It is sadly timed that in 2018 we lost the great thinker and activist, Ambalavaner Sivanandan.  It is not just his death that has reignited a belated interest in his work, although the death of a public figure always brings more of the recognition which they did not get in their lifetime. It is the contemporary situation that makes his ideas so relevant.  In the 1960s, he made an observation that is gathering belated attention and referencing. ‘What Enoch Powell says today, the Tories say tomorrow and Labour legislates on the day after.’ Logically this tragic chain continues: the Tories get back in power a few moves further on in the cycle.

Neoliberalism and racism

In response to the crisis of the 1970s, Thatcher and Reagan spearheaded a new phase of capitalism, generally known as neoliberalism. It succeeded very well in enriching the rich, driving a huge wealth gap between rich and poor from a point of historically low levels of inequality. A trickle-up effect, one might say.

Forty years on, neoliberalism’s crisis is now a crisis of authenticity. A rapacious and aggressive capitalism with an Iron Lady’s iron will did away with social welfare, full employment, nationalised and subsidised infrastructure, and still weathered the storms of labour’s reactions against it. As Sivanandan said, ‘Mrs Thatcher saw the time and seized it. That was her genius. … She determined what course the new economic order should take, whose interests it should serve.’ While, the ‘old Marxists … had for so long been fighting for the emancipation of Labour from Capital that they could not bear to think that it was Capital that was now being emancipated from Labour’.[1]

Asked what was her greatest legacy, Thatcher is supposed to have said, ‘New Labour’. Not only, on the economic level, did Tony Blair (and Bill Clinton before him) continue the Thatcher-Reagan order, but also, on the social level, these so-called ‘progressives’ continued the drive to sectarianism and communalist division. They took the language of anti-racism and turned it into multiculturalism. Blair’s multiculturalism was not as we might see it, but a vision of ‘communities’ who are not British but who should accept British values. The figure of the Muslim terrorist became the embodiment of the ‘bad immigrant’, refusing to integrate with Blairite ‘norms’.

‘It is time,’ he said at the October 2001 Labour Party conference, ‘for parts of Islam to confront prejudice against America and not only Islam but parts of western societies too.’ This was a threat against all ‘enemies of the state’. His constituency was a bourgeois, liberal one, passive in its acceptance of state control. ‘We’re standing up for the people we represent, who play by the rules and have a right to expect others to do the same.’ Of those ‘others’ from whom his people would exercise their ‘right’ to expect compliance, Muslims would be the obvious, visible target. Welfare claimants, the marginalised poor and other ‘anti-Americans’ would be swept up too. Dressed up in liberal language, the inherent contradictions were there from the start.

Similarly, the ‘War on Terror’ was built on an apparently liberal idea. Terror Laws were made ‘to protect the most basic liberty of all: freedom from terror.’ The state took away our freedoms in order to protect them. Out of this Foucauldian paradox, a number of other lies were spun. New Labour stripped the last vestiges of credibility left in parliamentary politics. They were, as Peter Mandelson famously said, ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’, and an elite group of people (himself included) got filthy rich. The trouble was, no one believed politicians anymore. Across Europe and USA it was the same. We had social-democrats who looked more like greedy bureaucrats and Christian-conservatives who couldn’t conserve the heritage or tradition of anything.

For both sides of this narrow political spectrum, the answer to the authenticity problem was clear. To unite a working class under their neoliberal banner, they needed a new form of racism better suited for the age. It was what Sivanandan called xeno-racism. Unlike in classical racism, for xeno-racism there is nothing biologically inferior about Muslims, Roma, Mexicans, whatever. It is culturally that they are inferior. It became biological only in that they threatened ‘our way of life’ as a cultural infection, needing the prevention of militarised borders and the remedy of terror laws, detention and deportation. Thus, as the state fed racism to the populace, it in turn spiralled further towards authoritarianism.

In the summer of 2011, the racist historian David Starkey said explicitly that Powell had not done enought to prevent this ‘cultural infection’ . He made this claim as part of a BBC panel put on to discuss the events of a week when the unresolved police killing of a young, mixed-race man in Tottenham had sparked a rebellion across a number of English cities. A so-called expert on that panel, Starkey explained to a callow Owen Jones what was going on now:

‘What’s happened is that a substantial section of the chavs that you wrote about have become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become The Fashion. And black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together. This language, which is wholly false, which is a Jamaican ‘patois’ that’s been intruded in England and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.’

