The outbreak of SARS Coronovirus 2 or Covid-19 proceeds an escalation of recent epidemics and proto-pandemics: notably, H5N1 or Avian influenza, SARS, MERS, Swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. We are not currently experiencing a pandemic, Mike Davis (2020) pronounces, we are living in an age of pandemics. Rob Wallace (2020) explains this trend as the consequence of interrelated changes in economic geography and ecological geographies: a widening circuit of agricultural production, consumption and exchange that is pushing deeper into forests and back out into cities; with subsequent changes in the ecologies of host species that historically would have been confined to deep forests, which are now transported to peri-urban regions with high concentrations of human bodies. Traversing a globally integrated air traffic network, pathogens previously not on the global stage are being brought to it.
Davis (2020), citing a study from Science magazine, illustrates the context of Ebola and other diseases emerging in and from West Africa (currently the fastest urbanizing area in the world). The population of West Africa has traditionally relied on fish protein, however, commencing in the 1980s, European, Russian and Japanese factory fleets have trawled and significantly reduced this biomass. Concurrently, multinational logging companies have increased their operations; to keep their costs down, they hire professional hunters to kill mammals in their path. With fish becoming too expensive for West African city dwellers, the population has turned to the consumption of bushmeat (originally just practiced in the logging camps) as the major source of protein. In sum, this widening commerce of bushmeat hunting alongside the destruction of rainforest have generated new viral exposures and pathways to humans of previously isolated pathogens.
In this essay, using the case studies of HIV/AIDS and SARS, I explore the nexus between capitalist political economy, nature, and emergent infectious diseases; concluding that, without radical change to how we organise and run our world, our future will be locked into this trajectory of escalating pandemics.
HIV-1 and HIV-2 originate from the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses (SIV) of chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys in Central and West Africa (Honigsbaum, 2019), with the probable zoonotic leap, from one chimpanzee to one human hunter of bushmeat (through a cut or wound), no later than 1908 (Quammen, 2013). From here, the virus travelled. At this moment, put in historical context, previous epidemiological dead ends were no longer so: the virus travelled because of changes in conditions of existence propelled by a capital-fuelled colonial age. Mark Honigsbaum (2019) points to the emergence of steamship transportation and road and railway construction during the colonial period of the Congo, and the relentless pursuit of profit by logging and timber companies, intersecting with social and cultural phenomenon (bushmeat hunting and consumption, and prostitution by the labour camps of railway and timber companies), as the central early drivers in the journey of HIV/AIDS.
While official Belgian colonial rule of the Congo ran from 1908 to 1960, the groundwork for colonial expansion began in the late nineteenth century. Given the need of capital to self-expand and thus the impetus for greater mobility of both capital and labour, the 1892 steamship service from Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) to Stanleyville (later Kisangi) and 1898 Matadi-Kinshasa railway (linking the port of Matadi to Léopoldville) provided geographical connectivity and concentration of populations previously separated. With a consequent influx of labour migrants and Belgian administrators, a rapidly urbanizing Léopoldville became the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, running domestic flight services and by 1936 a direct international flight route to Brussels. Further geographical connectivity and concentration of capital and labour came under French colonial administration, notably, the construction of the Congo-Ocean railroad in the 1920s, which – cutting through forest – brought labourers into rural territories home to the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses. Once built, this railroad provided a constant flow of Africans and Europeans between Brazzaville (the new capital of the French colonial federation) through Léopoldville to Pointe-Noire at the coast. What’s more, road construction through the Congo Basin by timber companies pushed bushmeat hunters deeper into the forest and encouraged the growth of prostitution near the labour camps (Honigsbaum, 2019). One way or another, through new viral pathways that were new transport pathways driven by capital accumulation, by the 1920s, Léopoldville was home to HIV.
Both Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) draw on research by Jacques Pepin to explain how the virus amplifies from here into an eventual global pandemic: sex and medical technology – specifically, the reuse of ineffectively sterilized hypodermic needles and reusable syringes in public and humanitarian health campaigns in Africa, and blood banks and transfusion services – were the key amplifiers of HIV. By the 1920s Léopoldville had a large male labour force, with economic migrants discouraged by the Belgian colonial administration from bringing their families with them; consequently, men outnumbered women four to one and prostitution was widespread (Honigsbaum, 2019). The virus likely amplified through a campaign by the Congolese Red Cross which established a clinic in 1929 in Léopoldville to treat sexually transmitted diseases; this campaign ran throughout in the 1930s and 1940s and peaked, in terms of the number of administered injections, in 1953 (Quammen, 2013). Another possible amplification was during the 1930s though the vaccination campaigns along the railways against yaws and sleeping sickness, and against malaria in southern Cameroon (Honigsbaum, 2019).
HIV-1 group M subtype B, around 1966, travels from Léopoldville to Haiti and, in or around 1969, from Haiti to the United States. Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) again draw on the work of Pepin for a plausible answer as to how. Congo’s independence in 1960, marred by civil war, led to an influx of refugees into Kinshasa and an expansion of prostitution (Honigsbaum, 2019). Another outcome was the exodus of a Belgian expatriate skilled middle class. This vacuum of labour supply was addressed by campaigns to bring in skilled labour from elsewhere. Overseen by the WHO and UNESCO, recruits came from Haiti in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s however, the political instability of the state ideological campaign known as Zairianisation or Authenticité – to rid the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire) of colonialism and Western influences – drove many of this labour force back to Haiti. It would have taken just one of these returnees to have carried HIV with them. In January 1972, The New York Times broke a story of the commodification and export of Haitian human blood plasma and a political economy involving both US based capital and the Haitian government. The article states:
“PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan 26 – An American‐owned company here is buying blood plasma from impoverished Haitians who need the money and exporting 5,000 to 6,000 liters of it every month to the United States. […] Hemo Caribbean is owned by Joseph B. Gorinstein, stockbroker with interests in New York and Miami. He has a 10‐year contract with the Haitian Government that was negotiated with President Francois Duvalier, who died last April. Werner H. Thill, the company’s technical director, said that the Haitian Government received no money from Hemo Caribbean. Reliable sources here say that the principal agent between the Government and Hemo Caribbean was Luckner Cambronne, the Minister of Interior and National Defense, who is said to be one of the most influential persons here. […] Mr. Thill says that applicants are rejected if they are known to have hepatitis, but he adds that he is not especially concerned about those who may slip through the screening process with venereal disease or malaria. The freezing process used on the plasma “kills those bacteria,” he says. The Haitians, many in rags and without shoes, crowd into Hemo Caribbean six days week from 6:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. They spend about an hour and a half to two hours in screening and actually giving blood. […] The plasma is frozen and shipped to the United States by Air Haiti, Mr. Cambronne’s airline.”
“Capital is dead labour”, which, Marx (1867) tells us, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Luckner Cambronne, because of his central exploitative role in the selling of blood plasma of Haitian donors to the United States, was widely coined both in Haiti and overseas, “The Vampire of the Caribbean” (Davison, 2006). Via either one infected person or one infected container of blood plasma, around 1969, HIV travels from Haiti to the United States; from there, it later travels to Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Australia; it also travels back into Africa (Quammen, 2013). Since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were officially reported in 1981 in the US, worldwide, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 33 million people have died (World Health Organization, 2020).
A popular narrative (as represented through Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On) that either politically stigmatizes or reclaims the association of HIV/AIDS with queer sexuality is only one part of the historical story, specifically, how the virus amplified once it arrived in the United States. In the wider historical narrative I have relayed, capital is a leading actor. Marx (1857) observes in Grundrisse:
“Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”
From possibly just one human exposure in southeastern Cameroon, HIV/AIDS made its way into and later out of Kinshasa through the new transportation routes of a colonial era and a globalizing era; because capital abides no geographical limits, former epidemiological dead ends were no more and new viral pathways were generated.
In the period since 1979 known as opening and reform, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen the entry of foreign capital into the country. Through the 1980s, especially the 1990s, and into the early millennium, China has experienced a staggering pace and degree of economic growth and urbanization. Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China, has been at the centre of this rapid capitalist transformation. Home to the earliest Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, and to the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, Guangdong is now the largest provincial economy and population in China, with Guangzhou (its capital) and Shenzhen global megacities and the country’s top two cities for GDP output. This has driven two ecological effects: the development of industrial-scale poultry farms to supply Guangdong’s huge labour force, growing from an estimated 700 million chickens in 1997 to, by 2008, one billion so-called high quality broiler chickens annually; and the orientation of smaller livestock producers and rice farmers to fattening domestic chickens and ducks to sell in “wet markets” that exist on the edges of Guangdong’s urban areas (Honigsbaum, 2019). Wet markets are markets that, along with fruit and vegetables, stock live animals for slaughter as fresh meat and fish. Davis (2005) explains:
“Thanks especially to the prevalence of wet markets in the cities, the urbanization of Guangdong has probably intensified rather than decreased microbial traffic between humans and animals. As income has risen with industrial employment, the population is eating more meat and less rice and vegetables. […] An extraordinary concentration of poultry […] coexists with high human densities, large numbers of pigs, and ubiquitous wild birds. […] Moreover, as the urban footprint has expanded and farm acreage has contracted, a fractal pattern of garden plots next to dormitories and factories has brought urban population and livestock together in more intimate contact. […] Guangdong is also a huge market for wild meat.”
Quammen (2013), referencing Karl Taro Greenfeld, observes that the wild animal trade within the Pearl River Delta is less to do with limited resources, need, or ancient traditions, and more attributable to the capitalist boom and related rise in conspicuous consumption. The contemporary Era of Wild Flavour, most prevalent in southern China, draws from earlier traditions and goes beyond them; Wild Flavour (yewei) is regarded as a way of gaining “face”, prosperity, and good luck. To supply Guangdong’s wet markets to meet the demand of a burgeoning affluent class frequenting the Wild Flavour restaurants of the province’s cities, there has been an increase in the volume of wild animal trade, with greater cross-border commerce (both legal and illegal) from other South East Asia countries (Vietnam and Laos, for example) into southern China and a rise in captive bred animals on unregulated small farms (Honigsbaum, 2019; Quammen, 2013). This is what Mike Davis, in 2005, coined the monster at our door, and, in light of SARS Coronavirus 2, states as the entirely familiar monster that has now walked through our front door (Davis, 2020). He elaborates, super urbanizing animal populations by factory farming is artificially creating the optimal conditions for the emergence of newly infectious diseases, speeding up the evolution of new strains, and guaranteeing the advent of pandemics (Davis, 2020). Following the work of Rob Wallace, an article from the Chinese Chuǎng journal (2020) argues that emergent infectious diseases arising in and out of China are best understood through a wider economic geography innate to capitalism, specifically, “the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization”, which:
“provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues.”
