Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Race, the working class, and the economic downturn

Trevor Phillips, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Comission, is something of a hate figure to the right. In their perception, he is the mouthpiece for everything that is wrong with liberal, multicultural Britain and his words are not to be trusted. Except, of course, when he appears to affirm their point of view. Hence the emphasis given by the Daily Mail to his pronouncement that the white working class will need "the sort of special measures we've previously targeted at ethnic minorities" to help them find and keep jobs through the economic downturn.

Of course, Phillips has insisted that the "name of the game is to tackle inequality," which has ever been his stated goal, and that there is no room for "racial special pleading," and the sentiment is indeed affable, but this will not stop groups such as the BNP from proclaiming their cause vindicated. That Phillips' words "prove" that "the real victims of racism are whites." This is not true, of course; to believe that whites suffering more than blacks and Asians automatically means that blacks and Asians are the perpetrators or beneficients of such suffering (or vice-versa, of course) is facile and ignorant. However, Phillips was partially correct in what he said.

For a very long time, the debate on race and equality in the UK has been dominated by an overly-simplistic "us or them" mentality which has stifled effective action where inequality and discrimination genuinely exist. There was, until the murder of Kriss Donald in 2004, a widely-held but rarely-vocalised perception that racism in the UK didn't affect white people. Meanwhile, the equally false perception that racism against non-whites is over-exaggerated by "pro-multi-cultural Establishment institutions" has spread so that it is no longer limited to BNP supporters.

The simple fact is that racism does affect people of all ethnicities, including the majority, and that anti-racism initiatives that focus on or leave out any specific group will increase resentment and tension. This is precisely the problem, because it is not just concrete acts such as murder but also perceptions (including false ones) that damage race relations, especially in times of economic hardship. Phillips was correct in the political consequences of this:
We know what the political consequences are because we have seen it on the Continent. If we ignore the fact some white groups are going to be disadvantaged we will end up with the same kind of conflicts we have seen in Austria, Belgium and now Holland, where the anti-immigrant racist Right-wing parties get a big boost.
So, how do we proceed? Well, I don't believe that the method advocated - positive discrimination - should be pressed on with. Positive discrimination towards any group, and equally the perception of such, are part of the reason that, whilst we have managed to increase equality of opportunity for non-whites, we have not buried the issue of racial resentment and division. We also have to be very careful here, as such measures actually risk increasing the perception that whites are worse off because of their skin colour and the hatred and far-right sentiment that flows from it.

The vast majority of our current problems are economic ones, but both the establishment and the far-right - for differing reasons - have made sure that the issues of class and race have become intertwined. That this is, ultimately, a class issue shouldn't simply be dismissed out of hand. After all, we never divide "the upper classes" or "the middle class" by racial terms, but it has become an expected part of political parlance to speak of "the white working class" and "the black working class." The reasons should not need spelling out.

For the far-right, it is because their rhetoric is grounded in race, and this obfuscation helps them to steal the working-class vote from the left without having to speak of class issues they really aren't interested in. For the ruling parties, meanwhile, the reason is simple; it is their economic policies, and their pandering to the demands of the business lobby, that have wrought both the current crisis and the ongoing hardship of the working classes. But, as Phil Woolas' remarks over immigration have shown, it is easy to push the blame for our economic problems across racial boundaries. Immigrants and non-whites are as much victims of the economic policies of the ruling classes as the rest of us, but if we are seeing the world in racial terms then we cannot as easily discern this. This is the conflict and resentment that so worries Phillips and which gives cause for hope to the far-right.

What we need, then, is to tackle this issue so that the scenarios being played out in Austria, Holland, Italy and elsewhere do not migrate here. But we cannot do so by claiming their is no problem at all, nor by using language uncomfortably close to that of the far-right, as Phillips has risked doing. What we need is an open and honest debate, where we can acknowledge the failings of multiculturalist policy without it being seen - falsely - as a vindication of nationalism, and to foster a realisation that dividing the working class along ethnic lines is counterproductive as we are crushed by the economic hierarchy and the damage it has wrought.

However, as long as the debate is dominated by those with an interest in such division, for whatever reason, you can safely bet that this will not happen.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Ignore the right-wing press, downgrading was working

The downgrading of cannabis from Class B to Class C has resulted in a fall in usage of the drug amongst all age groups, a drop in strength of most strains of the drug, and a decline in the number of arrests for using the drug, freeing police to concentrate on more serious matters. This is strong evidence that the downgrading policy, initiated in 2004, is working.

