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Racism: the achilles heel of middle class liberalism

category international | migration / racism | non-anarchist press author Friday January 15, 2016 04:50author by Kevin Ovenden Report this post to the editors

But wasn’t Charlie Hebdo once something to do with the left, loosely a product of a previous upsurge of social struggle many years ago?

Yes it was. So were Sir Oswald Mosley, Benito Mussolini, Georges Sorel…

So, I am afraid that that excuse is no mitigation and that the long screeds which point to anti-establishment articles the publication has run in the last half century are fundamentally misplaced.

That is especially so as all of those apologias ignore filth from as early as 1971, when it had the front page over the manifesto for the legalisation of abortion in France by the 343 women, including Simone de Beauvoir, who declared that they had had an illegal abortion, saying: “Who Knocked Up The 343 Bitches From The Manifesto On Abortion? It Was For France!” (pictured).

One of the main mechanisms through which all sorts of people passed from left to right a century ago was via accommodation to racism or reactionary ideas about sections of the specifically oppressed. In Britain, racist opposition to immigration figured prominently in the shift to the right of some figures in the labour movement.

Chauvinist nationalism and nativist populism played a role everywhere. So too did liberal distain for the great unwashed: antiestablishment sentiment fused with fear of the working class city to produce an intellectualised new elitism with the educated middle class as the bearer of reason against the ignorant. Not rule by the rich, but rule by the cultured.

Anti-Semitism – the socialism of fools, as the great German socialist August Bebel so brilliantly put it – had a special corrupting effect.

It provided an alternative world view – what we might now recognise as a “clash of civilisations” – with The Jew representing both international finance and international Marxism. It glided the path from socialist opposition to the capitalist system towards all sorts of reactionary positions, including fascism, which had a pseudo-antiestablishment veneer.

Islamophobia is the Jewish Question of our day. It is not simply one reactionary idea among many, which all principled socialists oppose.

It plays a particular corrupting role across politics and society as a whole.

One effect is revealed when some people’s reaction to a viciously racist and Islamophobic cartoon is quickly to start talking about freedom of speech, as if the “freedom” to pump out that stuff in Europe were at all under attack from the states and governing political forces.

It is not under attack from them – those in power, those who hold immense power. At all. To call to rally against a threat which is not there is, whatever the intentions of those ringing the tocsin, to divert us from those threats which really are there.

Freedom is under threat in France. There is a state of emergency. Scores of Muslim places of worship are slated for closure by the state.

The courts have declared that boycotting Israeli goods is illegal. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been banned.

Roma have been rounded up and deported. Trade unionists who occupied their factory against job losses have had nine month jail sentences handed down. The already extensive repressive arms of the state are being further extended into the banlieues and cités.

Instead of systematic and serious attention given to this – and similar developments in other countries – liberal intellectual and political life in Europe tilts at windmills.

You get a flurry of panicked concern between two rounds of one of the very regular sets of elections in France. Then it is back to normal – the new normal of drowning refugees, anti-Muslim racism and a battery of repressive legislation in the name of national security.

In Germany, the entire political discourse has been dominated so far this year by the conjoining of migration and male sexual violence.

Yet the liberal European press is full of calls for us to discuss what has apparently been off-limits – when in Europe’s largest country people have been doing little but discuss something which is allegedly a taboo.

We are further meant to obsess about the artistic merits and integrity of those parading one of the foundational myths of the West in its modern period: Eastern men are after our women. All as if we were discussing something comparable to the British novelist EM Forster rather than something which is more like racist graffiti daubed on a mosque.

Of course, these ladies and gentlemen say they are opposed (and most genuinely are) to the fascist forces such as the 200 neo-Nazi skinheads who rampaged through an immigrant area in Leipzig this week.

But this high-minded, exquisitely balanced, liberal anti-fascism is not only not robust enough to stop the far-right; it consistently now concedes to the racist mythology and generates its own versions.

It has the whiff of those German liberal bourgeois who found the Nazi burning of books in the 1930s more abhorrent than the incineration of actual people a little later: “I know the Nuremberg race decrees are excessive, but have you heard the scandal that they have banned the poems of Heinrich Heine!”

And when you challenge their inconsistencies and evasions, out goes their defence of free speech and “satire”. In comes self righteous indignation.

So right now I’m drawing on what I learnt through experience growing up in working class areas of a port city in the north of England as a kid in the 1970s into the 1980s, before going to a university which is a byword for Western liberalism (we had Isaiah Berlin at All Souls, don’t you know).

It’s pleasing when bits of the liberal middle class are onside and it is a mistake to write them off as a whole. Not every petit bourgeois is a racist.

It was nice when various figures in the firmament of the great and good spoke out against the National Front in the 1970s.

But it was incidental to my life and to those of millions of others at the base of British society. It made a difference only in so far as it was hitched to a movement based on something far more profound.

What was fundamental was the outcome of the conflicting moods, struggles, shades of opinion, political forces, ideologies and all of that inside the working class and the organised expressions of the working class in movement.

That life is rougher. It is less highfalutin, but no less intelligent: anyone who thinks it anti-intellectual has never spent time with the kind of the men and women I met many of when growing up.

It is often more bitter and more confrontational. But it is capable of great things and it has – sometimes more open, often less – running through it a lived reality of solidarity. Of class solidarity, forged in antagonism and absent as a category in liberal thought.

It is gloriously unforgiving of hypocrisy – often through the mechanism of the most mordant satire and mockery. And it is now more multiracial than at any time before.

So in this Europe of extremes, I’m staking my lot – including my own personal sense of security, of hope against fear – on the proles.

I sure as hell would not be able to sleep soundly if I thought my fate rested upon the European liberal middle classes.

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