The exceptional coming together of multiple species, which would not have otherwise crossed paths in nature yet are now stacked up together in crowded conditions in dense urban environments, is, as Quammen (2013: 189) puts it, “zoological bedlam”. It should be of no surprise then that a wet market of Guangzhou was the source of the zoonotic leap of SARS in 2002, and a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province in south central China, the source of the spillover of SARS Coronavirus 2 in 2019. The natural reservoirs of both SARS Coronaviruses are likely bats. While SARS had a higher mortality rate, a critical difference between SARS and SARS Coronavirus 2 is the latter’s higher viral load prior to the onset of symptoms, which makes the effort to contain its spread much more difficult.
In narrating two stories about HIV/AIDS and SARS, I want to warn against geographically limiting one’s attention to Africa and Asia when thinking about pandemic threat. Instead, a focus on the intersection of the local and the global is key: local conditions of existence and capitalist political economy shape viral evolution, thus have meaning in explaining and predicting emergent infectious diseases, but the local intimately intersects with the global networks and processes of capitalist political economy. Eskew and Carlson (2020: e216) note, “due to globalisation, industrial agriculture, and the ubiquity of viral biodiversity, a pandemic can emerge practically anywhere.” For instance, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, which originated from a pig farm in the United States. At the same time, influenza is also emergent, as Wallace (2016: 29) states, “by way of a globalized network of corporate poultry production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve”. Furthermore, in the context of the biosecurity of a globalized agribusiness, in which, for example, mass vaccination of poultry is itself generating, in reaction, more evolutionary virulent strains of influenza (Wallace, 2016), a myopic focus on Africa and Asia takes our attention away from the fact that richer countries “routinely outsource their biodiversity threats to other nations” (Eskew and Carlson, 2020: e215). Or, as David Harvey (2010: 3) remarks, “capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically”. At all scales, states and capitals are involved in the covering up and downplaying of emergent infectious diseases because pathogens are “enmeshed” within “the political economy of the business of food” (Wallace, 2016:48). Moves by the World Health Organization to a new system of nomenclature, away from specifying geographic or animal origin, is precisely because of political pressure by powerful states and industries (Wallace, 2016).
There is a conceptual error that can be found in much work exploring ecological crises (both on pandemics and on climate change). The Anthropocene, for example, effectively presents humanity as a single homogenous bloc, outside of historical forms of society with distinct socio-economic relations, which, as Andreas Malm recognizes, re-naturalizes ecological crisis as an outcome of human disposition (see Kunkel, 2017). Marxist ecology applies a crucial insight and steer to the relationship between human socio-economic relations and nature, by understanding that capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” (Marx, cited in Verdansky, 2019). The problem is capitalism, as such the solution is a global system change that has at its centre a “socialised humanity” that “govern[s] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power” (ibid). If we are to find ourselves out of a current trajectory of escalating pandemics, we need a socialist politics that is radical and visionary:
“The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature. […] It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable “that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.”” (Marx, 1844)
Chuǎng (2020) “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China”, http://chuangcn.org/2020/02/social-contagion/
Davis, Mike (2020) “Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics”, The Dig podcast.
Davis, Mike (2005) The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. The New Press: London.
Davison, Phil (2006) “Obituary: Luckner Cambronne”. Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/luckner-cambronne-418865.html
Eskew, Evan A and Carlson, Colin J (2020) “Overselling wildlife trade bans will not bolster conservation or pandemic preparedness”. The Lanset, Volume 4, Issue 6, e215-e216, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30123-6/fulltext
Harvey, David (2010) “RSA: The Crisis of Capitalism”, https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/blogs/rsa-lecture-david-harvey-transcript.pdf
Honigsbaum, Mark (2019) The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris. Hurst & Company: London.
Kunkel, Benjamin (2017) “The Capitalocene”. London Review of Books, 39(5), 22-28.
Marx, Karl (1867) Capital: Volume One, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.htm
Marx, Karl (1857) Grundrisse, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch10.htm
Marx, Karl (1844) On The Jewish Question, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
Quammen, David (2013) Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Vintage Books: London.
Severo, Richard (1972) “Impoverished Haitians Sell Plasma for Use in the U.S.” The New York Times, 28th January 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/01/28/archives/impoverished-haitians-sell-plasma-for-use-in-the-us.html
Vernadsky, Paul (2019) “Marx and the environment”, Workers’ Liberty: Reason in Revolt, https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2019-10-09/marx-and-environment
Wallace, Rob (2020) “How Global Agriculture Grew a Pandemic”, Smarty Pants podcast.
Wallace, Rob (2016) Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. Monthly Review Press: New York.
The BBC In Our Times podcasts “Tea” (2004) and “The Opium Wars” (2007) are a fascinating insight into the interrelated historical journeys of tea and opium and the early development of global capitalism. Originating in and solely sourced from China, European contact with tea in the early sixteenth century paved the way for it later becoming Britain’s first mass commodity and a core component of its national identity. From 1660 onwards, the British East India Company’s dealings with local merchants in the port of Canton provided a foothold into trade with China and its produce of tea. Tea became one of numerous exotic and luxury commodities introduced into Britain from around the world in the expectation that some would appeal to consumers and generate a profit. Tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco all grew in demand – promoted, in a partnership between commerce and medicine, as medicinal products. While at the end of the seventeenth century, tea drinking in Britain was the preserve of the aristocratic elite, by 1750 there had been a huge increase in the importation and consumption of tea. The mass success of the tea commodity was in conjunction with that of the sugar commodity: Chinese black tea became domesticated as British with the addition of milk and sugar. Sweet hot milky tea satisfied a demand for a non-alcoholic energising beverage that was easy to prepare. Two interconnected trading triangles and systems accordingly developed, signifying the emergence of a global economy by 1750: one, trading in tea, connecting Britain to India to China back to Britain; the other, trading in sugar, connecting Britain to the continent of Africa to the West Indies back to Britain; both plugged into one another.
“… you have Africans imported in their millions by the British … to produce sugar which you mix with Chinese tea to slate the natural thirst of even the lowest income people of this country …” (BBC In Our Times: Tea, 2004)
The problem for British traders in the eighteenth century was paying for tea. China wanted and needed very little from Britain in exchange, so an unbalanced tea trade was paid for with a depleting stock of silver. Silver represented a further global movement: originating in the silver mines of Central and South America and transported via the trading triangles of the colonial empires into China; China being known at this time as “the silver grave of the world” (BBC In Our Times: The Opium Wars, 2007). A crucial development in paying for tea was the British control of the territory and revenue of Bengal in the 1760s, which generated a considerable surplus revenue; between 1750 and 1780, British investment in Indian textiles (namely, cotton) were exported to Canton, providing proceeds to pay for tea. It is at this point in the story of tea that opium enters the picture.
The Portuguese Empire first discovered and shipped opium to China; it also introduced the practice of smoking from the New World, turning opium consumption from a medicinal to a pleasure product. By the 1770s and 1780s opium was in great demand in the country, despite being banned by the Qing Dynasty for reasons of social control. Opium was desirable both as a consumable good and, for traders, as a portable currency, preferable to heavy copper and a shortage of silver. The British East India Company not only had a monopoly on the production of opium in India, its Patna opium was highly demanded because of its known superior quality. The Company, whilst publicly stating its adherence to the Qing Dynasty’s opium ban, oversaw private British traders dealing opium into China; the receipt of which was paid into its treasury.
This late eighteenth century rise in the trade of (Indian) opium offset the trade deficit between Britain and China and paid for the British addiction to (Chinese) tea.
The 1839 burning of opium at Humen (part of an organised crackdown endorsed by the Qing Dynasty) actually benefited private British traders, since, before this event, the country was inundated with opium driving down its price, while after, its price soared. What followed was the First Opium War (1839-1842): a spectacular military response by the British that used the latest technology of the time, armour-plated steamers, which led to Chinese defeat, the Nanking Treaty (opening port cities, or treaty ports, to foreign trade) and the territorial concession of Hong Kong. The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was both a further defeat for China and a further opening of treaty ports to foreign imperial powers. The rise of Chinese nationalism following the Opium Wars turned an anti-opium failure into a discourse of anti-opium hero; a narrative that remains a key part of Chinese national identity against the West.
Other national identities were bound up with this story of early globalisation. The export of tea from Britain to North America in the early eighteenth century, and its demand and consumption, was part of how American colonial elites defined themselves. However, when the British government imposed taxes on this tea trade in the 1760s, the response was non-importation of tea and throwing tea into Boston harbour, known as the Boston Tea Party. This anti-tax protest was also an anti-British protest. In the early years of the Republic, America was self-consciously on a course to becoming a coffee drinking, not a tea drinking, nation.
The problem of only being able to supply tea from China was eventually resolved by turning to India. Although the British East India Company was involved in early trials to grow tea elsewhere, the loss of its monopoly in India in 1813 explains its reluctance to heavily invest in tea production there, since it would be undercut by private tea growers. What’s more, the Company maintained its monopoly in China until 1833. Once the monopolies in both India and China ceased, tea production in India (notably, Assam) significantly developed.
Reflecting on the BBC In On Times podcasts, the historical and interwoven journeys of tea and opium provide a story on the construction of national identities during a period of early globalisation, in which such national identities are themselves the distinct products of globalisation. This story is also an insight into the emergence of a genuinely global economy: its centre and peripheries, and its peculiarities and forced economic and social resolutions. The story of the Opium Wars is actually the story of tea, and the story of tea is in fact the story of capital relentlessly pushing geographical boundaries and abiding no limits.
BBC (2004). In Our Times: Tea, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y24y
BBC (2007). In Our Times: The Opium Wars, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00776k9
French political scientist Gilles Kepel is a world-leading academic expert on political Islam (or Islamism). In his 2010 lecture at the London School of Economics he explains how from the midpoint of the 1970s political Islam became a prominent actor in the world system, and the consequences of this. My blog post summarises his analysis.
First generation jihadism in 1980s Afghanistan: a “Vietnam in reverse”
Kepel states that the Islamic political system plugged into the world system in the 1970s and 1980s, with jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s the watershed event. The promotors of this Afghan jihad – the petro-monarchies of the Arabian peninsula and the United States – considered this struggle central to undermining the USSR; in other words, jihad in Afghanistan was a proxy war (of the Cold War) against the USSR. This war ended on 15th February 1989 with the withdrawal of the Red Army from Kabul. Kepel claims that while many consider the significant event of 1989 as the fall of the Berlin Wall, in actual fact the defeat in Afghanistan was decisive for the end of the Cold War, since it exposed the fragility of the USSR. What’s more, he asserts, jihad in Afghanistan was a “Vietnam in reverse” that “opened the Pandora’s box of radical Islam that led to 9/11”: the “freedom fighter’s chicken that came home to roost” (Kepel, 2010).
Changing geography of the 1970s Muslim world
Kepel traces the upsurge of political Islam to when the first generation of young people who had not experienced direct colonial rule came of age in the Muslim world. Such a generation, he observes, held the rulers of the Muslim world responsible for what was not being delivered.
