Racism as thoughtcrime
In the light of the jailing of Liam Stacey for making racist comments on twitter about footballer and recent heart attack victim Fabrice Muamba , Paul Demarty takes a look at official ant-racism and the attitude of Marxists.
The genuinely shocking sight of Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba keeling over on the pitch at White Hart Lane had perhaps more cultural impact than you would expect; but it provoked a far more significant event which, initially, was a little out of view.
That was, of course, the decision of a by all accounts inebriated student in Swansea to post an obnoxious gloating tweet about the stricken footballer; when called out on his callous (though, by internet standards, relatively mild) comments, he resorted to racist abuse.
Liam Stacey, 21, no doubt greeted the next morning with one hell of a hangover. It has since gotten much worse for him. Swansea magistrates’ court sentenced him to 56 days imprisonment for ‘inciting racial hatred’. His appeal was dismissed with remarkable speed. The authorities take Bad Racism very seriously indeed nowadays.
Nobody expects the Hampstead inquisition
There are two elements to this story - the one farcical, the other seriously worrying. To begin with the farce - here, on display once again, is the clownish, Bonapartist anti-racism of the state machine.
Stacey’s conviction is a nakedly absurd iteration of an increasingly common phenomenon: the Spanish Inquisition-style show trial of anyone whose racist utterances end up in the public spotlight. Sometimes - as with the late Big brother contestant, Jade Goody - the trial is limited to the court of public opinion. On other occasions, as with Stacey and Emma West, the infamous ‘racist tram lady’ of YouTube fame, the authorities blunder into things.
It is a common view on the left that there is something intrinsically racist about the state, or even capitalism. This is not true - capital is, in itself, quite indifferent to the persons whom it dominates; and it does not require racial prejudice from the state to reproduce itself. It is more true that the state is intrinsically bad at anti-racism.
After all, racism happens to have a long history as a key part of bourgeois ideology and state policy. As generations of migrants from the four corners of the Earth settle in Britain, racism becomes, paradoxically, a less useful means of winning loyalty to the state. It is better to set the British, of all hues, against some outside force (typically the latest wave of migrants, but also Muslims at the present time), who stubbornly refuse to integrate themselves into our fine society.
That, indeed, is the prevailing official state ideology today - a national chauvinism, in which one of the key elements of our shared national virtue is ‘tolerance’ ... as opposed to those terribly illiberal Muslims. Alas, while it is easy enough to promote such an ideology, it is somewhat harder to stop it being channelled through old-fashioned, racist forms; indeed, they are reinforced by the discourse against ‘outsiders’.
Thus, the British state finds itself in an endless and futile guerrilla war against the symptoms - be it substantial far-right votes or the odd drunken Twitter outburst - of a disorder it is unable to cure. It fights this quixotic fight with the only means it has available to it: bribery and repression.
Liam Stacey is a sacrificial lamb to this contradiction. His conviction will do nothing to stop racism. Indeed, it will have the exact opposite effect. Genuine racists will be convinced further that their ideas are being repressed because they are dangerous to a political set-up utterly divorced from their concerns - and their case will be easier to put to others. Even if every explicit racist statement could somehow be prosecuted, the result would be the ‘dog whistle’ politics so beloved of the US Republican right (ie, racist sentiments communicated through mutually understood code words).
If racism has a life of its own, however, so does state authoritarianism.
It is easy enough to mock this little hysterical flap - but not quite so easy to dissociate it from the general pattern of attacks on free expression, in this country and others. We have had a decade or so of increasingly punitive anti-terror legislation; new laws against ‘religious hatred’; and governments, Labour and Tory alike, wailing hysterically about the European Court of Human Rights and its occasional (and largely incidental) obstruction of the whole process.
There is now an international offensive against the relative freedom offered by the internet, which - thanks to the troublesome ability of data transmissions to squirm in and out of any given legal jurisdiction almost unnoticed - has proved difficult to monitor. Crackdowns against piracy in the US and European Union, in defence of technologically moribund concepts of intellectual property, conceal new powers to circumvent the state’s approved list of thoughtcrimes.
