(Prologue to Supremacy Unravelling: Crumbling Western Dominance and the Slide to Fascism)
27th May 2020
Many of the chapters in this book were originally published on RT.com, the website of the Russian state’s English-language news channel RT (formerly Russia Today). Back in 2011, when the war on Libya was raging, RT’s coverage was a breath of fresh air. The major western news channels have never been much more than state propaganda outfits during times of war, and the NATO bombardment of Libya was no exception. Even Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned channel that made its name with its no-holds barred coverage of the 2003 attack on Iraq, had seemingly cashed in its hard-won credibility as a voice speaking truth to power to become an unashamed mouthpiece of NATO. This should, perhaps, have been no surprise, given how deeply invested Qatar was in the NATO aggression, providing the foot soldiers and much of the training for the operation to kill Gaddafi and destroy the state he had built. But RT – despite Russian support for the UN Security Council resolution that paved the way for NATO’s attack – stepped into the vacuum created by Al-Jazeera’s conversion to the war party. Their uncompromising output combined reports on the brutal reality of NATO’s actions and allies with critical, forthright anti-war analysis of a type formerly relegated to the very margins of the internet.
I had been recommended to the channel by my old friend and comrade Sukant Chandan, who had spent much of 2011 in Libya in solidarity with those resisting NATO’s criminal bombardment. My first interview with them seemed to go well, and received 39,000 views on youtube. Having until that point been the author of articles and leaflets that rarely went beyond the confines of the anti-war meetings and demos in which they were distributed, this was by far the biggest platform I had ever had. A few weeks later I was asked to appear again, and soon I was appearing every month or so. Later it was suggested to me that I pitch some articles for their website. I did, and they were accepted. I started writing regularly for them, and my broadcast appearances increased in frequency also. By 2013, my output had drawn the attention of Middle East Eye, who started to commission pieces from me as well. This writing work became regular – and relatively lucrative – enough that I was able to reduce my teaching workload, and focus one or two days per week on writing. This was, in many ways, my dream job, allowing me to dedicate serious time to researching and writing about the things I considered important, helping (as I saw it) to produce analysis that would inform and equip the anti-war movement to really understand the machinations of a crisis-ridden western capitalism. For the first time in my working life I felt like I had real freedom: my pitches were almost always accepted, and they were never edited or tinkered with in any way.
RT had always hosted some dodgy characters, however. That was no surprise; I knew it was a not a left-wing operation per se – it was funded and run by the oligarchic-capitalist Russian state, after all – but if they were prepared to give a platform to socialists, I thought, in amongst all the conservatives and nationalists, that was surely a good thing. Wasn’t it?
But over the years, I started to notice more and more coverage being given to the hardcore far right and neofascists. Representatives of France’s Front Nationale, Austria’s Freedom Party, Germany’s Pegida and AfD seemed to be getting slots almost every day, giving their ‘interpretation’ of the day’s events. Tommy Robinson even got an entire half hour slot. Sukant pointed out that, disturbingly, much of the far right seemed to be saying very similar things to us about Syria, and that if we did not make a clear distinction between our analysis and theirs, we were effectively legitimising them.
For a while I kept my head in the sand, and even justified it – ‘oh well, they have lots of different viewpoints, of course they are going to have some right-wingers as well as left-wingers – they want a diversity of opinion’ blah blah blah. And anyway, I managed to convince myself that nothing would be improved by me cutting my ties, which would merely be cutting off my nose to spite my face. My position was – I will speak on any platform that lets me state my piece uncensored. That’s it.
But the dirty role RT was playing just became too blatant to ignore. Even more insidious than the guests being invited were the increasingly frequent ‘news items’ that whipped up a barely-veiled hatred of migrants. It seemed that every half-hour news slot would contain at least one piece on a ‘migrant crimewave’, ‘migrant stabbing’, ‘migrant rape’ etc etc – always inevitably followed up with an interview by some fascist or other telling us what to think about it. On the website, too, I noticed some really toxic pieces going up, consisting of base migrant-baiting, or pushing the ‘death of Europe’ fantasies about European civilisation being swamped by alien cultures. The comments on these articles – my own included – were, it is no exagerration to say, pretty much wall-to-wall antisemitic conspiracies.
By this time, Sukant had become persona non grata with the channel for his candid denunciation of the new fascism and forthright defence of immigration on their flagship panel show Cross Talk. But still my line was – I’m not being compromised: I stand by what I publish, and as long as they are giving me a platform to say what I like and get it out there, I will take it. I’m not endorsing any of these fascists.
But what I was doing, I came to realise, was helping to bring these fascists an audience.
What I eventually had to admit was that the presence on RT of people like me and others on the left was giving the channel a credibility and reach amongst a large section of people that would not have touched an out-and-out far right platform with a bargepole. Myself and others like me were being used to pull in people from the anti-war movement and the anti-austerity movement, and draw them in to an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, antisemitic mileau, which rendered them harmless to capital but deeply harmful to the global proletariat. And I am not talking about small numbers of people; RT was the first youtube channel to reach a billion views, and RTUK has more viewers than Al Jazeera; it is, I would argue, the most powerful ‘alternative’ news channel/ site in the world. And it is a gateway drug to fascism.
But it was only when I started really researching into some of these neofascist currents and people that I realised that this is a very carefully crafted strategy. Up until around the new millenium, most of the fascist movements in the west had always been about bashing the left, the ‘reds’ and the ‘commies’. But around the year 2000, some of them underwent a shift in strategy. Witnessing events like the ‘Battle of Seattle’ – when anarchists fought cops in an attempt to close down the World Trade Organisation – they thought, ‘here are angry kids, ready to take militant action in the streets against [what they saw as] the ‘Jewish power structure’. We shouldn’t be fighting these kids. We should be recruiting them’.
Fast forward to today, and this strategy has made serious headway. The boundaries between militant left and militant right have become more porous, to the benefit of the right, and RT has played a major part in facilitating this phenomenon. Fascists like Alexander Dugin in Russia and Steve Bannon in the US – with deep ties to the Russian and US bourgeois state leadership – are leading this new type of fascist recruitment drive which aims to unite far left and far right under the leadership of the far right. Leftwingers like George Galloway are now defending Steve Bannon and people who consider themselves leftists are reposting fascist websites and talking points without even realising it. The new fascist strategy – of reaching out to the left and slowly, subtly, bringing them round to neo-fascist positions – has been very effective. One example of how successful this strategy has been is on the issue of migration. There is a theory very popular amongst the RT crowd, that Muslim immigration is a Jewish plot to weaken Europe by diluting its cultural identity and virility, and ultimately wiping out its white population. Even prominent figures like Julian Assange have given credence to these theories, which have gone on to inspire massacres such as those in Christchurch New Zealand in March 2019.
I am not saying RT is a ‘fascist channel’ per se; it is more subtle than that. Rather, it is doing the spadework for fascism. Alain de Benoist (see the chapter in this book on politically correct fascism) came to the view back in the 1960s that, for fascism to become acceptable again, a long-term battle of ideas would need to be fought, to slowly shift the contours of debates on race, identity and ethnicity such that a reformulated fascism could be cast as a legitimate response to these debates. The mainstream has already been doing this for decades of course, but RT is taking it to the next level, through its steady drip-drip dehumanisation of migrants and refugees and the normalisation of fascist parties. It is working hard to create what Hitler called “a people ready for” fascism.
So, finally, the nature of the project I had been involved in dawned on me. I had been extending the reach of fascism, for money. I had a vested interest in not seeing what was going on.
The way I squared it with my conscience was to call them out on air. Every time I did an interview, I would criticise RT or the Russian state (or both) for their facilitation of fascism. The first time I did it, I assumed I would not get called back. But I did. It became a running joke with the guy at the studio – ‘I don’t think you’ll be seeing me again’ I would tell him, again and again. But eventually, on maybe the 6th or 7th time, my final interview did come. I think the interviewer was a bit of a novice; she didn’t cut me off like the others had as soon as I started going ‘off piste,’ so I just carried on, calling out Russia for selling out Iran, collaborating with Trump, facilitating fascism in a totally self-defeating manner, and on and on. I haven’t heard from them since, nor have I pitched to them.
Unfortunately, others have not taken the same view. Leftwingers still contribute regularly, and RT have now added big names like John Pilger, George Galloway and Slavoj Zizek to their writers’ roster. A brief glance at the site shows their work nestling in amongst a piece painting Nigel Farage as a courageous truthteller unfairly victimised by the powers-that-be, a flattering interview with Hungary’s far right foreign minister, and an article bemoaning “record numbers of non-EU migrants” arriving in the UK. The normalisation of anti-migrant fascism continues – and sections of the left continue to facilitate it.
Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, May 2020
Amongst all its glistening commodities, one product has defined capitalism above all else: human waste. Superfluous people, not necessary for production, not able to participate in the market, and an ever-present threat to the stability of the system, are – and have always been – the main output of the bourgeois epoch; managing, containing, expelling and eliminating this waste has always been its prime, if hidden, concern. In the nineteenth century, surplus Europeans were exiled, in their millions, to the colonies – to Australia, Canada, the US, Algeria etc – to continue the process of exterminating surplus non-Europeans. In the twentieth century, two world wars functioned not only to destroy surplus capital, but surplus humanity too, in unprecedented numbers.
But today, for the first time in history, it is a majority of humanity who face redundancy. In 2004, Zygmunt Bauman published Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. In this short book, he argues that “the production of ‘human waste’, or more correctly wasted humans… is an inevitable outcome of modernisation, an inseparable accompaniment of modernity.” Indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he wrote, “the disposal of human waste produced in the ‘modernised’ and still ‘modernising’ parts of the globe was the deepest meaning of colonisation and imperialist conquests,” as these conquests produced outlets for the export of surplus human beings. As Europe ‘modernised’ itself, throwing people off the land and replacing them with, first, sheep, and then threshing machines, these ‘surplus’ humans were shipped off to the colonies. Thus did the modern European states “seek, and find, global solutions to locally produced ‘overpopulation’ problems.” But this situation, he noted, could only last “as long as modernity (that is, a perpetual, compulsive, obsessive and addictive modernisation) remained a privilege. Once modernity turned, as it was intended and bound to, into the universal condition of humankind, the effects of its planetary domination have come home to roost. As the triumphant progress of modernisation has reached the furthest lands of the planet and practically the totality of human production and consumption has become money and market mediated, and the processes of the commodification, commercialisation and monetarisation of human livelihoods have penetrated every nook and cranny of the globe, global solutions to locally produced problems, or global outlets for local excesses, are no longer available…the volume of human waste [is] outgrowing the extant managerial capacity.” As a result, the world now faces “an acute crisis of the human waste disposal industry”. This issue – what to do with those growing number of souls superfluous to the requirements of modern capitalist production – is “simultaneously a most harrowing problem and a most closely guarded secretof our times.”
The year before Bauman’s book was published, in 2003, the UN published a report entitled “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements.” This paper noted that almost a billion people – one third of all city dwellers globally – now lived in slums, with this number projected to double by 2020. The causes were straightforward: “The collapse of formal urban employment in the developing world and the rise of the informal sector is seen as a direct function of liberalization. . . . Urban poverty has been increasing in most countries subject to structural adjustment programs,” imposed on the global South throughout the 1980s and 90s by Western-controlled financial institutions. Fragile national economies were forced to open up to heavily-subsidised, high-tech imports against which they had no chance of competing, with entire industries and farming communities devastated as a result. Life in the slums produced by these policies consisted of “the most intolerable of urban housing conditions” whose residents “suffer inordinately from water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, as well as more opportunistic ones that accompany HIV/AIDS.” By the year 2030, the report’s authors predicted, the world’s city dwelling population will consist of three sections, summarised by Mike Davis as follows: “1: .1 billion urbanites—owners, managers, technicians, and skilled information-sector workers—will provide the principal demand for branded international production.2: . 1.5 to 2 billion workers—ranging from Mexican American nurses’ aides in Los Angeles to Chinese teenagers in Guangdong sweatshops—will provide the metropolitan labor-power for the global economy.3: 2 to 3 billion informal workers—at least 2 billion of whom live in classic slums or peripheral shantytowns—will exist outside the formal relations of production, in Dickensian conditions or worse, ravaged by emergent diseases and subject to a menu of megadisasters following in the wake of global warming and the exhaustion of urban water supplies.”In other words – consumers; producers; and those superfluous to the reproduction of capital; the latter by far the biggest group. Of them, Davis wrote that “this outcast proletariat… is the fastest-growing and most novel social class on the planet. By and large, the urban informal working class is not a labor reserve army in the nineteenth-century sense: a backlog of strikebreakers during booms; to be expelled during busts; then reabsorbed again in the next expansion. On the contrary, this is a mass of humanity structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation and the corporate matrix.” Superfluous to the needs of capitalism, and with “little vested interest in the reproduction of private property,” this class does nevertheless possess “yet unmeasured powers of subverting urban order… the contemporary megaslum poses unique problems of imperial order and social control that conventional geopolitics has barely begun to register.” Fast forward sixteen years to today and it has certainly registered. Frase warns us that “A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working class labor is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience. Policing and repressing them ultimately seem more trouble than can be justified. This is where the thrust toward “the extermination of multitudes” originates. Its ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium.” In the “dystopic robo-feudalism” that is our near future, Ian Shaw writes, “a policy of ‘neo-exterminism’ might be enacted.” *** On December 31st 2019, China alerted the World Health Organisation to the existence of several cases of an unusual pneumonia in the town of Wuhan. Eleven days later, Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the virus causing it, identifying it as a new strain of coronavirus. That it was deadly was confirmed by Wuhan’s first death from the virus, reported the same day. On 24th January, a study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, the Lancet showed that a third of China’s Covid-19 patients required admission to intensive care, with 29% worsening to the point where they needed ventilation. The authors made clear the lethal potential of the virus, making comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which killed up to 50 million people, and recommended measures be taken to suppress the virus.