During the 1970s, Kepel expands, there was massive demographic change in this part of the world: more children were surviving due to improvements in nutrition and medicine, and there was large-scale migration from the countryside to the urban peripheries (or slums) of the big cities. With this relocation, people were no longer following rural Sufi orders, i.e. spiritual Islam, since it offered no answers to people’s new immediate concerns, notably, urban developers, the police, and the mafia. Kepel points out that this young generation became the first generation to be massively literate in the language of the country, specifically, in post-colonial, national languages used by the ruling elites to assert their own power.
Kepel describes how this new literate and hopeless generation, unhappy with their situation and their rulers, used their literacy to read, understand, and put into practice the revolutionary ideas of the most radical ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sayyid Qutb. This Islamist ideology saw the world as not really Muslim anymore, even in Muslim countries (whose rulers had betrayed Islam), and positioned this generation as living amid the age of ignorance (jahiliyyah) and whose duty was to destroy this old world and create a new Islamic world.
1973 Ramadan War and Saudi Arabia
The upsurge of Islam on the political scene from the 1970s had a dual dimension, Kepel discerns: a radical side and a conservative side. The conservative side, the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia, was much closer to Western and, in particular, American interests.
Kepel expounds that the October war of 1973 was a very significant event vis-à-vis political Islam. Following the defeat of the Arab states in the Six-day war of 1967 with Israel, Nasser of Egypt had lost political legitimacy; the governments of Egypt and Syria launched an offensive against Israel in 1973 to ‘save face’. The October war was known in the Muslim world as the Ramadan War. But for soldiers to be able to fight (not fast) during Ramadan, jihad had to be declared. This was declared by the Grand Mufti of the Republic of Egypt (an appointee of Sadat). This was, Kepel states, a social and political jihad translated into military action. It was not a jihad of expansion but a compulsory defence jihad (since Israel was deemed to be a land occupied by infidels) to be fought by sword, money, and/or prayer. During this jihad, there was major pressure from oil-exporting countries for an embargo on all allies of Israel, which steeply drove up oil prices. Kepel makes plain the consequence of this: Saudi Arabia (the biggest oil producer and the one who had taken the initiative) became the key player in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a very strong, conservative Islamic kingdom, which was staunchly anti-Communist, used its oil weapon against the United States because it considered the United States to have gone too far in its support of Israel. Simultaneously, Kepel reveals, radical political Islam was developing in Egypt. The conservative Islamists of Saudi Arabia were worried about this, hoping that by flooding this Islamist movement with its money it would become more conservative.
1978-79 Islamic Revolution in Iran
Kepel observes that the big shock came not from the Sunni world but from the Shia world: the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution of Iran, which had (and continues to have) revolutionary and third wordlist overtones, and an anti-Americanism (unlike Saudi Arabia). Islamist Iran was also anti-Saudi Arabia and considered the petro-monarchies as lapdogs of the West. Also in 1979, with huge money from the United States as an incentive, Sadat of Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel. By 1980, Saddam Hussein of Iraq (with Gulf states backing ) attacked Iran with the aim of exploiting its internal political turmoil. In sum, Kepel identifies, the whole Western system of alliances looked in danger.
Back to Afghanistan and The Satanic Versus
During the Christmas of 1979 the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Kepel remarks that this was not an expansionist mission on part of the USSR, but was intended to replace the existing Communist Party officials who had come in during an earlier coup with a new set. The United States government considered this as a golden opportunity to do two things, Kepel contends: 1) to get rid of the USSR via a proxy war led by the Afghan mujahedeen or jihad fighters (who were called freedom fighters by the United States at this time) and 2) to get rid of or to minimise the influence of Iran. Thus, Kepel claims, it is very significant that on the 14th February 1989 (the day before the Red Army withdrew from Kabul) Iran’s Ayatollah issued his famous fatwa to kill British citizen Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah understood, Kepel spells out, that the Sunni radicals with their Saudi-Kuwaiti-American godfathers stood to benefit from the withdrawal of the Red Army, and so he aimed to demonstrate that Iran was the defender of Muslims worldwide.
Second generation jihadism from the 1990s
It was not well understood at the time, Kepel explains, that international brigades of jihadists came to Afghanistan to fight jihad, specifically, people who considered the call for jihad as universal. These people had a different agenda: liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet yoke was only the first step in the restoration of Islam. Within these Islamist circles an idea developed that the Afghan jihad should be duplicated in the countries from where these people came from. After the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan, the United States and the petro-monarchies started to worry about the so-called freedom fighters (now called terrorists and whose funding had ceased); they assumed that without the funding and without a country, the threat would disappear. But what transpired in the 1990s were attempts by many of the veterans of the Afghan war to re-enact the Afghan jihad in their own countries: notably, Egypt, Algeria, and Bosnia (all deemed Muslim lands governed by impious rulers). Civil wars consequently ignited in these countries, but, Kepel concludes, the radical Islamists ultimately failed because they were unable to mobilise the masses.
Significantly, Kepel argues, this failure led Ayam al-Zawahiri – a supremo thinker of al-Qaeda – to conclude that it was useless to waste one’s time fighting one’s near-by enemies, rather the focus should be on the far-away enemy: to strike at America. The attack on the Twin Towers was intended as a symbolic strike that would provide courage and mobilisation of a vast movement. This didn’t happen. The radical Islamists expected Iraq to be the place that would re-enact Afghan jihad. Instead Iraq became “the cemetery of their illusions” (Kepel, 2010): an intra-Muslim battle (Sunni-Shiite) in which jihad turned into internal strife (fitna).
Third generation jihadism
In two more recent interviews on France24 (Kepel, 2015) and Al Jazeera (Kepel, 2017), Gilles Kepel defines the present era as one of third generation jihadism. After the first generation jihadism of 1980s Afghanistan and the second generation jihadism of al-Qaeda and 9/11, Kepel expounds that third generation jihadism is a system and a network not an organisation, and is bottom-up. It was born from a critique of the failure of the top-down al-Qaeda strategy to mobilise the Muslim masses, which was ultimately lost in Iraq. Kepel points out that a former aide to Bin Laden and PR man to al-Qaeda, a Syrian engineer called Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, posted an online book in 2005 called ‘The Global Islamic Resistance Call’. This text sees Europe as “the soft underbelly of the West” (Kepel, 2017) and advances a grassroots jihadism in which its soldiers will come from amongst the one million disenfranchised young Muslims living in Europe. Kepel recognises that the core dimension of this third generation of jihadists is both the internet, with videos posted from Iraq and Syria (whereas previously propaganda came through the mosques), and budget airlines and cheap airfares to, for instance, Istanbul. This, he says, is the new proximity of the battlefield. And these internet indoctrinated, military-trained individuals choose targets from within a wide framework: 1) secularist, ‘anti-Islamist’ intellectuals; 2) Jews, but not in synagogues; and 3) so-called apostate Muslims. The basic idea of third generation jihadism, Kepel surmises, is to find the fault lines and start a war.
Afterword: Olivier Roy and ‘Islamophobia’
In Gilles Kepel’s 2017 interview on Al Jazeera he is asked his opinion of Olivier Roy’s thesis that there hasn’t been a radicalisation of Islam but instead an Islamisation of radicalism: with angry, alienated young men, who in the past might have turned to Marxism or anarchism or joined a gang, signing up today to jihadism because it is the most fashionable radicalism going. Kepel strongly disagrees with Roy’s thesis. He insists that the radicalisation of many young French Muslims (especially in the deprived French suburbs) is related to the Islam that they follow, Salafi Islam. While Roy sees radicalism as the essence and the phenomenon changes, Kepel asserts that if you don’t study the blend of the social issues and the ideology then you miss the point.
Kepel is also questioned on his reference to ‘Islamophobia’ as a buzzword and a propaganda term used by Islamists. The problem with Islamophobia, he argues, is that it mixes criticism of a doctrine (which is permissible) with attacking someone as a person because of, for example, what she wears, her faith, et cetera (which is not permissible). The latter, Kepel states, is racism.
Let’s begin with Marx and Engels from The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848):
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”
For me dialectics is a way of seeing and thinking about the world. The world around me is in perpetual flux. The world is in constant movement. What’s more, this locomotion is ridden with contradictory tensions, and it is the very friction of these tensions that fuels ongoing change. Dialectical thinking is that which is attuned to contradictory motion and imminent potentialities. All that is solid melts into air.
Remarkably, the language used by Marx and Engels in 1848 to depict and predict world developments chimes well with the contemporary discourse of ‘globalisation’. If we take this above passage from The Communist Manifesto and hold it up to the present-day, we can see a battle between, on the one hand, a desire for certainty and the satisfaction of old wants, fixed, fast-frozen relations, and local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, and, on the other hand, a desire for the best of all that is solid which melts into air: a willing acceptance of uncertainty that comes with openness to new wants and experiences, intercourse in every direction, connections everywhere, universal interdependence, and a cosmopolitan world.
Let’s end then with one aspect – from the Lord Ashcroft Polls – of how and why people voted the way that they did in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership.
In this post I present, first, a brief overview of the current period in Britain vis-à-vis racism and hate crime; second, the limitation of a dominant academic understanding of racism; and third, a historical exposition of the nature of racism which offers explanatory power for our contemporary era.
I. Hate crime post the EU referendum
Britain’s EU referendum cannot simply be regarded at its face value as a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. More than this, it was a noxious campaign on immigration, which was preceded by years of political and media discourse that has mainstreamed anti-immigration sentiment. The Brexit vote legitimised racism: it took the shame out of racial hatred and unleashed waves of its verbal and physical expression. The Economist (2016) reports hate crime data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council of 3,076 incidents of harassment or violence between June 6th and 30th 2016, a rise of 915 on the same period the previous year. More recent figures, from between August 5th and 18th, indicate 2,778 cases, an increase of 14% on the same period in 2015. The stark reality behind these statistics can be seen through the following summary by The Independent (2016) of hate crime incidents since the EU referendum:
“Gangs prowling the streets demanding passers-by prove they can speak English
- Swastikas in Armagh, Sheffield, Plymouth, Leicester, London and Glasgow.
- Assaults, arson attacks and dog excrement being thrown at doors or shoved through letter boxes.
- Toddlers being racially abused alongside their mothers, with children involved as either victims or perpetrators in 14 per cent of incidents.
- A man in Glasgow ripping off a girl’s headscarf and telling her “Trash like you better start obeying the white man.”
- Comparisons with 1930s Nazi Germany and a crowd striding through a London street chanting: “First we’ll get the Poles out, then the gays!””
This provides a critical backdrop and climate to the horrific fatal assault on a Polish man, Arkadiusz Jozwik, in Harlow, Essex, on 27th August 2016. The question addressed by this article is: why and how have we arrived at this moment? To answer this, we need to adequately understand the history and nature of racism in Britain.
