Working class unity - not multiculturalism

The rioting that broke out in the Lozells area of Birmingham over the weekend of October 22-23 offers a disturbing insight into the fragmented nature of many working class communities in this country - and the pathetically inadequate response of the left. Eddie Ford reports

The disturbances appear to have been caused by rumours, so far unsubstantiated, that a teenage Jamaican girl had been gang-raped by a group of young Pakistani men. Subsequently, hundreds of riot police flooded the district. Scores of people have been injured - there have been two stabbings, three shootings and one young man killed. As for the purported victim, she was thought to have been assaulted after she was caught stealing from an Asian-owned store. However, she is yet to come forward to give her version of events - she may be an illegal immigrant who fears deportation.

Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for this constituency, has blamed a "small group" of people "predominantly from outside the area" - the standard, idiot response of establishment politicians. We need a more serious approach. However difficult it is to ascertain the exact nature of these particular disturbances, a picture emerges from large parts of Birmingham of a working class ethnically and 'racially' fractured that spontaneously divides along these sectional lines when confrontation flares.

Class politics is glaringly absent. What has replaced it? The politics of 'diversity', 'difference' and 'multiculuralism'. As The Guardian points out, "Where 30 years ago 'black' often sufficed to cover both black and Asian communities - each seeking to resist white racism - now multiple identities and communities have emerged: Africans have separated from Afro-Caribbeans; Somalis from Yemenis; Yemenis themselves into three groups; Asians into even more - muslim, hindu, Sikh, with a succession of sub-groups" (October 24).

Much of the revolutionary left has unconsciously aided this process of disintegration. Not simply through its dunderhead economism, but also by consciously attempting to compete with the ruling class for a form of ideology that now belongs to it. 'Multiculturalism' has been promoted by the left as synonymous with anti-racism - and counterposed to the supposedly 'racist' ideology of mainstream establishment politics, despite all the evidence to the contrary. As Socialist Worker put it, the experience of multiculturalism has been "overwhelmingly positive" (December 21 2001) - it is "the desire to live in a society rich with cultures and peoples from across the world" (April 17 2004).

In fact, the establishment's official ideology now is multiculturalist anti-racism. Why? Simply because it divides the working class into innumerable, and rival, supplicant groupings - with the British state as the benevolent overlord, imposing a safe, depoliticised version of what constitutes the culture of various ethnic groups, dispensing resources and privileges to favoured groupings, while excluding others. Via this process, government-approved 'community leaders' managed to carve out their own political fiefdoms and act as local gendarmes, making sure that the members of their 'community' conform.

We interviewed Gurharpal Singh, professor of inter-religious studies, in the Weekly Worker of January 13. Although critically supportive of multiculturalism in general, he offered some useful insights: "Broadly, the racism we fought in the 1970s gave way to official anti-racism. Its softer policy edge was the emergence of multiculturalism. But the truth is that multiculturalism increasingly became an operative mode for establishing fiefdoms. Votes would be delivered for patronage and particular sectional advantage. To some extent this has always been the case - and particularly characteristic of minorities' relationship to the Labour Party - but multiculturalism gave a great deal of authority to this process."

We have a situation of the promotion of what I dub 'hyper-diversity' in society. In one sense, it is a return to the politics of imperialism. There have always been people on the left who have said that multiculturalism smacks of colonial engineering. Yes, a 'divide and rule' strategy - but much more sinister and insidious than that. It essentialises and imposes definitional parameters on a community's identity - on what it means to be a Sikh, a muslim or a hindu. It does not leave it to the people in these communities to self-define through struggle.

"Thus, it fractures these identities - both internally, between different strands existing in these minorities, and externally, through competition with other communities for patronage and advantage from the state." It is impossible to isolate the precise causes of the worrying developments in Birmingham, but in general the suspicion and competitive friction between different ethnic populations, nurtured by multiculturalism, and the decline of working class politics must have been important contributory factors.

