Englan’ is a bitch By William Bowles

1 June 2004

Perhaps it’s because England’s slaves were in the colonies or maybe it’s just the sheer length of time (centuries) but whatever the reason, the nature of racism in the UK has its own peculiarities that sets it apart. One could go into an extensive analysis of the history of the ideology of racism in English political life that extends back to the country’s first real colony, Ireland, over 800 years ago.

For those wishing to explore its roots, one book I recommend is “Black Athena” by Martin Bernal that explores the African roots of so-called European civilisation and how over the centuries the African connection was systematically removed in order to justify slavery and Empire. Indeed, so radical was Bernal’s book that he had immense trouble getting it published as it challenged the carefully constructed myths about the ancient Greek roots of European knowledge, showing that the Greeks themselves acknowledged the Egyptian and North African roots, not only of their ideas on mathematics, geometry and philosophy but also the African roots of all of their gods and hence their ideas about the origins of humanity.

And up until the late 19th century, what we now think of as the Arab world (or the Middle East, to give it it’s entirely erroneous name) was always considered an integral part of Africa, until that is, it became politically and ideologically necessary to split it off.

The ancient African connection to Europe is key to understanding the history of colonialism, slavery and the Empire and the current attempts at the rehabilitation of the idea of Empire – represented by revisionist historians such as Niall Ferguson (who I have referred to before in these columns) – is intimately connected to the policies of the Bush/Blair agenda and the role of the intellectual elite in formulating theories that justify the regurgitated policies of 19th century Anglo-American imperialism.

It’s worth noting the role of the academic elite in the suppression of ideas that challenge the hegemony of imperialism, especially in the context of ‘race’, for it was the academic ‘mafia’ that was instrumental in the suppression of “Black Athena’, in spite of Bernal’s credentials (he was a professor of linguistics at London University). Hence Ferguson’s rewrite of history merely carries on the ‘tradition’.

Ferguson’s latest book (”American Colossus”} is accompanied by a companion ‘vox pop’ propaganda piece on TV this week, designed to reach those not prepared to fork out for the book, as was his last rewrite of history that attempted to show that the British Empire was not as bad as all that (fitting in neatly with the concept of the ‘failed state’ etc that was also accompanied by a TV series).

Analysing the role of racism in maintaining capitalism is I believe, crucial to understanding the contradictions that are perhaps finally emerging with the increasing importance of the European Union. For those on the Left, these issues are taking on critical significance, for the decisions that are made in the remaining months of the Blair government will I believe decide the future course of this country.

At first view, the connection between the Blair government’s apparent vacillation over our role in Europe would seem to be about our ‘independence’ (a laughable concept given our complete subjugation to the US), something that is presented to us as preserving our ‘Britishness’ (a word that is interchangeable with ‘Englishness’), although what this concept consists of seems to be beyond any of its advocates’ ability to define (aside that is, from elevating mediocrity and a total lack of anything that remotely resembles ‘English culture’ to unimaginable heights). For more on the invention of British ‘culture’ I recommend Eric Hobsbaum’s “Age of Empire” that identifies the invention of what we know now as modern patriotism.

The problem for the Blair government centres on its ‘fortress Britain’ propaganda campaign and its demonisation of the ‘alien’, for its ‘unwanted’ side effect has been to bring out all the worst tendencies in English life – xenophobia and the centuries-old racist attitudes that enlisted working people in the aims and objectives of imperialism. So in spite of Blair’s stated aims of putting Britain at the “centre of Europe”, Blair’s racist propaganda has had the completely opposite effect.

Does this explain the apparent turnaround that Blair performed over the use of a referendum on closer ties with Europe? Whatever the reason, it has created a real dilemma for the Blair government and illustrates the divisive and ultimately self-defeating role of race/identity as a tactic of divide and rule politics. But what it has also done is reveal the fundamentally reactionary nature of working class politics in the UK, especially those entrenched in the traditional trade unions, who have resorted to a narrow ‘defend the interests’ of the British worker (what used to be called the ‘labour aristocracy’).

I suspect that I am pretty well alone on the Left in recognising the need for total integration with Europe, for in spite of recognising that the interests of the business elite and those of the political classes of Europe who represent big capital are obviously the driving force for the demand for greater integration, there are a number reasons why in the long term, total integration is in the interests of all working people, not only in Europe but ultimately those in the poor countries of the world.

  • First, as I’ve alluded to above, the expanded EU with a population of around 440 million people and mostly highly educated, represents a real competing economic force to the US imperium.
  • Second, joining the Euro zone is our best bet in breaking the power and hence control of the petro-dollar over the global economy and of propping up a bankrupt US. For in the end, without the rest of the world subsidising the vast US deficit, Bush’s government simply cannot afford to bankroll its military.
  • Third, over time, wage and working conditions will equalise across the 25 countries that make up the expanded EU, thus reducing competition between working classes and removing the rationale for fortress mentalities such as those utilised by ‘Thug’ Blunkett and his reactionary and backward-looking policies.
  • Fourth, the kinds of transnational guarantees of human and civil rights that (in theory) we have within the EU are an intrinsic component of the struggle for rights and whilst as ever, these will have to be fought for, once removed from the narrow and sectarian interests of the nation state, they represent a genuine internationalising of the struggle to rid ourselves of capitalism.
  • Fifth, the impending climate disaster is something that can only be dealt with globally and here, the expanded EU has a real potential to push for a rational environmental programme that notwithstanding the limitations of the EU’s position on the environment and all the contradictions of the various competing national interests (eg farming subsidies et al), nevertheless represents our best option for the future.
  • Sixth, and in the longer term, the coming together of nations that stretch from Europe to the edge of Asia, contains within it the potential to forge ties with the rest of Asia and eventually, Africa. Within this context it is imperative that the EU be expanded to include Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union.

Whilst I recognise that much of what I am advocating has to be set within a long term context and most important of all, means nothing without our involvement in the political process, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. For if the Blair government gets its way, we will throw in our lot with the US and retreat into a narrow and sectarian England, cutoff from Europe.

Put simply, will we continue to be no more than a mercenary force for US imperialism and the oil corporations, or will we join in the creation of some kind of ‘counter-balance’ to the US? This is the challenge that confronts the Left.

Will England continue to be some antidiluvian hangover from the Middle Ages, floating off the edge of Europe but tied by its essentially dominant white supremicist ie, Anglo-Saxon culture, to its offshoot across the ‘pond’?

This may at first sight, bear no immediate relationship to the issue of the future of capitalism, but consider that in both the US and the UK, the last remnants of the Anglo-Saxon empire cling tenaciously to power in spite of the vast changes that have taken place in both countries, not only to the demographics of the populations, but also by virtue of the vast changes wrought by the creation of a global production and distribution system.

Moreover, in the context of the political and economic transformation needed to rescue the planet, by now it should surely be obvious even to idiots like Blair or Bush, that major changes to national economies are impossible without considering the interconnectedness of virtually all national economies.

These are issues that the Left needs to be planning for now as it must be clear that given the current realities, at best we can wage a defensive struggle but without a plan for the future, we will continue to do no more than defend.

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