Twin errors on left in dealing with racism – ignoring class or race


(Third and final part of series. See Part 1 here and Part 2 Here)

Racism, chauvinism, bigotry, anti-immigrant demagogy, all remain tools to be used by some people – especially those on the right or far right of the political spectrum – to deflect people away from the real cause of the social ills that exist in society. This is especially true when so-called centre-left governments have had a period in office and failed to fix the grotesque inequality that exists or implement measures that can overcome the social and economic crisis that faces working people today.

These crises appear to be worsening for working people over recent decades. The global recessions have become more severe whilst the recoveries are significantly weaker. Whole regions in advanced capitalist countries have become industrial wastelands. We seem to be in a declining stage of capitalism’s existence.

Many working class families are desperate. A generation of young people is facing a future without hope. Anger is growing.

Political forces to protect the billionaire class that controls our societies are desperate to prevent that anger being directed at them. Yet it is precisely their policies that have lead to this dead end.

We have seen this in Europe with a proliferation of far-right parties gaining ground. Trumps’ presidential bid in the US also used language filled with xenophobia, racism, misogyny and hate.

These radical right wing political views would not get a hearing if the Centre-Left had been able to address the social crises we face.

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Capitalism can’t deliver a fair or equal society

If everyone has a job then you can’t blame the immigrant. If everyone had access to quality public transport, education, or health care then the argument that someone -(Maori, refugee, migrant, beneficiary, “undeserving” poor, Muslim,  Catholic, Jew – pick one to look down on and blame) has access to these things when you or your family cannot get access will find no echo. These arguments can only seem to have weight because capitalism can’t deliver a fair and equal society and those who manage capitalism without challenging its direction can only manage its decline.

The liberal Black US president Obama oversaw one of the greatest destruction of black wealth in US history as a consequence of the 2007-2009 Great Recession and its associated housing loan crisis. At the same time, he rescued the plutocrats that owned and controlled the banks and other major corporations that created the financial crisis in the first place with $14 trillion in public money! From his class perspective, he could do little else.

The liberal wing of establishment politics in the advanced capitalist countries adopts policies that give lip service to opposing racism and other forms of discrimination by introducing measures that at best treat symptoms rather than causes. Often these are associated with symbolic gestures of acknowledgement rather than going to the root of the problem.

Usually, this involves treating racism as an individual failure to be corrected by behavioural control rather than an entrenched system of wealth and power with institutionalised forms of discrimination and inequality backed up by police and military violence when necessary.

The Human Rights Commission in New Zealand is almost all about correcting individual behaviour rather than challenging institutionalised discrimination by the state or big business. The wealthy and powerful in society are generally immune from serious scrutiny. Their “behaviour” has a real impact on people’s lives because they have the power and wealth that can be used to discriminate and oppress in a meaningful way.

The flip side of this is to attempt to convince Maori and other oppressed groups to see their “failure” as an individual one that can be “fixed” if you get a “better education” and “work harder”. Funding is made available to corporate-minded Maori to supply the “training” and “motivation” that is seen to be lacking.


“Consulting” Maori on how to oppress them

In New Zealand we get the awful spectacle of  the government or private corporations happily “consulting” Maori – with appropriate fees for the service received – on the building of new prisons, for example, rather than adopt measures needed to close down the disgraceful racist system of incarceration where half the prison population is Maori despite being just 15% of New Zealand’s population. This is actually a worse ratio than that of the US proportionately. Blacks make up 13 percent of the US population and 35% of the prison population. But the US imprisons a larger percentage in absolute terms.

The right-wing uses these “tokenist” measures of the liberals to try to paint the Left as being “politically correct” social engineers trying to change the behaviour of people rather than doing anything of substance. Remember the manufactured reaction against plans under the last Labour government to force everyone to use more eco-friendly light bulbs. I don’t believe this idea would have been a problem if the bulbs were made significantly cheaper and readily available – and their introduction was part of a meaningful programme to combat climate change that we had discussed and agreed to. As it was, it was simply a token measure that threatened to make life more expensive and have no meaningful effect when big business continued to be given free reign to pollute and warm the globe.

