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Global warming and the race relations catastrophe

In 1968, in a slim Penguin book called Labour’s Last Chance, socialist sociologist John Rex wrote a chapter called The Race Relations Catastrophe.  In it, he  predicted what would happen in Britain 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 quiet 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 the race relations catastrophe has come to pass.  This, at least, is what I take from the YouGov survey on attitudes to immigrants, including the finding that 67% of those surveyed agree with the notion that immigration over the last decade has been bad for Britain, which mirrors the earlier finding that 67% think Britain is “losing its culture” as a result of immigration.  The act of immigration and the fact of ethnic minorities is merged in people’s minds, despite the fact that it is illogical, as Bourdieu reminds us, to call someone who already lives here an immigrant.

The die, it seems, is cast.  Whatever the actuality, a large section of the population is sorry/angry that mass immigration ever took place, and sees no chance of racial harmony.  My own daily experience is that people who are otherwise decent, tolerant types, are sure that ethnic minorities are harmful to Britain because of the way they seek to segregate themselves.  This, in the end is the result of what Chris has rightly called

an echo mechanism which helps stabilize opinion at a hostile level. Politicians and the media, knowing the public are opposed to immigration, tell them what they want to hear and – a few bromides aside – don’t challenge their opinion.

So what is to be done?  Chris seems unusually defeatist.  Alex proposes that what remains of the pro-immigration lobby seek to “go under the radar” by talking up the need for high-skill immigrants but, while that may be sensible in terms of actual official immigration policy, it doesn’t do anything about the fact that most white people apparently distrust/hate ethnic minorities (unless of course, they happen to know them, in which case the exception tends to be deployed in order to prove the rule).

In all of this,  it seems to me that there’s a corollary with the climate change question.   There is a growing body of evidence, from the regular irregularity of the weather to the risk of massive methane leaks from the permafrost, that we are at, or nearly at, the tipping point – the point when the carbon reduction methods and politics we’ve argued about for 30 years become useless in the face of new overwhelming and catastrophic change.   In such circumstances, the only solutions will come from radical technology, of the type which is now still largely seen as the stuff either of science fiction or of the lunatic scientific fringe: mirrors in space, iron filings in the sea, algae in the desert (my fave).

With climate change, we may be at the point of no return but, even if we are, it’s still likely to be a little while before we witness the full-blown effects of submerged cities and lack of drinking water.  So, too with the race relations catastrophe; we may be past the tipping point into a self-fulfilling distrust of our neighbours, but there’s no quite knowing when it might erupt into full-blown expressions of hatred.  (For what it’s worth, my  prediction is that, left to its own devices, racial hatred will erupt properly in the early- to mid-2020s, and be sparked by a far right-wing Conservative party‘s political need for ‘otherness’, against which it can make its call for a holistic, national unity of purpose.)

The only way to avoid this dark future is, I contend, to pursue the social equivalent of mirrors in space: to address the bubbling racial disharmony unconventionally and radically.

Of course, the far right already has its radical response lined up and waiting to go: it’s called ‘repatriation’ or something similar.  It might be a loathsome response in any way you might want to consider, but it needs to be recognised that it is a response which would be greeted favourably if violent and chaotic interracial conflict does develop.

From the left, the potential response takes two forms.   First, from the Marxist left, there is the belief that racial harmony will be a consequence of working class concientization, in which black and white workers being to recognise that their interests are mutual in the face of capitalist exploitation.  Then there’s the social democratic left’s belief that, working class consciousness aside, disharmony can be eradicated if only material disadvantage is tackled through state intervention in decent housing, employment creation, and high quality education.  Sort out material disdadvantage for all, goes the theory, and the rest will sort itself out.

I have sympathy with both these positions (and those in between), because any radical change in this direction would be welcome.  Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that any such developments would have a direct impact on now well-ingrained cultural hostility and deep social distrust.  Indeed, it may be that the ‘shallow’ form of working class consciousness that we may now be starting to witness, which is a result of the current government’s governing style rather than solidarity-building actions by the left, could be co-opted as a form of solidarity against ethnic minorities.

For me, the only radical initiative that continues to strikes me as both plausible and directly targeted at the race relations catastrophe as it stands is for an incoming Labour government to, first, recognise that race relations are, indeed, at a point where only radical action will work, and then on this basis establish some form of Truth and Reconciliation process, whereby the roots of racial distrust are examined in-depth, with widespread testimony to why and how the catastrophe came to pass.  This should of course, include scrutiny of the Labour party’s own part in what happened.

I have written about this previously, of course.  I even submitted it as a key recommendation in TCF’s submission to Refounding Labour process.  It was, naturally, ignored at the time.  Perhaps Labour, in the light of what Sunny Hundal rightly calls the “awful state” of public opinion – not just on immigration but also about ex-immigrants and their families –  might like to reconsider.  Before it really is too late.

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