified in their exclusion from their former position of privilege. We are told by prominent politicians and mainstream media commentators that this white underclass, which was formerly described as the ‘working class’, can no longer be defined as such because it is effectively sustained by the welfare state and through such dependence has devolved into a uncultivated underclass stereotypically associated with a criminalised form of ‘blackness’. Such a racialised logic accords perfectly with a neoliberal discourse that utterly disavows the relationship between increased global competition and scant local resources as the real culprit in their progressive marginalisation.

The coverage of the riots of August 2011 frequently referenced the ‘whiteness’ of many of the individuals involved, while making no mention of the fact that they started roughly one year on from the Coalition government’s first large-scale welfare spending cuts. Writing in The Independent, Michael McCarthy concluded that, the riots were ‘a multiracial phenomenon. There were plenty of black rioters; there were plenty of white rioters, too. But what united them was the abandonment of all restraint and the cultural norms which had once been so powerful in British society were irrelevant to them’ (qtd. in Rhodes 49). On 12 August 2011, the historian David Starkey stated his belief that the events demonstrated how some sections of the white population ‘have become black’, as ‘a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion, and black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is whole false, it’s this Jamaican patois which has been intruded in England and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country [sic]’ (BBC News, ‘England riots’). This group of working-class whites was thusly stigmatised for failing to adhere to the dominant ‘white’ norms and practices, associated by the English middle-class with respectability. Much of the media fanfare around this class has been preoccupied by themes of interracial contamination and racial degeneracy, which today, three years after the riots, remain central to such representations of the white underclass.

Through such rhetoric, it is possible to justify a system of discrimination that is no longer explicitly hinged on a biological racism, but instead on a cultural racism, wherein whites might be accused of separating themselves from their racial assignment by voluntarily adopting the values, needs and motivations stereotypically assigned to ‘black’ culture. Moreover, ‘such discursive constructions of whiteness seek to displace racism and enduring attachments to nativist forms of racial identity from the centre to peripheries of whiteness. In doing so modern forms of whiteness are presented as modern, multicultural, and even “postracial”’ (Rhodes 65). Those who remain white but are peripheral to white privilege are then invoked as a threatened class requiring protection, so not as to be pitted against a tide of (black) migrants in the competition for the limited state resources directed at them as a disadvantaged class within the spectrum of ‘whiteness’. The belief that the social position of minority/migrant groups should never exceed those of poor whites ‘is based on a premise “of some sort of priority citizenship,” in which it is assumed that groups such as the white working class “should be doing better”’ (66). In this neoliberal schema, those who fail to maintain their position of racial entitlement are confined to a zone of economic illegitimacy through their own actions, and as such their lives of intense hardship and poverty should not warrant care or valuation. The government’s feinted moral outrage at their existence allows them to more easily dehumanise those who suffer most under their draconian budgetary reforms.


Ignoble Displacement: Dispossessed Capital in Neo-Dickensian Times will be published by Zero Books in September, and this extract is taken from the chapter, ‘Cosmopolitan Fortunes: Imperial Labour and Metropolitan Wealth in Dickens’s Great Expectations which is available to read here.