Archive

Archive for the ‘Race and Colour’ Category

On Habermas, Islamism and the great Left divide (part 1 of 2)

March 4, 2013 14 comments

The Secular Respectable Left

‘Why on earth do some left-wingers side with Islamists, when Islamists are so evil?’ is an on-going question-cum-accusation, levelled at people like Nick Cohen at people like…….well, people like me.

Thus Nick Cohen in the Spectator, suggests the way the ‘classic’ British left side with the Islamist establishment means they are simply racists:

Other speakers [at the launch of the Centre for Secular Space] were from Southall Black Sisters, Bengali secular campaigns against Tower Hamlets’ Islamist establishment and Iranian resistance groups – classic left wing figures, in other words. Yet they are ignored or in the case of Sahgal fired for speaking out.

All emphasized how many in the British state and British left were racists hiding behind liberal masks. On the left, the racism came in the constant postponement of campaigns to improve women’s lives whether they are immigrants or in the poor world. Their suffering must always be subordinated to the struggle against ‘American imperialism’. This would be bad enough if we did not see from the far Left way into the liberal mainstream supposed progressives allying with clerical reactionaries and clerical fascists. They ignore the victims of theocracy and accept their oppression.

Similarly, Carl Packman at Left Foot Forward, blames the far-left for mix of political immaturity and ‘paternalism’:

And here is where the far-left and the British and American establishment can find harmony. While the latter needs the Muslim far-right in Saudi Arabia for cash, they keep quiet about human rights abuses. For the far-left the comradeship is just as dubious, if not slightly more immature.

Recently I was at the launch of a new book by Trotskyist writer and blogger Richard Seymour, who told a packed audience in Kings Cross that the Stop the War Coalition did not wish to pursue sectarianism, deciding who should and should not be marching against the war, but in any case those religious right-wingers might have had their minds changed through a union with the left……..

If this isn’t paternalist (Muslim beliefs, whatever they are, are only temporary, easily overturned), I don’t know what is.

In the end, goes the core argument of the Cohen/Packman/Harry’s Place nexus, the far left/lefties/liberals [1] are the real right-wingers here, and they either need to change their ways or shut up, while the Secular Responsible Left (my coinage, get used to it) get on with the real job in hand of promoting human rights.

For myself, I think this analysis is at least as ‘immature’ as the politics it professes to critique. The suggestion that someone like Richard Seymour (he being a useful cipher for the broad doctrine of the leftist groupings around the SWP/Stop the War), is some kind of closet racist/paternalist, and that he’s “in harmony” with the British and American establishment, is frankly just silly [2]. Such an analysis fundamentally confuses agency with structure, and in the absence of any coherent analysis of why some on the far left/liberal left do seem to get aligned with reactionary Islam, the Secular Responsible Left falls back on the idea that, ultimately, they’re all just bad, wrong people.

In this two part article, I argue that such an approach is not simply politically immature in terms of its failure to distinguish structure from agency. I argue that is also deeply unhelpful as a political strategy for anyone really, really interested in a progressive socialism inclusive of human rights guarantees and the emancipation of the oppressed (and there can be no progressive socialism without that). In the end, accusations levelled at Seymour by Packman look and feel like sectarian squabbling getting in the away of constructive organisation, largely because that is what they are: ‘my integrity is bigger than yours’ political willy-waving fests may fill small halls of the like-minded, but they are not going to change the lives of marginalised women anytime soon.

Indeed the Secular Respectable Left is, I will argue (following John Gray p.125-6), more reactionary, more unhelpful to the cause of emancipation that they profess to espouse than are the far/liberal/mainstream left at whom they throw this same accusation.

Habermas and value pluralism

So what is a more ‘mature’ analysis of how some on the Left come, apparently, to side with the anti-human rights baddies against the goodies?

A good place to start is with the work Jurgen Habermas, who has devoted a large part of his career, from the early 1990s onwards, to resolving the tension that lies at the heart of the current debate: how do modern constitutional democracies best promote respect both for individual human rights and for the rights of groups of people to live by different cultural values (what has been termed the “struggle for recognition“), when such cultural values sometimes are so opposed to a liberal conception of human rights (and vice versa)? It is a resolution to this dilemma – itself a result of the multi-ethnic world that has developed through the 20th century – which forms Habermas’ whole ‘constitutional patriotism’ project, seeking to replace the comfortable majoritarian certainties of ethno-nationalist value consensus (comfortable for those who are included) with a newer commitment to a political culture which accommodates (and in time are, through discourse, adaptable to) different cultures and their value sets [3].

In Remarks on Legitimation through Human Rights (ch, 5 in Postnational Constellations: Political Essays) Habermas gets to the core:

The human rights discourse that has been argued on normative terms is plagued by the fundamental doubt about whether the form of legitimation that has arisen in the West can also hold up as plausible within the framework of other cultures. The most radical critics are Western intellectuals themselves. They maintain that the universal validity claimed for human rights merely hides a perfidious claim to power on the part of the West.

This is no accident. To gain some distance from one’s traditions and limited perspectives in one of the advantages of occidental rationalism. The European history of the interpretation of human rights is the history of such a decentring of out way of viewing things. So-called equal rights may have only been gradually extended to oppressed, marginalized, and excluded groups. Only after tough political struggles have workers, women, Jews, Romanies, gays and political refugees been recognized as “human beings” with a claim to fully equal treatment. The important thing now is that the individual advances in emancipation reveal in hindsight the ideological function that human rights had also fulfilled up to that time. That is, the egalitarian claim to universal validity and inclusion had also served to mask the de facto unequal treatment of those who were silently excluded. This observation has aroused the suspicion that human rights might be reducible to this ideological unction. Have they not always served to shield a false universality – an imaginary humanity, behind which an imperialist West could conceal its own way and interests (p.119-120).