II. Dominant academic framing of racism
Sociologist Gurminder K. Bhambra (2016), in a blog post written soon after the EU referendum result, states that what was “unleashed in the weeks prior to the vote was the most toxic discourse on citizenship and belonging, and the rights that pertain as a consequence”. She questions the idea of Britain as an ‘independent’ nation, given its history as part of wider political entities: notably, the colonial Empire and Commonwealth, and the European Union. Bhambra continues, the idea of the British nation has long been dependent on “a racially stratified political formation” of its making and, decisively, it has been:
“the loss of this privileged position – based on white elites and a working class offered the opportunity to see themselves as better than the darker subjects of empire […] – that seems to drive much of the current discourse. Austerity has simply provided the fertile ground for its re-emergence and expression.” (Bhambra, 2016)
Thus, she argues, to understand ‘Britain’ one needs to understand its colonial and imperial Empire and governance. The 1948 British Nationality Act was a turning point, for previously Britain’s colonial subjects were defined as British subjects but with the Act they became Commonwealth citizens. And as the bodies of these Commonwealth citizens migrated into the space of the British nation-state, “mythologies of the changing nature (or, perhaps more accurately, face) of Britain” developed:
“Mythologies that continue to reverberate in the present and have taken on a renewed political vibrancy in light of the debates regarding our continued EU membership. […] The transformation of darker citizens from citizens to aliens over the 1960s and 1970s was based on a visceral understanding of difference predicated on race that brought into being two classes of citizenship – full citizenship and second-class citizenship. […] immigration into the country was increasingly managed by the passing of Acts to discriminate among citizens on the basis of race.” (Bhambra, 2016)
From this twentieth century history, Bhambra concludes that the “common-sense position” on what it means “to be British or English is to be white”, as based on the “mythology of a white Europe or a historically white Britain”. The consequence of this (racist) common sense is a grave misrepresentation of Britain’s “multiracial political formations”. As such:
“we must rethink our analyses to take into account the imperial configuration of Britain and all those who were subjects within it and subject to it. If this is not done, then that demonstrates a commitment to a racialized national history that has no space for its darker subjects.” (Bhambra, 2016)
For me, this academic narrative leaves unexplained the present-day racism against Eastern Europeans, for example. Without a doubt, racism before and since the EU referendum affects Britain’s darker subjects, but what has evolved is not simply or only a racism that targets those of different skin colour. Other markers, both visible and invisible, are also at play as signifying negative racial difference and inciting hatred. Helpful here is the work of the sociologist Robert Miles (1993), who makes the point that proposing (or indeed assuming) the ideology of racism has its historical origins in colonialism can lead to a conclusion that racism is an ideology created exclusively by ‘white’ people to dominant ‘black’ people. However, “in part, the origins of racism can be traced back to pre-capitalist social relations within and beyond Europe” and “its reproduction is as much determined by the rise of the nation state as by colonialism” (Miles, 1993). From the highly cited and regarded work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) collective, a dominant academic understanding of racism has problematically developed, as Miles observes, “often implicit in their writing is the assumption that the only contemporary form of racism in Britain is that which has people of Caribbean and South Asian origin as its object”. Yet:
“Many physical characteristics (both real and imagined) have been and continue to be signified as a mark of nature and of ‘race’ […]. Moreover, cultural characteristics have also been, and continue to be, signified to the same end. The reification of skin colour therefore mistakenly privileges one specific instance of signification and ignores the historical and contemporary evidence which shows that other populations (Jews, Irish people, etc.) have been signified as distinct and inferior ‘races’ without reference to skin colour […]. Moreover, it restricts analysis of the nature and determinants of racism to a debate about the effects of colonial exploitation.” (Miles, 1993)
I turn now to detail Miles’ exploration of the history of racism, which, I will illustrate, provides astute explanatory power to the contemporary era surrounding Brexit.
III. On the history of racism and its reverberations in the present
Miles’ explanation of the historical interrelationship between nationalism and racism vis-à-vis capitalist development is instructive:
“In the context of its formation, nationalism was […] a revolutionary doctrine because it sought to overturn monarchy and aristocratic government by an appeal to the popular will of ‘the people’ who were the ‘nation’ […] For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. This was not only because there was little agreement about the boundaries between the supposed ‘races’, but also because scientific racism did not posit a single, coherent political object. The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation became more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. The increasing profusion of physiological and cultural variation, as recognised in western Europe, became the object of intellectual curiosity and, thereby, of the theoretical practice of scientists and philosophers. But it also became the focus of political attention and action as populations within and beyond Europe were nationalised and racialised by the state […]” (Miles, 1993)
While distinct ideologies, nationalism and racism can overlap: the construct of the ‘nation’ as based on cultural differentiae is compatible with the notion that the nation is founded on a biological ‘race’. Miles continues to demonstrate that first the feudal aristocracy’s, and later the bourgeoisie’s, ‘civilisation’ project became fused with racism – a civilisation project which was central to emergent and developing capitalist social relations within and outside Europe:
“In France, notions of politesse and civilité were used by the feudal aristocracy to contrast the refinement of their behaviour with that of the ‘inferior’ people whom they ruled. […] the bourgeoisie became its leading exponent once it had displaced the aristocracy as the ruling class. By the early nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie, conscious of its material achievements and more firmly in political control in at least certain parts of Europe, began to assert that its values and manners were more a matter of inheritance than a social construction. In these circumstances the notion of civilisation (Elias 1978: 50): “serves at least those nations which have become colonial conquerors, and therefore a kind of upper class to large sections of the non-European world, as a justification of their rule, to the same degree that earlier the ancestors of the concept of civilisation, politesse and civilité, had served the courtly-aristocratic upper class as a justification of theirs.”” (Miles, 1993)
Depending on conjuncture and interests, the boundaries of blood have been mapped and remapped:
“Hence, during the nineteenth century, in certain circumstances the English working class, or fractions thereof, were signified by the dominant class as ‘a different breed’, an uncivilised ‘race’, but in other circumstances, as a constituent part of the English (or British) ‘race’, a ‘breed’ which contains ‘in its blood’ civilised and democratic values. […] The result was a racialised nationalism or a nationalist racism, a mercurial ideological bloc that was manipulated by the ruling class (or rather by different fractions of it) to legitimate the exploitation of inferior ‘races’ in the colonies, to explain economic and political struggles with other European nation states, and to signify (for example) Irish and Jewish migrants as an undesirable ‘racial’ presence within Britain.” (Miles, 1993)Thus for over two centuries the signification of racial difference has been a central aspect of class relations and class struggle both inside and beyond Europe. To maintain domination:
“Europeans in different class positions have racialised each other, as well as inward migrants and those populations that they colonised beyond Europe. During the twentieth century, there have been further examples of the racialisation of the interior of European nation states (as in the case of the Jews), as well as a racialisation of larger-scale inward migrations, including colonial and non-colonial migrations, since 1945.” (Miles, 1993)
We might productively consider the present period in Britain as an extension and evolution of this history, in which racism vilifies an internal European Other and an Other from outside Europe.
It was by the close of the nineteenth century that the political economic domination of the global capitalist system by Britain came under threat from sources inside and beyond Europe, and as such, by the final quarter of the nineteenth century:
“a new, right-wing English patriotism, which was simultaneously royalist and racist, was created […] the whole world was racialised, including Europe, in an attempt to comprehend the rise of competing European capitalisms, each embodied in a separate national shell, and each seeking its ‘destiny’ on the world stage” (Miles, 1993)
Irish immigration into Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was racialised, as was immigration from Eastern Europe and Germany. There was widely perceived to be an ‘alien’ problem in the country:
“Commencing halfway through the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century, a political campaign against the settlement of immigrants from eastern Europe achieved prominence […] Those involved in the campaign consistently exaggerated the scale of immigration […] and demanded the introduction of an immigration law which would permit the state to control and limit the entry of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe. […] the notions of ‘immigrant’ and ‘alien’ became synonymous in everyday life with that of Jew […] legislation regulating the entry of aliens into Britain was introduced immediately preceding and after the First World War. […] Assertions about the existence of a German conspiracy multiplied, and myths about the German ‘national character’ which signified Germans as having certain (negatively evaluated) natural attributes were widely articulated […] The categories of ‘German’ and ‘Jew’ were often used synonymously” (Miles, 1993)
The political debate surrounding the Aliens Act of 1905, and the subsequent Aliens Restriction Act of 1914 and Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Bill and Act of 1919, identified the problematic presence of three population groups:
“First, there was a lingering desire to find additional ways of punishing the defeated foe, the ‘Hun’. In addition, two ‘new’ enemies were found. These were trade union radicals or ‘Bolshevik sympathisers’, and Jews, including those who had arrived as refugees in the late nineteenth century as well as the longer-established Jewish community, a proportion of which formed part of the British bourgeoisie […] Collectively, this Other constituted the quintessential ‘alien’” (Miles, 1993)
Nonetheless, confronting major shortages of labour, the Labour government reluctantly opted for large-scale foreign-sourced labour. By the close of 1946 a system was in place for the resettlement of Polish people and the European Volunteer Scheme (EVW) came into being. The political discourse underpinning this immigration was one of ‘assimilation’ and (as it later transpired) a problem of lack of ‘integration’:
“the concern was to find the most suitable ‘races and nationalities’ that would not only provide labour power but also possess the kind of ‘vigorous blood’ that could be expected to benefit ‘our stock’. […] As evidence accumulated showing that the Poles and the EVWs were not learning the English language, that they continued to identify themselves with the nation states from which they originated, and that they were forming ‘exclusive communities’, official concern increased.” (Miles, 1993)
A stark comparison can be made here with the present-day racism against Polish people, who are accused of failing to integrate and assimilate to the so-called British way of life. Across Europe, including Britain, integration has become a state objective: “‘they’ are expected to learn to behave like ‘us’ because cultural homogeneity is considered to be a necessary precondition for the survival of the nation” (Miles, 1993).
Miles identifies a shift vis-à-vis immigration to Britain during the years 1945-1951, from Europe as the major source of labour migration to that of the British colonies and ex-colonies:
“because the British state proved unwilling to realise its racism in law at this time, the rights of British colonial and ex-colonial subjects to enter and settle in Britain were not withdrawn. Migration from the Caribbean (as well as from Ireland) continued and increased through the 1950s, and was paralleled by migration from India and Pakistan. It was not until 1962 that the British state imposed controls on the entry of British subjects from what had become known as the New Commonwealth.” (Miles, 1993)
Decisively, “by removing the right of entry to, and settlement in, the United Kingdom from certain categories of British subject, the state established new (racist) criteria by which to determine membership of the ‘imagined community’ of nation” (Miles, 1993). A critical aspect of this post-1945 era has been the response of the British state to political agitation for immigration controls against ‘coloureds’: such immigrants have been “simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’” (Miles, 1993). Similarly, in recent times, both European and non-European migrants to Britain have been racialised and signified as the cause of the social and economic problems of the British people; it has become (racist) common sense that immigration is a problem and must be severely controlled.