Understanding the seriousness of the coming pandemic, the British government convened its first COBRA emergency planning meeting on the outbreak. But underscoring their determination not to fight it, the prime minister refused to attend, as he would fail to attend the next four COBRA meetings that followed; as one senior government advisor told the Sunday Times, “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there.” A week later, on January 31st, the Lancet published another study on the new virus, concluding that “On the present trajectory, 2019-nCoV could be about to become a global epidemic…for health protection within China and internationally…preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.” The same day, the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation. Since long before humanity even knew about viruses, the time-honoured method of dealing with them has been to identify those with symptoms, isolate them, and follow up everyone they have been in contact with, today known as “test, track and trace”. These were the measures public health experts had been advocating since the new coronavirus was first identified, and have been used by all countries (such as South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam) that have managed to keep a lid on the spread of the virus and death rates low. As Mike Buckley has pointed out, “WHO advice is abundantly clear, based on existing guidelines and the experience of countries which have successfully contained and turned back COVID-19 and previous pandemics. The essential elements for success are mass testing, the isolation of the sick and those carrying the virus, contacting and testing people who may have been exposed to it, and social isolation to prevent its spreading by people yet to show symptoms. This is not theory, it is fact.” Yet, in the UK, noted the Lancet in a scathing editorial in March, “they didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque… February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions.” Indeed, when the government’s SAGE committee – an ad-hoc subgroup of COBRA tasked with providing scientific advice during an emergency – first commissioned a study on the impact of possible Covid-19 interventions in January, it specifically requested that test, track and trace was not included in the modelling. It was later claimed that this decision was taken because “not enough tests were available”. Yet they had eight weeks to prepare; Vietnam had been able to produce its entire supply of Covid tests domestically in far less time. As Anthony Costello noted in the Guardian, “The UK had been among the first countries to develop a Covid-19 test in mid-January, approved by the WHO, and has an exceptional national research infrastructure,” including a sophisticated pharmaceutical industry, and 130 NHS labs which were never utilised. The idea that it was beyond Britain’s physical capacity to produce the tests it required is utter nonsense; what was lacking was the political will.
Clearly, a decision had been taken very early on that the only tried-and-tested measures of disease control were not to be implemented in the UK. Instead, the UK government seemed determined to follow a policy of what could only be termed ‘let it rip’. As the government’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance explained, the aim was “to reduce the peak [of infection], not suppress it completely”. Graham Medley, the government’s chief modeller, elaborated: “We’re going to have to generate what we call herd immunity … and the only way of developing that in the absence of a vaccine, is for the majority of people to get infected”. Robert Peston summarised it as follows: “The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of Covid-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity”. This strategy went into overdrive on March 12th, when the limited testing that had been occurring was stopped, and the advice to travellers coming into Britain from hotspots such as Wuhan and Northern Italy to self-isolate for fourteen days was withdrawn. At this point, noted the Financial Times, “there were fewer than 1,500 confirmed cases in the UK, while in contrast infection rates were soaring in Italy and Spain.” The result, said the government’s Chief Scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, was that a wave of infections were “seeded right across the country.”
Advocates of the so-called ‘herd immunity’ (aka Let It Rip) strategy proposed that the most vulnerable should be shielded whilst the virus was allowed to flow through the population. Yet in practice, far from being shielded, those most susceptible to the disease appear to have been deliberately targeted. The particular vulnerability of the elderly to Covid-19 had been understood since the study of its first victims was published on January 23rd. Yet the government ordered that elderly patients be removed from hospitals, where they may well have contracted the virus, and sent back to their care homes, where they would inevitably spread it. As one NHS cardiologist told the Telegraph newspaper, “Our policy was to let the virus rip and then ‘cocoon the elderly’. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you contrast that with what we actually did. We discharged known, suspected, and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.” When discussing the policy of wilfully spreading the virus, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was reported to have said that “if a few pensioners die, so be it.” The cardiologist continued, “We let these people die without palliation. The official policy was not to visit care homes – and they didn’t (and still don’t). So, after infecting them with a disease that causes an unpleasant ending, we denied our elders access to a doctor – denied GP visits – and denied admission to hospital. Simple things like fluids, withheld. Effective palliation like syringe drivers, withheld.” By the start of May, 12,500 care home residents were recorded to have died from Covid-19. Meanwhile, no effort was made to increase the population’s ability to survive the disease by boosting their immune systems. In the 1940s and 50s, cod liver oil was provided free to children, pregnant mums and nurses due to its immunity-enhancing properties; yet in 2020, government ministers made no effort even to promote immune-boosting vitamins or foods, let alone provide them. On the contrary, the government’s lockdown guidelines actively prevented people receiving their daily dose of vitamin D by barring those without gardens from the sun, despite growing evidence of the vitamin’s importance in fighting the disease.
That people would die, in their tens of thousands, from the government’s policy of ‘wilful neglect’ was painfully obvious, and indeed, was admitted at the time. As countries across Europe were announcing bans on mass gatherings and school closures, Johnson resisted such measures, and instead told the nation to brace themselves for mass death. On March 12th, the day the government formally announced its intention to roll the virus out across the population, Boris Johnson told a press conference that “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” This was at a time when Vietnam – which shares a border with China – had suffered zero Covid deaths, due to their timely implementation of WHO advice. At the time of writing (17th May) they have still not suffered a single fatality. Yet, far from being a cause for concern, the coming cull was positively welcomed in some quarters. Toby Young, old friend and fellow Etonian of Boris Johnson, and an advocate of what he calls ‘progressive eugenics’, said in his column on 31st March that “prolong[ing] the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money.” Earlier that month, financial writer Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph had written that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependants.” BBC radio broadcast ‘moral philosophy’ programmes debating which patients were more deserving of access to ventilators, the young or the old; the fit and healthy or those with obesity or diabetes. The idea that the sick and elderly should be denied medical care was being pushed further than ever before.
As the ‘herd immunity’ strategy was greeted with universal horror by public health experts, the government performed an apparent (but only apparent) volte face and pretended it had never existed. Eventually, with infections doubling every three days, and a steadily mounting death toll, calls for action became irresistible. Yet the nationwide ‘lockdown’ imposed on March 24th – with all but ‘essential’ businesses ordered closed and the rights to assembly and association suspended – has been widely misinterpreted. Far from being a belated recognition and reversal of the reckless negligence that had characterised their initial response, it served as a cover for continuing that response but in a way that preserved the integrity of British state institutions such as the NHS. Once the virus had spun out of control, a lockdown could have served the useful purpose of buying time to establish the basic disease control procedures that should have been implemented from the outset – mass testing, contact tracing and quarantining. But, even during lockdown, the government’s stubborn refusal to take these measures continued. Travellers remained free to enter the country from known hotspots, without testing or quarantining, and no test-and-trace system was put in place. Whilst a symbolic target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April was announced to placate the media, testing remained at a far lower level until right up to the 31 April, when the target was magically reached by testing tens of thousands of people twice on the same day, a horrific waste of resources when care homes were crying out to be allowed access to testing. The following day, the numbers slumped back down again. Meanwhile the British company delivering test kits for use in Germany told the Telegraph, on April 16th, that it was ready to provide one million tests per week to the British government, but their calls had been unanswered. Those tests that were carried out were not done as part of an integrated programme of virus suppression; they were simply a standalone distraction for the media. To the extent they had any purpose beyond pure symbolism, it was to maximise staff turnout at hospitals (by preventing suspected cases from needing to self isolate) and nothing more. Care homes, who needed these tests the most, remained barred from them right up until the end of April. No system of contact tracing was established. And test results – carried out not by the 130 world-class NHS labs ideal for the purpose, but by the accountancy firm Deloittes – were not shared with local Directors of Public Health or GPs; the entire infrastructure of public health was still being barred from the information which would have enabled them to identify and tackle local outbreaks. A successful contact tracing apparatus could have been set up in three days using the existing infrastructure based around Environmental Health Officers alongside retraining those furloughed in other lines of work, explained public health expert Allyson Pollock, if the political will was there. But it wasn’t. The government only started advertising for contact tracers – via outsourcing giant Serco, to whom it awarded the contract – on May 10th, six weeks into the lockdown. Even now, it remains far from clear whether this is part of a genuine attempt to keep track of the virus or simply an excuse to award a lucrative monopoly to a major government-backed private company in order to help build up its global brand; once again, the existing public health infrastructure necessary for a holistic, integrated response has been cut out of the process.
Meanwhile the government hammered out a message of “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. Yet this was more than simply a benign injunction to ensure people avoided picking up or transmitting the disease; it also carried the more subtle message that you should not bother the NHS at this crucial time. People were being made to feel guilty for seeking treatment, especially if they were old. How dare they distract the NHS from its essential Covid work? Old people were told they would almost certainly not get emergency treatment and were pressured to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders en masse, whilst the NHS was effectively shut down for all but Covid patients (and, in the case of elderly care home residents, even them). Hospitals were cleared, ‘elective operations’ cancelled and treatments stopped. The emptying of sick elderly patients led to an increase in care home deaths from an April average of 8000 to a staggering 26,000, only 8000 of which were attributed to Covid; the rest very likely a result of the abrupt termination of their treatment. Oncologist Dr Karel Sikora noted that cancer diagnoses were around 5000 in April, down from what would normally be around 30,000. All these missed diagnoses, along with the cancelled treatment for known cases, could, he estimates, lead to an additional 60,000 cancer deaths this year. Thus, both the ‘let it rip’ strategy and the measures supposedly taken in response to it, such as the clearing out of hospitals, have had unnecessary mass death as their result rather, it seems, than their target. That same day the government finally started recruiting contact tracers – four months and 30,000 deaths after it had been recommended by the Lancet – Boris Johnson ordered low-paid manual workers back to work, to be followed by the reopening of primary schools three weeks later. This was in breach of WHO advice, and public health experts were united in their view that this easing of the lockdown without having put in place any system to trace and isolate the virus in was reckless and threatened a second wave of infection and death. As Oxford University professor of epidemiology David Hunter wrote in the Guardian, “the countries that have succeeded in taming their coronavirus epidemics – such as South Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia and New Zealand – … all have in common “test, trace, isolate” as the centrepiece of their strategy.” In Johnson’s speech, however, “what we did not get was any list of the actions in place to pursue and contain the virus….If we take the prime minister’s advice and return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase.” Yet this seems to be precisely the point; as Hunter notes, “emerging antibody data from hard-hit cities such as New York show that, with less than a quarter of the population affected, it would take at least another wave of devastation to get close to the herd immunity threshold.” Far from using the lockdown to buy time to establish disease-control structures, the government appears to be using it as a ‘tap’, not to reduce infections, but to ensure their flow across the population in a timely manner. It is a tap they are now slowly turning back on, and will have predictable, and fatal, results.
Covid’s results in the Southern hemisphere, however, are likely to be catastrophic. Here, noted World Food Programme’s chief economist Arif Husain recently, “is where the winter is coming, where the flu season is coming. I’m really, really concerned about Southern Africa. Why? Because there’s extreme poverty, extreme malnourishment, to begin with, and poor, poor, poor health infrastructure. There’s already a history of H.I.V., aids, and TB, and they’ve gone through multiple climate disasters. Now you get covid-19 on top of that —what do you think is going to happen?” The WFP’s executive director David Beasley, in a disturbing address to the UN Security Council in April, noted that the Covid crisis had already sparked “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two”.
Yet Covid itself is only half the story; the lockdown imposed by Western societies is also ravaging the global South. Siegfried Kracauer has written that “the measures provoked by existential fear are themselves a threat to existence,” and this is certainly true of the ‘lockdown’ prompted by the fear of the government’s refusal to tackle Covid. Remittances, which last year overtook foreign investment as the largest source of capital inflows to low and middle income countries, are expected to drop by $100billion this year, as migrant workers find themselves unable to earn money to send home, money on which millions of families depend to meet their nutritional needs. And the wiping out of demand consequent to the lockdowns is likely to prove equally devastating. As Beasley noted, there is “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself,” warning that famines could break out in 55 countries in the worst case scenario, with 300,000 starving to death every day and 260 million ultimately at risk of starvation. “If we don’t prepare and act now,” he concluded, “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” “In all,” the Guardian concluded, “shortages are likely to affect a fifth of the world’s population,” some 1.6 billion people.
And yet there is no shortage. “The world is not running out of food,” one humanitarian worker told the Telegraph. “Global food prices have been coming down for several years and we’ve had good harvests over the last few years. The main problem is access.” This is capitalism being pushed to its depraved logical conclusions. People will be wiped out by a lack of food not because there is a lack of food, but simply because their labour is not needed to meet the demands of wealthy countries.
We are living through the early stages of a massive extermination event. To deliberately and wilfully allow a deadly virus to rip through the population, fully aware of the consequences for the elderly and vulnerable is beyond negligent; it is the rebirth of colonial eugenics in the heartlands of empire, unprecedented since the foundation of the welfare state. As Bauman noted, with the universalisation of modernity, and the consequent drying up of ‘non-modern’ areas for the export of surplus population, “societies increasingly turn the sharp edge of exclusionary practices against themselves”. The demonisation of the elderly and sick, the ideological war against their right to life, tentatively floated with Cameron’s proposition that obese people should be denied access to the NHS, appears now to have passed a major milestone. Our reactions are being tested; Covid is being utilised as a canary in the mine for our willingness to be abandoned by any pretence of state protection in the face of the coming economic chaos and climate misery. The 1% and their state planners must be very pleased with the results. Meanwhile, famines “of biblical proportions” threaten the global South, provoked by the gratuitous – because, had public health advice been followed, unnecessary – lockdowns which have strangled global supply chains. Saskia Sassen, in her 2014 book “Expulsions: brutality and complexity in the global economy”, notes that “the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatisations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in [to global capitalism] to dynamics that push people out”. We appear now to have reached such an extremity of that process, however, that there is a new switch under way – from the containment of those pushed out, to their outright elimination. Already the humanitarian agencies, tasked with keeping a lid on surplus humanity, are warning that their calls for an emergency $4.7 billion to feed those “pushed out” by the Covid response are nowhere near being met. With nativists like Trump in charge of the richest economies already terminating contributions to the World Health Organisation, what are the chances of a newfound love for the World Food Programme emerging anytime soon?
Order, Bauman reminds us, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the condition in which everything is in its proper place and performs its proper function.“ Yet in the capitalist order of the near future, there is no proper place or proper function for the majority of humanity, neither as producers nor as consumers. Asked how he obtained the beautiful harmony of his sculptures, Michaelangelo reputedly answered: ‘Simple. You just take a slab of marble and cut out all the superfluous bits’. Comments Bauman, “In the heyday of the Renaissance, Michaelangelo proclaimed the precept that was to guide modern creation… through cutting out and throwing away the superfluous, the needless and the useless, the beautiful, the harmonious, the pleasing and the gratifying was to be divined.” Today, the ‘harmony’ of the capitalist order can be preserved only by a massive intensification of this “cutting out and throwing away” of the superfluous who, quite apart from being a threat to stability, are an abhorrent reminder of the defects of the system. “As modern times went by,” says Bauman, “an ever larger part of the designing zeal and design-drawing efforts was prompted by the urge to detoxicate, neutralise or remove from sight the ‘collateral damage’ done by past designing.”