It is this disjuncture between the rhetoric of universality and the practice of exclusion as the key means to establish and expand empire which is so meticulously detailed in Domenico Losurdo’s recent Liberalism: A Counter-History. And it is Habermas’ understanding of this ‘dialectic between subjugation and emancipation’ which provides for his key insight; this is to pick out both the negative and positive features of “occidental rationalism”: a tendency to ascribe any form of enduring inequality and exploitation to imperialism, which can hinder empirical analysis, balanced by a genuine openness other value sets.

The less respectable Left’s (Althusserian) engagement with value pluralism

This is precisely the situation in which some on the British left do now find themselves.

On the one hand, because the left positions itself primarily in opposition to the logic of imperialism (rooted, as Losurdo has set out so clearly, in the exclusionary tendencies of liberalism), it tends to see all events through this lens. Thus, as I set out in my recent anti-war left essay, the empirical evidence that some Western military intervention is not in fact motivated by a rapacious need for natural resources is discounted in favour of a narrative of post-colonial imperialism. In this narrative, the maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ takes strong hold, and the tendency is simply to take the side of any group which also sets itself in opposition to the forces of Western imperialism [4]

On the other hand, there is the ‘positive’ dynamic, reflecting the other side of the coin of Habermas’ insight. This is that left-wing intellectuals of the Richard Seymour type appear to be genuinely motivated by their (Marxist) occidental rationalism to recognise that there are other ways of looking at rights than through the prism of liberalism.

In this reading, what the Secular Respectable Left see as a betrayal of liberal values and human rights can be seen simply as an acknowledgment by some on the left that there are other worldviews, which do not depend on the primacy of the individual, which are potentially as valid.

Take, for example two interpretations of this Harry’s Place article. ‘Lucy Lips’ attacks those she descibes the far left “anti-racists” (her inverted commas) for working with the East London Mosque, who in turn have hosted “Islamist preacher” Khaild Al-Fikri. As evidence, of the far left’s wrongness in its engagement, she quotes Al-Fikri from a previous conference:

Don’t be misleaded [sic] and misguided with those kaffir people who says it is freedom and you are a free man. They are kuffar. And when they say, and poison your mind with the word freedom, they mean there is no God. “Do whatever you want.” Because they are kuffar. … You need to protect your deen [religion] and iman [faith] because there are many things which will affect you, will come against you. Somebody will say to you “democracy, socialism, freedom”………And again for my sisters. Don’t be misguided. Don’t be misleaded [sic] by the kaffir theories and attitudes. You are very free when you are home with your husband and your kids. … Don’t say “I am a free woman, I want to run house, I want to work, I want to get money”. No! This is the duty of your husband.

Now, to my eyes, and to the eyes of most people reading this piece, this is pretty unpleasant reactionary stuff, at least at first reading. But stand back for a minute, strip away the insulting ‘kuffar’ term, and what you’re left with is little more than an expression of what Habermas has suggested: that the concept of ‘freedom’ is some kind of trap; that it is a Western invention aimed at diverting people from the true path of the divine; that Muslims should retain their own core ethical standards, even if they have to defend them against corrupt Western ones. Certainly, it’s arguable that the guidance on the role of women expressed here is, as Saeeda Shah has noted, an expression, of Islamic philosophy “misappropriated by those who have traditionally occupied the spaces of religious interpretation” (p.245), but notwithstanding the question of who, within a community, gets to establish community’s values and notms (and this is something I come back to in part 2), it still possible to recognise it as a valid expression of a particular ethical standpoint. And this, remember, is from someone widely considered so “extremist” that even to meet with a group which has previously invited him to speak under their roof is an indication of betrayal of all decency.

By way of comparison, here’s self-confessed American liberal Jonathan Haidt, talking about the period spent in Orissa (albeit a period I suspect is conveniently reconstructed for his arguments) during which he realised that the concept of freedom and rights might not have singular validity:

I had read about Shewder’s ethic of community and had understood it intellectually. But now, for the first time in my life, I began to feel it. I could feel beauty in a moral code that emphasizes beauty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires. I could still see its ugly side: I could see that power sometimes leads to pomposity and abuse. And I could see that subordinates – particularly women – were often blocked from doing what they wanted to do by the whims of their elders (male and female). but for the first time in my life, i was able to step outside my home morality, the ethic of autonomy. I had a place to stand, and from the vantages point of the ethic of community, the ethic of autonomy now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused (p.102).

Haidt’s recognition that different societies might have equally valid moral bases for the way in which their members lives their lives (whilst also recognising that who holds power is a key determinant) is not new. Indeed, Haidt quotes anthropologist Clifford Geertz approvingly:

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes and against is social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us. a rather peculiar idea within the contexts of the world’s cultures (p.126, quoted at p.14 in Haidt)

The challenge that Haidt and Geertz set themselves [5], as academics raised within the Western liberal tradition, is to put aside their preconception about what is morally correct, and embrace ‘value pluralism’. And this, it seems to me, is what those on the Left now prepared to engage with radical Islam are also trying to do. True, they don’t articulate it very well, preferring to explain any such engagement as anti-imperialist agitation rather than as a recognition that different worldviews, however alien to our own, have a validity for the simple reason that people have them [6]. Perhaps I even overestimate here the intelligence of some on the far left, though perhaps such a reliance on ‘tried and tested’ anti-imperialism narrative is understandable in the context of a media (including Harry’s Place) keen to misrepresent a call for the understanding of Islamic values as direct support for extremism.

Whatever the motivations, articulated or otherwise, of those on the Left prepared to deal with value pluralism, the important point is that only those on the (far) Left are prepared to engage with probably the most serious question of our times. That question is:

How, in a world in which capitalism has become the almost universal economic modus vivendi, and liberal values have underpinned the rise of capitalism, do we now best deal with the ‘struggle for recognition’ of a very different value set, in a way which both respects value pluralism but also pay proper heed to the emancipatory ideal that lies at the heart of what it is to be left-wing (whether this be Marxist or rooted in earlier Enlightenment thinking)?