The right, of course, has its own form of political correctness – a “patriotic”, nationalistic, pro-war, pro-cop, anti-immigrant and racist narrative they try to force on society through their ownership and control of almost all media.

A working class movement that wants to go to the root of the problem needs to put forward a political programme that challenged all forms of oppression and inequality.


Need to confront institutionalised racism

Running away from the debate needed of how to confront institutionalised racism in all its forms will not help our class get a government willing to make the radical changes needed to overcome capitalism and its crises. The more the right is successful in driving wedges between us the less likely we are able to unite and fight together. We need to do that through our unions, parties and other social institutions outside of parliament as well as through electing members to parliament to represent those views.

That is why working class leaders should help lead the struggle against all forms or discrimination and oppression. We have a duty to help educate the most backwards layers of our class what their genuine interests are.

That does not mean that there are no real material interests that are being used to promote the divisions in the class. Men on average still do less housework than women. As an old white guy, I know I don’t have to prepay for petrol at the garage. I probably have a better chance of getting a flat than a refugee. Two hundred years ago there was a genuine material difference between being whipped as a black slave and not being whipped if you were an Irish indentured servant in the North American colonies.

But I do myself a disservice allowing these “privileges” to blind me in ignorance and unable to see that this capitalist society is holding me and all working people down. The reality I need to wake up to and see is that we live in a class-divided society where ownership or not of productive wealth is the fundamental determinant of who actually controls the society. I must open my eyes to the truth of why poverty is growing, why housing is unaffordable, why unemployment remains a social blight, why health care is being priced or rationed out of existence for many. That fact that access to many of these necessities of life is a bit harder for someone else does not actually make my access fair or reasonable.

Some on the centre-left today, as reflected in the campaign of Hillary Clinton for US President, have started to rely solely on the fact they are not a misogynist, racist, bigoted movement to justify people voting for them. This is because they have no answers on the big economic and social questions. In the face of a strong campaign from a Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a “democratic socialist”, the Clinton campaign started attacking his more left-wing economic programme by claiming that adopting these measures would not end racism or sexism.

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said, kicking off a long, interactive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon.

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will—would that end racism?”

“No!” the audience yelled back.

Clinton continued to list scenarios, asking: “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

The problem with Clinton’s approach is two-fold. Firstly it alienates working-class voters for whom economic issues are very important by seeming to dismiss their concerns.


A working class programme for emancipation

Secondly, a strong socialist economic programme is essential to ending racism, sexism and anti-immigrant prejudices. Attacking economic inequality, providing jobs for all, lifting the minimum wage significantly, providing free public health care and education, will all benefit those at the bottom disproportionately. These measures are actually a necessary part of ending racism and inequality in general. But they are not enough. We also need affirmative action in many jobs and professions. We need an end to institutionalised racism in the police and justice systems. Migrant workers must have full legal employment protections. We need to recognise the rights of indigenous peoples to their land and languages.

These policies are all part of a working class programme for emancipation.

Australian journalist John Pilger ripped the Clinton campaign stance apart.

Today, false symbolism is all. “Identity’”is all. In 2016, Hillary Clinton stigmatised millions of voters as ‘” basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it’” Her abuse was handed out at an LGBT rally as part of her cynical campaign to win over minorities by abusing a white mostly working-class majority. Divide and rule, this is called; or identity politics in which race and gender conceal class, and allow the waging of class war.  Trump understood this.

Some commentators like James Moore who writes for the Liberation blogsite and claims to be left wing argue in a manner that is the opposite of Clinton but equally wrong and damaging. In New Zealand, Moore claims, because capitalism can accommodate a few Maori at the top table then the fight against racism is a diversion from the real struggle that is needed against social inequality. He also argues that capitalism can adapt to no longer need racism as a tool at all.