And yet, we must always remember, none of this is inevitable. The technical capability to provide the housing and nutritional needs of everyone on the planet has never been greater. Charity has never been more than a sticking plaster, nor intended to be more; what is needed is the realisation of article 25 of the universal declaration of human rights – the right to subsistence. All are capable of making a dignified contribution to the global provision of subsistence, regardless of their economic circumstances, and none should be denied food or shelter simply because their labour is superfluous to the requirements of capital accumulation. A new global movement with this principle at its heart is needed – and needed urgently.
Corbyn’s election as leader of British Labour party in 2015 was seen by much of the British left as their best chance to reverse the neoliberal imperialist trajectory of the British state for at least a generation. With a solid track record of opposition to war, nuclear weapons and privatisation, he was able to capture the imagination of a disenfranchised youth sick of corporate-sponsored politicians, quickly turning the Labour party into the biggest mass membership party in Europe, with over half a million members. Two years later, defying all predictions, Corbyn’s Labour managed to overturn the ruling Conservatives’ parliamentary majority in a snap election which was supposed to deliver them a landslide. The prospect of a Corbyn government, with a genuine commitment to reversing the inequality and militarism that had become the hallmark of the western world, seemed to be a real prospect – perhaps even an inevitability.
Yet the general election of 2019 saw the entire project come crashing down in flames. Boris Johnson’s revitalised Tory party, united around a Brexit deal which had escaped his predecessor, stormed back to power with the party’s biggest majority since 1983, stripping Labour of dozens of working class constituencies it had held for generations. Corbyn was replaced by Sir Kier Starmer QC, heralding a purge of Corbynites from the frontbenches. Within a few months, Corbyn himself had been expelled from the parliamentary party.
Explanations for the 2019 result came thick and fast, and their apparent variety obscured the basic argument which tended to run throughout all of them: “Corbyn lost because he didn’t do what I said”. For the party’s right wing, he lost because he was too left; for the left, he lost because he had not moved decisively against the right. For Brexiteers, he lost because of his support for a second Brexit referendum; for Remainers, because this support came too late. For many Corbynites, the result was simply down to contingent tactical mistakes and the hostility of the media; and for Tories, of course, it simply demonstrated, once again, the British people’s instinctive, and correct, abhorrence for socialism.
For socialists, the temptation is to forget the whole sorry saga and ‘move on’. But a serious postmortem is essential if we are to have any hope of learning from the mistakes (as well as the successes) of the movement.
At the outset of this process, it is essential to recognise some basic political realities.
Firstly, the UK is an imperial entity. The relinquishing of formal political rule over most of its colonies between the 1940s and 1970s (with the crucial exception of a string of strategically-positioned island territories such as Diego Garcia, the Caymans, the Falklands, the Virgin islands and around a dozen others) has not changed this simple reality. The basic contours of the world economy created by colonialism – a system of wealth transference from Asia, Africa and Latin America to North America and Western Europe – remain intact, and have indeed been strengthened and perfected in the era of neo-colonialism, to the extent that net resource transfers from the global South to the North today amount to roughly $3trillion per year – triple the value of goods and services flowing the other way, and twenty-four times the total value of North-South foreign aid. Much of this uncompensated wealth transfer is via ‘capital flight’, often illicit, and mostly facilitated through the network of tax havens located in Britain’s remaining island colonies.
Secondly, and contrary to the claims of the colonial left, this wealth does not only benefit a tiny minority. From the 1840s onwards, writes historian Eric Hobsbawm, a ‘labour aristocracy’ began to emerge in Britain – a privileged section of the working class paid above the value of their labour power out of the profits generated by empire. Since 1945, this labour aristocracy, argues Zak Cope, has come to encompass the entire citizenry of countries such as Britain. The domestic accomplishments of Clement Attlee’s Labour government – the NHS, social housing, the welfare state – were largely paid for by the intensified exploitation of the colonies, and colonialism has underwritten social democracy ever since. Even in the era of neoliberalism, which has seen welfare states decimated, the British population (at least up until the 2008 crash) has seen the value of its real wages increase, as intensified exploitation of the global proletariat has led to cheapening consumer goods.
Thirdly, Britain has consistently used its military might to protect and defend this colonial wealth transfer whenever it has been under threat. From the opium wars of the mid-nineteenth century, to the destruction of Libya in 2011, any and every country which has refused to collaborate with the precepts of the colonial global economy has met the wrath of the UK military, either overtly or covertly (with the exception of some Latin American countries, the war against whom has been largely been subcontracted to the US). It is largely for this reason that Britain has invaded no less than 90% of the current member states of the UN at some point.
Social democracy in Britain has always reflected this colonial reality; it has always been a fight over the spoils of colonialism, rather than a challenge to it. The need to uphold and defend the colonial wealth transfer at the heart of world capitalism has always been the singular point of agreement between governments of left and right in the UK. It was, after all, the Attlee government that initiated both Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and NATO, as well as sending troops to Greece, Malaya and Korea to drown their revolutions in blood and restore the rule of more pliant local aristocrats; and it was Tony Blair’s New Labour who spearheaded illegal Anglo-American aggression against Serbia and Iraq as well as sending troops to Sierra Leone and invading Afghanistan, for the fourth time in Britain’s modern history. All of these interventions, from Attlee to Blair, can best be understood as wars to contain threats to colonial ‘global capitalism’ in general (as Christopher Dolan has comprehensively shown in the case of Iraq) and British corporate interests in particular (as documented by Mark Curtis). Social democracy in Britain has, in reality, always been social imperialism – the provision of social gains for the British on the backs of millions of superexpoited workers in the global South, backed up by military force where necessary – and the Labour party has, for over one hundred years, been at its vanguard.
This is the historical movement which, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn suddenly found himself heading. At first, he seemed to be offering something very different. A tireless supporter of indigenous struggles against settler colonial dispossession and discrimination the world over, from Ireland to Palestine, Chagos to South Africa, he had also, for his entire political career, been a CND activist and advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament. His consistent opposition to war – not only the Iraq war, which 139 Labour MPs had voted against, in the biggest backbench rebellion for 150 years, but even the war on Libya, opposed by only 13 MPs out of 650 – had not only made him a pariah in the Blair years, but set him apart from the entire trajectory of Labour party history. It was this, as much as his opposition to neoliberal austerity and privatisation, that made him such a breath of fresh air to millions disgusted by the ongoing brutality of British policy. And it was precisely this that made him so completely unacceptable to the British ruling class, including the Labour party elite.
It soon became clear, however, that Corbyn was, however grudgingly, coming round to the social imperialist bargain. Perceiving his anti-militarism as an achilles’ heel in a nation with a deep-rooted colonial mentality, the Conservatives tabled parliamentary votes on the bombing of Syria and the renewal of Trident immediately after his election; the aim was to force his hand and, they hoped, damage his standing with the electorate in the process. Would he stay true to his lifelong principles and whip his party into opposing the measures, setting the stage for his portrayal as a limp-wristed, unpatriotic, coward? Or would he support them, pigeonholing himself instead as a feeble-minded, opportunistic, turncoat?
In the end, he attempted to have his cake and eat it – by offering Labour MPs a free vote on both issues, he allowed the Blairite majority to continue to direct the party’s foreign policy, whilst maintaining his anti-war credentials – and salving his own conscience – by making a symbolic one-man protest against it, just as he always had done as a backbencher. This was the Stop The War Coalition’s ‘Not In My Name’ policy all over again, the point being to demonstrate your personal unease with the nation’s warmongering, rather than actively trying to prevent it – not so much ‘Any Means Necessary’ as ‘Nowt to Do With Me, Mate’. When a vote on bombing Syria had come before parliament two years earlier, Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband had whipped Labour MPs to vote against it, resulting in the motion being defeated and military action being called off. Yet the chair of the Stop the War Coalition could not bring himself to do the same, and so, on his watch, the motion was passed. The Typhoons began flying out the next day.
The basic contours of the de facto agreement with his, unremittingly hostile, parliamentary colleagues were now becoming clear: they would be allowed to continue to control Labour’s foreign policy, so long as they joined forces with Corbyn when it came to opposing austerity; an uneasy compromise which would, in other words, combine domestic radicalism with a militaristic foreign policy – the very definition of social imperialism. It wasn’t necessarily intended to be a permanent platform, but the precedent had been set. The next major showdown was Yemen.
Saudi Arabia had begun bombing Yemen in March 2015 in an unsuccessful attempt to restore their hated stooge President Hadi to power following his ouster in a popular rebellion that had quickly gained control of 80% of the country. The official UK position, in the words of foreign secretary Philip Hammond was to “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat,” support that quickly came to involve training, targeting, diplomatic support and the pouring of billions of pounds worth of weapons into the conflict. By the autumn of the following year, an estimated 10,000 people had been killed in the war. On 26th October 2016, Corbyn and his shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry put forward a motion in the House of Commons calling on the British government to end its support for the Saudi war until an independent investigation into civilian casualties had been conducted.
Yemen perhaps seemed, to Corbyn, more cut and dried. Nuclear weapons, after all, have always been portrayed as a peaceful deterrent rather than a battleground weapon; whilst the bombing of Syria was ostensibly about halting the rise of ISIS, an avowedly genocidal death cult. Making the case against either was always going to be an uphill struggle. But in Yemen, children were being starved to death at the rate of one every ten minutes as part of a war against an entire population, a war which was being conducted in the name of restoring a President too unpopular to set foot in his own country, who had never won a competitive election, and whose supposed mandate, such as it was, had expired years ago. A report the previous month had shown that a third of airstrikes were against civilian targets, and 140 people had been killed in one single attack during the deliberate targeting of a funeral just a fortnight earlier. And all this was being carried out by a monarchical dictatorship who had spent $87 billion on promoting the viciously sectarian ideology behind Al Qaeda and ISIS. Opposing British support for this war – without which, it could not take place – was surely an argument Corbyn could win?
Apparently not. Whether because they were genuinely committed to genocide taking place, or simply willing to exploit it as a means of humiliating Corbyn, around 100 Labour MPs refused to support the motion, even after Thornberry had suggested, under pressure from trade unions representing workers in the weapons industry, that it did not require the suspension of arms exports to the Saudis. It would be the biggest backbench rebellion against their leader during his entire five years in office. To support a genocide. That’s the reality of the British Labour party.
Even Corbyn’s well-wishers told him he needed to ‘shut up’ about foreign policy. Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, plans to crack down on tax avoidance, and raising taxes on the rich, wrote Michael Chessum in the New Statesman, were very popular. But criticising foreign policy could blow it all. The media understood this, he argued, focussing “all of their attacks on [Corbyn’s] links to Irish republicanism, controversies around the national anthem, rumours that Corbyn wants to “abolish the army”.
Paul Mason, meanwhile, one of the most high-profile Corbyn supporters, wrote that “Labour’s number one objective has to be to form a government radical in social and economic policy. For that, I think it should be prepared – as I saw [Greek prime minister] Alexis Tsipras do in January 2015 – to put radicalism in foreign policy on the back burner”- that is, to continue with the imperialist status quo, a much more terrifying proposition when it comes to the UK, with its track record of ongoing colonial extortion and butchery, than Greece, which has not been an imperial power for over 2000 years. By 2019, he had gone further, arguing that Labour “needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” In Mason’s case, this was not solely pragmatic; he was a true believer in the NATO-imposed colonial world order, bemoaning the West’s (supposed) declining military influence and openly arguing that Labour should aim to procure the West an even greater cut of global wealth at the expense of the global South, advocating a “strategy designed to allow the populations of the developed world to capture more of the growth projected over the next 5-15 years, if necessary at the cost of China, India and Brazil … It is a programme to deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary at the price of not delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay and Dubai,” and to do this “by reversing the 30-year policy of enriching the bottom 60%” of the world’s population. That there has been never such a policy is apparently by the by when it comes to such appeals to western ‘victimhood’.
As well as being denied access to global wealth at home, foreigners should obviously, Mason argued, be prevented from seeking it within Britain’s borders. Rather than seeking to extend freedom of movement to those beyond Europe’s borders as a basic right of the international working class, Mason sought to abolish it altogether, arguing after the Brexit vote in June 2016 that “the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.” This formula – of maintaining the capitalist free market but ending freedom of movement for European workers – was exactly the same as that sought by the Tory Brexiteers, and had long been ruled out by the EU itself. He went on to bemoan the fact that John McDonnell’s ‘red lines’ on Brexit had not included the demand to end free movement. For Labour’s Brexit plans to “embody the spirit of the referendum,” he argued, the party needed to push for a “significant… retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left indeed to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.” Only an anti-immigration policy, he argued, would avoid electoral disaster.
One time pro-Corbyn economist and leading tax reform campaigner Richard Murphy agreed. His post-Brexit broadside against the leadership suggested that migrants should only be allowed into the hallowed heartland of whiteness if their home country had taken on the entirety of the expense of training them for the purpose: “Learning English, offering a skill and being willing to work where work is needed can be and should be the conditions of seeking to live in this country. Migration would be a contract, not a right,” he insisted, adding that “Norway has done this; so should we.” This was the logic of apartheid influx control – “ministering to the needs of the white man” – writ global. Like Mason’s position, this was and is no different from the policy of the Tory right.
Mason and Murphy’s blows clearly landed. When the Immigration Bill – which cranked up the ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants by effectively turning landlords, banks and universities into extensions of border patrol – had passed through parliament the month before the Brexit referendum, Corbyn had led the parliamentary opposition, with 245 MPs ultimately voting against it. Whilst not enough to prevent the bill becoming law, this was still major progress compared to the 6 Labour MPs (including Corbyn himself) who had voted against its 2014 predecessor which had formally ushered in the ‘hostile environment’. Yet this principled position would not last. Whilst Mason was correct that MacDonnell’s initial red lines, formulated in the days after the referendum, had not included immigration controls, a week later, on 1st July 2016, MacDonnell clarified his position: “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue. When Britain leaves the European Union, free movement of labour and people will then come to an end.” In March 2017, Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer formalised this as an official condition that would have to be met for Labour to support any Brexit deal in parliament (‘Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?”). Later that year, Corbyn himself appeared to have been won over to the benefits of blaming migrants for wage cuts and working conditions, arguing on the Andrew Marr show against the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions in the construction industry”. Commented Zak Cope: “By feeding the grossly one-sided view that globalisation has been disastrous for British workers, by blaming high immigration levels for stagnant wages, and by studiously ignoring Britain’s role as a parasitic drain on the countries of the Third World, Corbyn’s social democratic nationalism has inadvertently (?) legitimised and promoted a self-pitying, white nationalism that has seen a rise in racist hate crime in the UK. In purporting to oppose this upsurge in popular xenophobia and racism, however, the British left (and its European and US counterparts) is indulging in rank hypocrisy.”
