We do not want to unite the whole of the anti-racist movement, if that means uniting all prepared to mouth anti-racist platitudes. In fact, writes Paul Demarty, so far as such ‘unity’ exists, our role is to destroy it
At the outset, it is hard not to address what will be - for some - the incongruity of the occasion. This is an article on anti-racism.1 It is, in a sense, about how to do (and how not to do) anti-racism, although I doubt my ‘advice’ will be terribly useful to the struggle as it stands. Its arguments will certainly not compete for sales with the middlebrow, quasi-political self-help books, such as How to be an anti-racist, So you want to talk about race, and so forth.
Exhibit A on that front: I offer this article even though I am, in point of fact, white. I nowadays tick the ‘white Irish’ box on census forms, but things have moved on a little for us western Celts since my mother moved to England at the outset of the Troubles. I have suffered, so far as I can tell, no disadvantage directly pertaining to my ethnic background, apart from the minor inconvenience of having to address the matter on an occasion like this.
Regrettably, it is impossible to address, since a consequence of my argument is that there should be no such incongruity; but, since there is, as it so happens, I am in a bind. Those who agree with me about at least that will be willing to hear me out; those who do not agree will not, but it is those, if I am right, who actually need to hear it.
This is, in the end, the central problem about how the question of race is addressed today; and it is merely the most acute expression of a wider phenomenon. On all manner of questions, we advert first of all to the speaker’s bona-fides before the content of their ideas. This approach stems from the very reasonable idea that those with unavoidable direct experience of particular forms of inequality have by default more understanding about that inequality; those who benefit from such iniquities might just as well not even notice they exist. Yet this idea is only a small part of what is routinely claimed: that anyone who is white, say, however much attention they have given in good faith to the questions at issue with racism, and however cogent their actual arguments, should give way to an appropriate representative of the oppressed. (Exactly what counts as an appropriate representative, of course, is a complicated question, which we will address later.)
This idea, I state bluntly, is foolish. But, in that case, other questions arise: how could an idea so stupid come to grip, it sometimes seems, an entire culture? How is it that western societies seem to be backsliding on racial justice and simultaneously spreading its contemporary signifiers ever further into the cultural mainstream? How could a political trend, whose overriding objective is supposedly diversity, have produced such a sterile, ultra-conformist discourse about its basic concerns? And how can the left get some traction on the issue without being sucked along in the slipstream of this discourse (or, indeed, its opposite: trollish ‘anti-wokeism’)?
To talk about an anti-racist consensus is to take as axiomatic that there are two essential definitions of racism: firstly, the belief or assumption, on the part of human individuals, that some groups are superior in intellect or culture to others on account of their ancestry; and, secondly, the existence of real disadvantages in society at large for members of particular ethnic groups. At its most abstract, the anti-racist consensus holds that these latter disadvantages do exist and should not. It mostly holds the first definition of racism too, though that is a slightly more complicated matter nowadays.
The essential ideas of consensus anti-racism can be stated simply. Firstly: racism is to be defined primarily in my second sense. There are pervasive disadvantages pertaining to the lives of non-white populations in western societies. Secondly: these disadvantages are structural, and moreover carry a self-sustaining structure of their own. They are not to be reduced to some more fundamental set of structures. Therefore, thirdly: as the slogan goes, it is not enough to merely not be racist; one must be anti-racist. For any leftwinger, this must seem a truism, but, since ‘anti-racism’ in this sense means specifically rejecting the idea that structural racism is reducible to anything else, it is in fact at least a potentially controversial claim. Specifically, it is used to object to arguments for universal provision of social services and civil rights, since these in the end do not address inequality between whites and non-whites: they merely ‘reset’ it at a higher baseline.
