In the 1880s, Irish immigrant workers were blamed for unemployment. In the 1930s, it was Jewish workers. In the 1970s, Afro-Caribbean workers. Whenever capitalism enters crisis, racism is ratcheted up.
It is not difficult to understand why. Shortage - of jobs or affordable houses, of hospital beds or school places, of sufficient income to pay bills - induces insecurity and fear. This can go in two directions. It can turn into anger against the system and collective resistance. Or it can pit the poor against the poor.
Capitalism divides us all. Each of us must get a job and earn a living in a competitive ‘labour market’. We might wish it were otherwise. We might resent being forced to compete against other people. But the system pitches us all into a struggle to survive.
The danger for the ruling class is that we unite against their system. So they have a class interest in fostering division. They stress the competition. It is coded in words like ‘individualism’, ‘effort’, ‘achievement’, ‘getting on’, and ‘bettering oneself’. The underlying message is that life is about competing with others and getting ahead of them.
Racism is the alter ego of ‘bourgeois individualism’ (or selfishness). An obvious way to ‘get on’ is to eliminate rivals altogether. Because capitalism operates a competitive labour market which pits worker against worker, and because the ruling class fosters the divisions inherent in this situation, a large dose of racism is inherent in the system. But in periods of crisis, this can sometimes swell into a powerful political force.
Racist ideology follows convenient fracture-lines. Who is targeted is secondary to the fact that someone is targeted. Whose places of worship get firebombed is secondary to the need for the system to direct the anger at the base of society against the poor, not the rich and the system. So the form changes, but the content is always the same.
The arguments against Irish workers in the 1880s, Jewish workers in the 1930s, and Afro-Caribbean workers in the 1970s were the same: ‘they’ are taking ‘our’ jobs, houses, and benefits.
Today, the most convenient fracture-line is Islamophobia. Because of the need to justify imperialist wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims have been demonised as potential ‘terrorists’.
Politicians set up schemes to ‘combat violent extremism’ and surround Muslim communities with CCTV cameras. The police mount high-profile raids to eliminate ‘terrorist cells’. The media peddle stories about the veil, halal meat, arranged marriages, and radical Islamist preachers. The message? There is an enemy within against whom we must protect ourselves.
There is a direct connection between state and media racism and organisations like the BNP and the EDL. ‘Official’ Islamophobia creates an ideological atmosphere in which fascist and proto-fascist politics can grow.
Muslims are not the only targets. The persecution of Roma people is rising across Europe. Mob violence against Roma settlements is frequent in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Slovak Republic. Police round-ups and mass finger-printing of Roma have been carried out in Italy. Illegal deportations have taken place in France.
Half a million Roma were murdered in Hitler’s extermination camps. There are dark echoes of a terrible past in European racism today.
More generally, there is a relentless drip-drip-drip of insinuation and lying about a supposed ‘problem of immigration’.
Asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, torture, and murder are labelled ‘bogus’ and locked up in detention-centres. Clearly, they are part of ‘the problem’.
So, too, are the far larger numbers of ‘economic migrants’: people moving to work in Britain. ‘Foreigners get 77% of new jobs in Britain,’ trumpets the Express. ‘Foreign workers surge by 114,000,’ proclaims the Mail. ‘Record four out of five jobs going to foreigners,’ states the Telegraph.
The media duly announces that politicians must address ‘the concerns of voters’. The politicians compete to be ‘tough on immigration’. The Tories announce an ‘immigration cap’. The problem is not the rich, the banks, and a busted system; it is poor people trying to get a job.
Capitalism divides. Crisis intensifies the divisions. The rich and their media stoke the resentments.
As banks crash, states go bankrupt, and the world economy sinks into slump, it is not just the shadow of the Great Depression that haunts us. It is also the shadow of the Nazi death-camps.
To fight the cuts, we must unite, build a mass movement, and engage in a collective struggle to make a better world. To accept the cuts is invite a growing infection of division, racism, and the risk that the poor will turn on the poor.
Coalition of Resistance Conference
Saturday November 27
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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