In this sense, the genuine voice of multiculturalism can be heard in the disturbing editorial tones of "Britain's best black newspaper", The Voice. Its lurid front cover of October 24 is bad enough. It shouts "Gang of 19 rape teen girl". The inside story is nearer the mark when it tells us that the "black girl" was "allegedly" raped by "19 Asian men", and the story's headline is even more cautious - "Teenage 'rape' sparks outrage". In other words, maybe no rape at all. The editorial is an absolute disgrace: "It's time to vote with our money" - effectively a call for an Afro-Caribbean boycott of Asian shops.

The usual multicultural mantras are first chanted about the paper's policy to "nurture good relationships and promote racial harmony with other communities" before we get to the meat of the matter. Apparently there are "times when it is necessary for us to first unite and fight against any injustice perpetrated against our own community". 

For The Voice then, the course of action is clear: "It's time to wake up and smell the coffee. We need to respect, support and empower our community in the first instance. We should not tolerate disrespect, regardless of whether we need to buy that lottery ticket, that curry, or that hair product. "For those of you who've written in to complain about being treated with disrespect and suspicion whenever you enter certain Asian-owned or run shops, we ask why then do you continue to give your patronage to these shops?

They rely and depend on us for the success of their businesses and blindly we continue to spend our hard-earned bucks in shops where we are treated in a derogatory manner. It's time to reassess our priorities as a community and to send a clear message to those who would dare that we will not tolerate this type of violation in the community". The response of the SWP-Respect party has been politically incoherent.

Salma Yaqoob - described by The Guardian of October 25 as a "community mediator in Birmingham", "spokeswoman for Birmingham Central mosque" and "vice-chair of Respect" - bemoaned the "breathtaking irresponsibility of some community representatives". She argued: "The truth is that it is economic inequalities - real and imagined - that are driving events in Birmingham" and that therefore the only way "to find a way out of this crisis" is for "representatives from all the communities" to "come together and demand the resources the area needs".

Of course, the implication that white, black and Asian (and all sub-divisions thereof) are competing for limited resources and this fosters tensions is correct. However, the notion that "representatives" of these fractured communities (chosen how, by whom?) should haggle with government over more "resources" is actually a recipe to further foster divisions and inter-ethnic friction.

We have another approach - one of class unity and struggle. This would inevitably mean confrontation with precisely these same conservative 'community leaders' who have a material interest in perpetuating the current sectionalism - a layer that Respect has so far shown itself very anxious not to offend, of course.

The official Respect statement (dated October 23) underlines that Salma Yaqoob's personal confusion reflects general party policy. Demanding "peace and justice", it tells us: "The riot and murder on Saturday night was horrific "¦ These events can benefit nobody. The attacks on cars, shops and people are not going to improve the situation of any section of the community in Lozells.

This situation developed because of the alleged rape of a 14-year-old refugee by an Asian shopkeeper. The young woman is believed to be too afraid to come forward for fear of deportation. Khalid Mahmood MP and the government should simply guarantee her right to remain in this country. This attack could then be investigated and justice could be done" (my emphasis). At the moment, Respect campaigns on behalf of asylum-seekers/refugees, not 'economic migrants'.

There is absolutely no evidence that the alleged rape victim is a "refugee" - she could indeed indeed be an 'economic migrant' (or, more likely still, the daughter of economic migrants). But dubbing her a "refugee" allows the SWP to champion her right to remain. The reactionary consequences of the SWP-Respect party's refusal to adopt a principled line on this question - ie, abolition of all immigration controls - is brutally revealed in incidents like these.

Socialist Worker, however, seems to be on the point of grasping the real nature of the problem - before falling back into the same erroneous trap. It complains that "instead of uniting to tackle racism", the "local politicians have cultivated different ethnic groups, playing them off against each other, instilling a culture of segregation and patronage rather than genuine multiculturalism" (October 29 - my emphasis).

No, comrades, what we are dealing with in this context is a variant of "genuine" multiculturalism - malign, divisive and consistently opposed by genuine communists.