The development of the European Union has brought with it a new specificity of tensions vis-à-vis immigration, nationalism and racism. What isn’t new is the political debate about immigration – framed as alien populations flooding in to threaten the identity and existence of the nation. However, what is distinct is that:
“the effects are refracted through a novel international conjuncture, one in which the reality of the nation state, and the power of the individual state to regulate social relations within its ‘sovereign territory’, is being transformed in Europe as a result of the interplay between the power of international capital and the political reorganisation embodied in the evolution of the EC as a supranational political unit.” (Miles, 1993)
From the early 1950s through to the early 1970s there was large-scale labour migration into Western Europe which (with some exceptions) the state promoted as an economic necessity. But since then this political discourse has been replaced by one of the need for stricter and stricter immigration controls. And so:
“Every official statement expressing support for the ‘principle’ of increased [immigration] control […] legitimates political opposition to immigration within the electorate in circumstances where the state faces structural constraints on its ability to deliver what it promises: this contradiction will ensure that immigration remains at the centre of political conflict within most European nation states and within the European Commission during the 1990s and beyond. The contradiction is overdetermined by the reality of the EC as a political entity: because of the attempt to create a European immigration policy, the politicisation of immigration as a problem in one member state can have immediate repercussions in the others. Moreover, in so far as a consequence of continuing immigration is a magnification of political opposition to it, and in so far as that opposition is grounded in, or expressive of, racism, the intervention of the state reinforces that racism.” (Miles, 1993)
One response that has emerged on the Left defines the European Union as a ‘Fortress Europe’, which “prevent[s] ‘black’ people from entering its borders and […] sustain[s] a common ‘white’, Judaeo-Christian heritage by repelling or subordinating alien (non-European) cultural influences (such as Islam)” (Miles, 1993). During the EU referendum, this was what Lexit campaigners such as the SWP raised in their incoherent arguments. What is indeed rampant in the contemporary era surrounding Brexit is a pan-European racism – reflected in the growth of far Right parties across the continent – against, for example, an African Other, an Islamic Other, a Syrian Other, et cetera. That said, Fortress Europe racism is not the whole picture. As observed by Miles of the late twentieth century:
“For geo-spatial and ideological reasons, the greatest apprehension originally concerned migration from the southern edge of the EC. The fear was, and is, that the Mediterranean Sea will become Europe’s Rio Grande, no more than a minor obstacle for the ‘millions’ of Africans seeking to enter the EC illegally […] Since 1989, new fears have been articulated: speculation has increased about a large-scale migration from eastern Europe, one that places Germany (and Austria) in the front line against an ‘invasion’ from the east.” (Miles, 1993)
Alongside then a Fortress Europe which negatively racialises an external (non-white and/or non-Christian) Other, what has also become prevalent is a negative racialisation of an internal (white) Other, most notably, Eastern Europeans. These racialisations and their associated racial hatreds have historical origins in capitalist (and pre-capitalist) social relations and the nation state, with colonialism one integral moment within this; in this context, “theories of racism which are grounded solely in the analysis of colonial history and which prioritise the single somatic characteristic of skin colour have a specific and limited explanatory power” (Miles, 1993).
Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2016) “Viewpoint: Brexit, Class and British ‘National’ Identity”, http://discoversociety.org/2016/07/05/viewpoint-brexit-class-and-british-national-identity/, last accessed 10th September 2016
Editorial (2016) “Hate crime: Bearing the brunt”, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21706477-rancid-post-referendum-rise-bearing-brunt, last accessed 10th September 2016
Lusher, Adam (2016) “Racism unleashed: True extent of the ‘explosion of blatant hate’ that followed Brexit result revealed”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-racism-uk-post-referendum-racism-hate-crime-eu-referendum-racism-unleashed-poland-racist-a7160786.html, last accessed 10th September 2016
Miles, Robert (1993) Race after ‘race relations’. London: Routledge
“‘History’ has to be renegotiated and resignified in order to (re)create a sense of the past appropriate to the particular conjuncture and the political project for the future. […] in the case of English nationalism, the events selected include those which evince a sense of external threat over which ‘the English people’ triumph, especially events concerning war and imperialism […]. The continually reconstructed sense of the English past, in which ‘race’ is an ever present reification, signifies the English ‘nation’ (and therefore the idea of ‘race’) as an ever present collective subject” (Miles 1993: 76-77)
In one significant sense, the EU referendum wasn’t a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, rather it was a referendum on immigration and English/British national identity in which the idea of ‘race’ was infused. The referendum’s outcome, its narrow margin, was critically determined by the sociological white working class in England (and Wales), the former Labour Party heartlands. The dominant slogan of the Leave campaign, “Take back control”, as vacuous as it was, nevertheless translated as take back control of ‘our national borders’ and of ‘our nation’. It resonated as a slogan because large and indeed broader sections of the public have become convinced that their country is being invaded – that ‘we are under threat’.
Anti-immigration discourse has become mainstream, as (New) Labour joined the Conservative Party in its propagation alongside much of the media (all with various shades, nuances, and guises). Once the Labour Party explicitly bought into an anti-immigration discourse, along with the austerity politics post the 2007 -2008 global capitalist crisis – albeit a softer anti-immigration and a softer austerity – then the far Right, including UKIP, were on course to gain, as dramatically confirmed by Brexit.
It is also crucial to recognise that this contemporary moment is not altogether new:
“An important dimension of the post-1945 period has been the way in which successive British governments have responded to political agitation to impose immigration controls on the entry of those who used to be called ‘coloured’ Commonwealth citizens […]. The political discourse employed has been overtly and covertly racist, although within the formal political arena, references to inherent biological inferiority to legitimate the demand for such exclusion have been rare. Rather, the migrants have been simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’ […] The post-1945 Caribbean and Asian presence in Britain has been signified as a previously external threat that is now ‘within’, so that the ‘old order’ is threatened by its presence. As a result, because ‘our’ collective existence is supposedly challenged, resistance (even a new war) must be organised. The prominent and desirable features of ‘our culture’ are spotlighted and reified by the assertion that they are in danger of being negated by the consequences of the presence of an Other […]” (Miles 1993: 73-77)
If we replace “‘coloured’ Commonwealth citizens” with Eastern European migrants and Syrian refugees (although the former are still scapegoated), then what we have today is a situation in which the Other is racialised and signified as the cause of the social and economic ills of ‘ordinary English/British people’. What’s more, the contemporary external threat has a more fluid geography that includes Europe, against which one’s own cultural identity must seemingly be defended and preserved. All the while, a neoliberal politics of austerity, with its driving conditions of poverty and inequality, escapes critique.
We have a constructed fantasy of a country at war, of a country being invaded, and of an enemy within. With anti-immigration discourse becoming conventional, it is not surprising that during the EU referendum the Leave campaign’s dominant slogan, “Take back control”, won ideologically.
Leave voters talked of: ‘wanting our country back’; it being ‘time to stand on our own two feet’; and that ‘we’re British, so come what may, we’ll be okay’. Such statements of faith illustrate a belief in a fabricated past and present and an impossible future, counter to all credible evidence and empirical reality. Amidst an anti-intellectual culture of ‘don’t trust the experts’ (with a leading Leave campaigner and former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove saying, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts”), “Take back control” reflected a quasi-religious English/British nationalism and patriotism saturated with the idea of ‘race’. The results of Lord Ashcroft’s Poll on how people voted in the EU referendum are startling in this respect:
“One third (33%) [of leave voters] said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” […] In England, leave voters (39%) were more than twice as likely as remain voters (18%) to describe themselves either as “English not British” or “more English than British”. Remain voters were twice as likely as leavers to see themselves as more British than English. Two thirds of those who considered themselves more English than British voted to leave; two thirds of those who considered themselves more British than English voted to remain. […] By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.”
During the 1980s the Thatcher-led Conservative government created a populist unity though nationalism and patriotism, including ‘a Great Britain at war’. Take Thatcher’s speech in July 1982, after the Falklands War, in which she constructs a discourse remarkably similar to that of the Leave campaign:
“When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthearts, the people who thought that Britain could no longer seize the initiative for herself … that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well they were wrong. The lesson of the Falklands is that this nation still has those sterling qualities which shine through our history.” (Cited in Miles 1993: 75)
During the EU referendum campaign, Leave spokespeople teased the Remain camp for not believing in Britain: the Remainers were ridiculed as the waverers and the fainthearted.
Back to the 1980s:
“The Conservative government reinforced this notion of Englishness or Britishness, which is shaped by the idea of ‘race’, in its British Nationality Act, 1981. The Act brought nationality law into line with the racist categories constructed in earlier immigration law and immigration rules (Dixon 1983: 173): “The crucial irony of the 1981 Act is that it is designed to define a sense of belonging and nationhood which is itself a manifestation of the sense of racial superiority created along with the Empire, while simultaneously it cuts the ties of citizenship established in the same historical process. The ideology of Empire is reconstructed: while Thatcherism rejects the essential expansionism of Empire in favour of ‘isolationism’, its supremacism, chauvinism and racism are preserved.”” (Miles 1993: 76)
In 1950 UNESCO issued a statement declaring the so-called biological phenomenon of ‘race’ as a social myth. Before this, the British Empire had a specific relationship to nineteenth century racial science. To help justify colonial domination, ideas developed by racial science were incorporated into arguments to naturalise capitalist exploitation: ‘it is the white man’s burden to civilise the black and brown races’. What survives from this history is a pseudo-biological cultural racism: in which the idea of ‘race’ feeds into nation, and biology into culture. English/British nationalism echoes nineteenth and early twentieth century imperial nationalism. Embedded in this nationalism and patriotism, disguised within, is the idea of ‘race’:
“Phrases like “the Island Race” and “the Bulldog Breed” vividly convey the manner in which this nation is represented in terms which are simultaneously biological and cultural.” (Gilroy 1987: 45)
A dangerous outcome of the EU referendum is echoed in the words of Sivanandan (1990: 150) on 1980s Britain: “Shame…has gone out of Thatcherite Britain – the shame of being a racist…” Take, for example, the upfront honesty of some Leave voters from the north and south of England as reported on television news shortly after the result:
What Brexit has done is legitimise racism from which the fascist far Right will continue to grow (and it will grow most vigorously if a Labour Party coup succeeds in ousting the socialist leader, pro-immigration and anti-austerity, Jeremy Corbyn, in order to shift the party rightwards once again to a soft anti-immigration and a soft austerity politics).