To call anti-racism a consensus is not, of course, to assert that there do not exist racist ideas or that such ideas are not held by many. It is to assert that these ideas are marginalised - at least in America and Britain, to which these comments are addressed. Vast bodies of civil and criminal law exist to deal with racial discrimination. ‘Hate speech’ is illegal, and so - in principle - is discrimination in employment and similar matters. Tony Sewell’s notorious report on racial disparity in Britain - the one, you remember, that was denounced as a pure piece of gaslighting and an insult to anti-racists everywhere - made sure to herald the great advances that had been won through struggle over the last decades.2 People today are occasionally sacked on account of ‘racist’ statements that would have got them lynched in the old south for racial egalitarianism. Racist utterances, in polite society, begin with ‘I’m not a racist, but …’
Yet racism sprouts like buddleia in the cracks of the consensus. It seems that no level of uniformity among the bourgeois elite is enough: there is always somehow more racism, however much we huff that it has no place in our society. Indeed, when I say that there is a crisis of this consensus, I mean that its mechanisms seem to have stopped working completely, or even become counterproductive.
We need to account for this both in terms of historical sequence and ‘structurally’. In American history, the key turning point is the Civil War and the subsequent defeat of radical reconstruction. The large population of black freedmen in the south was disenfranchised again and reduced largely to semi-serfdom. Strict racial segregation became the norm. Those who escaped to the north faced super-exploitation in industry and popular racism from the white workers with whom they competed for work. Many labour unions excluded black workers.
After World War I, and particularly after the crash of 1929, significant struggles erupted that undermined the grotesque racism of American society. A renewed upsurge in labour militancy caused a shift towards industrial unionism - the new Congress of Industrial Organisations disavowed segregation. Communists began organising among black workers in the deep south, especially Alabama, at extraordinary risk to their own safety. After World War II, these preparatory efforts finally bore fruit, with a civil rights movement that rapidly became unstoppable. It was incorporated into official society, its more radical edges sanded off.
Often this deradicalisation was accomplished by the brutal methods of the secret state; but it also stemmed to some extent simply from defeat of the radicals. Those who had been Maoists in the 1970s faced the collapse of the new communist movement after Sino-American rapprochement resulted in obviously pro-imperialist global policy on the part of Beijing. A sort of anti-racist-cum-anti-imperialist identity politics was one intelligible outworking of that, and it was the version of post-Maoist disillusionment most likely to thrive in the USA.
In Britain, the story starts out rather differently. We never had substantial domestic slavery - that sort of thing we kept out of sight and out of mind. We did, however, have an empire, and an empire demanded a class of colonial administrators - bred in the worst traditions of the English public school, which inculcated little enough knowledge, but plenty of brutalisation and pack mentality. These men were, of course, overwhelmingly racist; any view that what they were actually up to in the colonies was legitimate would have to be. And, by the same token, it was true of imperialist political culture back home: since successive governments were engaged in rampant exploitation of a quarter of the world, and indeed since there were strongly held political views in society that this was wrong, an apologia was necessary, and had in the end to consist of the virtues of European Christian civilisation over the backwardness and ‘savagery’ of Africa, Asia and so on.
Colonialism created inward migration to Britain, and the post-war era - which saw the eclipse of most of the British empire - accelerated this considerably. The residual imperial racism of the ruling class fused with a popular racism among backward workers and petty bourgeois against non-white immigrants. Enoch Powell notoriously exploited such sentiments; and, in the same year he delivered his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, the Labour government issued a more-or-less explicitly racist immigration policy, designed to stop an influx of ethnically-Asian refugees from Kenya. At the same time, the government instituted the first ‘race relations’ legislation to fight discrimination in employment. The result of this muddle was the election of a Tory government, the marginalisation of Powell, the growth of the fascist National Front, and far more vigorous leftwing agitation on the question of racism.
The US and UK ended up at similar destinations via different roads. The state began to manage racist sentiment far more assertively; but a cycle of liberalisation and backlash on the question became key to politics. The contradiction was extremely clear, for example, in the Thatcher years: the government was not shy of dog-whistle rhetoric, which rather cut the far right’s electoral support off at the knees; at the same time, the infrastructure of modern multiculturalism was built in earnest. It bought social peace after urban rioting by making concessions to middle class and patriarchal ‘community leaders’ and religious organisations.
Thatcher and Reagan set in train a wave of financialisation that would cause inequality to sharpen consistently over subsequent decades; and they did so in the name of social conservatism. But there was a contradiction there. After all, the legitimating aspect of conservative ideology had always been its claim to patrician values and noblesse oblige. A replacement of some kind was necessary; and what was found was equality of opportunity. For the political-economic settlement of neoliberalism to appear legitimate, it had to diversify its class elites.
