Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New dynamics in racism

Racism is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to one part of the globe. But at different times and in different places its contours shift, and its dynamics can change. Consequently those who oppose racism have to rethink and reappraise their approach and priorities.

The economic meltdown has sparked government ministers, never ones to feel shy about using the immigration stick, into directly counter posing migration and the economy. The first person to do this recently was probably Mr Woolas but Home Secretary Jackie Smith is in the process of tightening up the visa requirements to enter this country from a whole swathe of countries. This, on the back of tougher citizenship regulations, it's clear that the government is taking this opportunity to make life harder for many migrant workers.

Far from being the preserve of working class people racism is present in every strata of society - I'm looking at you Carol Thatcher. The government is attempting not just to legitimise fears but actually seeks to promote them. Anything that turns criticism away from the government and their friends is worthwhile in their eyes.

Its not all doom and gloom of course. The possibility of an earned amnesty for illegal immigrants in London, courtesy of the Greens getting it onto the agenda, certainly points towards those who don't swallow the idea that the financial crisis means attacking the conditions of migrants.

We live in a far more cosmopolitan country than the one I grew up in, where "mixed race" relationships are accepted without comment, where the number of foreign born workers is far higher without rivers of blood anywhere to be seen, where the most outrageous forms of racial abuse are no longer accepted as part and parcel of everyday life.

Unfortunately, whilst many forms of racism have declined, others have moved to fill their place. Anti-Muslim bigotry is pretty much a modern phenomenon, stoked by the tabloids and the war on terror and sometimes given some kind of secular or progressive gloss by those who should know better. Whilst you would never see a Sun frontpage attacking "blacks" these days illegal immigrants, Poles and Muslims are still fair game so we, the left, shifted our focus in the defence of vulnerable communities.

With new protests by unemployed workers, fighting for the right to work, it's important that any support we give to that struggle does not play into the new dynamics of the period. Partly because migrants are not the enemy and any restriction on movement will make workers' lives worse not better. Partly because it can legitimise the right's response to these actions and allow what could be a victory to be turned into something far darker.

It's no use complaining that the protesters don't "really" mean it, that they are simply expressing class interests in a nationalised way. The problem is, of course, that they are doing both - raising legitimate worries about the availability of jobs and calling for a prioritisation of British workers over imported labour. The unemployment figures are not rising due to foreigners, Christ knows who would do the jobs they left unfilled if they were all to decide to leave the country. They are rising due to wider economic problems.

This is a crisis of capital and is, in general, taking place at a higher level than those companies that are laying off workers. Tough regulation of the financial sector, (re-)nationalisations, international co-operation, abolition of the anti-union laws, investment in the "real" economy are all good old fashioned leftist ideas who's time has come once again - and if we ignore them then all that will be left is for workers to fight each other over the scraps.

If we allow a lack of vision on our part to give free reign to those who would pit ordinary people against each other then, well, that's no good at all. We live in a time when fears over migrant labour could be extremely damaging to our society, and cause great personal pain to some individuals. Fighting for the right to work is good a cause, no question, but the context puts a great deal of pressure on us to ensure we don't swap one problem for another.

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