The question of Scotland is an important one, with both the SNP a vocally pro-immigration (and anti-austerity) party and Scottish voters, in the main, pro-Europe. The question being: why? The following astute historical analysis of the distinct nature of Scottish nationalism, vis-à-vis racism, offers an answer:
“post-1945 Asian migrants to Scotland have not been the object of a systematic and hostile political agitation as happened in England (although this is not to deny that racist images of these migrants are commonly expressed in everyday life in Scotland). Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that the particular political compromise embodied in the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland ensured the reproduction of a distinct proto-state apparatus and national identity. In this context, political nationalism in Scotland during the twentieth century has tended to focus on the perceived economic and political disadvantages of the Union. Nationalism in Scotland during the 1960s and 1970s therefore identified an external cause of economic disadvantage/decline, without reference to ‘race’, while in England the idea of ‘race’ was employed to identify an internal cause of crisis, the presence of a ‘coloured’ population which was not ‘truly’ British.” (Miles 1993: 77-78)
In the context of Brexit, the accusation of racism is a contentious one. One narrative emerging after the Leave campaign victory, from many of its voters, is an offended and defensive ‘I’m not a racist…’ One needs to understand what racism actually is (see my blog post Racism 101). While not all Leave voters (including the highly irresponsible fool-heads of Lexit) were and are racists, without doubt, the Leave campaign pushed and unleashed a reconstructed ideology of British Empire soaked with supremacism, chauvinism, and racism. Deeply worrying and perilous times lie ahead.
Reference: Miles, Robert (1993) Racism after ‘race relations’. London: Routledge.
[I dedicate this post to Lee Claydon, with love and solidarity.]
On Saturday 14th May 2016 I attended the Sheffield TUC’s “Europe IN or OUT? The Big Debate”. Maxine Bowler of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) was the main speaker on the top table for the ‘out’ position. In my contribution from the floor I began by stating my critique of the European Union as a neoliberal capitalist club, which is hostile to migrants and refugees. I reasoned that one can be a fierce critic of the status quo and bureaucracy of the European Union whilst recognising that the alternative actuality of ‘Britain out’, in the face of a deeply chauvinistic wave coalescing through the Brexit campaign, would be a reactionary throwback which will impede the struggle for working class liberation. I then referenced the Marxist tradition (by Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, and others) for a socialist “United States of Europe” – a tradition which has been problematically displaced by Stalinism. Maxine replied: “I am angry that someone has used Marx and Engels to defend the European Union!” So she missed my point. But much worse still, she woefully neglected an important history and compass for the present from supposedly her own tradition. As the debate proceeded, a member of the audience tentatively made a case for ‘Britain out’ on the basis of a need to curb immigration. Maxine responded by making a case for open borders. And herein lies the political incongruity of the Lexit campaign: arguing against a Fortress Europe and for an open Europe, while effectively retreating to (a left-wing) nationalism; arguing against the European Union and for an internationalism, while ineffectively challenging the forces and conditions of existence that are fuelling xenophobia, racism, parochialism, and nationalism. In the fantasy politics minds of its campaigners, Lexit is the subversion of Brexit, yet in reality it is merely an inversion. Moreover, given the tsunami of Brexit, Lexit’s attempt to capsize Brexit continuously fails as wave after wave capsize Lexit.
In the Social Worker article “Say no to Fortress Europe – vote leave on 23 June”, the organisation argues:
“the EU isn’t about bringing people together across borders. It’s about bringing together the ruling classes of some countries to compete against the ruling classes of other countries – partly by putting up borders. The EU makes it harder to travel into Europe from Africa, Asia and South America. To do so it promotes scapegoating myths that can then be turned against European migrants. So can its machinery of border control and repression. Building a racist Fortress Europe is central to the EU project. Bringing down that fortress is essential for any real internationalism or anti-racism. Some activists argue that the bigger enemy is “Fortress Britain”. But the two aren’t in competition. Britain’s rulers use the EU to police their own borders.”
If we leave the European Union, further still, if it disintegrates under a tsunami of chauvinistic nationalisms, then what are the conditions of existence to then fight for an open Europe? If we succumb to a form of left-wing nationalism amidst waves of racist, xenophobic English and British nationalism, then what are the conditions of existence for a future of workers’ solidarity across borders? Maxine and other SWP members at the Sheffield debate defined those who spelt out the highly probable consequences of ‘Britain out’ as promoting a “politics of despair”. Instead, they speculated, Boris would oust Cameron, the Tories would look like a joke, the masses would then take to the streets, and socialism would be victorious.
II. The Marxist tradition for a “United States of Europe”
Let’s start with the following historical context, as summated by Cathy Nugent in her article “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”:
“The term ‘United States of Europe’ has its origins in bourgeois democratic thought in the nineteenth century, and was directed at the multi-national absolutist empires such as Austria and Russia. Some of the more far-sighted thinkers envisaged an alternative way in which the European continent could be organised. The Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini, for instance, saw a United States of Europe as the logical continuation of Italian unification. For the League of Peace and Freedom, a pacifist organisation Victor Hugo, Giuseppe Garibaldi and John Stuart Mill were involved with, a United States of Europe was a way of preventing war. Marx and Engels had their own view of conflict between nations. In the Communist Manifesto in 1848, they anticipated that “in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency,” capitalism would lead to “intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.” Engels linked the growth of the workers movement and the increasing influence of Social-Democratic parties to the prospects for maintaining peace. When asked if he anticipated a United States of Europe in 1893, he replied: “Certainly. Everything is making in that direction. Our ideas are spreading in every European country.” (Daily Chronicle June 1893)”
The following is an abridged extract from Leon Trotsky’s “The Programme of Peace” (1917), written in the context of the First World War. Here the politics constructing the demand for a “United States of Europe” are detailed. Trotsky’s method of analysis is highly instructive for the contemporary period.
What Is a Programme of Peace?
For the revolutionary proletarian the peace programme does not mean the demands which national militarism must fulfil, but those demands which the international proletariat intends to impose by its revolutionary struggle against militarism of all countries.
Capitalism has transferred into the field of international relations the same methods applied by it in ‘regulating’ the internal economic life of the nations. The path of competition is the path of systematically annihilating the small and medium-sized enterprises and of achieving the supremacy of big capital. World competition of the capitalist forces means the systematic subjection of the small, medium-sized and backward nations by the great and greatest capitalist powers. The more developed the technique of capitalism, the greater the role played by finance capital and the higher the demands of militarism, all the more grows the dependency of the small states on the great powers. This process, forming as it does an integral element of imperialist mechanics, flourishes undisturbed also in times of peace by means of state loans, railway and other concessions, military-diplomatic agreements, etc. The war uncovered and accelerated this process by introducing the factor of open violence. The war destroys the last shreds of the ‘independence’ of small states, quite apart from the military outcome, of the conflict between the two basic enemy camps.
Status Quo Ante Bellum
But the question is: Can the proletariat under the present circumstances advance an independent peace programme, that is, its own solutions of the problems which caused the current war or which have been disclosed in the course of this war?
We have been told that the proletariat does not now command sufficient forces to bring about the realization of such a programme. Utopian is the hope that the proletariat could realize its own peace programme as a consequence of the present war. Something else again is the struggle for the cessation of the war and for a peace without annexation, i.e., a return to the status quo ante bellum, to the state of affairs prior to the war. This, we are told, is by far the more realistic programme. Such were, for example, the arguments of Martov, Martynov and the Menshevik Internationalists generally, who hold on this question as on all others not a revolutionary but a conservative position […].
The European status quo ante bellum, the product of wars, robberies, violations, legitimism, diplomatic stupidity and impotence of peoples, remains as the only positive content of the slogan ‘without annexations’.
In its struggle against imperialism, the proletariat cannot set up as its political aim the return to the map of old Europe; it must advance its own programme of state and national relations, corresponding to the fundamental tendencies of economic development, corresponding to the revolutionary character of the epoch and the socialist interests of the proletariat.
The only acceptable content of the slogan ‘without annexations’ is thus a protest, against new violent acquisitions, which amounts to giving a negative expression to, the right of nations to self-determination. But we have seen that this democratically unquestionable ‘right’ is being and will necessarily be transformed into the right of strong nations to make acquisitions and impose oppression, whereas for the weak nations it will mean an impotent wish or a ‘scrap of paper’. Such will be the case as long as the political map of Europe forces nations and their fractions within the framework of states separated by tariff barriers and continually brought into conflict by the imperialist struggle.
It is possible to overcome this régime only through the proletarian revolution. Thus, the centre of gravity of the question lies in combining the peace programme of the proletariat with that of the social revolution.
[…] even if by a miracle Europe were divided by force of arms into fixed national states and small states, the national question would not thereby be in the least decided and, the very next day after the ‘just’ national redistributions, capitalist expansion would resume its work. Conflicts would arise, wars and new acquisitions, in complete violation of the national principle in all cases where its preservation cannot be maintained by a sufficient number of bayonets. It would all give the impression of inveterate gamblers being forced to divide the gold ‘justly’ among themselves in the middle of the game, in order to start the same game all over again with redoubled frenzy.
From the might of the centralist tendencies of imperialism, it does not at all follow that we are obliged passively to submit to it. A national community is the living hearth of culture, as the national language is its living organ, and these will still retain their significance through indefinitely long historical periods. The Social Democracy is desirous of safeguarding and is obliged to safeguard to the national community its freedom of development (or dissolution) in the interests of material and spiritual culture. It is in this sense that it has taken over from the revolutionary bourgeoisie the democratic principle of national self-determination as a political obligation.
The right of national self-determination cannot he excluded from the proletarian peace programme; but it cannot claim absolute importance. On the contrary, it is delimited for us by the converging, profoundly progressive tendencies of historical development. If this ‘right’ must be – through revolutionary force – counter-posed to the imperialist methods of centralization which enslave weak and backward peoples and mush the hearths of national culture, then on the other hand the proletariat cannot allow the ‘national principle’ to get in the way of the irresistible and deeply progressive tendency of modern economic life towards a planned organization throughout our continent, and further, all over the globe. Imperialism is the capitalist-thievish expression of this tendency of modern economy to tear itself completely away from the idiocy of national narrowness, as it did previously with regard to local and provincial confinement. While fighting against the imperialist form of economic centralization, socialism does not at all take a stand against the particular tendency as such but, on the contrary, makes the tendency its own guiding principle.
A national-cultural existence, free of national economic antagonisms and based on real self-determination, is possible only under the roof of a democratically united Europe freed from state and tariff barriers.
Between our present social condition and socialism there still lies an extended epoch of social revolution, that is, the epoch of the open proletarian struggle for power, the conquest and application of this power with the aim of the complete democratization of social relations, and the systematic transformation of capitalist society into the socialist society. This is the epoch not of pacification and tranquillity but, on the contrary, of the highest intensification of the class struggle, the epoch of popular uprisings, wars, expanding experiments of the proletarian régime, and socialist reforms. This epoch demands of the proletariat, that it give a practical, that is, an immediately applicable answer to the question of the further existence of nationalities and their reciprocal relations with the state and the economy.
The United States of Europe
We tried to prove in the foregoing that the economic and political unification of Europe is the necessary prerequisite for the very possibility of national self-determination. Just as the slogan of national independence of Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and others remains an empty abstraction without the supplementary slogan Federative Balkan Republic, which played such an important role in the whole policy of the Balkan Social Democracy; so, on the all-European scale, the principle of the ‘right’ to self-determination can be invested with flesh and blood only under the conditions of a European Federative Republic.