Answering that question, again with reference to Habermas, is the task of part 2 of this article (coming soon). In the meantime, it’s worth noting (h/t @sunny_hundal) that attempts to reach out across the value-divide towards some form of long-term political/constiutional settlement, are not necessarily taking place in one direction only. No doubt the Islamic Society of Denmark are getting their version of Harry’s Place-style accusations of treachery from the Unsecular Respectable Islamists, but I applaud them as I applaud the efforts of those on the Left who are seeking some way forward, even while hampered by their Althusserian (see [4]) anti-imperialist ritual.

Notes

[1] Cohen in particular seems to use these terms interchangeably.

[2] In the accusation that the far/liberal left are operating in ‘harmony’ with the Western establishment, Packman finds himself in interesting company. Here’s revolutionary Marxist Samir Amin, the consternation of Alex Callinicos of the SWP, coming out in support of French intervetion in Mali, on the basis of an interesting argument that “reactionary political Islam” is in reality a support, rather than a threat, to Western imperialism, because its presence allows the imperialist powers to maintain their control over the people of the ‘triad’ (the US, Europe and Japan) in the name of a ‘war of the civilisations’.

Telle est la raison fondamentale pour laquelle les puissances de la triade – telles qu’elles sont et demeurent – y voient un allié stratégique. Le soutien systématique apporté par ces puissances à l’Islam politique réactionnaire a été et demeure l’une des raisons majeures des « succès » qu’il a enregistrés : les Talibans d’Afghanistan, le FIS en Algérie, les « Islamistes » en Somalie et au Soudan, ceux de Turquie, d’Egypte, de Tunisie et d’ailleurs ont tous bénéficié de ce soutien à un moment décisif pour leur saisie du pouvoir local. Aucune des composantes dites modérés de l’Islam politique ne s’est jamais dissociée véritablement des auteurs d’actes terroristes de leurs composantes dites « salafistes ». Ils ont tous bénéficié et continuent à bénéficier de « l’exil » dans les pays du Golfe, lorsque nécessaire. En Libye hier, en Syrie encore aujourd’hui ils continuent à être soutenus par ces mêmes puissances de la triade. En même temps les exactions et les crimes qu’ils commettent sont parfaitement intégrés dans le discours d’accompagnement de la stratégie fondée sur leur soutien : ils permettent de donner de la crédibilité à la thèse d’une « guerre des civilisations » qui facilite le ralliement « consensuel » des peuples de la triade au projet global du capital des monopoles. Les deux discours – la démocratie et la guerre au terrorisme – se complètent mutuellement dans cette stratégie.

For myself, I don’t buy the argument that, just because one political or ideological grouping does or says something than can be argued to be favourable to the interests of another grouping, that both these groupings must therefore have a common purpose.

[3] Casting Habermas’ sophisticated argument as simply as possible, constitutional patriotism acknowledges that in modern culturally plural societies the ethno-nationalism that used to bind people to a shared identity and thereby create the conditions for the legitimacy of the democratic state. That is, the two key underpinnings of the modern state form as developed in the 18th century – a national identity allied with a republican ideal of individual citizen operating in voluntary contract with each other to abide by the laws of the state – have become less firmly connected. Habermas’ believes that the 21st century state must find a new “functional equivalent for the fusion of the nation of citizens with the ethnic nation”, and that to do this we need to create a patriotic commitment to a legal and political constitution, however abstract, while allowing diverse cultures to flourish in their own terms. I’ll come back to this in part 2. For more, see Andrea Baumeister’s essay Diversity and Unity: The Problem with ‘Constitutional Patriotism’ for an intelligent critique.

[4] It strikes me that this tendency on the part of the Left to push aside any evidence that does not fit with the narrative of resource-hungry imperialism is, ironically, a good example of Althusserian interpellation. As Althusser says:

The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. If he believes in God, he goes to Church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance (once it was material in the ordinary sense of the term) and naturally repents and so on. If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices ‘according to the correct principles’. If he believes in Justice, he will submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign petitions, take part in a demonstration, etc.

To this set of beliefs, we might perhaps add ‘Marxism’, in which name a large number of ritual practices have also been established. I would argue that, for many Marxists, who enter into that doctrine of their own free will, the act of interpellation is a strong one, with Marx(ism) maintaining all the key features of the (capital S) Subject. I wonder, indeed, whether it is this process of interpellation, and the commitment to ritual, which lies at the heart of the troubles both the SWP and the Catholic Church now face:

Were not men made in the image of God? As all theological reflection proves, whereas He ‘could’ perfectly well have done without men, God needs them, the Subject needs the subjects, just as men need God, the subjects need the Subject. Better: God needs men, the great Subject needs subjects, even in the terrible inversion of his image in them (when the subjects wallow in debauchery, i.e. sin).

[5] It’s worth noting here that openness to value pluralism is not a particular new concept at all. An awareness of the tension between universality and pluralism can be traced back at least as far as Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith, as an early liberal not caught up by the imperative felt by later liberals like JS Mill to justify imperialist expansion (on which see Jennifer Pitts), was not able to resolve these tensions, but the very fact that he – two centuries before Habermas was aware of them suggests that it continues to be an area still worthy of consideration. As Samuel Fleischacker has noted, in an interesting essay which argues that modern political philosophy might benefit from Smith’s implicitly anthropological approach:

Smith is unlikely to offer us any straightforward meta-ethical reconciliation between relativism and absolutism, and his promising hints about how, in ethics proper, to bring together pluralism and universalism, are undermined, to some degree, by his meta-ethical dilemma. But the problems he faces in these regards are our problems too, and thinking with Smith may help nudge us toward a solution to them, even if that solution is not explicitly to be found in Smith’s own work.

[6] Again, this is an ‘anthropological’ formulation, of the type which informs Adam Smith’s work

Rape and Indian culture

December 31, 2012 13 comments

The appalling gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi has created the usual, and somewhat predictable, divisions in the left commentariat.