He said that the white working class had ‘become black’ because they were mindless, inarticulate savages too. They had been infected with ‘gangster culture’. To some people now, this even sounds like common sense.

Regression in anti-racist, anti-sexist struggles

The logic of the War on Terror (as with the War on Drugs, the War on Youth and all the other Wars) was that we need tougher laws and an unaccountable state because of the grave and ever-present ‘threat to your security’. A lot of people see through this nonsense. Nevertheless, fifty years since Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, we have seen the introduction of things once deemed unimaginable in a ‘democracy’.

Indefinite detention camps run by private security companies are the norm in most countries. Violence against women continues to increase. With pro-family laws coming in from Poland to Italy to India and anti-reproductive autonomy legislation being discussed in US states (where a death sentence for women who have abortions is proposed by those great defenders of the right to life), the idea that the state has made progress in its racism and sexism should make us, to quote Malcolm X, ‘ashamed to even use the word “progress” in the context of our struggle’.[2]

That Britain has had two female prime ministers in the last thirty years and fifty BAME MPs in the current parliament, does not mean that the Establishment has purged itself of racism or sexism. The annual Presidents’ Club charity dinner, we discovered, hired only ‘tall, thin and pretty’ waitresses, who were told what colour underwear to wear for a discreet men-only event at which receiving harassment was basically part of the job description. In recent years, we have had a prime minister who told a fellow MP to ‘calm down, dear’, a Liberal Democrat Lord who offered an anti-forced marriage campaigner a peerage in exchange for sex and an MP who described a no-deal Brexit as the ‘nigger in the woodpile’ as if that were a common and acceptable idiom. David Cameron said his comment was humorous. Lord Lester denied it ever happened. Anne Marie Morris had the whip suspended for five months but she was back with voting rights in time to vote for that government deal on Brexit.

But these are not just the rotten apples in a wholesome barrel. The direction of British politics has taken to racism both as an electoral strategy and a means to reinforce state control. Labour’s Gordon Brown ran on a ‘British jobs for British workers’ ticket, a slogan taken directly from the BNP. Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a principle of ‘a really hostile environment for illegal migrants’, best characterised by the ‘go home or face arrest’ slogan on Home Office vans that drove around Britain. UKIP’s Nigel Farage dubbed his tour of 2013 ‘the common sense tour’, the year his party broke into the Labour stronghold of Rotherham with an extreme and slanderous campaign targeting Roma and Muslim people. Now, after years of intense Islamophobia and a war against (Islamic) terror which has led to destruction, massacres, mass displacement (and more terrorism) abroad, the state can use its anti-terror laws at home to detain people indefinitely, place people under house arrest, and stop and search peaceful protestors. All of this can be done without charge, let alone trial.  Academics who have researched terror groups, journalists who have interviewed fighters in Syria, booksellers who have sold books on political Islam and a boy I know who typed the word ‘Syria’ into his Sixth Form College computer search engine have all found themselves facing legal orders resulting from the anti-terror legislation. The police frequently strip search, taser and, from time to time, kill young black and working-class men with impunity [3].

All of which are signs of a growing fascist tendency at the heart of the state. This is true in Britain, as it is in the rest of Europe and in Australia, Philippines, India, Brazil, Israel, Turkey and the United States of America to name just a few examples.

Progress in civil society

At the same time as this depressing race to the bottom between two ‘centrist’ parliamentary parties, spurred on by, and in turn legitimating, the leaders of unashamedly fascist street movements, civil society has indeed shown a great deal of progress. A story of a boy in the 1930s being bullied and beaten at school for being ‘foreign’ would not have even been news. In 2018, a social media campaign has publically shamed these racist thugs and raised a huge amount of money for the boy’s family. From the response to the Oswald Mosley-goaded pogroms in London’s East End in 1936 and Notting Hill in 1958, to the fightback against the National Front’s invasion of Southall in 1979, the cases of the Mangrove 9 in 1970 and the Bradford 12 in 1981, and the Justice for Stephen Lawrence campaign in the 1990s, community self-defence against racist violence has helped create a profound shift in social norms.

