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Does capitalism still have to rely on racism?  

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Why is it that even though the Tories have become more diverse their racist policies still remain? Yuri Prasad explains how racism is still a useful tactic for those in power across the world to divide those who could rise against it
Issue 2829
Stand up to racism and Black lives matter demonstration demanding justice for Chris Kaba in central London. racism capitalism Sunak Tories

The state doesn’t know what to do with rising rage against racism (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Does the ascent of Rishi Sunak to prime minister mean that capitalism’s dependence on racism is weakening? Certainly that’s what the right wants us to believe. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith last week said that Sunak’s rise was evidence that Britain’s establishment now only judged people on merit, not skin colour.

“We are open to ­diversity,” he said. “When people come here, they can be anything they want to be on dint of their capability and skills.” Such fantasies of a ­“colour-blind” system are easily blown apart. On almost every index of quality of life, black and Asian people are found near the bottom.

No wonder then that some 50 percent of all Bangladeshis and 46 percent of Pakistanis are in the most deprived fifth of the population, ­according to the Institute of Health Equity. That’s compared to 20 percent of all white British people. And nowhere is racism more clear than when its effect on health is analysed.

The government’s own Race Disparity Audit found that black women are the group most likely to have experienced a common mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression.  Black men are the group most likely to have experienced a psychotic disorder.

Far from a meritocracy, we have a system with racial ­discrimination in its DNA, which actively damages the lives of people from an ethnic ­minority background. Few of those suffering the consequences believe the new government, no matter the skin complexion of its ministers, will do anything about that.

Instead, what the elevation of black Tories really tells us is that the political system has learned that incorporating a thin layer of non-whites into its ranks has advantages. Today, faced with a widespread revulsion at institutional racism, the presence of black people in high office can give cover to the system and create the illusion of change.

And, a government that is about to embark on a viciously racist agenda can employ its black and Asian ­frontbenchers to help deflect claims of ­discrimination. This also can work to confuse some of the opposition.

It’s also a backhanded acknowledgement that Britain has changed dramatically in the more than 40 years since Tory leader Margaret Thatcher talked of Britain being “swamped by people of an alien culture”. Anti-racist struggles have since challenged and changed popular attitudes to race in a way the establishment still finds hard to deal with.

Yet, no matter how well ­disguised, racism continues to perform a series of vital functions for capitalism. The system is based on the exploitation of the vast ­majority by a tiny elite.  That makes it both extremely unequal, and vulnerable to attack from below.  It would be impossible to maintain capitalism without a strategy of divide and rule employed by those at the top.

That’s something that the radical left sociologist WEB DuBois recognised in his ­studies of the US after slavery.  He wanted to know why the unity between poor whites and poor blacks died out, despite briefly flourishing after the American Civil War. DuBois saw the hand of the ruling class at work.

He wrote, “The theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept  so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.”

In other words, racism is a deliberate construction, and its purpose is to stop workers from coming together to fight for a better share of the world. The divisive ideology offers white workers an alternative way of advance other than class struggle. 

It says they should see ­themselves, and their masters, as members of an elite club.  And that belonging ought to entitle them to better treatment than those shut outside of it. You can see the chauvinistic mindset at work every time you hear the demand for “British jobs for British workers”, or for Britons to be at the head of the queue for housing and healthcare.

It says whites should have a preference by virtue of ­nationality and skin colour because they “belong”. That’s why socialists see racism as a cancer eating away at the united movement we need. Racial ideology plays a crucial role at a structural level too.  Take immigration controls, for example.  They don’t stop people from coming to Britain by “illegal” means, but they do force a division upon workers in Britain.

Illegal workers are forced to labour under the radar. For them, the minimum wage, employment protection and health and safety laws don’t apply, and union organising is rare. And because wages are kept low, key sectors of the economy, such as garment manufacturing and small scale construction, depend on them to make their profits.

And it’s not just illegal migrants that suffer as a result. For example, a number of hospital bosses spent last week wrongly telling overseas nurses that their work visas and right to stay in Britain would be invalid if they joined strikes over pay.

The vulnerability of even fully legal overseas health workers is reinforced by the existence of racist immigration laws.  And that vulnerability can in turn be used to undermine action by all health workers.

It’s one of many examples of how racism runs counter to the interests of all working class people—black and white, migrant and non-migrant. Another reason why ­capitalism depends on racism is the way it serves imperialism. Capitalist states are bound together in a system of intense economic and strategic rivalry that inevitably spills over into wars. 

With conflict comes the need to vilify the enemy and to ­present your nation’s history and aspirations as pure. Racism helps make the ­barbarity of war more palatable by demonising the enemy, or rendering it as a barbaric threat. 

It also allows countries such as Britain to present themselves as morally and intellectually superior. The recent wars of conquest in the Middle East and Asia have made this point well.  The West presented the Iraq War as a “clash of civilisations” with Muslims in particular,  cast as “backward” and capable of any crime against humanity.

The West, by contrast, was held up as the embodiment of Enlightenment values of ­freedom and rights. The constant dripping of racism into public life made such an interpretation possible. Racism’s usefulness is the reason why the right are so fiercely determined to hold on to notions of the British Empire being benign. 

And that’s why the state could now jail you for years if you damage one of its statues.  But there is nothing unique about Britain and the rest of the West when it comes to racism. Organised prejudice and ­discrimination exists in all capitalist societies.

In countries as varied as China, South Africa and India we can see the way minorities are racialised and targeted as an “enemy within”. In China, Uyghur Muslims are characterised as a race apart and subject to vicious oppression—including forced labour camps. 

There they face “re-education” classes designed to rob them of their ethnic identity. In South Africa, those from Zimbabwe and beyond seeking work across the border are met with violence and abuse that has been encouraged by the government. 

The protagonists see the migrants as backward and unskilled, and so a threat to the little that South African workers have. United Nations researchers noted recently that even those migrants that have citizenship are often told they are “too black to be South African”. Meanwhile, in India the right argues that the hundreds of millions of Muslims there are a separate race.

Muslims are intrinsically anti-Indian, they say, and that intermarriage between them and Hindus should be outlawed. Every day brings a new report of Indian Muslims being beaten, tortured or killed. So while racism’s targets are different in each country, capitalism’s need for racial division is present in all.

Those that truly want an end to this abhorrence need to look beyond changing the skin colour of those at the top of the system. Instead, they should turn their fire on capitalism—and all those that continue to prop it up.

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