On the one hand you have Owen Jones:

But, in the West, Damini’s death has triggered a different response: a sense that this is an Indian-specific problem. “The crime has highlighted the  prevalence of sex attacks in India,” says the Daily Telegraph; “India  tries to move beyond its rape culture,” says Reuters. Again, it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a  supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous.

On the other there’s Sunny Hundal:

I despair with well-meaning people who say India’s endemic violence against women doesn’t have cultural roots. Desperate attempt to be PC. The debate will go on into the night.  Nothing will be resolved, mostly because both are (only) half-right.

Owen is right to state the obvious – that violence against women remains a massive, under-recognised problem in Western Europe, but Sunny’s argument – that to ‘dilute’ the issue by suggesting that India is no worse than the UK, does a disservice to Indian women – is also reasonable.  (Like Sunny, I’ve spent plenty of time in Indian (and Bangladeshi) houses/shanties/huts and support his view that, quite simply, women have a lower status in many households).  Sunny’s probably also right to suggest a reluctance to pin the blame on Indian ‘culture’ stems, at least in part, from a wariness on the part of lefties of being taken as making racist assumptions about the cultural norms of brown people.

The problem with Sunny’s argument, though, comes in his essentialist use of the word ‘culture’.   For Sunny, culture appears to be a thing, which you have, or you don’t have.  Such a conception leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that, if the position of women in India is to be improved, Indians must lose a bit of their culture.   That, I suggest, doesn’t lead us very far.  Indeed it creates the condition in which the PC-gone-mad lefties like me, and maybe Owen, are tempted to reach for the safety of the ‘violence is everywhere’ argument.

I have a different conception of culture, and one which I think helps us through the current analytical impasse.

For me, culture is the product of a historical process of power struggle.  It is dynamic, and consistently evolving in response to those power struggles.   The biggest power struggle in the history of modern India was British Imperial rule, and this colonial rule had a very large impact on the position of women in India today.  The best analysis of this that I know of is in Varsha Chitnis and Danaya Wright, The Legacy of Colonialism: Law and Women’s Rights in India, 64 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1315 (2007), in which the authors argue that the unequal status of women in India today has its roots in the power struggle between

the native elites and the colonialists [which] was fought on the backs of Indian women because it was the alleged degraded position of Indian women and the barbaric actions of Indian men that justified the colonial mission in the first place. This brings into the picture a third group, British feminists, who claimed a moral imperative to reclaim for Indian women the dignity and rights of Western women (p.1318).

As a consequence, argue the authors:

The condition of the Indian woman, particularly within the home, became the battleground on which the contests of power between Indian and British men and between British men and women were fought…… [O]ne of the post-independence legacies of this complex tussle for power is that even secular laws for women today are either protectionist and patriarchal, or else modem Indian women are not in a position to exercise their legal rights in meaningful ways. Victorian notions of womanhood (chastity, innocence, self-effacement, and passiveness) continue to pervade some laws, and certainly the traditional training of lawmakers and judges in the British legal system allows them to bring their often patriarchal understanding of the historical foundations of these laws to bear as precedents and jurisprudential principles, even when the laws are facially egalitarian (p.1319).

Of course, blaming the unequal position of women in India on colonialism doesn’t get us very far in itself.  India has been independent for 70 years, and while the effects of colonialism are certainly longlasting and path-dependent, there are of course many other influences.  My point is simply that, if people in Britain are to support in any way, shape or form, the liberation of women in India and elsewhere in South Asia, it will be important to engage in any such action not on the basis of judgment about the inadequacy of Indian culture when compared to Western freedoms for women – that would be, after all, neo-colonialism writ large – but on the basis that we’re doing what we can to help Indian women gain the power Britain arguably denied them in the first place.

 

Four myths Ed Miliband used to scapegoat migrants‏

December 16, 2012 1 comment

This is a guest post from Justin Baidoo. He can and should be followed on twitter @justinthelibsoc.

Ed Miliband’s speech on integration was a more nuanced and positive take on immigration than Theresa May’s speech earlier in that week. He had many warm words about identifying with migrants and celebrating Britain’s diversity in typical New Labour fashion. You could see why many Labour policy wonk-types were pleased with it, there was some positive stuff, like offering more English language training for new workers and cracking down on slum-lords. However these were small mercies in a discourse that is framed against the freedom of movement. While it was dressed in less hostile language, the focus of debate still has the migrant as a source of significant social and economic ills.

Most people won’t read or hear Ed Miliband’s speech, but they’ll see the headlines and could surmise that immigrants, if left to their own devices, will eventually ruin Britain. This was deliberate, Labour press officers spun the main message to be that immigrants have to learn English, New Labour was “too soft” on immigration and as a result, segregation has become a serious threat to Britain. Thus Daily Mail readers can be reassured that One Nation Labour will empathise with their xenophobia rather than challenge it.

So while the Labour leader rightly addressed exploitative practices by employers and recruitment companies, he also highlighted four key issues that he believed mass immigration posed, to his vision of One Nation Britain:

1.  The indigenous community have well founded anxieties about immigration due to its real negative economic impacts

2.  Public service delivery such as healthcare and elderly care, have been hampered due to poor quality of English by foreign workers

3.  Communities have become increasingly segregated because migrants will not or cannot integrate

4.  One Nation Labour should not repeat the “mistakes” of New Labour on Eastern European migration and a cap may be sensible

These arguments, lauded by Dan Hodges as mature, nuanced, intelligent – and surprisingly right-wing are essentially wrong.

Issue one: This popular economic myth suggests that mass immigration has stunted wages, strained our public services and blocked job opportunities for British born workers. These claims have been intensely scrutinised by Migration Watch, the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The evidence from all these sources shows that these claims are patently false. There is no serious case to answer and is acutely explained by Jonathan Portes here. In short, migrants proportionally use fewer public services and cost less and cost less than the UK born population, disproportionately pay more indirect taxes, and have a negligible effect on low paid workers. The recent Autumn Statement, according to the IFS, costs those on the lowest decile £3.34 per week in comparison to the maximum probable immigration cost of £0.30 per week.

