Posted Under: Communities,England,Human Rights,Identity,Islamophobia,London,Minorities,Protest,Revolution
“He thinks we’re all bloody bourgeois” scoffed Austen Ivereigh, as he puffed on his Montecristo in a trendy bar in King’s Cross, whilst reading aloud David Broder’s response to yesterday’s Strangers Into Citizens demonstration. “This looks like it was written thirty years ago,” he chortled to himself. Ivereigh is a founder of the Strangers into Citizens campaign, and seems to be a staunch reformist. In many ways I don’t think Broder’s piece goes nearly far enough, although it certainly seems to be along the right lines. The issues that this protest brought up have significance above and beyond the immediate violence of the current immigration system, as they also reflect and comment on the government’s policies with regards to minority communities living in England. Broder is certainly correct to take apart the nonsense of a one-off amnesty at the expense of having a thought-out ideological positional praxis on the structures of oppression that face refugees and asylum seekers.
The issues of minorities and the structural violence of borders are intimately connected; the way our government treats asylum seekers and refugees is subsumed in a wider context of the way that they treat minority groups. Whilst they consistently claim to value diversity and cohesion, the reality is that government policies have actually increased segregation, whilst undermining the fight against oppression both directed toward and within these communities. It is worrying that the Strangers Into Citizens campaign fully buys into this rhetoric uncritically. One of the most interesting documents on this issue in recent years was produced by Women Against Fundamentalism and Southall Black Sisters as a submission to the Commission on Integration and Cohesion (of which the first ten pages are most relevant to this debate.) It states,
We are concerned about the wider underlying … that it is the immigrant communities as opposed to the settled communities that need to be ‘integrated’. This implies that immigrant communities are somehow malfunctioning cultures whose values are intrinsically opposed to the so called ‘British’ way of life. New Labour politicians such as Blunkett, Brown and Blair, have often referred to the values of human rights, democracy and fair play – the basis of a shared British culture. Immediately the assumption is that there are a set of fixed and given (unchanging) ‘British’ values that are superior and to which all those who enter the country must subscribe.
And goes on to say
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 was preceded by a white paper entitled ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity.’ The assumption being that internal stability can only be guaranteed if the borders of the country are policed to prevent the influx of (undesirable) migrants and refugees. Immigration and asylum laws and polices have provided the basis for racism to flourish at an institutional level and on the streets.
This reified version of Britishness, somewhat reminiscent of Goodness Gracious Me’s The Coopers (Kapoors) and Robinsons (Rabindranaths) was present in a more pernicious version during the Strangers Into Citizens rally through the waving of the Union Jack, and the singing of God Save The Queen (not the Sex Pistols version.) Of course trying to get a bunch of impoverished immigrants and Catholics to sing this bollocks en masse wasn’t exactly successful, but that was hardly a surprise. I noted that only the first verse was sung, and the “O Lord, our God (the Anglican one?), arise. Scatter her enemies, and make them fall (how relevant to our recent colonial past.) Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks (what was that about valuing diversity?) On Thee our hopes we fix, God save us all (save to mention who does or doesn’t believe in redemption)” was omitted. The point being that this wasn’t just some silly little concession to try to get the Tories to agree with them, but rather that this treatment of Britishness is completely in line with the politics of Strangers Into Citizens. Such assimilation at the expense of cultural identity would seem rather to turn citizens of the world into strangers.
The speeches, too, failed to combat the structural problems with the government’s treatment of minorities as a whole. Time was given to the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, an organisation WAF and SBS describe as “ha[ving] its origins in the sectarian Islamic politics of Pakistan and Bangladesh” and “claim[ing] to represent British Islam [but] has compromised the agenda on preventing extremism.” Other speeches were given to religious leaders who had nothing to say on politics above and beyond the affirmation that we were all people, God’s children to some of them, and one can assume all of God’s children have the right to be British without needing to acknowledge that such “Britishness” has been predicated on hundreds of years of colonialist oppression which continues (of course alongside hundreds of years of legacy of the Magna Carta that is slowly but surely being dismantled.) If only the Union Jack could be redeemed such that it could be value-free. If only our anthem requested that we “unite the human race” rather than “scatter enemies and make them fall.”
Maybe Ivereigh was correct in saying that Broder’s response sounded 30 years old. I personally think it may be worthwhile going a little further back to have a look at Trotsky’s work on the “Transitional Demand“. I know any reader is probably thinking “Oh no! He’s going to go all dogmatic on us now”, but rather than offering some kind of bizarre non sequitur of a defence of the Soviet Union, I just feel that Trotsky’s pamphlet on this matter offers a bit of conceptual clarity to the opposition of the No Borders movement and Strangers Into Citizens.
Trotsky’s concept of the transitional demand is that of a demand that could be met under capitalism but would not be without further consequences on the path to socialism (and I strongly believe that it is only in socialism that we’ll see the abolition of the structures that oppress refugees, asylum seekers, and minority groups.) the ‘transitional demand’ is counterposed with the “minimal demand” of reform. It is easy to map these two onto the two sides of this argument: Strangers Into Citizens maintains the nation, maintains the borders, maintains the structures that asylum seekers endure, whereas the No Borders campaign comes with the ideological baggage of an effective internationalism. On this very issue, Trotsky writes, ‘ ”Defense of the Fatherland?” – But by this abstraction, the bourgeoisie understands the defense of its profits and plunder.’ Strangers Into Citizens do this too with their economic arguments for the regularisation of those without status, rather than an analysis that cuts to the heart of oppression and racism. But Trotsky is not against reform though, as he says we should not “discard the program of the old “minimal” demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness.” But we should “carry on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective.”
It is fair to say that the left has often failed to work effectively within communities, and certainly has less success that church based groups. That is something for the left to work on, but I do not believe that this failure is a consequence of a failure in the politics of the left. Talking to people at yesterday’s event, many felt themselves to be in much more agreement with the “no borders” slogans. The point is that whilst organisations like the Citizen Organising Foundation may be good at getting people out on the street, that is far more a reflection of their extremely competent community work than the soundness of their politics. The crowd at yesterday’s event was a very interesting one, in that it was the true grassroots of the city, but the politics of the organisers was flimsy at best. We have much to learn but also much to add to this movement if strive to make change permanent rather than a one-off amnesty bought in exchange for the future.