Since the numbers of the super-rich were tiny and their ranks essentially impermeable, that meant diversifying the professions. It is widely observed that ‘consensus’ anti-racism - and, more broadly, the amalgam called ‘wokeness’ by its enemies - has its base in this layer, often called the ‘professional managerial class’ or PMC, though there are reasons to object to this framing.
Here we transition from the historical to the structural. And we must necessarily take a detour into the theorisation of the professions from the class point of view. There are two sharply opposed accounts of this. The first, as we have noted, is the idea of the PMC, first posited by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, two American social democratic intellectuals. Their conception covered everyone from political functionaries to creative-industries types; their unifying feature, effectively, is an undergraduate degree. Such people, it is argued, ‘naturally’ rise to the top of small-group left politics, but just as ‘naturally’ prevent such groups actually connecting with a working class whose interests are antagonistic to theirs. In retrospect, Barbara Ehrenreich summarised the problem:
There was a real difference between people who worked essentially telling other people what to do - and teachers get included in that - and people who do the work that other people tell them to do. It becomes a difference between manual and mental labor, but it carries with it a shitload of weight - I see it all the time, the contempt for especially white working class people among leftists of college backgrounds.3
At the far opposite end, analytically, is the idea that - effectively - there is nothing terrifically special about professionals at all. Alexander McKay and Leila Mechoui, two rather eccentric Marxist academics, put it nicely in the headline of an article at The Bellows, a sort of anti-woke Marxisant website: “It’s the petit-bourgeoisie, stupid”. Whereas the Ehrenreichs see the professionals as a ‘new class’ with a distinct relationship to the means of production, McKay and Mechoui see them as the logical evolution of the ‘classical’ petty bourgeoisie, as capitalism declines and becomes more statised.4
The problem with the Ehrenreichs’ account and its variants, as Mike Macnair argued in the Weekly Worker not long ago, is that it produces an amalgam.5 There are plenty of people who do not directly employ labour and are themselves employed on very favourable terms by capital; but we are not all managers by a long chalk. If the managerial aspect is crucial, then the insistence that teachers are ‘managers’ starts to look pretty strained. They get told what to do as much as they tell others; and their authority over children does not, like managers, get them any real benefit over people in desk jobs with nobody to manage.
The idea that it is ‘just’ the petty bourgeoisie meets its own limit, however, in the necessary incoherence of that class. Marx said of the French peasants that “they form a class in the way that potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”.6 The extant smallholders, of course, are - technically speaking - part of the petty bourgeoisie, along with the urban artisans and self-employed professionals classically named by that phrase. So too, in the MacKay-Mechoui account, do the modern elite professions. If we are merely engaging in dividing society theoretically into classes - as it were, counting the potatoes in our different sacks - then there are very compelling reasons to include the latter.
As an account of the ‘consensus’ ideology, however, there is a real problem here: we find it only dominant among the modern professions. As an example: in Britain the rural petty bourgeoisie, and the provincial self-employed, tended to spring for Brexit, even when it was quite comically against their interests. The urban employed professionals sprung the other way. The Ehrenreichs give us at least a theory that we might apply to this reality. Simply assimilating the professions to the petty bourgeoisie, on the other hand, is question-begging.
Comrade Macnair’s account is rather that the bourgeoisie and proletariat are the two basic classes, but they are interpenetrated, and that the employed professionals possess limited means of production in the form of rare skills, which can then be leased to the capitalists for a technical rent. This is part of a wider reality of capitalist society - that control of information in general amounts to a kind of property right. I think it needs to be stressed that this is a very peculiar property right. If we take a ‘classic’ petty bourgeois - a furniture-maker, for instance - she might decide to pack it in, and sell her hammer and her workbench on eBay. A computer programmer cannot sell her Python expertise in the same way: she might accept money to teach the skill to someone else, but at the end of the day she will still have that skill. Information, including skills, is not alienable. It cannot be exchanged: only copied.