Issue two: Many would argue that quality of care, rather than English proficiency is a key problem within social and health care services. Though there have been a few cases where the ability to speak English has been the key issue, it is a farcical to suggest banning workers based on their language capability will solve this. Already an estimated 150,000 migrant care workers  are not even being paid the minimum wage! It is telling that Miliband would rather pontificate on a pensioner’s anecdote on migrant workers accents, than discuss the well-documented issue of care worker exploitation. These are poorly waged hard labour jobs, where a worker can typically be given 15 minutes to wash, dress and feed a person with Alzheimer’s disease. A public discussion is needed on the great and corrosive pressures of the profit motive and bureaucratic drives for efficiency that are heavily placed on nurses and care workers irrespective of if they are British-born or foreign-born. This is the true crisis in patient care rather than grasp of English by the foreign worker.

Issue three: Danny Dorling has wonderfully destroyed this argument. Basically, we are mixing ethnically more than ever. The real segregation is due to economic inequality not language proficiency. There may be an issue, albeit a relatively small one, so why is it addressed solely as the fault of the migrant and portray the settled white communities as helpless victims of segregation? Why don’t we discuss segregation that is caused by fear of the foreigner? The phenomenon, known as “white flight”, shows that white communities actively move away from their new migrant neighbours rather than migrants purposefully creating single ethnic ghettoes out of a desire to exclude themselves. Of course, Ed wouldn’t mention this as telling the truth wouldn’t get him The Sun reader vote.

Issue four: Eastern Europeans helped not hindered Britain, perhaps due to their skin tone and Catholicism no-one suggests that Polish culture is detrimental to Britain. Economically speaking, EasternEastern European migration was good for Britain. During the 2010 general election debates, Gordon Brown opposed the much disputed migrant cap, on the principle that enough migration measures had been made by Labour. Ed Miliband now will consider keeping the mechanism only “if it works”. His aim here is craven positioning in the migration debate; constructing himself as the honest and sensible saviour who will end the racial and cultural segregation that is fragmenting Britain before our very own tear-filled eyes. But this isn’t a debate, this is the acceptance of right-wing propaganda. Instead of the old concrete trope of “they are stealing your jobs and your houses”, it is the now ephemeral affect “they are separating themselves and making you feel alien in your own country”.This is progress from Gordon Brown’s use of the BNP slogan, “British Jobs for British Workers”, so while the BNP can’t endorse this nuanced argument, UKIP happily could.

Britain doesn’t have an immigration problem, it has a problem accepting migrants as human beings. When immigration is publicly debated, it is assumed that the freedom of movement for people is inherently dangerous, migrants are a menace who will destroy “British values” if our politicians are not vigilant. Conversely, the power of Capital to disrupt lives, destroy communities and decimate public services is ignored and unexamined. This is what One Nation Labour is offering and I think it can it fuck right off.

The advantage of migrants not learning English

December 14, 2012 5 comments

There’s been plenty of coverage of Ed Milband’s speech on ‘cultural integration’ in Tooting today, and I don’t intend to repeat stuff.  For the record, I agree that it was an attempt at celebrating cultural diversity, along with some decent enough policy points about protecting migrants from some of the worst excesses of capitalism.  I still don’t see how the labour movement can really claim the high ground on how we all live together until it confronts once and for all its shameful institutionally racist past, which helped create the divisions of today, but that’s another post (here’s one I wrote earlier).  As it stood, it was on ok speech.

But this bit was strangely strawman-like:

Where there are Home School Agreements, English language learning should be included.  Which too often doesn’t happen at the moment.  That would ensure that both schools and parents share the responsibility for helping foreign-born children learn how to speak English.

Is Ed Miliband really suggesting that there’s a substantial number of parents out there who are keen to stop their children learning English at school – children who can only be saved from a lifetime of  English-free non-integration by making their parents sign a piece of paper which presumably they won’t be able to read anyway?  If so, who and where are these people? Because the research I’ve seen about migrant parents’ attitude to their children’s education suggests quite the opposite of what Miliband appears to be suggesting is going on.

For example, Haleh Afshar’s research back in the 1980s found that:

Muslim women in West Yorkshire, like their male counterparts, place an inordinate trust in the ability of the educational system to act as a means of delivering their children from the drudgery of poverty. Although in practice there is not enough evidence to support their optimism, women of all backgrounds, regardless of their own levels of educational achievement, seek to promote their children within the school and further educational systems and are increasingly doing so for their daughters as well as their sons.

And later (2002), Tahir Abbas found in his study of Asian families in Birmingham that, while social class may play a part in attitudes to the importance of education:

In general, both parents and their children are convinced in their enthusiasm for educational achievement, with research continuing to show the importance of parenting to secondary schooling.

If Asian and Muslim communities – arguably the broad group in Britain most demonized as separating themselves off from the ‘mainstream’ – are so keen for their children to participate and succeed in school (for which presumably a grasp of English is necessary), what other groups are out there actively denying their children access to the lingua franca?  Is Miliband suggesting that ‘foreign-born’ children are affected by a a whole new set of attitudes from parents which don’t seem to be held by earlier migrants? I just don’t get it.

But perhaps I’m being too pernickety.  Perhaps Miliband was merely seeking to point out the importance of newly arrived parents learning English as quickly as possible so that they can help their kids out at school, so that those kids get over the barrier of a late start and catch up as best they can. That would sound much more reasonable.