Feminist struggles have won women the right to vote and equal pay, forced the criminalisation of domestic violence and marital rape, made available contraception and sexual freedom and legalised abortion. The worldwide impact of the #Metoo campaign stands on the shoulders of a giant shift in gender relations.

Fascist reaction

And yet these gains are being slowly lost in places where economic violence has destroyed communities. Industries in the West were dismantled and set up again far away from troublesome workers and their troublesome employment rights. Towns were hollowed out to become second-rate theme parks with bland identical architecture and bland chain retailers in newly named ‘cultural quarters’. Capitalist logic said it had to be this way and the state and racist media discourse declared it was the migrants who were the reason that the towns were losing their heritage. This is despite the fact that it is migrants who have established small businesses and community hubs, who keep the healthcare and transport systems going and who have kept alive the basic working-class solidarity of self-supporting communities.

It is in these places that the fascist reaction is trying to build. I call it a ‘reaction’ because they are organising as a deliberate counter to liberal progress, trying to drive a wedge into a perceived weakness of the Left. The English Defence League, Britain First and now the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) attack Islam for its supposed mistreatment of women. Thus in the name of fighting sexism, they lay claim to be defenders of (English) women against the (foreign) rapist. Their political philosophy, which denies a basic humanity to the majority of humanity, demands the liberal right to freedom of speech in order to slander two billion Muslims by branding them paedophiles-by-culture.

The conditions that make groups like the DFLA attractive are not difficult to see. Neoliberal economics (what is called ‘structural adjustment’ when practised in the ‘Third World’) closed down industry in the heartlands of the industrial revolution, privatised state support, cut funding to education and hospitals while at the same time twisted them up in the ropes of bureaucracy.

Thus a nostalgic narrative for a time when things could be done without the red tape, when men had work in state-run industries and earned enough to look after their children and wives has an affective appeal. The often part-time and temporary jobs in retail and call centres are gendered differently to the ones they replaced in mines and factories, so that female unemployment rates in the UK in the 21st century have been consistently lower than for men. The fascist groups that emerged in this period are, by name (‘lads’) male and, by narrative, defenders of women. 

Tommy Robinson (he has the liberal right to call himself that if he wants) has responded to the video of 15 year old Jamal being attacked in the Huddersfield school. Jamal was, he says, part of a gang of Muslim girls (a liberal claim on gender identity in itself) who badly beat a white girl at the same school and forced her mother to choose home education. The boys who beat him, said Robinson, were defending the English girls Jamal had attacked. The media, he said, have not done their research. He has been contacted by this girl’s mother and she has told him about all this.

The problem was that social media users also did their research and discovered the mother in question. She explained that she had contacted Robinson because she was angry that her daughter’s case had not received any attention, but denied that she ever said Jamal was involved. Unsurprisingly, Jamal was not one of the girls who beat up her daughter.

Robinson’s claim that journalists have not researched this case and denied the ‘truth’ of the situation because they prioritise ‘migrant rights’ is a classic narrative of fascist grievance. The establishment has betrayed its own people by allowing a pernicious foreign group to penetrate the sacred body of the nation: ‘the rape of Britain’ as he calls it. He is a warrior against a ‘politically correct’ cover-up. Despite his claims, however, every British newspaper has, on its front page, stories about this Huddersfield schoolboy. The Sun mentions Robinson’s name six times and quotes him twice (the only ‘expert’ voice represented) in its article on the issue. And, without further surprise, we learn that the bullies had previously shared posts online by Tommy Robinson and Boris Johnson. Robinson was the hate preacher who radicalised the aggressors and then defended their actions. Neoliberalism has pandered to the far-right, using its nationalism for electoral gains, and uniting with them on a shared fondness for authoritarianism.