Now our coalition government has itself begun the process of making it easier for police and other authorities to monitor emails and social networks. The government says it is necessary to prevent ‘crime’ and ‘terrorism’; in truth, the main spur was the ‘hot summer’ in Britain’s inner cities last year, which saw a whole series of draconian sentences passed out in some cases to those who did not even join riots, but merely talked big on Facebook.
Twitter, with its large population of busybodies, curtain-twitchers and copper’s narks, mostly regulates itself in this regard (it was fellow Tweeters who reported Stacey to the police) - but even that population finds itself at odds with the state machine on occasion, most notably over superinjunctions.
Indeed, the first home office proposals on this matter were slightly too authoritarian even for some of the police. Chris Fox, former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, remarked that the plan was “fraught with danger for the innocent vast majority”. Stronger words than we got from Nick Clegg, who promised to slow down the timetable and put a draft of any law to a full parliamentary discussion. Given the spectacularly lame procedural criticisms offered by Ed Miliband, equally frightened of middle England and his own shadow, this is hardly reassuring.
The left has a strategic interest in opposing the creeping authoritarianism of the state - political freedom, as emphasised by Marx, Engels and Lenin, is the light and air of the workers’ movement. The working class, because it is divested of the power offered by private property, can only truly rule in a collective, democratic manner; the bourgeoisie can only rule through state fiat or utterly hollow liberal ‘democracy’.
We also, however, have a very narrow interest in taking up the fight against restrictions on free speech. A great many people, indeed, were offended by Liam Stacey’s infantile outburst; but the project of proletarian revolution is mortally offensive to all those who wield power in the capitalist world. There are a great many more crimes than ‘racial hatred’ to which it is possible to ‘incite’ others; the woollier the definition of ‘incitement’, the less actual room for manoeuvre we have. After the riots, is it really so difficult to imagine a slightly over-effusive tweet from a Socialist Workers Party comrade about thieving bankers leading to a visit from the boys in blue?
The left, unfortunately, is utterly hopeless at dealing with either racism or democratic questions more generally. The SWP is a case in point: it is, at the moment, pushing its Defend the Right to Protest campaign - but only because the battered student demonstrator Alfie Meadows is in the news, now that he is going on trial (presumably to be convicted of denting that nice policeman’s truncheon). Whenever questions of political freedom have no immediate agitational value, they are simply deemed too complicated for the poor benighted masses.
As for racism, the rabidly sanctimonious attitude of this group, its hysterical denunciations of ‘Nazi scum’, are well known. They do not defeat racism, but simply make the SWP look like an adjunct of official liberal anti-racism. That is fair enough, because in practice, that is what it is.
There is no mention of Stacey’s conviction in what is a particularly racism-obsessed latest number of Socialist Worker - perhaps it slipped their minds, or perhaps the SWP’s suspicion of anything related to football is to blame. It is difficult to imagine what they could have said - in the weird world of the SWP, racism is a matter of Nazi scum and unreconstructed inner city police forces, not insignificant outbursts on the part of Welsh students.
There is no doubt that Stacey’s drunken Twitter tough-talk is unpleasant. There is, equally, no doubt that it is an unremarkable example of a certain sort of widely-deployed internet discourse, whereby racial epithets are thrown around as infantile provocations (the infamous 4chan forum is legendary for this phenomenon).
Unpleasant is all that it is - a nihilistic, adolescent process of acting out. Nobody is going to read Liam Stacey’s tweets and promptly be convinced to join the British National Party (though the hysterical response may, indeed, have that effect). Where racism manifests itself politically, it must be challenged politically. Where it manifests itself as, in the classic case, the mouthing off of a certain kind of pub bore, there are means to confront it socially.
There is, on the other hand, no means of outlawing particular ideas or forms of speech without outlawing freedom of thought or speech itself - from that point on, the legitimacy or otherwise of any belief is decided by the state. Freedom is indivisible: the right of communists to call for the revolutionary overthrow of the system is the same as the right of drunk students (and, for that matter, full-on fascist politicians) to bandy about racist nonsense.
Marxists should be consistent defenders of this right, not outliers of the shrill and futile official anti-racism of the establishment.