Oddly, though, the research doesn’t seem to support such a thesis. On the contrary, the research that has been done (in the US) on children of migrant families who learn English while their parents don’t suggests that their role as ‘language brokers’ is a significant factor driving their educational achievement.  Dorner et al (2007), for example*, studied “the regularity with which the children of mostly Mexican immigrants in Chicago interpret languages and cultural practices for their families”, and found that:

[S]uch “language brokering” is related to academic outcomes. Using data collected from a subset of children (n=87) longitudinal regression models, which controlled for early school performance, showed that higher levels of language brokering were significantly linked to better scores on fifth- and sixth-grade standardized reading tests………The practice of language brokering that we have identified has not received much attention from educational researchers seeking to boost students’ achievement. And yet it is a literacy and numeracy practice that takes place every day in the homes of immigrant families, and it is one that may have measurable payoffs for children’s school successes across a range of subject areas. While not all language brokering situations may have uniformly positive benefits—and earlier research has demonstrated the trade-offs between cognitive and psychosocial costs and benefits—standardized test score gains may indeed occur for the children of immigrants who accomplish deep and varied brokering tasks.

This, I suggest, is more than an esoteric research point.   It suggests that significant numbers of children coming into schools and not just learning English for themselves but using their new language to help their families navigate through their new lives in Britain might, if the proper teaching resources are in place to help, actually be beneficial for educational standards overall, with native-born children carried along in the wake of these growing competencies and life skills.  It even provides one partial explanation, dare I say, for the impressive surge in the achievement across London’s very diverse schools (p.18 of report), which, as Chris Cook at the FT has pointed out, is difficult to attribute entirely to improvements within the schools themselves (though this is undoubtedly important).

In short, maybe immigration is making for a cleverer country.  Even the Daily Mail might have trouble arguing that that’s a bad thing.

That is not to argue, of course, that we should be actively seeking to deny parents access to English tuition so that their children can grow into even more rounded, talented people than they will be anyway.  That would be pretty stupid, given the other advantages that having parents who can communicate freely in their new country will bring.

But it is to point out that, sometimes, this stuff about ‘cultural integration’, and the creation of a problem just so that Ed Miliband can offer the papers a thoroughly New Labour, managerial solution (Home School Agreements for Gawd’s sake), might not actually be a very good idea, and that a wholesale defence and celebration of immigration, in the interests of the (One) Nation,  might actually end up being a winner, if Labour has the balls for it.

* For more, see also Halgunseth, L. (2003). Language brokering: Positive developmental outcomes. In M. Coleman & L. Ganong (Eds.), Points and Counterpoints: Controversial relationship and family issues in the 21st century: An anthology (pp. 154-157). Los Angles, CA: Roxbury.

The formation of identity and what it means for Miliband’s search for Englishness

June 8, 2012 8 comments

Ed Miliband wants us all to be secure in our English identity.  His speech yesterday sought to claim that because Scots benefit from having a Scottish identity alongside a British identity, then the English will too.

This is utter rubbish, and not just for the reasons that Owen Jones (rightly) gives, namely that an attempt by the Left to create a sense of English togetherness is a distraction from the real business of the Left: creating a sense of togetherness as a class.

The main reason Ed’s speech is rubbish is that it fails to pin down what identity actually is and how it is formed. 

Let me try to do so here.

Charles Taylor sets it out in his seminal Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition:

[Identity] designates something like a person’s understanding of who they are, of their fundamental characteristics as a human being….[O]ur identity is shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people of society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves (p25).

That is, our  identities are always created as a reaction to what others make of us, and how they treat us. 

Thus with the Scots.  The Scottish identity is largely formed as a reaction to the domination and exploitation of Scotland by England, whether that be in the form of the highland clearances or the perceived stealing of oil revenues.  That is why, despite best efforts, Scottish identity is still often expressed in terms of anti-Englishness.

And that is why there is no English identity comparable with that of the Scots.  Quite simply, because the England was a dominant power for so long, because no other groups was in a sufficiently powerful position to “mirror back’ a contemptible picture of the English in a way that made the English sit up and take notice, it didn’t need its own fully fledged identity. 

So what’s changed?  Why now does Miliband feel the need to help us discover our Englishness?

The answer is that the ‘identity vacuum’ has been filled by a pernicious and intolerant nationalism.  Think English flag, and you think BNP.  This offends the liberal left, because it cuts right across its belief in equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of colour or creed, and the understandable reaction to this on the part of people like Sunder Katwala at British Future is to seek to develop a more inclusive sense of Englishness, open to all who live within England’s borders.

This is a laudable enough reaction to the racists who have ‘stolen’ the flag, but it doesn’t get to the bottom of why and how racist nationalism came to steal the flag in the first place.  Only if we understand this, and deal with the consequences of that understanding, can we hope to develop anything like a proper unity of Englishness.

To understand why Englishess has become equated with racist nationalism, we have to look at the bleaker side of our recent history; but less (contra Owen) at our behaviour as a colonial power, important though that is, and more at our domestic post-colonial, post-war history. 

The facts are clear enough, and I have set them out in some detail here.  After the war, Britain (but primarily England) needed workers for its public services, and the workers came, primarily from the Caribbean and South Asia.  When they came, they received a huge amount of discriminatory treatment in terms of housing and education; they were, in effect, second-class citizens.

The key effects of this discrimination is that these ‘ethnic minorities’, as they became known, developed their own identities in relation and reaction to the ‘misrecognition’.  People became self-consciously ‘Black British’ or ‘British Asian’ in their primary identity (as opposed to, say, becoming primarily a Korean-American, where the emphasis tends to lie with the American bit).

What happened was exactly as foreseen by the great sociologist John Rex in 1979:

[T]here are clear difference of life-chances between them and the white British…….Such differences of life-chances, if they were sustained over a period, would undoubtedly mean that consciousness of a common identity, common exploitation and oppression, and a common conflict with the host society would emerge and find expression in some kind of ethnic-class-for-itself.

From there, it is easy to see why Englishness-as-racism developed.  What had begun as the overt racism of post-colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s was transformed into a statement of identity in the 1970s.  This ‘Englishness’, perverted though it may seem to the liberal left, was largely formed in reaction to the strengthening of black and Asian identities, and the perceived ‘misrecognition’ of (seen as disrespect for) white people’s cultural norms.