The Labour manifesto of the following year, drafted by privately-educated Cambridge graduate Andrew Fisher, would again state that “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union” committing the party instead to supporting the “management of migration”. As Fisher later explained, “Taxing the rich, public ownership of the railways and core utilities, and ending austerity had majority public support. Increasing benefit levels and more humane migration policies did not.”
The 2017 manifesto, in fact, was a fully-fledged return to the heyday of social imperialism. Corbynism had now been shorn of any remnants of anti-imperialism (a concept mocked by leading lights of the campaign such as Paul Mason), and was now fully committed to the military apparatus required for the enforcement of colonial wealth transfer. The document committed Labour to meeting NATO’s requirement to spend 2% of GDP on the military, and praised Tony Blair’s government for consistently spending above this benchmark, whilst criticising the conservatives for cuts to the number of aircraft carriers and jump jets in the British arsenal. It committed itself to not only retaining, but renewing, the Trident nuclear defence system (estimated costs of which vary from £39 to £205billion), and to ensuring “our conventional forces are versatile and able to deploy in a range of roles.” Why they should be “deployed” at all, rather than simply maintained as a defensive force to protect against invasion, was never explained; nor was there any mention of the seven wars in which British troops were deployed at that very moment.
The electorate appeared to like it; Labour did far better than expected in the 2017 election, increasing their vote share to 40%, up 10% from the 30% they had achieved under Ed Miliband’s leadership just two years earlier, the biggest swing for any party since 1945. This gave them a net gain of thirty seats, enough to wipe out the Conservative’s majority, and a clear electoral vindication for the party’s social imperialist platform. There was euphoria in the Corbyn camp – and gloom amongst the Blairites, who had hoped to use a disastrous showing for the party to finally rid themselves of their upstart leader. Yet the results obscured some serious warning signs. Across 41 seats in Labour’s former industrial heartlands of the North and the MIdlands – seats that later became known as the ‘Red Wall’ – the Conservative’s vote share increased to 42%, higher than Labour’s national average. Although Labour managed to hang on to most of these seats, six of them fell to the Conservatives. These were constituencies that had been Labour strongholds for, on average, over fifty years, yet now they had done the inconceivable and returned Tory MPs. The taboo had been broken.
Focus groups run by the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft in the aftermath of the 2017 election revealed that, whilst Labour’s anti-austerity message was popular, many voters remained suspicious of Corbyn’s commitment to the defence of British supremacy abroad. Commented Ashcroft, “Lifelong Labour voters would often say that Jeremy Corbyn was the single biggest reason they were reluctant to stay with the party.” The first set of reasons for this all related to his colonial credentials, with voters making comments like “He’s anti-military. He wants nuclear submarines without the nuclear missiles. How stupid can that be?”; “It’s disastrous, his stance on defence, potentially catastrophic;” “He had links with the IRA. I didn’t like that at all;” “‘He was supporting the IRA. He was turning up at gunmen’s funerals.”
Yet “more often,” wrote Ashcroft, “people simply did not think he was up to the job of leading the country.” Voters explained that they found Corbyn “wet,” “weak,” “too principled,” too lacking in “balls”, and, revealingly, “the most humanitarian of all our politicians…But that could be our problem with Corbyn. He’s just going to give it all away.” What both sets of reasons have in common is that they all relate to the fear that Corbyn, however much he attempted to distance himself from his former principles, simply could not be trusted to “stand up for British interests”. When it came to the bottom line, Corbyn’s willingness to defend the flow of wealth to Britain from the global South, and maintain exclusive native British access to it, was seriously in doubt. The media, and the Conservatives, had found the crack in Corbyn’s armour and were determined to explode it.
Labour has for some time been a fragile electoral coalition of two main constituencies – an older, more ‘culturally conservative’ and nationalist constituency in the former industrial towns of the North and Midlands, forming the core of the Leave vote; and a younger, more socially liberal and multiethnic constituency based in the big cities, forming the core of the Remain vote. The claim of ‘anti-semitism’, which dominated coverage of the Labour leader for the next two years, was particularly well chosen to undermine Labour’s support amongst both. On the one hand, it was clearly an accusation with which the socially liberal metropolitans did not wish to be associated with, demoralising them and undermining their belief in the Corbyn project. But on the other, the Israel-Palestine conflict served as a neat proxy for the growing fears of ‘white decline’ rapidly gaining currency on the anti-immigrant right. By drawing attention to Corbyn’s support for Palestine, the media were able to successfully associate him with the Muslim Other in the great battle for civilisation. The realisation of the ‘right to return’ which he (along with longstanding international law) supported, so the fear went, would lead to the ‘swamping’ of white Israeli civilisation by brown-skinned Arabs. Was this Corbyn’s vision for Europe as well? The implication did not need to be spelt out – the visuals of the conflict said it all – but it is revealing that one of the most vociferous purveyors of the anti-semitism smear, Lord Sacks, was also a strong supporter of Douglas Murray, the acceptable face of white decline/ great replacement catosrophism. For those who already suspected Corbyn of being an Arab-lover, the anti-semitism crusade, by keeping the focus on Corbyn’s position on Palestine, was a constant reminder of his reluctance to stand up for white supremacy, defeating all the Corbyn camp’s attempts to keep foreign policy off the agenda and out of voters’ minds. Corbyn himself – much to the despair of an increasingly exasperated John MacDonnell – also helped to keep the issue alive, by refusing to budge from the Palestinian position of wariness towards the two most controversial ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism that the Labour party was being pressured to adopt, both of which were seen as potentially being abused to delegitmise criticism of Israel. In the end, Corbyn capitulated and adopted them anyway – but not until, argue Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick MacGuire, all the political capital achieved by the election result had been used up in the failed attempt to resist doing so.
Nevertheless, at the start of 2018, Corbyn’s poll ratings remained significantly above those of Theresa May. What would change this, permanently, was Corbyn’s response to another test of his ‘patriotism’ – the poisoning of the Skripals. In March 2018, Julia and Sergei Skripal, visiting the UK from Russia, were rushed to hospital having been discovered unconscious and foaming at the mouth on a bench in Salisbury, apparent victims of a nerve agent attack. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was quick to blame Putin, and used the incident to intensify the ongoing war of attrition against the Russian state, cajoling other countries to embark on a worldwide expulsion of Russian diplomats unprecedented even at the height of the Cold War. Rather than close ranks behind the government’s sabre-rattling, however, as ‘loyal oppositions’ are clearly expected to at such times of ‘national crisis’, Corbyn dug his heels in and suggested that blame and retaliation should await the production of convincing evidence and that internationally agreed procedures should be adhered to. It was a position of political suicide in a country used to throwing its weight around. “That’s fucking going to cost us the election!” fumed John MacDonnell’s media advisor James Mills following a press conference in which Corbyn’s press secretary Seamus Milne questioned the undisclosed intelligence reports that the government was using to justify its actions; “Who the fuck does stuff like that?” (Pogrund and MacGuire, p.80). Certainly not Corbyn’s social democratic forebears – as Pogrund and MacGuire have pointed out, “as much as the left had lionised Attlee and Foot, both had supported military action by their Conservative opposite numbers” when it came to the crunch.
The incident was a tipping point, not only in terms of Corbyn’s public standing and the already corrosive, division between his team and the parliamentary party – but also for relations within the Corbyn camp itself. Not only Emily Thornberry – always a fairweather friend of the project – but more significantly, Dianne Abbott and John MacDonnell, Corbyn’s only longstanding comrades in the parliamentary party, began to go consistently off-message when it came to Russia. The defence of Putin – even against accusations which appeared, at least at first, to be unfounded – was not the hill MacDonnell had been working thanklessly for decades to die on. His relations with Corbyn’s office were irreparably damaged.
Corbyn would try to make amends and demonstrate his (white) nationalist credentials a year later when the next instalment of the ‘hostile environment’ came before parliament, in the form of the government’s new Immigration Bill. This bill established Britain’s new post-Brexit migration policy, creating a new income qualification for migrants, introducing a ‘cap’ on migration, and barring all new migrants from accessing public funds or settling permanently. The aim was to end freedom of movement for low-paid workers whilst maintaining it for middle class professionals, and to ensure that any migrants who did make it into the country were in a position of permanent precarity. It was clearly a ferociously anti-working class piece of legislation (except for the most myopic and nationalist definitions of ‘working class’). This was, in fact, recognised by Dianne Abbott, Corbyn’s shadow Home Secretary, who wrote that, under the new legislation, “many migrant workers who come to Britain will in effect have no rights” and called it “one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades…The risk of super-exploitation will be built into the legal system.” Yet when it came to the first parliamentary vote on the bill, the position of the ‘worker’s party’, under its ‘pro-migrant’ leader, Corbyn, was, right up until three hours before the vote, to abstain; as Abbott herself noted, defence of Freedom of Movement was incompatible with the party’s 2017 manifesto, to which she declared herself a “slavish devotee” and therefore duty-bound to let the bill pass at its second reading. This official position of abstention was, at the very last minute, changed to advice to vote against the bill – but only after many MPs had already left parliament for the day. Yet even this about-turn was half-hearted, backed only by a ‘one-line whip’, the very weakest type of enforcement, with no consequences for insubordination. As a result, 78 Labour MPs were absent when the vote was called, and the bill passed by a margin of 63. Corbyn had helped the Tories deliver, in Abbott’s words, “one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades”. Yet there was no popularity dividend amongst the Leave-voting anti-migrant constituencies he was presumably trying to woo, and his ratings remaining as stubbornly low as ever.
The problem for Corbyn was that he never quite managed to convince people that he had left his old anti-imperialist and pro-immigrant views behind; and his reluctance to ditch the Palestinians or jump on the Russia-baiting bandwagon buried any chance he might have had of doing so. By the time the 2019 election came around, this was clearer than ever. As Luke Pagarani wrote after 100 hours of canvassing, “the key charge against Corbyn is that he fundamentally believes British lives are of equal value to the lives of others,” an unacceptable position for the bulk of the British electorate. His continued: “His opponents wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but this is what it has always been about. Hence the series of confected outrages – from not bowing deeply enough at the Cenotaph to ruling out pushing the nuclear button – that built a treasonous charge sheet as absurd as it was banal. Smears such as Corbyn “siding with Putin” over the Salisbury poisoning, when caution about trusting the judgment of British intelligence agencies was cast as support for the Russian version of events, or “supporting” the IRA, gained more traction as time went on. Even Corbyn’s commendable record of campaigning against the geopolitical grain, such as for dispossessed Tamils, Chagossians and Palestinians, came to be seen as evidence that he didn’t know which side he was supposed to be on. A symbolic moment of the campaign was the first leaders’ debate, when Corbyn highlighted the impact that the climate crisis would have on the poorest people in the world and a section of the audience responded with groans and someone shouted, “Here we go again!” When people talk about having paid into the system all their lives, as I heard repeatedly at the doorstep, they’re not just talking about national insurance payments and the benefits they’re entitled to. They’re talking about loyalty to a state they expected to be their exclusive patron …A small hoard has been salvaged from the UK’s long post-imperial decline, and only those whose fealty is proven can claim their share…Taxing the rich was unpersuasive, as many people just thought it impossible. These voters wanted the patronage of the powerful, not to challenge their power.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, had learnt their lessons from the 2017 election very well. The first was that austerity was not a votewinner. The public sector pay cap – Labour’s opposition to which, according to Ashcroft’s research, had been “one of [their] biggest attractions, which our respondents raised spontaneously throughout the campaign” in 2017 (Ashcroft, p.26) – had been ended by the Conservatives a few months before the election (only to be reimposed again less than a year after), removing one of the major grievances against them of the previous election. And in sharp contrast to Theresa May’s unremittingly grim spending propositions in 2017, Boris Johnson went to the electorate with a promise of more nurses, more police and more hospitals.
The second lesson was that, in 2017, the electorate had not been quite ready to buy Theresa May’s claim that parliament, and Labour in particular, was obstructing Brexit. But two years of Brexit quagmire in a hung parliament now meant the argument had far more traction; that Johnson himself had led the opposition to getting May’s Brexit deal passed was apparently a nuance with which the electorate were not concerned.
Combined with Labour’s eleventh hour conversion to a rerun of the Brexit referendum, the proposition in 2019 was now fundamentally different to that of 2017. Back then, an electorate seeking to move past Brexit and end austerity faced two Brexit-supporting parties, only one of whom was offering to end austerity; now, they seemingly faced two parties seeking to end austerity, only one of whom was offering to ‘get Brexit done’. More fundamentally, however, they also faced a Labour party whose commitment to upholding the colonial balance of power on which their globally-privileged living standards depended was in doubt as never before. Because, as in 2017, former Labour voters consistently gave not Brexit but Corbyn as the main reason for changing their vote – ”usually justified,” noted Jeremy Gilbert, “with reference to Corbyn’s supposed historic sympathy for the IRA or his ‘excessive’ sympathy with Muslims.”
In the end, all post-mortems of the Corbyn project must answer two questions. The first – could any policy platform or leader have won the 2019 election for Labour in the circumstances? The fact that Labour’s two main electoral constituencies – the culturally conservative former industrial towns of the North and Midlands, and the socially liberal multiethnic communities of the large cities – had by this point hardened into seemingly irreconcilable identities based on ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ makes it hard to be positive on this front. This is especially so given that Labour seem to have lost around a million voters on the Leave side, and 1.7million on the Remain side, suggesting that more decisive movement in either direction would only ever have traded lost votes rather than saved them.
But the more important question for socialists is could Corbyn – or anyone with the politics he represents – have won in any circumstances?
Ultimately, the fate of Corbynism was defined by a series of tragic realities, three of which were beyond the project’s control, and the last of which resulted from a stubborn unwillingness to recognise the first three.