Threat to the state

The FLA and the DFLA might seem insignificant. Sure enough, they have already split once. They fall out with each other as much as they turn on us. Yet they will be dangerous if left unchallenged. Knowing that they can no longer march in communities where they will be beaten back, they have instead (learning from the Left) taken the sterile ground of central London to produce their symbolic protests, hoping to gather strength to take to more contested terrain in the future. After UKIP’s work in Rotherham, the story of a gang of child sex exploiters has made life for Muslims in the area so bad that people fear for their safety. Self-organised community defenders have been criminalised. Now UKIP is looking to Robinson as a future leader and Robinson sees UKIP as a route into parliament.

As the ‘mainstream’ right-wing parties head more right and the ‘extreme’ right begins to be incorporated into the mainstream, the state is in danger of destroying itself. If this cycle remains unchecked, parliamentary democracy will dismantle itself, as happened to the social-democratic parties who welcomed Hitler into the Reichstag. We cannot expect the Labour party or the Labour movement to save us. Even with a long-term anti-racist as the head of the party, they are hamstrung by the logic of parliamentary politics. Jeremy Corbyn’s tutelage in the school of Sivanandan is evident in his party’s new slogan, which evokes the latter’s call for a ‘liberation of man- and womankind… not the greater liberation of a few at a greater cost to the many.’[4] Nevertheless, Labour’s rhetoric is cautious at best on immigration. If they got into government, it doubtless would significantly relieve some of the misery that austerity has inflicted and for that reason we would welcome their election. Once in power, however, they would be constrained to maintain an anti-immigrant line and to take part in foreign wars. Historically they always have done.

The state threatens us

The state tries to criminalise its foremost defenders against fascism. In all the political work we do, none is as under as much surveillance by the state than antifascism. Undercover cops dog us at protests and organising meetings. In the USA, neoliberal democrats and republicans can only rage impotently as their elected President rips apart the consensus of their politics. Here, neoliberal politicians like May, who believe in a globalised capitalism, ‘freed,’ as Sivanandan observed in 1989, ‘from the exigencies of labour’ reliant on Export Processing Zones and cheap and plentiful labour at the bottom of the global ‘hierarchies of production’[5], have forced themselves into negotiating away Britain’s privileged place within these hierarchies. The individual reasons for voting to leave the EU were multifarious but the Brexit project itself was an explicitly racist one. It has given life and hope to the fascist movement which may well bite hard on the hand that fed it.

Bound to lose

The only movement that can unite the people against fascism will come from below, from grassroots groups that can mobilise communities to face down the threat to their existence. It is only from here that a Corbyn-led Labour movement can gain the strength to enact the principles and integrity of its leader.

Unsurprisingly, the fascist groups who claim to defend ‘women and children’ (their favourite categories of victims) now legitimise violence against children when that child is a ‘refugee’. They rail against sex abusers yet, amongst the ranks of their senior members, there have been sexual abusers of children. This should come as no surprise in groups that fetishise domination and see gender relations in such terms of protector and protected. The glaring contradictions within their ‘thinking’ and the clear anti-racism and anti-sexism at the heart of our politics mean that the fascists are bound to lose.

Our alternative is clear and built firm on moral foundations, valuing equality, freedom and justice in all our individual interactions and collective processes. Despite the slanders and the propaganda coming from these foul-mouthed desecrators of humanity and the media and institutions which amplify them, democracy and decency will prevail. The growing power of an anti-racist, feminist, antifascism will be the force that sweeps away the kind of hateful nationalism our leaders use to legitimise state power, bolster their popularity and which, in the hands of Robinson and his ilk, endangers their very existence.

We honour Sivanandan’s life and work, and heed his call: ‘we have cultures of resistance to create, communities of resistance to build, a world to win’.[6]


[1] All that Melts into Air is Solid, Sivanandan, Race & Class, vol. 31, no. 3; 1990

[2] Speech to young civil rights fighters, Harlem, January 1 1965

[3] In the space of just over one month in the summer of 2017, British police killed Edson Da Costa in Newham, East London (15th June) with CS spray, Darren Cumberbatch in a hostel in Nuneaton (10th July) with a Taser and Rashan Charles in a shop in Haggerston, East London (22nd July).

[4] New Circuits of Imperialism, Sivanandan, Race & Class Vol. 30, no. 3; 1989

[5] ibid.

[6] New Circuits of Imperialism, op. cit.


Image courtesy of The Institute of Race Relations.