If racist-nationalist Englishness is to be challenged in the way Ed Miliband and Sunder Katwala want - if the flag is to be taken back as the flag of all those who live within its borders – the Left needs to be clear about why it was lost in the first place.   The Labour movement in particular needs to be honest about its own post-war history of racism, and how that created the ‘politics of recognition’ problems we have today, in which there is an unresolved (though expediently exaggerated) tension between the rights/duties of communities to their own identity and the more limited rights/duties of citizenship.

Only then can we really move on with the forging of a genuine spirit of inclusivity, which – if the theory of identity I set out here is correct – will soon cease to be called Englishness anyway, because there’s nothing specifically English about inclusion, and because national identity is always about the other, not ourselves.

An obituary of sorts: Professor John Rex

December 22, 2011 8 comments

A journalist called Christopher Hitchens, who died a few days ago, has received thousands of column inches in his praise largely because, in addition to a good prose style, he chose to take controversial positions.    One of Britain’s greatest sociologists, Professor John Rex, who died on Tuesday at the age of 86, will gain few column inches, perhaps because he chose excellence, rigour and consistency in all his work.  

It seems a shame that the works of a serious socialist thinker and researcher like John Rex are likely to remain consigned to the backshelves of secondhand book shops, while the entertaining but ultimately frivolous offerings of Christopher Hitchens go off for further reprints.

In 1968, in a typcially forthright piece The Race Relations Catastrophe, Rex predicted what would happen in British inner cities, and urged politicians to take decisive action:

We have just about ten years to break down our ghettoes and to see to it that all men have the same opportunities in education and employment…The difficulties we face do not arise from our ignorance about how the problem should be tackled.  They arise from a lack of will or from opportunist electoral fear.  Yet trying to placate the electorate with semi-racialist policies, or keeping quite in the hope that you won’t be called a nigger-lover hasn’t paid off, while a deliberate assault on the ghettoes with a view to clearing them would eliminate one of the most important of all the secondary causes of racialism.

The politicians did not act, and in 1981 race riots took place across the country.   For another 30 years, politicians continued to pander to opportunist electoral considerations.  In 2011 rioting took place again - though the intervening years had changed some of the specifically racial characterstics in the ghettoes, and some of the ghettoes had been relocated to outer estates.   Most of those involved think further riots will take place soon, and the police are drawing up their plans.

Rex is probably best known in the academic community for his key works Key Problems of Sociological Theory (1964), Race Relations in Sociological Theory (1970), Race and Ethnicity (1986).  However, it is his groundbreaking and meticulous 1967 study (with Robert Moore)  Race, Community, and Conflict: A Study of Sparkbrook which really mark him out for members of the non-academic-but-politically-engaged community that I like to thing I belong to.

In this, he set out with great precision the overtly racist policies being enacted by local and central government in Birmingham, and the legacy of discrimination it was creating, which would in turn create the conditions for much of the urban conflict we see today.

Rex founded the Sociology Department at Warwick University in 1970, when Warwick was very much a new ‘red brick’, not the institution with the world-class reputation it has now earned.  He stayed with Warwick for most of his career.

I emailed him a year or two ago when I discovered his work – at the back of a secondhand bookshop - seeking his advice.  I got an automatic reply saying that he was in hospital and that he’d reply on return.  Sadly, he was never able to.  I wish I’d read his stuff earlier.

I hope this little obituary note will at least persuade one or two others to look up his work.  He had, and still has through his published a lot to say that is relevant to where we are now. 

As I set out here, better late than never to act on his advice.

Categories: Obituary, Race and Colour

#occupylsx needs to read the bible

October 27, 2011 7 comments

I just hope this photograph does not become widely identified with the #occupylsx movement, or in a very short space of time the protestors will become very unpopular amongst a signficant section of the population.

So, also, may Kevin Maguire in the Mirror, who opines on twitter:

Jesus drove moneylenders from the temple but Bishop of London wants anti-capitalists away from St Paul’s. Christianity turns full circle?

Clearly both Kevin and the pictured protestor missed a lot of Sunday school, because Jesus did not drive moneylenders from the temple.

What Jesus did in the temple is recorded in all four gospels:

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves (Matthew 21:12);

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves (Mark 11:15);

So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15);

Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling [translated in other versions as 'merchants'] (Luke 19:45).

 This isn’t a Bible Studies blog, but the difference between money changers and money lenders is an important one,  rooted in the obligation of the time for temple goers to pay their devotions in temple money. 

Jesus is expressing anger, not at the concept of lending money,  but at people using their position of power in the temple hierarchy to exchange money at exorbitant rates, especially with those coming from afar. 

This is not Jesus acting against the whole concept of credit and debt, but against racism in the temple.

As such, there may be a fairly oblique reference to Deuteronomy (23: 19-20), which appears to authorise different repayment schedules, depending on race.

Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.  You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess.

 The protest movement, I suggest, should steer clear of a campaign against the fundamentals of credit and debt as a way of making the world work.  As David Graeber has shown, such concepts may well be hardwired into human existence, and what we really should be campaigning for is some form of democratic control of banking institutions and the power to create money, rather than an end to the whole idea of banking itself.  Debt can be a social good, and the new protest movement should be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Over the centuries, religion has torn society apart over the concept of what is and what is not usury, and who should be allowed/forced to engage in it.  There is a strong argument that attempts by organised religion to resolve this dilemma - between the desire for religious righteousness and the need for some kind of lending system – have been the key longterm cause of the oppression of Jewish people.

And that’s really not somewhere I want to see #occuplylsx go for the sake of a snappy poster.

Riots as revenge

September 5, 2011 1 comment

Chris Dillow has a really good post up on ‘the revenge effect’, taking as its hook the discovery of the CIA/MI6′s torture outsourcing to specialist firm Gadaffi Inc.:

An apparently humanitarian policy by the west has, therefore,  exposed its earlier lack of humanitarianism. Pessimists might add that this could mean that in supporting the overthrow of Gaddafi, the west has helped install a regime which has a grudge against us. These are examples of what Edward Tenner called the revenge effect - how our actions can rebound to bite us on the arse.

