Multiculturalism and the working class

BBC's White season promotes division, says James Turley

Some documentaries are precise and subtle, like a scalpel. Others are rough and forceful, like a meat cleaver. BBC2’s Rivers of blood, a bit of pop-history centring on Enoch Powell’s eponymous speech, was a sledgehammer.

There is a moment, not very far into the film, when the narrator intones - in that oh-so-neutral narrator voice - that the “liberal elite” had just “introduced multiculturalism”; cut immediately to footage of a riot, and then on to (in case the point was so far dispiritingly ambiguous) a shot of the twisted remains of the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square.

On another occasion, some truism about the death of the England that Powell knew is soundtracked by - yes - a funeral dirge. Subtlety, for writer-narrator Denys Blakeway and director Ashley Gething, is clearly something that happens to other people.

The film was screened on March 8 as part of BBC2’s controversial ‘White season’, but can still be viewed via the BBC website. The series purports to examine the place of the white working class in cultural discourse. Its thesis is a simple one (if never simply stated outright) - Enoch was wrong to believe that “coloured immigration” as such was a mortal threat to the British nation; Enoch was right to believe that multiculturalism was. Footage from the Brixton and Toxteth riots appears with little context (other than another Powell speech predicting ‘civil war’ - dramatic sort of fellow that he was); there is, towards the end, a sequence of shots of modern Britain with Powell appearing both on the soundtrack frothing about “funeral pyres” and projected onto the side of a tower block. The archives are further raided for grainy cameraphone recordings of 7/7, overlaid with the speech of one of the bombers.

These kinds of sequences speak far more eloquently than Blakeway, who seems prone to banal kinds of speculation and the playing up of sentimentalism. How can we not sympathise with Powell’s deep love for his country? It is Gething’s direction which - one assumes, quite unintentionally - concretises the social stakes. In his artless montages, he is something of a semi-talented rightwing Eisenstein.

Scattered through are the obligatory array of talking heads - in the white corner are, by and large, establishment politicians (Labour rights Roy Hattersley and Frank Field, and Tories Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd). Apart from Field, all are highly critical of Powell. Simon Heffer, perhaps the most poisonous Daily Mail writer and Powell’s biographer, chips in a few weasel words in defence. In the black corner, we find Baroness Lola Young and the academic guru Stuart Hall, who invented ‘cultural studies’ as a Marxist and dragged it through Eurocommunism to its current state of postmodern identity-obsessiveness (although I suppose we should be grateful it was not Darcus Howe).

Conspicuous by their absence - ironically but not accidentally, given the premise of the ‘White season’ - are white working class people. Their appearance, almost invariably in black and white archive footage (only the infamous marching dockers appear on colour stock), has the effect of amplifying their exclusion from the whole affair. Despite the frequent assertion that Powell was a man of the people, in effect the white working class - the voiceless to whom he purportedly gave a voice - are only mobilised within the frame as narrative support for the great man himself. We get the impression that this demographic is frozen in the past, a creature not of 2008, but 1968; polite, angry and possessed of a Midlands twang.

And this is the ‘truth’ of the whole matter - the BBC cares not for these poor, ‘marginalised’ white people. The bourgeois establishment spends most of its time excoriating the ‘yobs’ and ‘chavs’, women with ‘council estate facelifts’ and all the rest. They are excavated from the Beeb archives essentially as a sock-puppet for the renewed Jeremiads about the ‘swamping’ of Britain.

The ‘White season’ has attracted opprobrium from a number of quarters - the Socialist Workers Party’s Simon Basketter has dismissed it as unproblematically racist, in an article which makes some correct points but overstates its case massively and frequently lurches into the bizarre (‘The truth about the white working classSocialist Worker March 15).

Commenting on the media hype, Basketter says: “These people claim that the white poor are ‘invisible’ - yet they have spent their lives hiding away in gated communities from working class people in case we nick their stuff.” True enough, but he then immediately claims that “the very idea that there is a ‘white working class’ separate from the working class in general and with a distinct identity of its own is reactionary.”

This really does take the biscuit. If we take his claim at face value, then it is equally ‘reactionary’ to talk of a black working class or an Asian working class, but not to do so would be a blatant act of wilful ignorance with regard to the specific oppression that these groups face. The existence of a white equivalent is a necessary corollary of the existence of all the others. Economistically ignoring the democratic questions that capitalism necessarily poses, it is Basketter’s statement that borders on the reactionary.

You do not have to be a full-blooded postmodernist identity politician to realise that there is indeed a subcultural identification around the white working class. Its boundaries are not rigid, but that is the same for every other subculture. What, comrade Basketter, is a skinhead?

The key political flaw in the SW piece is simply that it is a mobilisation in defence of multiculturalism and simultaneously refuses to acknowledge anything more than the class lines. It just does not add up. It is not, as Basketter claims, a “racist myth” that so-called ‘community groups’ get breaks from (particularly local) government agencies (the myth is simply that they get more than ‘white’ institutions, which include almost the entire bourgeois media for one). The fact is that capital loves to coopt a certain layer of any given oppressed group as spokespeople at its table - it buys off community groups, temples and mosques with concessions to careerists and clerics. The official encouragement of islamophobia has always been complemented by relatively cosy relations with the ‘moderate’ muslims of the Muslim Council of Britain, for example.

This has the effect of reinforcing and entrenching the existing petty-patriarchal power structures in racial and religious minorities (and undercutting the political initiative of, for example, LGBT groups, who do not by nature have these structures) - all the better to split and weaken the working class movement (but then the SWP would know all about appealing to ‘community leaders’, having itself tried the whole process in miniature during the Respect era). The upshot of Basketter’s hysterical approach is that he actually misses the essence of ‘multicultural’ capital’s approach to doing what he correctly accuses them of. Had he bothered to watch Rivers of blood, he would know that the financial end of this process was inaugurated by none other than Margaret Thatcher.

Kenan Malik, also in Rivers, makes the point that multiculturalism has had the effect of defusing political struggles - political struggles unite, and cultural struggles divide. Malik is a liberal critic of multiculturalism and an advocate of ‘enlightenment values’, but his comment is nevertheless perceptive (he was a member of Frank Furedi’s Revolutionary Communist Party). Anthony Lester, who was one of the key architects of British multiculturalism, pops up to claim that his project was derailed by the abandonment of secularism and the awarding of large quantities of Thatcher’s money to religious groups and clerical structures.

Communists must recognise multiculturalism as a real advance over the naked, unrestrained racism that preceded it. Equal employment laws, the partial mollification of police racism and a general shift in the political culture away from bigotry are all hard-fought victories for the working class.

At the same time, we must recognise that it is ultimately a bourgeois phenomenon - in the sense that it is an ‘anti-racism’ cut to measure for capitalist rule. It has not eradicated racism or other bigotries, and it never will. Though it nods in the direction of unity, it serves mainly to divide sectionally: to drive black, Asian, muslim, etc workers deep into the arms of their ‘own’ exploiters.

As for the repulsive garbage of Powell’s speech, we pull no punches. We demand an end to all border controls and full citizenship for all migrants after six months residence. Powell was not at risk from segregation in the cities; but united, the working class can show his epigones a real threat to the British establishment.