Missing the Politics of the Close Up

by Jon E. Wilson

History and politics that focus on possibilities for major social rupture miss the daily realities of class and place - the everyday conditions of social change.

First published: 17 March, 2015 | Category: Book Review, Class, History, Racism

Reading Satnam Virdee’s Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider feels like trying to breathe without air.  There is something fundamental missing.  Virdee’s account talks about working class self-definition in terms of economic interests, national identity and race.  But he misses place, and more broadly the practical ways in which working class life has been configured in relation to its particular environment.  It’s a symptom, I’d argue, of an approach which privileges revolution as the subject of radical politics.  Always looking for the forces which drive or block moments of massive global upheaval, Virdee’s text misses the everyday conditions of social change.

As Jon Lawrence suggests in his response to Virdee, ordinary English class sensibilities have long been rooted in the lives of particular cities, towns, factories or neighbourhoods.  To put that point into a practical perspective: Lawrence’s account chimes far better than Virdee’s with my experience as the (physically distant) member of a working class extended family which straddles the west and east midlands.  The history of this ‘white’ family over the last century cannot be told without the presence of Jewish, Asian, African and African-Caribbean bosses, co-workers, neighbours, lovers and husbands.  The difference of those ‘others’ has, much of the time, mattered in some way.  But precisely how has been a subject sometimes of argument and sometimes silent disagreement for my family members.  Sometimes non-whiteness has been a marker of not being-from-round-here.  Sometimes virulently opposing racism has been a sign of what respectable people from round here do.  The only way to make sense of the relationship between race and class is to trace the lives of my family members in relationship to the culture, institutions and economy of the towns that, even when they moved somewhere else, provided their primary sense of identity.

As historians including Lawrence have long argued, the attempt by political organisations to mobilise this sense of class-as-place into broader commitments and identities has always been a struggle.  That was true as much for the right as the left.  In his chapter on working class imperialism, Virdee mistakenly identifies elite propaganda intended to persuade reluctant British workers of the virtues of empire for popular imperial sentiment.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, serious imperialists were as likely to bemoan the parochialism of the English working class as their socialist rivals.  Virdee’s account of working class imperialism or racism simply isn’t empirically convincing.  The section ‘empire in the working class imaginary’ lists elite texts and institutions which intended to persuade working class audiences of the virtues of empire, but there is very little evidence of active working class involvement in imperial institutions.  The project of liberal imperialists and Fabians may very well have welded ‘working class uplift’ with empire.  But intentions don’t entail success.  

That isn’t, of course, to doubt the existence of popular nationalism, nor to deny particular instances of celebration for specific imperial acts.  It is instead to suggest that stories about the relationship between race/empire and class need to be inflected with other dimensions; it is also to question the assumption that the ‘nation’ was always imagined as an agglomeration of racially homogenous individuals sharply distinguished from their racial ‘other’.  In reality, .  a racialised nationalism existed uneasily alongside a patriotism that saw the country as the agglomeration of localities and local identities – a patchwork of parochialisms, each of which had their own diverse characteristics.  In that context, empire itself could mean different things.  Sometimes is was completely absent, at other times simply an extension of parochialism across the seas, as civic centres in Australia, Canada, and sometimes even India, could be conjoined and agglomerated in England.

In his response, Jon Lawrence addresses the historical deficiencies of Virdee’s account far better than I could.  I’d add only one point.  Virdee’s story claims to be about the relationship between national and internationalist politics in Britain.  But in reality, the concrete stories it tells are drawn from two port cities whose experiences are peculiar, Glasgow and London, and particularly the latter.  Here in London perhaps, where empire was more of an issue, and where scale and quicker migration enabled political alliances to be far looser, segregation and then the black or Asian ‘racialised outsider’ had a more important role than elsewhere.  But London’s experience can’t be read onto the rest of the UK.

These historical disagreements with Virdee lead to differences about both methodology and political strategy, and it is to those that I’d like to dwell on for the rest of this review.  To me, Virdee’s arguments reflect a broader failure of the left to think about what’s closest to hand, and a reluctance to make everyday forms of conduct and organisation questions of political argument and struggle.  The book is concerned with highly abstract questions about culture and identity; with questions like the way people imagined race and the nation, and their consent or otherwise to a social order seen as fixed and oppressive.  It can’t be presumed these kinds of questions significantly structure peoples’ thoughts most of the time. I’d argue they didn’t, and Virdee offers no evidence to the contrary.  As a result, there is very little discussion of what real-life conflict was actually about.

This failure to consider what’s closest to hand seems to me to be rooted in a normative commitment to a distant, transformative moment of social change: to a kind of revolutionary epistemology, in other words.  Virdee’s text is dominated by a Gramscian problematic, most importantly by a concern to understand the absence of seismic social change and instead explain why the social order of Britain wasn’t radically transformed.  Such an absence is explained with the term ‘hegemony’.  Virdee explains the failure of revolution with reference to the spread of imperialist and racist norms through the inter-relation of culture, education and politics.  Of course, both Gramsci and Virdee reject teleological stories about class emancipation; both see radical social change as something which needs to be crafted, in culture as much as political organisation.  But the Gramscian problematic forces Virdee to be always looking on beyond immediate circumstances to the possibility of major social change.  That means the book continually forgets to ask how people were getting on in a practical everyday sense.  Instead, it asks whether a particular political act led them to support or challenge a social order conceived at a far larger, more abstract scale.  

The account leaves no room for the everyday acts of violence and conviviality which constitute much of the history of race and racism in Britain.  Race, Class and the Racialised Outsider privileges campaigns led by a small group of ‘socialist internationalists’, who were highly conscious of both race and class.  As a result it has no room for small-scale acts of resistance and negotiation coming from individuals more concerned to confront humiliating treatment than to challenge the system.  For example, Virdee places a lot of weight on a single ‘policy’ change caused by the actions of a small class of black and Asian local government leaders, in creating an explicitly anti-racist hiring policy.  Recognising the significance of this moment is an important insight.  But surely it occurred alongside other processes within different realms of life.  The book pays little attention to more complex social processes which gave those anti-racist acts greater chances of success in particular contexts; a post-1960s culture which privileged individual voice and agency more emphatically; a political system in which a few significant sites relied on black and Asian votes; an economy which fetishized an idea of consumer sovereignty that was race blind.  Many of these are processes which the left can’t celebrate as emphatically as Virdee does the role of black and Asian socialist internationalists.  But a more morally ambivalent account of social change is sometimes the necessary cost of historical accuracy, and thus political efficacy.

With its search for the large-scale conditions of ruptural social change, Virdee's account seems peculiarly unsuited for our present-day political environment.  British politics is structured around official anti-racism (even from UKIP) alongside countless contexts in which race remains (and perhaps is newly) central to the assertion of local hierarchies.  I don’t think this new racism is best challenged by ‘outsider’ politics because the overall discourse – publicly at least –is not hostile.  We need to reshape social practice, not just contest racist arguments.  That means, above all, strengthening institutions where people from different backgrounds have a voice and can collectively forge some kind of common life.  Some of the most important anti-racist work in the last few years has been done in campaigns that haven’t had race as their primary focus, which for example have highlighted and transformed the racially inflected indignity of low paid work.

Dr. Jon Wilson is Senior Lecturer in History at King's College London.  His book on the beginnings of colonial rule in Bengal, The Domination of Strangers, was published in 2008.

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.

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