The first reality is that the vast majority of the British population are, at least on an immediate material level, beneficiaries of the global system of racialised capitalism with, therefore, no class interest in upending the neocolonial status quo. The electoral base necessary to deliver a parliamentary victory for any kind of anti-imperialist programme in this country, then, simply does not exist. As Zak Cope has argued, “Britain and all of the classes and class fractions therein (albeit to varying degrees) are net consumers of value created elsewhere [and this] fundamentally bourgeois class structure of Britain means that there is no mass basis for British people to act as agents of change.” The country has “a right-wing electorate that fears above all the dissolution of [global] white supremacy as a condition of its caste-class status.” Capitalism is a system of global exploitation of which the entire populations of Western nations are net beneficiaries, and, in the main, they know it; the citizens of the imperial states areaware not only that their living standards are relatively privileged by global standards, but are also on some level aware, I would contend, that this privilege is dependent on the continued impoverishment of the global South. As Cope has written, “It is obvious that the wage in Guatemala or China is only a fraction of the wage in first world countries. It is equally clear that there is a connection between low prices for bananas, coffee and electronics and the low wages paid to the workers that produce them…No doubt the average person is unaware of the theory of unequal exchange as such, but a great many people in the first world are aware that they buy goods cheap relative to the labour that goes into their production.” Western citizens, in other words, know which way their bread is buttered.
This need not have been a fatal blow for the Corbynite project, however – which, as we have seen, quickly defined itself as an overtly social imperialist programme. Says Cope, Corbyn “promotes a national chauvinist version of socialism that aims to share among the British people more of the wealth accumulated through Britain’s imperialist exploitation of dependent countries…[Whilst] he has been a fairly consistent long-term critic of neoliberal restructuring of Britain’s welfare state… neither he nor his supporters have concerned themselves with stopping the flow of surplus value from the Third World. Doing so would require an end to British economic and military imperialism, that is, the radical restructuring of British society as we know it,” something the 2017 manifesto made clear it was not prepared to countenance. A party which had been more immediately and convincingly willing to toe the line of the imperialist bourgeoisie on Palestine and Russia may well have been able to garner support for a more equitable national distribution of imperial loot. Whether they could do this under a leader with a track record such as Corbyn’s, however, is far less likely. The second tragedy for the Corbynites, then, was that, despite the project’s capitulations, the colonial credentials of Corbyn himself, thanks to his track record of involvement in the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and international solidarity movements, were so much in doubt that he would never be trusted, by either the electorate or the elite, to be allowed into office. As Cope put it, “Corbyn is neither sufficiently xenophobic nor racist enough to appeal to the white working class electorate, and he is neither militarist enough nor neoliberal enough to gain the backing of the financial elite.” It is not only commitment to the basic principles of imperialism (if not necessarily their every manifestation) that is a necessary condition of electoral success in imperialist countries; that commitment must be seen to be sincere. This was not something Corbyn could ever have achieved.
Even a hypothetical scenario in which a 2017-style social imperialist programme achieved electoral victory under a leader with an unimpeachable track record of disdain for Third World struggles, however, would not necessarily result in the realisation of that programme. For the third tragedy of the Corbyn project is that whilst there may still be an electoral base for a social democratic programme in Britain (so long as it does not challenge neo-colonialism), what does not exist are the class forces required to enact it once in office.
Quite apart from the colonial credentials he established during his five years service as Churchill’s deputy in the War Cabinet, overseeing, amongst other atrocities, the Bengal famine and the bombing of Dresden, Attlee was allowed to deliver his left-economic programme due to a quite unique constellation of circumstances in 1945. First of all, capitalism was under threat as never before, primarily due to the existence of the Soviet Union, which emerged from the Second World War with its prestige at an all time high. Not only was it universally acknowledged to have been by far the major force in the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it seemed to have been the only industrialised nation to have got through the 1930s without being plunged into an economic depression. It suffered many other problems during this time, of course, to put it mildly; but the worst of them were not yet known to the rest of the world, much of which viewed Soviet socialism as a far superior system to the global capitalism that had failed so miserably in the 30s, ushered in fascism and led to two world wars. Capitalism, in other words, had an existential need to prove itself, as, unlike today, it faced a seemingly viable – and powerful – alternative.
In addition to these favourable geopolitical circumstances, British capitalism faced a domestic working class movement that was heavily unionised, politicised and militarily experienced – a powerful combination, with no equivalent today. In addition, the mass destruction of the war meant that there was a high demand for labour, giving the unions major leverage they do not have today, as well as a need for government investment in bankrupted industry. And finally, British capital was far less footloose than it is today; had it opposed the new settlement, it would have had nowhere else to go anyhow. In sum, in 1945, the capitalist class themselves were pushing for a new dispensation that would simultaneously get industry back on its feet, underwrite a more quiescent working class and deal with capitalism’s image problem.
None of this pertains today. In our hypothetical scenario, the most likely outcome of any attempt to deliver a social-democratic programme such as that promised by Labour under Corbyn would be that the financial markets would simply strangle the economy into submission. In this regard, the voters’ oft-repeated scepticism towards Labour’s ability to deliver on its manifesto promises must be seen not only as a reflection of cynicism towards ‘lying politicians’ but a rather savvy understanding of the class forces ranged against such an undertaking. Voters were essentially correct that Labour’s economic economic programme was unachievable – not because the ‘money was unavailable’ – the country is awash with cash, which was the main cause of the 2008 crisis – but rather because of the inevitable resistance of the bourgeois financiers.
Given the structural impossibility of challenging neo-colonialism at the ballot box and the virtual impossibility of delivering even social democracy in contemporary conditions, the real tragedy of Corbynism is that its commitment to delivering these undeliverables blinded the project from realising what could have been achieved. Corbyn’s election to the leadership in 2015 and the upsurge of enthusiasm it ignited presented a unique opportunity to use the organisational capacity of the Labour party to create cadres of community activists committed to meaningful and effective grassroots mobilisation. With 600,000 members, Labour was the biggest political party in Europe by membership, and even the internal left pressure group Momentum had 50,000 members, opening up the possibility of creating a real and lasting counterforce of working class power. Imagine what could have been achieved had these enthusiastic members been put to work in the most alienated and neglected communities, running breakfast clubs, youth programmes, political education and grassroots campaigns on local issues. Of course, there is a danger that such work would have been perceived as patronising or condescending – especially if it were to involve young middle class city folk (who seem to have been the core of the new Labour membership) descending on areas with which they have no organic connection. They would have had to have been organised by locally-rooted, experienced activists, and would have had to have serious training in the culture and ethos of the local communities they would be serving – and, even then they would have had to have worked hard to overcome much entrenched (and justified) suspicion. But none of this would have been beyond the organisational capacity of the Labour party; indeed, Labour, with its deep roots in the unions and working class movement, was and is uniquely positioned to organise such an endeavour. Yet the chance to use that position to actually build working class power in the communities was squandered. Such power would not have been enough to have won the election, for all the reasons outlined in this piece. But that is not the point; the point is to build – both through organisational practice and political consciousness raising – the power of the working class movement, as a detachment of the international proletariat. In the end, all attempts at grassroots mobilisation, political education, community programmes, and anti-militarism were ultimately subordinated, it not completely sacrificed, to the priority of winning the election. This was the real tragedy of Corbynism.
Rebels burn down Minneapolis police station following the murder of George Floyd, May 2020
In late 2012, Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, made a startling claim, based on an analysis of revolutionary upheavals across history.
He found there are three social conditions in place shortly before all major outbreaks of social violence: an increase in the elite population; a decrease in the living standards of the masses; and huge levels of government indebtedness.
The statistical model his team developed suggested that, on this basis, a major wave of social upheaval and revolutionary violence is set to take place in the US in 2020. His model had no way to predict who would lead the charge; but this week’s election gives an indication of how it is likely to unfold.
Let’s take the first condition, which Turchin calls “elite overproduction,” defined as “an increased number of aspirants for the limited supply of elite positions.” The US has clearly been heading in this direction for some time, with the number of billionaires increasing more than tenfold from 1987 (41 billionaires) to 2012 (425 billionaires). But the ruling class split between, for example, industrialists and financiers, has apparently reached fever pitch with Trump vs. Clinton.
As Turchin explains, “increased intra-elite competition leads to the formation of rival patronage networks vying for state rewards. As a result, elites become riven by increasing rivalry and factionalism.” Indeed, based on analysis of thousands of incidents of civil violence across world history, Turchin concluded that “the most reliable predictor of state collapse and high political instability was elite overproduction.”
The second condition, popular immiseration, is also well advanced. 46 million US citizens live in poverty (defined as receiving an income less than is required to cover their basic needs), while over 12 million US households are now considered food insecure. While this figure has been coming down consistently since 2011 (when it reached over 15 million), it remains above its pre-recession (per-2007) levels.
Trump’s policies are likely to sharply reverse this decrease. Trump’s second promise in his ‘contract with voters’ is a “hiring freeze on all federal employees,” amounting to a new onslaught on public sector jobs. This is in addition to what seems to be a promise to end the direct funding of state education (to, in his words, “redirect education dollars to…parents”), and to end all federal funding to so-called ‘sanctuary cities’, that is cities which do not order the state harassment of immigrants or force employers to reveal the nationalities of their workers. These cities are some of the most populated in the country, including NYC, LA, Dallas, Minneapolis and over two dozen others.
In concert with his avowed intention to lower taxes on the wealthy, including slashing business tax from 35 to 15 percent; to smash hard fought workers’ rights (under the mantra of ‘deregulation’); and to scrap what little access to healthcare was made available to the poor through Obamacare – not to mention his threat to start a trade war with China – poverty looks set to skyrocket. It is not hard to see how social unrest will follow.
As for the third condition – government indebtedness – it is hard to see how the massive tax breaks Trump has proposed can lead to anything else.
Turchin writes that “As all these trends intensify, the end result is state fiscal crisis and bankruptcy and consequent loss of military control; elite movements of regional and national rebellion; and a combination of elite-mobilized and popular uprisings that manifest the breakdown of central authority.”
But Trump is also preparing for that. Exempt from his public spending cuts, of course, are police and military budgets, both of which he promises to increase. And when questioned on the issue of police brutality last year, Trump said he wanted to see the police be given more powers. In other words, the tacit impunity which currently exists for police violence looks set to be legalized. And history shows that there is nothing like police impunity to spark a riot.
Meanwhile, as his policies fail to deliver the land of milk and honey he has promised, the demonization of scapegoats will continue. Having already vowed to round up and deport two million immigrants, and to ban Muslims from entering the US, it is already clear who these scapegoats will be. However, as well as migrants, popular anger will also be directed toward whatever namby-pamby liberals have blocked him from waging his promised war against them: be it Congressmen, judges, trade unions, pressure groups, or whoever. A combination of increased executive powers plus the use of his newly mobilized mass constituency will be directed toward purging these ‘enemies within’.
“My model suggests that the next [peak in violence] will be worse than the one in 1970” says Turchin, “because demographic variables such as wages, standards of living and a number of measures of intra-elite confrontation are all much worse this time”. All that remains to be seen is – who will win.
The world needs to “move on” from slavery and colonialism, David Cameron declared during his visit to Jamaica earlier this year. He went on to casually dismiss demands for either reparations or even an apology for the systematic kidnapping and enslavement of Africans which laid the basis of both of the wealth of his own country (and indeed his own family) and the poverty of the nation hosting his visit. What he meant by “move on”, of course, was simple: forget it ever happened and ignore its continuing legacy.
Last week, in Oxford, a demonstration of around 200 students were also demanding that Britain ‘move on’ from its colonial past – not by forgetting about it, but precisely the opposite – by acknowledging the damage done (and still being done) and atoning for it.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement began in South Africa this year, demanding an end to the veneration of ‘colonial murderers’ like Cecil Rhodes, but has since spread to Oxford, where Rhodes’ alma mater, Oriel College, still displays a huge statue in his honor. Rhodes’ statue at Cape Town University was eventually removed after protests, and the Oxford campaign hopes to repeat the success here.
Cecil Rhodes was the archetypal British imperialist – a tyrannical stealer of land, ruthless exploiter of labor and rabid butcher of men, women and children. By the 1890s, he had conquered around one million square miles of territory (including modern day Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia) and laid waste to its inhabitants, using the newly invented Maxim gun to massacre all those who stood in his way and forcing many of the rest into the living graves that were his company’s diamond mines.
As Prime Minister of Britain’s Cape Colony, his policies laid the basis for what became the apartheid system, as he forced Africans onto reserves, introduced segregation and forced labor, and systematically excluded Africans from voting, explaining to the Cape Assembly in 1887 that “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.”
What exactly this meant was spelt out in one of his more prosaic pronouncements: “one should kill as many n*ggers as possible.” The question is not so much why there is a campaign to have his statue removed as why on earth it is still there. It says a lot about just how little Britain has ‘moved on’ from its imperial past when the leader of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, Robert Mugabe, is one of the most demonized figures in the British media – whilst the architect of that country’s subjugation, Cecil Rhodes, remains a ubiquitous and venerated presence in Britain’s most hallowed academic institution.
But the campaign is about much more than statues; as the press release for the event noted, “Our call for the statue to fall is but the first step. What we stand for is something much greater: the transformation of the university in its physical and intellectual spaces, its colleges and its curricula.” Indeed, Rhodes Must Fall is part of a much broader global movement that has emerged in recent years, based around the demand to decolonize academia.
As Maori anthropologist and activist Linda Tuhiwai Smith has put it, “decolonization, once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power.”
Western academia is in particular and urgent need of such a decolonizing process as it so clearly continues to reproduce Eurocentric fallacies and omissions in manifold ways.
One way is through its erasure of the crime of colonialism; that is, its tendency to overlook – or, worse, deem as irrelevant – the sheer scale of human suffering caused by European colonialism.
Surinamese scholar Sandew Hira, for example, notes how the typical figure given for enslaved Africans in Western histories is around 12 million. But this figure neglects both those killed in the process of capture in Africa, and those enslaved at birth in the Americas. Once these two groups are added, the true figure rises to between 236 and 432 million – that is at least twenty times higher than the standard Western statistic.
Hira has also made a calculation of the reparations owed by European colonial powers to those they colonized based on the value of goods stolen, unpaid rent and labor, and compensation for human suffering, plus a very reasonable three percent compound interest on the debt (half the rate charged to Haiti on the ‘reparations’ imposed by France for the crime of abolishing slavery). The estimated total comes to $321 quadrillion, demonstrating “the inconceivable damage that colonization has caused upon the colonized and the unimaginable debt that rests of the shoulders of the colonizer.”