This is a fundamentally wrong approach. Capitalists have a very material interest in maintaining racial and other inequalities. They are able to profit directly from the lower wages they are able to pay as a consequence of all forms of discrimination. All wage systems are built from the bottom up so pushing one section of the class down drags us all down.


Divide and Rule is a basic tenet of capitalism

Capitalism will also never abandon methods that have proved so successful and profitable for so long in imposing divisions among working people. “Divide and Rule” is a basic tenant of a system of exploitation that the 1% want to protect at all costs. As a consequence, institutional racism exists and will continue to exist so long as it serves capitalism’s interests.

Treating racism as only a byproduct of economic inequality ignores the fact that racism has an independent social force in society that imposes a brutal regime of oppression and exploitation. Trying to downplay the importance of this social reality is to be completely ignorant of the lived reality working people face who are Maori and Pacifica in this country.

Of course, the struggle against racism intersects again and again with that against economic inequality, but it is also a response to the often brutal forms of marginalisation, control and oppression that are imposed by a racist social and economic system. It includes an education system that pushes out generation after generation of Maori and Pacifica children. It includes racial profiling, police violence and mass incarceration. Racial bias applies at every step of the criminal justice system. It includes the being excluded from home ownsership and the creation of housing segregation along the lines of race as well as class. It includes understanding why Maori suffer twice the rate of coronary heart disease as the rest of the population but receive half the rate of surgical interventions.

These “left” commentators will never understand the daily abuse and humiliation inflicted by racist bosses, landlords, state bureaucrats, police and the courts. And they will never understand why that reality can be a powerful motivator to join the struggle for freedom and social liberation that will take them on a road that leads way beyond the fight against racism alone.  

That is also why Maori, Pacifica and other oppressed groups are often more class conscious than workers who are Pakeha and therefore more ready to join unions, more experienced in social struggles, and therefore more able to help lead the rest of their class in the fights that are needed. That truth we have learnt day in and day out organising and recruiting at Unite Union.

Even worse, this form of fake “leftism” feeds the racist and class prejudice in society that wants us to blame anyone being at the bottom of the heap on their own individual failures not to be seen as victims of a social system. Their “failure” is a personal, not social failure. After all, if some Maori can make it and capitalism is supposedly evolving in a non-racist manner then they can only blame themselves for their second class status.

Lecturing Maori to forget their “identity” as Maori in favour of a broader social struggle against inequality is using the language of class to subordinate and disempower Maori and their struggle against racist oppression. Working people who are Maori, because of their history of struggle against both racist oppression and class exploitation, have played a dynamic and often leading role in the broader struggle. This is a strength not a weakness of the class struggle in this country.

The stronger the fight by Maori and other oppressed groups for their rights the more ignorance and predjudice declines. Periods when the broader class struggle is on the rise also sees a decline of racist and other predjudices in the working class. No meaningful advance for Maori or working people generally is possible if one tries to subordinate one struggle to the other.


A socialist perspective

Socialist leaders of the working class struggle have actually been advancing this viewpoint since the days of the founders of modern socialism Karl Marx and Frederich Engles in the 19th century.

Karl Marx drafted resolutions for the International Working Men’s Association in support of the Irish struggle for independence. He thought the advance of this struggle was vital to liberating English workers from their backwards attachment to their own rulers. He also drew parallels with the situation of workers in the United States in relation to blacks there. In a letter to some comrades on April 9, 1870, Marx commented:

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the ‘niggers’ in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.

The letter powerfully explains the roots of all divisions as being the economic competition between workers that is exploited by the ruling class. That is reinforced by the creation of a racist belief that the white (or “English”) worker is the member of a ruling nation. The way forward for Marx wasn’t to adapt to this prejudice and pretend it didn’t exist but it was to confront it openly and powerfully and demand that working class leaders campaign for Irish emancipation and against slavery. Only on that road would they find the way to their own liberation.

Our duty remains the same today. By following that example we will find our way to the fighting unity that will be necessary to overthrow the class of capitalist leeches that exploits, and oppresses us all – even if not equally.