To realise the value of intellectual property it is necessary for the possessors to restrict access. The means to ensure this are various. Sometimes institutional means will be found, as the pre-entry closed shop of the bar restricts the numbers permitted to represent litigants in court. But there are also informal means: eg, the creation of a ‘hidden curriculum’ beyond the formal requirements of competence and accreditation. In fact, the informal means are the most universal, because they double up as a means of ideological legitimation. In Britain, it was formerly common for the upper professional layers to be dominated openly by old boys’ networks. The underlying ideology was of the natural, born-to-rule aristocracy, whose essential nobility supposedly ensured - again - noblesse oblige alongside a well-bred talent for leadership and ‘clubbable’ attitude to fellow class members. Such an ideology is in contradiction with the essentially middle class mores of bourgeois society, but long survived as a vestigial feature of the early-modern world that gave that middle class birth.
The Thatcher-Reagan era replaced that class culture and ideology with one of ‘meritocracy’. The professions were staffed by the people who ‘deserved’ it by dint of their achievements. In the end, however, the whole thing was still backed by cliquery and opaque networks - most particularly based on elite universities. This wave crested, it seems, around the time of the great financial crash of 2008; the transparent injustice of its results took the shine off ‘meritocracy’ altogether. The world the geniuses built was one of forever wars and credit default swaps.
‘Wokeness’ is, clearly enough, the replacement. In saying so, we do not mean that the people who advocate consensus anti-racism, liberal feminism and what have you are necessarily insincere; the contrary is overwhelmingly the case. It is more a question of evolutionary selection. As opposed to rival liberal or leftwing conceptions of the hot-button issues, this ultra-identity politics has the advantage of being expressed almost entirely through the imposition of speech codes and manners. It is thus functionally identical, for the purposes of elite coherence and control of access, to Eton slang; but, the old idea of ‘natural’ elitism having been destroyed, it has a far more vital moral centre, and thus does a far better job today as a legitimating ideology.
Let us return to our earlier description of the content of consensus anti-racism. In order to protect the concept of ‘structural racism’ from the threatening incursions of rival analytical frameworks - particularly that of Marxist class critique - the focus must be on the apparently ‘universal’ experiences of people of colour as such.
That ends up being a very minimal thing indeed: essentially the risk of being beaten up or even murdered by racist thugs. But that turns out to be not so universal in itself; so the idea of violence ends up ‘colonising’ other misfortunes. Failures of professional workplace decorum, placed in the context of the long and indecorous history of empire and slavery and what have you, become ‘microaggressions’, which are sort of homeopathic doses of violence.
The result is something like ‘stolen valour’ - the phenomenon of politicians and others fictionalising a proud military record for mass consumption: the moral urgency of, say, mass incarceration of black males or police murders is applied spuriously to stressful Twitter interactions or trivial spats in the university staffroom, which supposedly contain the very seeds of the hanging-tree. The tendency, therefore, is for ever more trivial injustices to be absorbed into ‘structural racism’, and thus painted in the bolder colours of struggles past.
There is a contradiction, however, between the content of the ideas advanced, which are at least in principle egalitarian, and the uses to which these ideas are put, to justify the comfortable existence of a sophisticated, but soulless, upper middle class in the same societies as mass homelessness, structural unemployment and pauperisation. The ‘traditional’ idea that ‘Ye have the poor with you always’, and the meritocratic idea than anyone can succeed with enough graft and talent and (therefore those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame) is replaced with the idea that the towns of northern England or the American rustbelt are simply full of resentful bigots who are undeserving, because they are not ‘good anti-racists’, according to the prevailing rubrics. So we find soi disant crusaders for social justice campaigning to purge the word ‘master’ from the computer codebases one minute, in case it triggers some ancestral trauma for the descendants of slaves; and, the next, speaking in comically contemptuous terms of enraged rednecks or gammons as the root of all social evil.
Since this is all conducted at the level of manners and jargon, it is moreover extremely shallow in its social reach. The evidence for this is piecemeal, since each linguistic conjecture of consensus anti-racism must be refuted on its own terms, but it is perfectly obvious to run-of-the-mill workers or petty bourgeois that, just because you have a kung fu master, you do not thereby posit the existence of a kung fu slave.