Little of this is recognized in mainstream Western historical accounts of the rise of Europe, which still tend to treat colonialism either as a mixed blessing for the colonized or a net drain – that is, effectively an act of benevolence – for the colonizing powers. This ‘weighing up’ of supposed ‘positive and negative’ aspects of colonialism would never be accepted for other acts of mass murder, such as the Hitlerite atrocities – yet are apparently perfectly valid for colonialism.
As Rhodes Must Fall activist Chi Chi put it at the Oxford event – “You cannot reconcile ‘but what about the railways?’ with genocide.” Except that, apparently, you can, and those who do, such as empire cheerleader Niall Ferguson, are handsomely rewarded with research grants, media accolades and seemingly endless commissions by the BBC.
But it is not only the crimes of empire that are erased in Western academia – so too is the non-European contribution to European civilization itself. As JM Blaut has analyzed in depth in The Colonizers’ Model of the World, ‘Greater Europe’ is still depicted by the majority of European historians as “the perpetual fountainhead of history” based on what he calls the ‘diffusionist’ notion that “the world as a whole has one permanent center from which culture-changing ideas tend to originate, and a vast periphery that changes as a result.” This unique capacity for progress, in this view, is based on Europe’s supposedly superior and self-generated ‘value system’.
Hand in hand with the notion that all that is good in the world flows from ‘Inside’ (Europe) to ‘Outside’ is its inevitable corollary of a “counter-diffusion of evil and savagery and disease from outside to Inside.” The supposed knowledge about the non-European world, on which such ideas are based, was, of course, produced in the process of colonialism, reflecting the biases – and interests – of the colonizer.
As Blaut writes, “the plain fact is that theories constructed from this information – and this includes the great bulk of nineteenth century anthropological, geographic, and politico-economic theories about non-Europeans – are systematically distorted” as not only were they based on information reflecting the bias of the colonialists who collected it, but also involved “shaping knowledge into theories that would prove useful for colonialism.”
It hardly needs stating that the ‘diffusionist’ theories produced by such methods are completely false. As John M Hobson has outlined in great detail in his magisterial The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, far from being the passive recipient of Western innovation, Africa and Asia largely provided the technological and institutional ‘portfolios’ (not to mention the labor power and resources) that enabled both the European industrial revolution and the ‘voyages of discovery’ that preceded it Vasco Da Gama’s travel round the Cape, for example, was not the unprecedented triumph it is still depicted as in Eurocentric history; in fact the voyage had already been accomplished 20-50 years earlier by the Islamic navigator Ahmad ibn-Majid, whilst “the Javanese, Indians and Chinese had all made it across to the Cape many decades, if not centuries, before Da Gama” (who, incidentally, relied on a Gujarati Muslim pilot as his guide).
Similarly, Hobson shows how non-European societies had a major influence on all the major turning points in European history, with, for example, Chinese technological innovations and ideas underpinning both the industrial revolution and the European Enlightenment, and Afro-Asian trading circuits originating a millennia and a half ago laying the foundation of the global trading system of today.
But it is not only history that continues to reproduce colonial theories; as Hobson has argued elsewhere, Eurocentrism thoroughly permeates fields such as international relations as well: “international theory does not so much explain international politics in an objective, positivist and universalist manner but seeks, rather, to parochially celebrate and defend or promote the West as the proactive subject of, and as the highest or ideal normative referent in world politics.”
In philosophy, too, only European philosophy is typically taught, with non-European philosophy consigned to anthropology – to be studied as the quaint beliefs of irrational societies. At the same time, the racism of the European philosophers under discussion are buried or ignored. As Charles W. Mills points out in The Racial Contract, there is a “uniformity of opinion” on the inferiority of non-Europeans amongst pretty much all major European thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards: he cites, for example, “Hume, who denies that any race other than the white one has produced a civilization; the utilitarian Mill, who denies the applicability of the anti-paternalist ‘harm principle’ to ‘barbarians’ and maintains that they need European colonial despotism; [and] the historicist GWF Hegel, who denies that Africa has any history and suggests that blacks were morally improved through being enslaved.” None of this will typically be mentioned on undergraduate philosophy courses.
Underlying all of this is what decolonial scholar Ramon Grosfoguel calls “epistemic racism”. Seventeenth century Europe saw a revolution in epistemology, epitomized by Rene Descartes’ idea of mind-body dualism. By separating the mind from the body, Descartes was able to posit the idea of a completely objective system of knowledge, unbounded by the limitations of societal specificity. This afforded the subject – the privileged male Western subject, that is – a ‘God’s eye’ universal view of the world, superior to all other epistemologies. Such a claim to perfect, godlike, knowledge, would have been treated as idolatry in other cosmologies; and for decolonial scholars, all knowledge is “bio-graphically and geo-historically located,” to use Walter Mignolo’s terminology.
But Western epistemology has, by sheer force of arms, been able to impose itself on the rest of the world, presenting itself as the one true and valid system of knowledge production; it is no coincidence that the epistemological revolution overlaps with the era of colonialism. As Enrique Dussel argues, it is not so much that “I think, therefore I am” as “I conquer, therefore I am.”
And academia still bears the birthmarks of its colonial genesis. Grosfoguel points out that this is the case to such an extent that supposedly “universal knowledge” is still based on “the socio-historical experience of just five countries” – Italy, Germany, Britain, France and the USA, comprising between them a mere 12 percent of the world’s population, but virtually 100 percent of the reading material of almost every academic social science course in the western world. Knowledge produced in all other parts of the world is interiorized.
Oxford was, and is, central to both this inferiorization of non-European knowledge, and the conquests and exterminations that allowed this process to develop. I asked Ciaran Walsh, radical Labor historian at Ruskin College, who runs the excellent Radical Oxford walking tour, about the university’s role in colonialism: “The ideologues who justified the creation of first the English and then the British Empire came from Oxford, and generations of imperial administrators were educated at Oxford under the banner of the civilizing mission. But this mission was a cover for the expansion of European political forms, structures, property relations and all the oppression, dislocation and death that flowed with that. Imperialism and capital accumulation have been co-emergent in the modern era and Oxford’s played a key role in this whole process in Britain and globally.”
Places like Oxford’s Indian Institute – founded after the first war of Indian independence in 1857 had shaken the foundations of the British Empire – were created as what Walsh calls “centers of orientalism,” designed to study non-European cosmologies, legal systems, institutions and social structures the better to dominate them. Walsh explains that William Jones, the first European to study Sanskrit, was a product of Oxford, who went on to study Indian law in order to allow “a more workable system of European property relations to be imposed. This is the instrumental nature of orientalism.”
And still today, as Mignolo notes, “seldom, if ever, are intellectual debates in the regions being reported taken into account…very much like natural resources, Third World ideas are processed in European intellectual factories.” Thus, as Kiran Benipal put it on the demonstration, “Rhodes legacy is alive and well, and runs through the blood of this institution.”
And Oxford continues to produce the modern-day Rhodes’ who are his worthy successors in British colonial barbarism in Africa and beyond. Oxford graduate, Tony Blair, was involved in plans to follow directly in Rhodes’ footsteps and invade Zimbabwe; it was only the steadfastness of Mbeki’s ANC government in South Africa that prevented this from taking place and subsequently exposed the plot. Likewise, David Cameron, a graduate of Brasenose College, did his bit to stymie African development; his blitzkrieg destruction of Libya paved the way for a bloodbath that has already enveloped Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria and continues to grow.
So Rhodes’ legacy continues not only through the manifold monuments, buildings and institutions that bear his name, not only through the European supremacist foundations of academia, but also through British policies that continue to brutalize and subjugate Africa, Asia and South America. The British state cannot bear to see anti-colonial resistance movements in power anywhere, and have still not reconciled themselves to the reality that the movements that led the fight for independence remain in government across much of Southern Africa. Rhodes will fall. But it will require constant vigilance – and we must never forget that the enemy today is the same as it was then – British imperialism.
The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray triggered protests not just in their home states but worldwide, with the campaign group Black Lives Matter emerging to protest the ongoing deaths at the hands of US police. The Oxford Union hosted a packed debate on whether the US is “institutionally racist”earlier this year, and the deaths, protests and trials resulting from the killings have all made regular headline news.
What has received far less attention has been the continued deaths at the hands of UK state officials. In March, the Institute for Race Relations published an in-depth report on 509 people of color who died in suspicious circumstances between 1991 and 2014 whilst in the custody of police, prison or immigration officers. Their analysis of these deaths – which averaged almost one per fortnight over the period covered – showed that a large number occurred after excessive use of force by the authorities, and an even larger number involved a culpable lack of care. Perhaps even more damning, the report concluded that “lessons are not being learnt; people die in similar ways year on year.”
But the big difference that emerges from the US is the handling of the officers involved. Officers stood trial following all three of the big recent cases from the US – even if, infamously, they have all so far been found not guilty. In the 509 cases examine by the IRR, however, a mere five cases – less than 1 percent – led to prosecutions – with not a single conviction. This is despite inquests recording verdicts of unlawful killing in over a dozen cases. Indeed, of the thousands of deaths in custody that have occurred since the late 1960s (current levels are around 600 per year), only one single case, that of David Oluwale in 1969, has resulted in the conviction of an officer.
One case which clearly illustrates the difficulties faced by families of the victims in their struggle for justice is that of Habib “Paps” Ullah.
Habib and two of his friends were pulled over by police in High Wycombe, near London, on July 3, 2008. Habib was peaceful and compliant with the police, who he allowed to search him. However, when he was asked to open his mouth, he turned his back on them. That was the trigger for a vicious assault. Without warning, one officer, DS Liles, punched him in the back with maximum force, at which point four officers set upon him. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, Habib was subjected to further blows, knee strikes, a finger in his eye socket, the squeezing of his throat, and the full bodyweight of an officer on top of him whilst face down on the ground, along with a variety of “pain compliance” techniques. At one stage, DS Liles shouted to his colleagues: “Break his arm.”
Witnesses were screaming at the officers that they were strangling him, with another witness describing it as like something from a horror film. By the end of the assault, Habib had lost consciousness, with officers noting that his arm dropped to the floor when released, and that his eyes were motionless when his eyelids pulled back. Nevertheless, the police waited a further 10 minutes before calling an ambulance. Witnesses spoke of the police “standing around”; no CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was given to Habib, he was not put into a full recovery position, and his pulse was not taken: the officers all claimed that they believed Habib had been “faking it.” When an ambulance was finally called, the police gave the code B1, for a non-life threatening situation; by the time it arrived, witnesses – including the officers themselves – had confirmed Habib had been making very strange coughing sounds with his face turning first blue and then grey. Those sounds, it now seems clear, were almost certainly his death rattle. The small wrap of drugs which Habib had in his mouth had got lodged in his throat during the attack which, combined with likely “positional asphyxia” caused by the restraint, had caused him to suffocate.
The family have had to wait seven years until the inquest was finally held in February this year for this account of Habib’s death to finally emerge. Yet the initial police statements, written by the five officers involved immediately after Habib’s death, had pretty much admitted the full story. So what happened in the intervening seven years?
Following Habib’s death being confirmed in the hospital, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was brought in to conduct an investigation, as is the usual practice following a death in custody. But those initial statements made by the officers were not the ones that were handed to the IPCC.
Rather, what happened is that senior police officers, members of the Police Federation, and a police solicitor oversaw a process in which the officers were instructed to rewrite their statements. References to the compliance of Habib and his friends; to the amount of force used by the police; to Habib’s condition (including his going limp and his strange breathing); to warnings from witnesses that Habib was being strangled and even to the presence of some of the witnesses were all removed from the final statements. It is entirely clear that senior officers, the Police Federation and the police solicitor were actively instigating a cover-up, in which the IPCC was being deliberately misled as to what was done to Habib, the warning signs about his condition, and even as to who witnessed the event.
At first, the cover-up worked. The IPCC investigation exonerated all the officers involved and concluded that no wrongdoing had taken place (none that is except for failing to inform Habib’s family of his death promptly enough, exhibiting a disregard for the family’s welfare that seems to be disgracefully common in such cases). Two years later, however, when the inquest began, the truth about the redacting of the statements began to emerge. Under cross-examination – when asked why so many relevant details now coming out were not included in the initial statements – one of the officers gave the game away. The inquest was suspended whilst the IPCC re-opened their investigation. The new investigation was to look into not only whether the original findings were affected by the new evidence, but also into whether the rewriting of the statements itself constituted wrongdoing.
This new investigation, amazingly, took the IPCC a full three years. The final report – which has still not been published – concluded that the case should be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (the CPS) for criminal prosecution of the officers involved; charges to be considered included misconduct in public office, assault, intention to pervert the course of justice and perjury. Months passed – until, in August 2014, the CPS announced that it did not intend to prosecute a single one of the officers involved.
But that was not the end of the matter. An inquest had still to take place, and it was announced that this would be held in February 2015. If this inquest resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, the potential for a criminal prosecution would be reopened.
As the inquest unfolded, the likelihood of this outcome seemed to grow. One expert witness after another concluded that the officers’ “restraint” significantly contributed to Habib’s death. Under cross-examination, even the police’s own preferred specialist – the appropriately named Dr Bleetman – eventually had to accept this (a finding he had denied in his initial report). Police trainers testified that many of the strikes and “compliance techniques” used by the officers were not approved, and even those that were should not have been administered in those circumstances – that is, without warning against a passive victim. It was revealed that, despite officers’ claims to be trying to open Habib’s mouth, some of the techniques used are actually deigned to close the mouth. The evidence of the inquest revealed, overwhelmingly, that the assault had been unlawful and had, in part at the very least, led to Habib’s death.
After a month taking evidence, the jury deliberated. Their highly critical narrative concluded: “Several officers recognised some signs associated with abnormal breathing but no practical assistance was offered. Valuable time was lost due to the fact that the officers believed him to be feigning unconsciousness. Once Mr Ullah was unconscious rigorous monitoring should have been undertaken. The jury believes that the level of monitoring was inadequate. Furthermore the jury considered that the incident was poorly managed. In particular the lack of communication and clear commands by a leading officer resulted in an uncoordinated and ineffective restraint.” Yet they did not reach a verdict of unlawful killing; rather they recorded “death by misadventure.” The last chance for a criminal prosecution was over; the officers who had just been shown to have launched an unprovoked attack on Habib and then left him to die would walk free.
These are the battles which families of victims face in case after case in this country: uphill struggles even just to find out what happened, endless delays, and then total lack of accountability or justice at the end of it all. The whole labyrinthine system is a masterclass in obfuscation and the perversion of justice under the guise of bureaucratic procedures. And every step of the way, the institutions involved emerge complicit in protecting the impunity of the police.
