Nadine El-Enany and Sarah Keenan: Be Careful When You Fight Liberals, Lest You Become One

Mine worker in the Belgian Congo
Mine worker in the Belgian Congo

The analytical aftermath of the Brexit and Trump victories has demonstrated the absence of an understanding of the racist nature of capitalism in much of the left, with some notable exceptions. While much time and energy has been dedicated to the development of structural understandings of class, race has not been deemed to merit the same importance. The work of race activists and scholars is far too often ignored or tokenised by dominant voices on the left.

This failure to study the production and effects of racism means that many are struggling to understand rising racist nationalism and fascism, and to determine effective strategies to confront them. Too many on the left have been quick to blame ‘identity politics’ for the left’s failure to mobilise the “white working class” in revolting against neoliberalism. This analysis is indicative of a profound failure to grasp the racial origins and workings of capitalism, and results in the reproduction of the liberal structures of oppression that these leftists seek to critique.

In a number of recent pieces Giles Fraser, a well-known Leftist priest and commentator, who came to prominence after he resigned from his position at St Paul’s Cathedral in protest at the eviction of Occupy demonstrators from the site in 2012, has urged readers to understand Brexit and the rise of Trump as warnings against the perils of focussing on ‘diversity’ rather than economic inequality. On this reading, ‘diversity’ is the opening up of a white British state to non-white people (overwhelmingly migrants from former British colonies), a process that has inadvertently impoverished white people and destroyed their communities. While seemingly coming from an ideological commitment to material equality and an ethical society, this reading is based on a dangerously flawed understanding of how capitalism and racism work.

The foundations of modern British and American capitalism are chattel slavery and the violent en-masse theft of land and resources through colonialism. These white supremacist state practices continue to define capitalist economics today: firstly through the direct inheritance of the capital accumulated during the era of slavery and colonialism, and secondly, through the continued exploitation of peoples who were economically and physically dispossessed through slavery and colonialism. Fraser argues that ‘the logic of capitalism is entirely non-discriminatory’, but this is true only if you view capitalist logic through a liberal lens of formal equality. Yes, workers can technically be anyone (the formal equality of the labour market making it ‘non-discriminatory’), but in reality the workers who are most attractive to employers in a capitalist system are those whose labour is the most easily exploitable: workers without any form of capital, who will accept less than the minimum wage in order to survive, a result of structural inequality.

In Britain and the US today these workers are most likely to be migrants from former colonies and the descendants of slaves. The logic of capitalism is and always has been racial because profits can be maximised through the exploitation of dispossessed populations, thus creating an incentive to keep populations continually dispossessed. Hence today the most impoverished people in Britain and the USA are racialised people. Liberal ideals of ‘the common good’ and of non-discrimination in the legal sense (the prohibition on openly denying someone a position because of their race) cloak the racist reality of capitalism in a thin veneer of formal equality.

There is an urgent need to correct this widespread ignorance and misunderstanding about the relationship between racism and capitalism. Fraser argues that it is ‘elite liberals’ who have focussed too much on diversity and failed to fight for the (white) poor. Yet, in equating diversity with formal equality and failing to grasp the necessarily anti-capitalist nature of anti-racist struggle, Fraser adopts the same reasoning as elite liberal commentators, such as Mark Lilla and Simon Jenkins, who are similarly keen to read the rise of fascism as the fault of divisive ‘identity politics’.

Though these leftist ‘anti-liberal’ arguments pose themselves as critiques of liberal orthodoxy, they replicate liberals’ failure to understand the racial underpinnings of capitalism and thus end up amounting to a similarly racist and skewed interpretation of the political present. While leftists, liberals and the right might intend different meanings by criticising diversity/‘identity politics’, it is the racist effects, not the intentions behind discourse that matters. Focussing on what those who critique ‘identity politics’ mean is unhelpful because this reduces racism to questions of individual prejudice, and re-directs attention away from those harmed by racism onto the (mainly white) commentators who perceive their political goals as thwarted by ‘identity politics’.





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