An illustrative example comes from the United States. Before the Nixon administration, there did not exist an ‘official’ racial category to cover those who hailed from the Spanish-speaking countries of central and south America. The authorities decided that one was needed, and chose ‘Hispanic’. At a certain point, academics and organisers committed to identity politics decided that using an English word had a certain unpleasant neo-colonial flavour, and so there was a shift to ‘Latino’; but, of course, Spanish is a language with gendered nouns, so we needed the feminine complement, ‘Latina’. Yet even having the pair is not enough, since it excludes those who do not fit comfortably into the gender binary, so there was invented the word ‘Latinx’, and this is now the preferred demonym in the communications of right-on NGOs and ‘woke’ PR departments.
Outside of such settings, we know the word has essentially zero traction. A poll of members of this demographic last year revealed that a grand total of 3% self-identified as ‘Latinx’.7 A further poll, a few weeks ago, found that that proportion had risen to 4%8 - the arc of history is long, and all that … The latter poll revealed an absolute majority of respondents simply did not care which of these bureaucratic terms were used; and the earlier one found an overwhelming preference for more specific demonyms - ‘Mexican American’, ‘Cuban American’, and so on. This hardly needs explanation: after all, in the name of inclusivity, consensus anti-racism has chosen a word equally unpronounceable in English and Spanish, and no less the confection of an unaccountable professional elite than ‘Hispanic’ was in the 1970s.
Even within the elite, this contradiction manifests itself as a total inability to digest the fact that members of the various marginalised groups demur from the discourse. For all the exhortations to ‘listen to the voices of people of colour’, there are no voices so effectively suppressed by consensus anti-racism as those of black people who do not share its assumptions. Far more credence, indeed, is given to the infamous Robin DiAngelo, pedlar of struggle sessions to American HR departments and quite as white as I am, than to a left critic like Adolph Reed - never mind outright rightists like Ben Carson or our old friend, Tony Sewell. American liberals seem incapable of addressing the fact that Donald Trump’s vote among black and, ahem, Latinx Americans increased between 2016 and 2020; except, naturally, by feebly redefining some of the latter as ‘white’ after all.
As consensus anti-racism comes under assault, from both its left (in confused and too timid ways) and from its right, it develops a pronounced bunker mentality. It is stripped down, in the end, to its essentials; and it is thereby revealed as essentially a mechanism of elite coherence, of sorting sheep from goats. It validates the privileges of those already ‘in’, while the right steals back territory; and it equally gives the right a spurious coherence, in that the racist and ultra-capitalist elements of the right may once more be united. ‘Movement conservatism’ à la William F Buckley may be dead, but it has a certain inheritor in anti-wokeness.
For the left, indifference to racism is, of course, quite unacceptable. Leftist gullibility in the face of consensus anti-racism is a product first of all of a correct gut reaction against its obvious contrary. But the ‘experientialism’ of this form of politics is in the end self-undermining: there are many gut reactions, and if we are to act coherently we must in the end select one, as - with apologies to Georg Lukács - the imputed gut reaction, the one we would all have in our right minds. Instead, we should think more closely about the structures of ‘structural racism’.
We have described them partially already: an imperialist state must generate racism. We have just had the most extraordinary spectacle of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. No end of worthies have urged the Americans back in, to ‘finish the job’, as if ‘the job’ was not perpetually fattening the same narco-warlords currently cutting favourable deals with the Taliban. The only way America ‘finishing the job’ can be presented as the best option is if we suppose that the Afghans are so benighted that they cannot even meet that bar. But there is also popular racism, which in the end is a matter of trying to elevate yourself by punching down.
In the former case, racism is the effect of the capitalist state system and its necessary inequality; in the latter, the need of capital for cheap and pliable labour generates divisions among those who would labour. In both cases, we have structures: but the structures are not primarily about racism, but Staatsraison and sectional advantage respectively.