Despite this, however, and in the wake of a string of scare stories by the Daily Mail linking cannabis use to mental illness, murder, and even Satanism, the government has rejected its succesful policy and reclassified the drug as a Class B. This announcement was followed by the warning of "new penalties" when the drug is upgraded in January., from Home Secretary Jaqui Smith:
While cannabis has always been illegal, reclassifying it to a class B drug reinforces our message to everyone that it is harmful and should not be taken. Fewer people are taking cannabis, but it is crucial that this trend continues. I am extremely concerned about the use of stronger strains of cannabis, such as skunk, and the harm they can cause to mental health.
One has to wonder about Smith's motives here. If she indeed desires that "this trend continues" of reduced cannabis use, then why go against the policy behind responsible for the trend in the first place? And how can she be "concerned about the use of stronger strains of cannabis" and mental health issues when the evidence shows the strength of most strains is decreasing and the actual result of the study that the Mail hailed as "proof" of a link to psychosis was ambiguous at best? More importantly, on what grounds can she justify pandering to the conservative demagoguery of the Tabloid media when it has been shown, notably by the UK Drug Report 2001, that the current policies, which Smith is dragging us back to by "toughening up our enforcement response" are failing miserably. But her "harder line on enforcement," as with the entire policy of the War on Drugs, will only serve to make things worse.

Aside from defying the basic libertarian principle that people should be free to do as they will, whether smart or foolish, as long as they are not causing harm to others (an argument that the right-wing press can, rightly, apply in relation to the far more harmful pastime of smoking tobacco) there is also the fact that "Drug War" policies only exacerbate the problems. This has been noted numerous times in reports and studies showing that such policies are a faliure, do nothing to stem the supply for narcotics, and serve only to hand the trade over to organised crime.

And, whether cannabis or cocaine, these same results will always ensue as long as nations put aside all the evidence pointing to the need for legalisation, or at least decriminalisation and regulation, for fear of upsetting the reactionaries in the media.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Secularism and free speech will be more effective than any "extremism toolkit"

On Wednesday, it was announced that the government has created a "toolkit" to help schools "contribute to the prevention of violent extremism." According to Schools Secretary Ed Balls, the toolkit was drawn up as a response to "feedback from teachers and others" that they need "more practical advice on how to support vulnerable pupils" and will help them to play a "key role" in tackling extremist influences.

Though I detest the word "radicalised," as it implicitly connects radicalism (seeking drastic change at a grassroots level) with extremism, there is a concerted threat of children being groomed by terrorist groups. The story in The Times on the same day as the toolkit was announced that "schoolchildren as young as 13 are being “groomed” for terrorism by Islamic extremists in the heartland of the 7/7 suicide bombers" is an illustration of this. However, one has to wonder if this new measure really presents a serious solution to the problem.

As so often with government policies, particularly education, the entirely wrong conclusion is drawn from what - on the face of it appears to be a largely accurate analysis of the situation. Balls is right that groups grooming children with "extremism and hate- or race-based prejudice" are "causing alienation and disaffection amongst young people" and that in response we need to "empower our young people" through "challenge and debate." Likewise, the assertion by Alan Jones, a headteacher supporting the measure, that "bringing things into the open" and discussing controversial issues freely "improv[es] the safety of all our children" is correct. However, whatever its intent, the toolkit does exactly the opposite, especially when run in tandem with pre-existing government policy.

If we really want an open debate on issues such as this, what we need to foster is a culture of free speech in schools, in much the same way as we need a guarantee of the right to free speech without limits in wider society. However, the heavily structured methodology of the toolkit, "through programmes such as Seal (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) in primary schools and citizenship in secondary schools," with Ofsted inspecting "schools on their duty to promote community cohesion" and a very specific agenda at its heart makes the system far too rigid for truly free speech to prosper. This will serve only to make children feel that the debate is being directed a specific way and to turn them off the principles being promoted.

As well as this, the Government's continued support for faith-based schooling, essentially segregating children based on the religious beliefs of their parents, fundamentally undermines the possibility of any serious dialogue across faith divides.

If we are serious, then, about encouraging "engagement with the community, wider society and politics" and "an ability to discuss controversial issues without resort to polarised rhetoric" amongst our children, one thing is clear. We need to stop trying to fit this goal into a multicultural agenda that seeks to "accommodate different races, religions and ideals" as though they are intrinsically separate or incompatible and deserving of preservation from any external influence at all. We need to allow for a more secular, polycultural society and education system where those of different faiths and cultures are not segregated and balkanised but allowed to interact and to engage in open dialogue where each can have a positive influence on the other and extremist tendencies and irrational doctrines can be challenged without the need for overweaning "respect" and the fear of causing "offence."

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The stark faliure of the free market

The free market, first envisioned by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations and later spread across the world with the same militarism and missionary zeal that made Christianity so prominent, is an empty and unworkable ideal. Recent events have demonstrated aptly that, far from the Smithian vision of the market as the solution to poverty, inequality, and tyranny, it is - as Mikhail Bakunin observed so long ago - the vessel of "privilege and injustice." More than that, it has brought us to the brink of an economic meltdown on the scale of the Great Depression.

In principle, free of government intervention and regulation, the market is self-regulating. The self-interest of the proprietor is turned in favour of the common good by what Smith called the "invisible hand" of competition and consumer demand, somewhat like economic natural selection. Competition for labour ensures fair wages. Competition for custom and product demand ensures fair prices. And unsound or unethical business practices are eradicated, since those businesses that act recklessly and irresponsibly for short-term gain ultimately go under whilst those with foresight and rigorous self-discipline will prosper.