Firstly, the police themselves and the Police Federation. It was senior police officers and Police Federation members who stepped in to ensure that the original police statements were doctored to protect the officers. Yet they have never been called to account for their actions.
Secondly, the IPCC. Established in 2004 to replace the entirely discredited Police Complaints Commission, the IPCC was supposed to be an independent body which could be relied on to impartially investigate the police. Paps’ case shows how far this is from the truth. The senior officers and Police Federation members who instigated the cover-up were never the subject of the IPCC’s investigations, which focused solely on the officers involved in the death – despite the fact that the second investigation had a remit to specifically investigate that cover-up.
Furthermore, the fact that the scene was not treated as a crime scene, and that the officers were interviewed not as suspects but as witnesses is indicative of the bias that is at the very heart of the IPCC. These decisions – which are standard practice when investigating custody deaths – reveal that, from the very outset, the IPCC’s assumption is that no crime has been committed, and the idea that the officers involved might be responsible for the death is not even a possibility. Deaths in custody are treated not as crimes, but, at worst, as tragic accidents. This goes beyond the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”; the IPCC, begins by assuming there is not even anything to be guilty of. And inasmuch as there is any case to answer, it is only ever for the officers on the ground to answer – never their superiors.
None of this should be surprising, however, given the composition of the IPCC: eight out of its nine most senior members are themselves former police officers. Some independence. In 2012, the IPCC was even threatened with contempt of court proceedings by a coroner following its refusal to hand over key evidence during the Mark Duggan case. The IPCC is clearly unable to act as the independent watchdog it proclaims to be; indeed, in 2013 a parliamentary inquiry concluded that the IPCC “has neither the powers nor the resources that it needs to get to the truth when the integrity of the police is in doubt.”
Thirdly, the CPS. The decision not to prosecute the officers – after the IPCC had handed them detailed evidence of assault, perjury, and intent to pervert the course of justice – can only be understood in terms of an institutional determination to protect the police from prosecution at all costs. The evidence to mount a prosecution clearly was there. Even the police officers themselves admitted that the passages they removed from their statements were relevant and should have been included. Yet, as one officer noted at the inquest: “The Crown Prosecution Service concluded we were looking to make the evidence more accurate and not wishing to mislead people.” Given what was removed – details of the assault, details about Habib’s condition, details of other witnesses – even the IPCC concluded there was no way that making these omissions could have made the evidence ‘more accurate’.
But again, the CPS have form in this regard. In 1999, a government inquiry conducted by Gerald Butler was highly critical of the CPS’s reluctance to prosecute police officers involved in custody deaths. Since then, little has changed. In 2011, Janet Alder made history as the first person ever to take the CPS to court. Janet’s brother had died in police custody in Hull in 1998 and, as ever, the CPS refused to prosecute the officers involved. Four years later, after massive campaigning and evidence-gathering by the family, the CPS did eventually bring a case against five of the officers – but, it seems, deliberately bungled the case. Key pieces of evidence were not submitted, and others were conflated and thrown out. As Janet Alder said: “I don’t think it’s incompetence, because they’ve been prosecuting cases for hundreds of years… I think the CPS from the beginning had absolutely no intention whatsoever of prosecuting these officers. They’d proved that for four years. ”
Between them, these institutions – the Police Federation, the IPCC (and its predecessor) and the CPS – have shielded the police from justice for decades. This shielding has allowed a culture of impunity to persist and grow where officers believe they will never be held to account for their actions. What was particularly revealing about Habib’s inquest was that the more senior the officers involved, the more brazen and vicious were their actions.
The most senior officer, DS Liles, with eighteen years experience, was the one who initiated and led the attack itself, but also who showed the least remorse and the most arrogance subsequently, telling the jurors he would act in just the same way again. His younger colleagues, in contrast, were clearly worried about what had happened: one, PC Pomery, confessed to a colleague that he was worried he had gripped Habib’s throat too hard, for example. Liles clearly knew, however, that they had nothing to worry about. He knew they would be protected.
Their victim was well chosen. Many of the suspicious deaths in custody involve members of vulnerable groups who are already treated with contempt by society. Victims often have mental health problems; in Habib’s case, he was a drug user (a point which the officers never failed to mention in their testimonies at the inquest). The officers knew, it seems, that such a character – and a Muslim to boot – could hope for little sympathy from the jury. They may not have expected him to die from the attack – but the point is, they knew they could attack him with impunity, breaking every rule in the book. And those who had been there the longest, knew this the most clearly.
But for the family of Habib “Paps” Ullah – and for many others – the struggle for justice continues. The police’s internal gross misconduct case is due to take place in June; it will be one of the first ever to be held in public. In addition, the family have instigated a civil claim against Thames Valley Police on the basis of assault and breaches of the Human Rights Act Article 2, the Right to Life.
Over the past year, Prime Minister David Cameron has constantly declared his undying commitment to the “rule of law.” Yet while his own police force retain the level of impunity they currently enjoy, the notion remains a total fiction.
When a family member is killed, it is devastating for anyone. When that family member dies at the hands of the police, it is also likely to be the start of an overwhelming struggle to establish the truth.
Every obstacle will be put in the way of a successful outcome of this struggle, and those who seek justice are likely to find themselves subject to a vindictive campaign by the police. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than Janet Alder’s almost two-decade long campaign to establish what happened to her brother Christopher.
On April 1, 1998, Christopher Alder was on a night out in Hull. The 37-year-old was a former paratrooper who had served in the Falklands and Northern Ireland, and had been decorated for his service; he had two children, and was in training for a new career in computer programming. Later that night, however, outside the Waterfront nightclub, he got into a fight. After being punched in the face, Christopher was briefly knocked unconscious and lost a tooth. An ambulance was called, and Christopher was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary, accompanied by police officers. His injuries were not deemed life-threatening, and he was discharged, after which the police drove him to the police station.
Exactly what happened in that police van during the short one-mile journey remains shrouded in mystery; indeed it has never properly been investigated. What we do know is that by the time he arrived in the police station, he was unconscious again, had lost another tooth, and had received two additional injuries (a cut to the lip and a cut above the eye). He was then dragged into the custody suite with his trousers round his ankles and his belt missing, and left face down and handcuffed on the floor. No attempt was made to put him into the recovery position, and CCTV footage shows officers standing around chatting as he gasps for breath, still unconscious. Within 12 minutes he would be dead, with officers making racist comments and monkey noises over his corpse. It was a level of contempt that has characterized the state’s attitude towards Christopher and his family ever since.
Christopher’s sister Janet began campaigning for justice for her brother just three months after his death. Her tireless efforts have served to keep the case in the public eye, thwarting the police’s attempts to brush it under the carpet, and have resulted in some astounding revelations and admissions. Yet, to date, justice has still not been done; the police who caused his death have never been properly held to account or punished for their actions, whilst Janet has borne the brunt of a vindictive campaign against both her and her brother’s memory which continues to this day – but which began immediately after his death.
In the days following Christopher’s death, six officers raided his flat. The flat was then sealed off for two weeks whilst the police laboriously itemized and mapped out every item in the home. Needless to say this is not usual procedure for dealing with a possible murder victim; indeed, an official report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (the IPCC) later noted that it was “more in keeping with what might be expected if Mr Alder were a suspect rather than a victim.” What seems likely is that this raid, far from having anything to do with investigating Christopher’s death, was rather a desperate attempt to find something – anything – that could be used to smear his name. For this is usual procedure: one only has to recall the lies that were put out following the executions of Mark Duggan and Jean Charles de Menezes to realize that the smearing by police of their victims following a death in custody is standard practice.
The raid, however, turned up nothing.
So the next step, it seems, was to smear his family. An investigation by the IPCC in 2006 revealed that following Christopher’s death, Humberside Police had dredged up social service records dating back to the births of all the Alder children – Christopher, Richard, Emmanuel, Stephen, and Janet, who were brought up in care. The IPCC report noted that the records “did not seem to have any relevance” to the case; it did not speculate on what the real purpose of obtaining the records might have been.
So the police were certainly busy in the aftermath of Christopher’s death. What they were not busy doing, however, was investigating the actual circumstances of his death.
Given that Christopher died at the hands of Humberside police, the investigation into their role in his death was carried out by West Yorkshire police. However, they proved unable – or more likely unwilling – to follow even the most routine of procedures. Whether he had been assaulted by any of the officers he encountered that night was never investigated. Worse, all the evidence which would help to establish this was allowed to be destroyed. The police van was cleaned, blood samples and clothing – both Christopher’s and the officers’ – were destroyed without being tested, and CS gas canisters from the police van were disposed of. Christopher’s missing belt and tooth were never located.
Humberside police, meanwhile, were mounting a prosecution of their own. Jason Paul had been involved in the fight with Christopher that night; initially trying to break it up, he ended up punching Christopher after receiving blows himself. Yet despite the pathologist’s conclusion that this punch had played no role in Christopher’s death, when Jason went to the police station to assist with the inquiry the following day he was arrested on suspicion of murder. He was eventually charged with “GBH with intent.” It would not be until three months later that the spurious charges were finally dropped. Jason Paul eventually mounted a successful civil court case against the police, which found that he had been falsely imprisoned and the prosecution had been malicious. The jury unanimously agreed that it was “more likely than not that the police charged [Mr Paul] with causing GBH with intent to deflect potential criticism of the [actual] circumstances of Christopher Alder’s death.” Police were ordered to pay £30,000 damages.
Whilst the police were busy destroying evidence, pursuing their scapegoat, and digging for dirt on their victim, the work of actually investigating Christopher’s death was, from the start, left entirely to his family and their supporters.
An early victory for the family, however, came in 2000 at the inquest into Christopher’s death. Despite the refusal of any of the officers involved to answer questions, and despite the forensic experts’ work being severely hampered by the police’s destruction of crucial evidence, the jury concluded that Christopher died from “positional asphyxia” due to neglect – that is, his death was directly caused by the position he was left in by the police. The result was a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing. Such verdicts are extremely uncommon. Of 509 suspicious deaths in custody between 1991 and 2014 investigated by the Institute for Race Relations, only 12 resulted in verdicts of unlawful killing; often, the coroner will not even allow such a verdict to be considered. So this was, in the words of Janet Alder’s lawyer Ruth Bundey, a “high point” in the campaign – and it paved the way for a prosecution of the five officers involved in Christopher’s death. But the trial would prove to be a travesty.
Prosecutions are even more uncommon than unlawful killing verdicts; indeed, the Butler report, published just a year after Christopher’s death, had explicitly criticized the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for their reluctance to prosecute police officers. What Christopher’s case seems to demonstrate, however, is their absolute determination that when prosecutions that do go ahead will have no chance of a successful conviction. As Janet said of the case, “The CPS did the job of the defense – they eradicated any evidence of police wrongdoing.”
The trial began in 2002, four years after Christopher’s death. The officers were charged with gross negligence, manslaughter and misconduct in high office. But as Janet explained to me in 2011, “I’d wanted [the CPS] to investigate why he’d received additional injuries and lost an additional tooth on transit to the police station; why his belt was missing and his trousers were down; why their van had been cleaned, their clothes dry-cleaned, and CS gas canisters destroyed. But on all those things, the CPS totally ignored me…They had never ever even considered whether an assault by the police officers could have caused Christopher’s additional injuries. I was very very shocked at that.”
It got worse: “The evidence that incriminated these police officers was not even put into the case.” The audio of the monkey noises, for example, was never presented in court. But that was not where the problems ended. Even where evidence was submitted, it was submitted in a way that ensured it could not be used: “When it came to the medical evidence for gross negligence and manslaughter, they conflicted the evidence. The evidence to suggest that Christopher would have died [even if his injuries had been treated] was put together with the evidence collected by the family to say that he would have survived.”
With the evidence conflicted in this way, the judge concluded he had no choice but to throw it out. The trial had collapsed before it ever really got under way, as a direct result of the CPS’s handling of the evidence – and all five officers were acquitted. As Janet put it: “I always felt, from the beginning, that this case was set to fail. It basically proved me right. And because this case didn’t get past the halfway stage – which I believe the CPS were well aware it would not – the police officers once again were able to evade answering any questions whatsoever.”
The following year, an internal disciplinary hearing was held – the police investigating themselves once again. All five were cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed to take early retirement. Despite the inquest’s ruling that the police had unlawfully killed Christopher, all involved had walked free, without ever having had to answer questions about their conduct except in private to their own colleagues. As Janet told me, “There is absolutely no disciplinary system for when somebody dies at their hands – no accountability whatsoever.”
Janet was undeterred. Together with lawyer Ruth Bundey, she mounted two further court cases: one at the European Court of Human Rights, and a civil case against the CPS for their mishandling of the prosecution. Then in 2004, the Home Office ordered the IPCC to conduct a review of the whole investigation into Christopher’s death. Its findings, published in 2006, were damning, highlighting “serious failings” in three areas: “i) the individual conduct of four of the police officers involved, which amounted to serious neglect of duty; ii) subsequent mistakes by senior police officers in their response to investigating a death in custody; and iii) major systemic failures including the presence of negative racial stereotyping in the treatment of Mr Alder, the poor level of working practices between police and medical staff regarding transfers of responsibility for care, and failings in the police disciplinary system.”
Thus the IPCC had not only reiterated the inquest finding that the officers’ neglect had directly caused Christopher’s death, but also slammed the investigation and effectively rendered the verdict of the internal disciplinary hearing null and void. Yet, bizarrely, other than recommending an “unreserved apology” to the family, the report suggested that no further action be taken against the police.
A full five years later, Judge Penelope Belcher finally heard the civil case Janet had brought against the CPS. This case proved what Janet had always suspected – that the CPS had never bothered investigating what happened to Christopher in the police van. As Janet explained, “In the civil case, I asked the CPS whether an additional assault could have caused the additional injuries, and they said yes. So I asked them if they had investigated this, and they said no. I asked why not, and they said they thought the investigating officer was going to ask those questions.”
In other words, even when collecting evidence for a prosecution the CPS were scared to step on the toes of the very police they were supposed to be prosecuting, preferring to leave the “difficult questions” for the police to ask themselves. In her summing up, the judge concluded that she shared “Miss Alder’s concerns as to the possibility that racial discrimination played some part in the actions of the police officers on the night that Christopher Alder died” as well as “her concerns as to the standard of the investigation undertaken by West Yorkshire Police into the actions of the Humberside officers.”