The consequence of this analysis for the left is uncomfortable - or ought to be. Let us take an unusually illustrative example - the Socialist Workers Party. Many comrades will be aware that almost its entire activity now is under the sign of its front group, Stand Up To Racism. I must confess that, despite having often written disparagingly of SUTR in the Weekly Worker, I had never been moved to go to the ‘About’ page on its website, to see what it thinks it is up to. I will now subject you to an extended quotation:
On 21 October 2017, national conference drew together over 1,300 anti-racist activists and was addressed by Diane Abbott MP, Talha Ahmad (Muslim Council of Britain), Moyra Samuels (Justice4Grenfell) and many more. The clear and powerful message from the conference was that, when we bring all these struggles together and fight as one, we can be more effective than we could possibly imagine.9
I cannot resist also quoting the last-but-one sentence: “We will be back next year for another huge demonstration against all forms of racism.” The most recent date mentioned in the whole text is … 2018, suggesting that SUTR has not given the page much more attention than I had, but also how weirdly indifferent to results SUTR is. Three years after these words, presumably, were written, we have swapped Theresa May, the tedious daughter of the rectory, for Boris Johnson - he of smiling picaninnies and ill-timed Kipling quotations. This does not seem “more effective than we could possibly imagine”, but perhaps I have an overactive imagination.
The appeal to unity, in any case, is an appeal to another gut feeling - and one especially well founded for those committed, as the SWP claims to be, to “the revolutionary communist tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg”. And, for that tradition, unity matters at a fundamental level: the revolutionary potential of the proletariat in Marxist theory is a thoroughly negative affair; in a world run according to property, here is a class with no or merely trivial property, so its only power is in its sheer mass and - as a consequence - its ability to intelligently direct that mass. But, of course, having solved the problem of its self-liberation, the working class has solved the problem of liberation for all, since it has by definition severed the link between ‘intelligent direction’ and exploitative property relations.
But suppose we set out not for the maximum unity of the working class, but of the anti-racist movement such as it is. In fact we set out to unite people whose interests are opposed to each other. Unity can only be achieved by suppressing those divergences - in the interests of coming back together for another huge demonstration next year … But racism, as we have argued, is an effect of capitalist exploitation and its corollary, imperialism. Unity of the anti-racist movement means unity with Zionists who issue fake anti-racist calumnies against the Palestinian movement, for example (and, indeed, SUTR has disinvited BDS supporters from speaking at rallies to keep such elements on board10). It means unity with whatever magnificent troll came up with the ‘woke’ CIA recruitment advert (you all remember it: “I am a cisgender millennial with generalised anxiety disorder” …) Those who want more ‘diversity’ in the boardroom are by definition the enemies of those who want to abolish the boardroom, as all communists surely do. To treat them otherwise is by definition to turn yourself into a fighter for the legitimating ideology of the liberal ‘wing’ of the capitalist elite. It therefore prevents us from offering a way out of the liberal-conservative alternation of hegemony in capitalist states, which, after all, is our job.
Our gut reaction turns out to be wrong. We do not want to unite the whole of the anti-racist movement, if that means uniting all prepared to mouth anti-racist platitudes. So far as such ‘unity’ exists, in fact, our role is to destroy it - break it apart. We should be wreckers. Of course, we do so in the name of unity - that of a real unity of interest and political solidarity, against a phony unity of cultural sleight of hand. Our efforts must be judged by results - and for real, not by miscounted numbers on a protest march on the basis of ‘down with this sort of thing’.
In the end, then, for all its stupidities, its censoriousness, its aesthetic nullity, the basic problem of consensus anti-racism is both more boring and more fundamental. It places, right in front of its eyes, a problem that it cannot even correctly characterise, let alone solve. Actually abolishing racism would mean breaking the link between historic disadvantage and present thriving. But that demands not the replacement of one elite ideology with another, but the end of elites altogether.
This article is based on Paul Demarty’s talk at Communist University 2021.↩︎
On the whole Sewell controversy, see my ‘How to be gaslit’ Weekly Worker April 8 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1342/how-to-be-gaslit).↩︎
‘American Blue Labour?’ Weekly Worker April 15: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1343/american-blue-labour.↩︎
See Carla Roberts, ‘Principled voices few and far between’ Weekly Worker January 31 2020 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1284/principled-voices-few-and-far-between).↩︎