This is nothing short of wishful thinking, the product not of proven strategy but of a mythology that justifies greed. The need for trading standards regulations to protect consumers from things such as price fixing by "the butcher, the brewer or the baker" and other industries from whom "we expect our dinner" by "their own self interest" belies the very idea that competition ensures fair prices. Revelations of exploited labour, whether migrants here in the west or impoverished peoples in third-world sweatshops, not to mention the disingenuous practice of moving factories away when a country gains labour protection laws and the right to organise, utterly destroy the notion that "the demand for men" regulates wages in the same way as demand "for any other commodity" so that it "naturally increases" with "the increase of national wealth."

The notion of "survival of the fittest" - Herbert Spencer's infamous misappropriation of Darwinian evolution into economics - is also fallacious, because when companies face insolvency due to their own bad practice they threaten the stability of the entire market. The bedrock of capitalist economics is "confidence," without which the whole charade crumbles. So a corporate body that brings about its own downfall is more comparable to a species being wiped out by man, causing calamity for an entire ecosystem, than to natural selection favouring the greater survivor with little ecological fallout.

The disastrous ripple effects of such as the run on Northern Rock, the collapse of Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers, and most dramatically of the US House of Representatives' rejection last week of Henry Paulson's $700bn bailout plan, speak of a system far too fragile for Smith's invisible hand to operate effectively. George Bush summed it up, with characteristic inelegance, on Tuesday when he said "this sucker's going down." It is also ironic that the system's fallibility was most devastatingly revealed by its reaction to the failure of a measure that defied its core principles. If Senator Jim Bunning was right in calling the bailout "financial socialism," why did its death cause a 705 point fall in the blue-chip share price, a drop on a scale not seen since the 684 point drop in September 2001? Surely the failure of "trickle-down communism," in venture capitalist Bill Perkins' words, shouldn't cause the Dow Jones Index to plummet 6.63 percentage points? Capitalists are being retaught a lesson that should have been learnt in the Great Depression, when the Wall Street Crash brought down the entire global economy.

What we are seeing now is the inevitable result of the frenzy of deregulation and privatisation that has continued, unabated, since the Thatcher-Reagan years. It was precisely the dogmatic culling of lending regulation that allowed subprime mortgages, the inevitable collapse of which catalysed the entire current turmoil, to exist in the first place. But the effects of the neoliberal ideology have had consequences far beyond Wall Street and the City long before now, for people far less culpable and financially secure than the brokers and traders. Under market fundamentalism, measures to protect the poor and working classes - the minimum wage, universal health care, the welfare state, health and safety law, etc - are unwelcome "barriers to free trade."It is only because of concerted grassroots struggles that workers in the developed world enjoy such basic rights today. Even now, business lobbying, mass media propaganda, and pro-business politicians are at work to destroy these vital protections. Using Britain as an example, the tabloid scare stories - exaggerations, isolated incidents presented as the norm, and outright lies - about "Elf n Safety Nazis," "sick-note Britain," and "scroungers" demonstrate the level of contempt by the market and those in its pocket towards welfare for those who need it.

But the double standards are palpable. No voices from the City or Wall Street, their lobbyists in the halls of government, or the newspapers under their financial control ever rail with the same venom against corporate welfare and tax breaks. In fact, when a politician tries to rebalance such privilege they face strong and continued political and financial pressure (what from trade unions would be called bullying and bribery) until they relent. Alastair Darling's attempt to tax non-domiciles and his subsequent u-turn is but one recent example of this. If the welfare state for the rich is threatened, we are reminded that their investments are "vital" to our "economic stability" and that such measures will merely force them to "take their money elsewhere."

Poor people, of course, do not have that luxury and so are fair game. As ever, welfare and government handouts are acceptable for the "master and proprietor," in Pierre Joseph Proudhon's terms, but those who must sell their labour to suit the "condescension and necessities" of said master in order to survive have to adhere to market discipline. Given that, without massive intervention on the scale of the Paulson Plan, now approved by Congress on its second reading, the working classes would only see their misery multiply, one can almost see the logic. It fails only once you realise that those being bailed out not only caused this crisis, but will inevitably bring about the next one as well, if allowed to continue.

Far more drastic measures are needed to ensure not only a reduction in fallout now, at the apex of the current turmoil, but also a fairer system in its aftermath. Whilst a bailout of the failing financial institutions ensures that we don't see another Depression, it offers little help to the ordinary people facing mounting costs and debts, bankruptcy, and the repossession of their homes. Pumping money into the markets, as world Central Banks already have to the tune of $300bn, will keep the system afloat, but does nothing for those already overboard.

At present, it seems that any outcome other than utter economic meltdown will involve taxpayers taking on the debts and losses of the worst offenders, cuts in public spending to balance the vast sums spent subsidising the rich, and a flawed ideology patched up with token reforms until the lessons of history can be forgotten again. We can also expect lots of finger pointing and arbitrary blame as those in power do their very best to avoid the obvious conclusion.

The very idea of global capitalism and the free market, flawed at inception, is the cause of our current economic woes. It has failed, again, the challenge to prove its legitimacy and needs to be entirely overhauled.