Chris gives us several other examples of arse-biting policy decisons, with his main focus on economic policy, but he left out the most salient recent example.

Back in the 19650s and 1960s, both Conservative and Labour governments, in collaboration with willing councils, pursued overtly racist housing, employment and education policies towards the people then immigrating from South Asia and the West Indies.

At the time, a sociologist who did have the “cognitive resources” needed to “anticipate revenge effects” (which Chris says policy makers lack), said:

We have just about ten years to break down our ghettoes and to see to it that all men have the same opportunities in education and employment…The difficulties we face do not arise from our ignorance about how the problem should be tackled.  They arise from a lack of will or from opportunist electoral fear.  Yet trying to placate the electorate with semi-racialist policies, or keeping quite in the hope that you won’t be called a nigger-lover hasn’t paid off, while a deliberate assault on the ghettoes with a view to clearing them would eliminate one of the most important of all the secondary causes of racialism….. 

If we can now deal with those problems which are the secondary causes of racialism we may still be able to go on to create an unprejudiced generation”.

That didn’t happen, and 10 years later the same sociologist said:

[T]here are clear difference of life-chances between them and the white British…….Such differences of life-chances, if they were sustained over a period, would undoubtedly mean that consciousness of a common identity, common exploitation and oppression, and a common conflict with the host society would emerge and find expression in some kind of ethnic-class-for-itself.

But if this is true for the immigrant generation it is much more true for its children……Not merely is it the case, therefore, that immigrant class-consciousness will be reinforced with time by the mere repetition of the same experiences, but it will also be related to the consciousness which emerges amongst the young who have rising expectations not shared by their parents, and who are likely to be more fiercely frustrated by the experiences of discrimination.

That was in 1979. In 1981 these frustrations led to the summer riots.  30 years later, the frustrations were expressed differently both by grandchildren of immigrants and by a newer set of young people who have been at the receiving end of systematic discrimination.

None of this will be a surprise to John Rex, the sociologist who told us what would happen.  However belatedly, Cameron and (more likely) Miliband would do well to read Rex’s work and then address the real root causes of the recent “pure criminality”.

 

Announcing the TCF Oxford Symposium

August 25, 2011 Leave a comment

In a major step forward for the Though Cowards Flinch think-tank, we are pleased to announce our first Oxford Symposium (1), to be held in the Bookbinders Arms, Jericho (2) on Friday 26th August at 8pm. 

Entrance is free (3).

The Symposium is largely aimed as a response to the 2010/11 London-Oxford seminars which led to the publication of the ‘Blue Labour’ Politics of Paradox, and will cover the following themes:

Recapturing Cole: how the Left can respond to the way in which the ‘Blue Labour’ school has used to its own narrow ends the work of early 20th Century thinkers like GDH Cole and RH Tawney;

Professional pride: how the Labour movement can seize back the initiative over the quality of public services from  New Labour managerialism and New Conservative destruction;

The Race Relations Catastrophe: how the Left can build on the work and insights of sociologist John Rex to develop a coherent new approach to working class race relations in the UK

Local power: how the Left needs to go back to basics on ‘localism’, to strip away New Labour and New Conservative rhetoric and build a new localism based on devolution of power, not blame. 

The 1980s, let’s not go there: an analysis of the Labour left’s approach to opposition in the 1980s, with a fresh assessment of the mistakes in ‘New Left’ thinking which led to short term gains but long-term loss within the labour movement.

Findings from the symposium will be considered for publication (4).

In a special innovation, the Symposium will avoid the constraints of the usual conference-style organisation, where people are expected to listen for hours on end to so-called experts droning on about stuff we already know and then taking ‘questions’ from people in the audience which are in fact rambling statements unrelated to the matter at hand while totally ignoring or dismissing the ones which actually matter.

Instead, the Symposium will operate to the following basic rules:

a) A regular TCF author from Lancashire will chair the Symposium.

b) Anyone wanting to say anything on the topics above should come prepared with a statement of not more than two minutes, but preferably about 20 seconds.

c) That statement will be allowed once the Chairman has been bought a pint by the person wishing to make the statement.

d)  The Chairman will drink his pint quite slowly if the contribution is considered good and worthy of further debate, but just knock it back in one if it’s total bollox and/or sounds like it could be from Progress magazine.

e) This mechanism, functioning also as a clever psychology experiment in group incentives, will filter out the rubbish contributions, because if the contributions are rubbish the Chairman will become increasingly drunk, power-crazed and abusive to everyone in sight.  This would not be a pretty sight, and creates a strong incentive for participants to talk sense. 

f) The Chairman reserves the right to stop the Symposium at any stage, either if he gets bored or he doesn’t understand the clever people, and instead just talk about cricket and beer and general shit.  In such an event, he should still be bought pints right through to closing time.  This is in fact extremely likely to happen.

Notes

(1) Oxford has been specifically selected for this first event because of all the clever people there.  It is absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Chairman happens to be in Oxford that day and fancies wheedling some free beer out of naive young socialists. We’re calling it a Symposium because it’s a new word we just learned and it sounds more academic than ‘conference’ or ‘seminar’. It’s from Greek.

(2) Jericho is Oxford’s premier residential area, where the really clever people live, and where the pub is.

(3) We would charge loads but we’ve made absolutely no arrangements with the pub and we think they’d get pissed off if we just stood outside the pub with a bucket.  It’s free to socialists.  Tories can just sod off and play darts or something.

(4) Caveat: Findings will be published if anyone brings a pen, writes it all down, types it up in some kind of sensible form finds a publisher willing to go with it, and does all the necessary marketing and stuff.

In Defence of Society: Review of ‘Foucault on Politics, Security and War’

I have a post up on the LSE blog reviewing Michael Dillon and Andrew W. Neal’s recent book Foucault on Politics, Security and War.

Read it by following this link:

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2011/07/09/book-review-foucault-on-politics-security-and-war/

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 120 other followers