The Hungarian financial and industrial bourgeoisie is hostile to economic unification with capitalistically more developed Austria. The Austro-Hungarian bourgeoisie is hostile to the idea of a tariff union with more powerful Germany. On the other hand, the German landowners will never willingly consent to the cancellation of grain duties. Furthermore, the economic interests of the propertied classes of the Central Empires cannot be so easily made to coincide with the interests of the English, French, Russian capitalists and landed gentry. The present war, speaks eloquently enough on this score. Lastly, the disharmony and irreconcilability of capitalist interests between the Allies themselves is more visible than in the Central States. Under these circumstances, a halfway complete and consistent economic unification of Europe coming from the top by means of an agreement of the capitalist governments is sheer utopia. Here, the matter can go no further than partial compromises and half-measures. Hence it is that the economic unification of Europe, which offers colossal advantages to producer and consumer alike, and in general to the whole cultural development, becomes the revolutionary task of the European proletariat in its struggle against imperialist protectionism and its instrument – militarism.
The United States of Europe – without monarchies, standing armies and secret diplomacy – is therefore the most important integral part of the proletarian peace programme.
The ideologists and politicians of German imperialism frequently came forward, especially at the beginning of the war, with their programme of a European or at least a Central European ‘United States’ (without France and England on the one side and Russia on the other). The programme of a violent unification of Europe is just as characteristic of the tendencies of German imperialism as is the tendency of French imperialism whose programme is the forcible dismemberment of Germany.
If the German armies achieved the decisive victory reckoned upon in Germany during the first phase of the war, the German imperialism would have doubtless made the gigantic attempt of realizing a compulsory military-tariff union of European states, which would be constructed completely of exemptions, compromises, etc., which would reduce to a minimum the progressive meaning of the unification of the European market. Needless to say, under such circumstances no talk would be possible of an autonomy of the nations, thus forcibly joined together as the caricature of the European United States. Certain opponents of the programme of the United States of Europe have used precisely this perspective as an argument that this idea can, under certain conditions, acquire a “reactionary” monarchist-imperialist content. Yet it is precisely this perspective that provides the most graphic testimony in favour of the revolutionary viability of the slogan of the United States of Europe. Let us for a moment grant that German militarism succeeds in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe, just as Prussian militarism once achieved the half-union of Germany, what would then be the central slogan of the European proletariat? Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national states? Or the restoration of “autonomous” tariffs, “national” currencies, “national” social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not. The programme of the European revolutionary movement would then be: The destruction of the compulsory anti-democratic form of the coalition, with the preservation and furtherance of its foundations, in the form of compete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation, above all of labour laws, etc. In other words, the slogan of the United States of Europe – without monarchies and standing armies – would under the indicated circumstances become the unifying and guiding slogan of the European revolution.
If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.
Now, after the so very promising beginning of the Russian revolution, we have every reason to hope that during the course of this present war a powerful revolutionary movement will be launched all over Europe. It is clear that such a movement can succeed and develop and gain victory only as a general European one. Isolated within national borders, it would be doomed to disaster. […] In other words, the founding of a stable régime of proletarian dictatorship would be conceivable only if it extended throughout Europe, and consequently in the form of a European Republican Federation.
The United States of Europe is the slogan of the revolutionary epoch into which we have entered. Whatever turn the war operations may take later on, whatever balance sheet diplomacy may draw out of the present war, and at whatever tempo the revolutionary movement will progress in the near future, the slogan of the United States of Europe will in all cases retain a colossal meaning as the political formula of the struggle of the European proletariat for power. In this programme is expressed the fact that the national state has outlived itself – as a framework for the development of the productive forces, as a basis for the class struggle, and thereby also as a state form of proletarian dictatorship. Our denial of ‘national defence’, as an outlived political programme for the proletariat, ceases to be a purely negative act of ideological-political self-defence, and acquires all its revolutionary content only in the event that over against the conservative defence of the antiquated national fatherland we place the progressive task, namely the creation of a new, higher ‘fatherland’ of the revolution, of republican Europe, whence the proletariat alone will be enabled to revolutionize and to reorganize the whole world.
Herein, incidentally, lies the answer to those who ask dogmatically. ‘Why the unification of Europe and not of the whole world?’ Europe is not only a geographic term, but a certain economic and cultural-historic community. The European revolution does not have to wait for the revolutions in Asia and Africa nor even in Australia and America. And yet completely victorious revolution in Russia or England is unthinkable without a revolution in Germany, and vice-versa. The present war is called a world war, but even after the intervention of the United States, it is Europe that is the arena of war. And the revolutionary problems confront first of all the European proletariat.
Of course, the United States of Europe will be only one of the two axes of the world organization of economy. The United States of America will constitute the other.
Generally speaking it must not be forgotten that in social patriotism there is active, in addition to the most vulgar reformism, a national revolutionary messianism, which regards its national state as chosen for introducing to humanity ‘socialism’ or ‘democracy’, be it on the ground of its industrial development or of its democratic form and revolutionary conquests. […] Defending the national basis of the revolution which such methods as undermine the international connections of the proletariat, really amounts to undermining the revolution, which cannot begin otherwise than on the national basis, but which cannot be completed on that basis in view of the present economic and military-political interdependence of the European states, which has never been so forcefully revealed as in this war. The slogan, the United States of Europe, gives expression to this interdependence, which will directly and immediately set the conditions for the concerted action of the European proletariat in the revolution.
Denying support to the state – not in the name of a propaganda circle but in the name of the most important class in society – in the period of the greatest catastrophe, internationalism does not simply eschew ‘sin’ passively, but affirms that the fate of world development is no longer linked for us with the fate of the national state; more than this, that the latter has become a vise for development and must be overcome, that is, replaced by a higher economic-cultural organization on a broader foundation. If the problem of socialism were compatible with the framework of the national state, then it would thereby become compatible with national defence. But the problem of socialism confronts us on the imperialist foundation, that is, under conditions in which capitalism itself is forced violently to destroy the national-state framework it has itself established.
Returning to Cathy Nugent, in “What do Socialists say about the United States of Europe?”:
“[Trotsky’s] method of posing the question has a bearing on what we say about the EU today. Much like Marxists do not ‘endorse’ the spread of capitalism, and help workers to fight the capitalists every step of the way, we recognise how it creates the possibility of socialism. Similarly, just as Trotsky did not give political support to European unification under German imperialism, we do not take political responsibility for the way in which the European bourgeoisie has unified Europe in its own incomplete and increasingly destructive way. We recognise, however, that European integration provides the terrain on which the European workers’ movement can link up to fight the bosses, and for the levelling up of democratic and social rights. To the capitalist European Union we pose not ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘national development’ but the Socialist United States of Europe.”
The debate on whether to ‘stay or leave’ the European Union desperately requires a reclamation of the tradition of the Left for a socialist “United States of Europe”: the struggle for working class international solidarity and liberation must entail sharp opposition to both a neoliberal capitalist, bureaucratic, and undemocratic European Union and a chauvinistic retreat to competition between national neoliberal capitalisms, and the demand for a democratic workers’ Europe.
We live in a deeply globalised world, in which the power of capital is huge, but capital contains its own gravediggers. The idea that capital’s gravediggers are best positioned to hammer a blow to capital by de-globalising is a flawed one, rather our positioning too must be globalised. We want to be seizing the means and resources of globalisation for ourselves for our collective betterment. Global capitalism is contradictory: it throws up closures and openings, constraints and radical possibilities. Our task is to move from the present to the future, not to reverse the present into the past; our job is to identify the conditions of existence that provide our class with the greatest possibility of making that political move forward. On this note, I’ll end with the words of Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto:
“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. […] The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”
“It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse)
“More than 50 million women have been systematically exterminated from India’s population in three generations, through the gender-specific infliction of violence in various forms, such as female feticide through forced abortions, female infanticides, dowry murders, and honor killings.” (50 Million Missing Campaign)
MTV Coke Studio India’s production of “Ki Banu Duniya Da” (“What is to become of our world?”) in 2015 – a reworking of an original song by Pakistani singer Sarwar Gulshan that was made popular by Gurdas Maan in 1982 – has been a huge success, both in India and across its global diaspora. To date, it has had almost 10 million views on You Tube and ranks as the most popular iTunes download from the Coke Studio India and Pakistan catalogue. In this latest version, new and revised lyrics have been added by Gurdas Maan to make the song relevant to the present-day.
Gurdas Maan is the Elvis of Punjab – a longstanding and successful, traditional Punjabi folk singer. With the population of Punjab at almost 28 million, the Punjabi diaspora of approximately 10 million is significant. In one sense, Punjab is at the nexus of globalisation and, in another sense, it is embedded within globalisation through its twentieth century history of emigration around the world. Gurdas Maan’s net worth is an estimated $50 million; in other words, he is a major individual beneficiary of the globalisation of Punjab – savvily and lucratively riding its contradictory waves. It is somewhat incongruous then that, in a global-glocal capitalist MTV production of “Ki Banu Duniya Da”, Gurdas Maan romanticises a localised idyllic past and seeks to return to this past in order to save Punjabis from the perils of globalisation (whilst, I assume, keeping his profits firmly in his pocket).
In the opening verses of “Ki Banu Duniya Da”, these are the words of wisdom on gender and sexual relations that Gurdas Maan sings:
In today’s times, romance has become frivolous / Destroying the divine concept of true love / Men date women without the intention to marry them / Where is chivalry heading? / Where is the youth heading? / Where is the beauty-struck youth heading?
Traditional embroidered costumes are disappearing / Traditional earrings are disappearing / Traditional silk stoles and robes are disappearing / Traditional veils and the veiled women are disappearing / Our traditional values are disappearing!
Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows
Water filled vessels once sat on your head / No one could bare the radiance of your ethereal beauty / Praises were showered upon you in every direction you traveled / Anklets embraced your feet with exaltation / But now you seem to have forgotten your own true value / Your graceful elegance is dissipating / Forgetting your old folk tunes
Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows
A contemporary, globalising India is witnessing a violent clash between a socially and politically resurgent, patriarchal, religious and deeply conservative ‘old India’ and a socially and politically rising, urban, educated and mobile young generation ‘new India’ – who are demanding gender and sexual freedom. This is a struggle between static and motion. Noteworthy are the post-December 16th 2012 and 2013 demonstrations against female sexual violence (after the high profile case of a gang-rape of a female student on a bus in Delhi), the recriminalisation of homosexuality (through the reinstatement of the British colonial penal code Section 377) in 2013 and the protests thereafter, and the 2014 Kiss of Love movement against moral policing and for the right to kiss in public (which religious forces define as an obscene act). All the while, Gurdas Maan bemoans, “the veiled women are disappearing”. On the question of disappearance then, his myopia is telling.
The Hindu newspaper states that “nearly three million girls, one million more than boys” were “‘missing’ in 2011 compared to 2001 and there are now 48 fewer girls per 1,000 boys than there were in 1981.” Alka Gupta, in a Unicef India press release, observes: “The decline in child sex ratio in India is evident by comparing the census figures. In 1991, the figure was 947 girls to 1000 boys. Ten years later it had fallen to 927 girls for 1000 boys. Since 1991, 80% of districts in India have recorded a declining sex ratio with the state of Punjab being the worst.”
KumKum DasGupta in The Guardian newspaper notes that while “census data shows that India’s overall gender ratio is improving, its child gender ratio is on the decline: between 1991 and 2011, the country’s female-male gender ratio rose from 927:1,000 to 940:1,000, but its child gender ratio fell from 945:1,000 to 914: 1,000.”
In a globalising India, there is disturbing evidence that the practice of female foeticide and infanticide in certain parts of the country, such as Punjab, is getting worse rather than better, and that this is in part being aided by the technology of global capitalism. As Alka Gupta comments: “Social discrimination against women, already entrenched in Indian society, has been spurred on by technological developments that today allow mobile sex selection clinics to drive into almost any village or neighbourhood unchecked.” She concludes:
“experts warn that the demographic crisis will lead to increasing sexual violence and abuse against women and female children, trafficking, increasing number of child marriages, increasing maternal deaths due to abortions and early marriages and increase in practices like polyandry.”
KumKum DasGupta also concludes:
“The skewed gender ratio has given rise to a system of bride-buying in the affected states: although girls and young women are lured into marriage by promises of a happy and secure life, once purchased they can be exploited, denied basic rights, put to work as maids and, in many cases, abandoned.”
The state of Punjab is not marginal to these trends, it is central.
In December 2014, The Indian Express newspaper reported that a 17 year old victim of rape was set ablaze in Punjab. Three of the six men who set fire to her were those accused of her rape. In April 2015, also in Punjab, the same newspaper recorded that a teenager jumped from a moving bus to her death, after she and her mother were sexually assaulted by one of the bus workers.
Perhaps Gurdas Maan’s social observation and words of advice vis-à-vis Punjab’s drug addiction problem are more astute than his commentary on gender and sexual relations. He sings:
Drugs are ruining the youth of our country / Reducing their bodies to bones that sound like Shiva’s drums of death / Bad politics is killing the ambition of our youth / Cheating has become the norm / Oh Maan, there is no guarantee of what the future holds / Remember our wise ancestors said that holding grudges against your circumstances will never bring you any good. So be positive!
Oh what is to become of our world? / Only the God almighty knows
My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty / It belongs to the heavenly star / It also belongs to holy men under the banyan tree / My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty
Punjab’s drug addiction problem is an epidemic one. A study by one of the state’s universities estimates that 70% of young men in Punjab are addicted to drugs or alcohol. A report by Al Jazeera reveals that corrupt politicians in the state are pandering to this widespread addiction by supplying drugs during election time to win votes. On the social factors driving this epidemic, the report insightfully concludes that:
“Drug abuse in Punjab owes much to the state’s declining agricultural economy, growing unemployment, the travails of rural life and Punjabi machismo.”
The material reality of Punjab is crucial context to the social problems it faces, be that its drug epidemic or its high suicide incidence rate. Mallika Kaur of Foreign Policy observes:
“Stagnant prices for produce, a lack of crop insurance and loan-forgiveness policies, and an unregulated lending market have left many farmers in insurmountable debt, fueling the disturbing suicide trend. The problem is particularly acute in Punjab. The epicenter of India’s agriculture bounty, Punjab reportedly has the highest rate of farmer suicide among the country’s states.”
She proceeds to stress the gender dynamics and implications of such a reality:
“While suicide victims are overwhelmingly men, the surviving women are particularly vulnerable to problems after their husbands, fathers, or other male family members are gone. Female heads of households traditionally have little earning power or independence. In some cases, families have dealt with multiple suicides, and the dependents, unable to cope with the resulting economic burden, also resort to the ultimate step of desperation. Widows routinely face disinheritance and dislocation, or abuse at the hands of their in-laws, while children – especially girls – are affected by abrupt removal from schools, nutritional deficits, and at times even bonded labor.”
Still, Gurdas Maan sings: “Remember our wise ancestors said that holding grudges against your circumstances will never bring you any good. So be positive! […] My blessed soul belongs to you my almighty.” Here Gurdas Maan wants to replace one opium for another, rather than politically confront and challenge the full and complex realities of socio-economic upheaval. Marx’s words come to mind:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
Perhaps the 50 million dollar Gurdas Maan is part of the illusion: a figure too uncritically idolised alongside the other gods.
“You cannot really describe what happened at that time, during this cultural revolution, that’s so special about it. But I would say there was an incredible curiosity for the future.” Paul van Dyk, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“If I hadn’t had this Tresor family, I would have had much more problems to reposition in this new, reunificated Germany.” Alexandra, club booking manager, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
The documentary “Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor” is a fascinating insight into the social and cultural geography of post-Berlin Wall, Berlin and its dynamic interrelationship with urban political economy. There is a narrative here of a moment in which a youth subcultural mass came to experience and negotiate the transitioning space of a city through a radical appropriation of music and place.
i. Discovering the place of Tresor, and unravelling its space and time
In its heyday of the 1920s, the traffic intersection of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz was a space of motion and interaction emblematic of the age of modernity. It was a thoroughfare for trade and a centre for nightlife; a place of commerce and a hub of artistic creativity. Largely destroyed during the Second World War, Potsdamer Platz went on to become the “no man’s land” of a divided Berlin: a local barren place symbolic of the bipolar national and global space of the Cold War. When the Wall came down, in those early years of 1990, 1991 and 1992, Potsdamer Platz remained an urban desert.
“One day we were in a traffic jam at Potsdamer Platz … and we were going: every building here is empty, there must be some place to open a club. And Achim just went: what about over there? … At the front there were some barred windows to the cellar … we opened it and 40 to 50 year old air was coming out. We went downstairs with a lighter and we came into the room. … It was unbelievable.” Johnnie, Tresor discoverer (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“It was like the walls were talking to me. And then I saw the lockers with the numbers on. I was thinking about the life stories behind them, about the joyful moments and family tragedies.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
The Tresor underground techno club was formed in March 1991. It was situated on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin Mitte, the former centre of East Berlin, next to Potsdamer Platz. Tresor occupied the vaults of the once Wertheim department store of Leipziger Platz, which was destroyed in the Second World War. Wertheim was one of the largest and most lavish department stores in the world.
“It reached from Wilhelmstrasse to Leipziger Platz and the basement had the same size. On the historical pictures you can see big storage boxes in the room where the dancefloor is now. And in the lockers there were probably lots of documents – none left!” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“During World War II the whole area between the Reich Air Force Ministry and the Reichstag was actually a complete underground city. Streets with four lanes, connection tunnels going from here to there. … In case of bombing attacks the staff just went four levels down and could still operate in the bunkers. And now we were next door.” Johnnie, Tresor discoverer (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
ii. Early Tresor: a convergent and transcendent space of an ‘in-between’ Berlin
“You have to look at the time that Tresor was founded in and how it developed. That’s not something you could create artificially. It happened after the fall of the Wall and it was the only club that was instantly accepted by both the East and the West people.” Regina, Tresor management (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Wall, Berlin became an extraordinary liminal space. Amidst a blurred legality / illegality and a confused urban political economy (‘who owns what?’) Tresor was born.
“In 1990 … it was wild, no laws, the police didn’t know what was legal and what wasn’t. Back then we broke into a lot of spaces and the police was just watching, because they didn’t know whom it belonged to, they thought we might have old ownership rights or whatever – nobody cared. It was just normal to open every basement and to have a glance inside.” Tannith, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“We seized the moment and also it was partly impossible to get permissions, because the authorities simply didn’t exist.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
In its early days, Tresor became home to a pioneering youth subculture that both transcended the East and the West and converged East Berliners and West Berliners on their own terms.
“You have to keep in mind that Berlin was more affected by the fall of the Wall than any other town. The city had become twice as big overnight. It was total chaos in 1990: the states were not reunified yet, officially it was still the GDR. We could already get in, but it was still a separate state.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“With the fall of the Wall in 1989 you really had to have guts to discover the East for yourself. You had to be brave to go over there, because nobody knew whether the situation would stay stable or would turn and become dangerous. You just had to go in and dare something.” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“Both cultures clashed into each other and Techno seemed to be the connection. … It was equally new for both sides, for East and West, and that was the basis for a common understanding. The stereotype of the arrogant guy from the West didn’t exist anymore, because in this we were all unexperienced.” Tannith, DJ and producer, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“Everybody was equal, there was no age difference, no dress code, everybody could do what they wanted to. And people wouldn’t directly ask whether you came from the East or West.” Mareen, early guest to Tresor from East Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
iii. Tresor: born of globalisation and killed by globalisation?
“It was the time of the first Gulf War, one was irritated by many of the news and in general there was a lot of technology in the air. You heard of some ground-to-air missiles, and at the same time I read everything of William Gibson, all these things fit together. You had this technological, this technical music, the news, the lectures, then the fractal theory, the chaos theory … Around ’89 / ’90 you had Acid parties in Berlin, very much influenced from England of course, because that kind of music came from England. For example early stuff from The Prodigy. You had a lot of breakbeat, the straight four-four time came with Detroit.” Alexandra, club booking manager, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
The end of the Cold War and collapse of Stalinist totalitarianism, along with the triumph of US imperialism, led to a reordering of the world in the early 1990s. By the mid to late 1990s, access to advances in information and communications technology and the emergence of cheap air travel were changing our perceptions and experiences of space and time. Tresor and Berlin techno were a unique local product of globalisation, with a special interlocution with Detroit.
“The whole House music thing came from the States. From Disco to House. Then the guys from Detroit brought more electronic stuff in and pushed it further.” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
While early 1990s Berlin was a liminal space, the relations and forces of capital had well and truly moved in by the turn of a new century. The land that Tresor was on / in was sold by the city government to a property developer in 2001 for 20 million euros, and the developer invested 70 million euros in a project that included Tresor’s demolition. Tresor held its last night in the vaults on Leipziger Strasse in April 2005.
“Anyway, here in Tresor, treasures were born. How can they alone blow up the treasure chamber? For the sake of financial concepts? There must be something wrong with the idea of property! An error in the control centre!” Tresor clubber (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
iv. Techno Berlin: the sound of the city
The sound of Berlin techno echoes the city’s urban landscape – its post-Berlin Wall building sites, and its perennial grime and graffiti. Techno in Berlin is known for its really strong beat. It is best described as ‘bangy’, and for a reason.
“The sound was radical and unlimited and excessive just like the fall of the Wall.” Mark Reeder, MFS Records, Berlin (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)
“The kids had a desire to celebrate their new freedom and we just had the right soundtrack.” Dimitri, Tresor founder (Sub Berlin: Story of Tresor)