Once again, officialdom had admitted that racism played a part in Christopher’s death and that the death itself was never properly investigated. But there was still no suggestion that the perpetrators of any of this should actually be brought to justice.
Then, eight months later, in November 2011, Janet’s case was finally due at the European Court, eight years after she had first lodged it. The British government had fought tooth and nail against the case being heard. But then, on the eve of the case commencing, the government issued an extraordinary statement admitting that the police had breached articles 2,3 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights in their treatment of Christopher – that is, they had breached his right to life, to freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and to freedom from discrimination. The British government was effectively admitting its own police were guilty of a racist killing, and that this had never been properly investigated. One might have thought such an admission would be the trigger for a proper investigation to actually be finally carried out. It was not. Once again, despite what was now a fourth official admission of wrongdoing, killing and cover-up, no action was taken.
But the full scale of the police’s contempt for the Alder family was still to be revealed.
In 1999, Nigerian-born Grace Kamara died in Hull of natural causes. Immediately, her close friend Christine Omoregie began the laborious process of applying for visas for Grace’s family in Nigeria to attend the funeral. Inexplicably, the visas were subjected to endless delays. “I spent about £3,000 trying to get relatives over,” Christine later told BBC News, “and waited a decade for a visa to be granted.” It was not until 2011 that Grace Kamara’s relatives finally had their visa approved. Twelve years after her death, her family prepared for the burial, scheduled for November 4, 2011.
Grace’s body was to be buried in an open casket; it is part of Nigerian custom that the family see the body at the funeral. After initially attempting to frustrate the family’s requests to see the body, however, the Council eventually made a terrible admission. Grace’s body was not, in fact, in the mortuary where it was supposed to be. It had been buried in Christopher Alder’s grave: back in 2000, the Alder family had been given the body of 77 year old Grace Kamara and told it was Christopher; and they had buried her in his place. The Home Office, it seems, had collaborated in covering this up ever since with their interminable visa delays, presumably in the hope that Kamara’s family would either die off, or accept a closed-casket funeral after so much time had passed. Indeed, when Alan Johnson – Home Secretary during the repeated visa denials – was interviewed about the affair on ITN, his usual unflappably slick and confident persona was transformed into a twitchy and defensive bundle of nerves. Every fiber of his body screamed: “Rumbled.”
A criminal investigation was ordered, to be carried out this time by South Yorkshire police. It concluded in May 2013 that mortuary workers did indeed have a “case to answer,” and had missed at least 10 opportunities to report what had happened. But in October that year, the CPS announced it would not be prosecuting anyone. A review of the decision was ordered: so the CPS dutifully “reviewed” the decision, only to repeat their original conclusion in March 2014.
Coverage of the scandal at the time tended to describe it as a “mix-up” and a “mistake,” which only came to light when Christopher’s body was “discovered” in the mortuary in November 2011. We now know this is false. Once again, it fell to the family to discover the truth. A Freedom of Information request to the Human Tissue Authority, lodged by Janet Alder, revealed that Christopher Alder’s body had the correct documentation attached to it all along; it was even signed off under his name when it had been moved to another mortuary in 2005. It had not been mysteriously “discovered” in 2011; the authorities had known exactly where he was from the start. Janet has her own explanation: as she told Press TV last year, “I don’t believe it was a mistake. I believe it was a punishment to me personally for fighting against the system.”
It is a harsh verdict, but one that is supported by further revelations over what exactly had been happening to Christopher’s body all this time. In August 2014, Humberside police took the unusual step of referring itself to the IPCC when a number of officers claimed Alder’s body had been used for some form of police training. Further investigation revealed that 59 officers may have been shown Christopher’s frozen body during the time he was in the mortuary. The IPCC declined to investigate, saying it was a matter for Humberside police themselves to investigate. The same force, that is, that killed Christopher in the first place and then spent years gloating over his dead body.
For Janet, however, there was more to come. In 2013, it emerged that the Metropolitan police had kept the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence under illegal surveillance. In response to the scandal, all police forces were ordered to check their records for evidence of surveillance relating to the investigation. That was when it emerged that Humberside police had been illegally spying on both Janet Alder and her lawyer. This, however, was not a shock for Janet so much as a confirmation of what she had always suspected.
The IPCC this time did deign to investigate, and issued their findings to the CPS in May. It is now in the hands of the CPS whether to prosecute. Don’t hold your breath. As Janet told me: “I don’t expect anything from these people now. All I want is to expose them.”
Darren Cumberbatch was fit and healthy at 32-years-old when he left his family home on the evening of Sunday 9th July to return to the bail hostel where he was staying in Nuneaton. For reasons which remain unclear, however, police arrived at the hostel later that night, during which time, say the police, Darren ‘became unwell’ in their presence. This is putting it mildly. By the time they dropped him off at hospital later that night, he was covered in bruises and burns, later telling a friend he had been tasered nine times. Ten days later he died from his injuries. He was the third young black man to die in UK police custody or ‘following police contact’ in as many weeks.
A justice campaign has been established by Darren’s friends and family to pressure the authorities to reveal what happened and to hold those responsible to account. Their first public meeting was held on Wednesday 27th July, which was attended by around 500 people. The meeting led to calls from the community for the immediate suspension of the officers involved, and for an immediate suspension of the use of tasers, which are thought to have played a role in Darren’s death. Dan Glazebrook interviews one of the campaign organizers, Desmond Jaddoo.
Well, what we know is this. After leaving the family home on the 9th of July, he returned to the hostel at some point. And we know overnight, either the late hours of 9th July or the early hours of the 10th July, the police were called to the hostel; for what reason, we’re unaware. Contact then took place with the police which ended up with Darren being arrested; but when he was placed in the back of a police van, instead of them taking him to custody, the police took him to the George Eliot hospital. They never told his sister Carla, who is his next of kin, that he was hospitalised until the Wednesday, which was the 12th of July. That day, the family went down there, and he had a lot of unexplained injuries: he was battered and bruised, he had burn marks on his feet, parts of his body were swollen, he had various cuts and abrasions that were all unexplained. Then on the 19th of July his injuries were insurmountable and his life support machine was switched off, so he sadly passed away. So what we know in a nutshell is that he was fit and healthy when he left the family home on the Sunday, and then between Sunday night and Monday morning he had sustained several injuries following police contact whereby he ended up in hospital. And that ultimately led to him losing his life.
Now, it’s our understanding that force was used when the police attended. It’s our understanding that a baton was used, that CS spray was used, and that a taser was used. And it’s our understanding as well that Darren told a friend – because he was still communicating then – that he was tasered up to nine times. Now that’s overly excessive because it’s known that people [are lucky to] survive being tasered three times or more. Now the important thing is this: this was what’s called a ‘serious injury event’. This means that Warwickshire police should have reported this to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) on the 10th of July because clearly this man had been hospitalised with serious injuries. However, it was not reported to the IPCC until the 19th of July when he died. So that’s an inexcusable delay.
And what do we know about the IPCC investigation? Do we know, for example, is the IPCC treating Macintyre house [where the initial contact between Darren and the police took place] as a crime scene? Is it interviewing the police as suspects or as witnesses?
At the moment, it’s not a criminal investigation. It’s an IPCC independent investigation. However, based on the evidence gathering they can review that at any time. So right now the terms of reference have been agreed, and they’re anticipating between six and nine months for an investigation. But in terms of a criminal investigation, the door on that has not been closed, thankfully.
In previous cases like these, the police have gone to great lengths to cover up what they’ve done. For example Habs Ullah, who died on the 3rd of July 2008 just 90 minutes after being stopped by police officers, police statements were doctored at the behest of the Police Federation; in the case of Christopher Alder who died in police custody in 1998, crucial evidence like gas cylinders and police clothing was destroyed. Can a campaign like this one put pressure on the IPCC to make sure these kinds of things aren’t taking place right now?
Well, I will tell you this – we are holding the IPCC to account. And the idea today, that we’ve tried to show at our demonstrations, is that there’s strength in numbers: to send a clear message that this is a serious campaign; there is serious support for the family and that support can only grow. But importantly, what it signifies is that people want answers – and we want the truth.
The purpose of last week’s march was also to pay our respects to Darren where he fell, by lighting candles outside Macintyre house. But it also shows that we’re good people: it was a well behaved march and one of the things we have to show is that we are better than what we’re stereotyped to be. We don’t need no special treatment, and the most important thing, which I said outside the police station, was this – it is no longer open season on the black community. Because the special treatment sometimes that is dished out to the black community is just totally unacceptable. It’s ungodly as well.
The movement against police brutality in the US has been making serious waves. Uprisings across Baltimore and Ferguson in particular have made global headlines, and a new movement, dubbed ‘Black Lives Matter’, has seared itself onto public consciousness. Revolutionaries within the movement have been calling for Black Community Control of the police, under their modified slogan Black Power Matters, and the movement as a whole has succeeded in making police brutality a live issue across the US which no politician can afford to ignore.
It is perhaps with an eye to averting such an outcome in Britain that British Home Secretary Theresa May announced in March that she would be launching the first ever public inquiry into deaths in police custody. Though receiving far less coverage, deaths ‘following police contact’ are a major issue in this country as well, with 1,433 taking place in England and Wales between 1990 and 2012, according to campaigning group Inquest. However, not a single police officer was convicted over any of these deaths.
Names such as Christopher Alder, Azelle Rodney, Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell and many others have become synonymous with police violence, racism, cover-up – and impunity. This year has seen a number of bitterly disappointing legal verdicts for the families and campaign groups which have been fighting for truth and justice for their loved ones and, with anger growing, the government will not have forgotten that it was precisely such a case – the police execution of Mark Duggan, and particularly the contempt with which his family was treated after the killing – that triggered a youth insurgency across inner-city England in August 2011.
So far, exact details of the inquiry have yet to emerge. And while May has expressed her desire to tackle a number of issues around deaths in custody, no concrete changes have emerged yet.
Deborah Coles, Director of Inquest – a support group providing legal advice to families of those who have died in state custody – gives me her response to the proposed inquiry. ‘We have given it a guarded welcome,’ she says, ‘but there are 2 issues for me. One is that there has been no consultation with the families or with Inquest about the terms of reference, and the terms of reference are going to be critical. But there is also that sense of déjà vu. In 30 years of our organization’s existence, there has been review after review, and there is a whole wealth of evidence out there about what the problems are. The key issue is the fact that recommendations are not implemented.’
Harmit Athwal, who co-authored ‘Dying for Justice’, an Institute of Race Relations report into deaths in custody last year, agrees with Coles. ‘In terms of the IPCC [the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which investigate deaths in police custody], you see the same mistakes being made again and again: investigations take an incredibly long time, a failure to recommend prosecutions and then, when a case gets to an inquest and there’s a critical verdict, it’s coming out about officers conferring,’ explains Athwal.
The end result from all these inquiries is huge documents that take months and years to come out and don’t really have any effect in terms of the numbers of deaths
Ken Fero, whose 2001 film Injustice was critical in bringing deaths in police custody into the public consciousness, is even more unequivocal: ‘It’s another public inquiry. It won’t be effective in terms of preventing police officers killing people. It’s just repeating what we’ve had before in terms of investigations – inquiries into the IPCC, inquiries into the police investigation system, judicial inquiries into the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service]. The end result from all these inquiries is huge documents that take months and years to come out and don’t really have any effect in terms of the numbers of deaths.’
So what will have an effect? What is necessary to bring about justice for those who have died at the hands of the police? Ken Fero is emphatic that ‘there is no need for any new legislation. There is the law of murder and manslaughter and these need to be implemented for police officers. It’s as simple as that. The only change there needs to be is in the determination of the CPS to actually prosecute and the determination of the IPCC to investigate.’
This reluctance of the CPS and the IPCC to rigorously investigate and prosecute is one raised time and again by campaigners on the issue. As Deborah Coles outlines it, ‘One of the problems with the whole investigation process has been the reluctance to approach deaths in police custody as if a potential crime has been committed. We’ve seen a number of cases where we would have expected that successful prosecutions would have been brought.’
Cole specifically mentions Azelle Rodney, whose death triggered a public inquiry which concluded that there was no lawful justification for his killing, and Jimmy Mubenga, suffocated during an illegal chokehold by officers from the private security company G4S. ‘And you have to ask how it is,’ she continues, ‘that there has never been a successful prosecution of a police officer for murder or manslaughter in the last 50 years. Because that does not reflect the evidence that has come out during the investigation and inquest process into these deaths, particularly following the use of force or gross neglect. And that begs very important questions about policing in a democracy – that people can die in really disturbing circumstances and nobody is held to account.’ Athwal agrees, explaining that the IPCC issues critical reports, ‘but that it is then incumbent on the CPS to act upon them – and in 99 per cent of cases, they say there is not enough evidence to prosecute.’
No new inquiry is needed to reveal these CPS failures. The Butler Review had explicitly criticized them back in 1999. But, as Lee Bridges has noted, ‘the report of this review published in 2003 is notable more for the proposed reforms that it rejected than the changes in CPS practices which it introduced.’
Will any real change result from this inquiry? Time will tell. But the signs are not good
So one concern is clearly whether this inquiry will be any different from its predecessors in terms of its recommendations actually being carried out. But Harmit Athwal points to another worrying aspect: ‘One of the issues for us is that it doesn’t plan to look at old or current cases; so I am wondering how it can examine the issue in any thoroughness.’ Ken Fero agrees: ‘One of the caveats is that this inquiry won’t look at previous cases. So the question is – why not, if Theresa May is really concerned about what’s been going on? The only way you can stop the culture of impunity is by looking at the roots of it.’
Indeed, Fero argues that this will fatally undermine the entire inquiry: ‘What’s going to prevent officers killing is the realistic likelihood that they are going to go to jail. So the fact that she’s not willing to reopen cases – because there are cases where we have had undeniable evidence that officers have committed manslaughter and, in a few cases, murder – means that all the changes to the system for the future won’t make any difference to the culture of impunity that the police hold.’
Will any real change result from this inquiry? Time will tell. But the signs are not good.
Over the last three months, I have been writing a short series of articles on some of the horrific deaths in police custody that have taken place in Britain in recent years and the fight for justice waged by the families of the victims and their supporters. Each story is unique, but there are certain similarities, depressingly familiar to those who have followed such cases over the years.
These include: the brutal use of force by police – even once victims are incapacitated; neglect of their victims when they are clearly in need of medical attention; omissions, lies and cover-ups over what actually happened; and an absolute refusal to administer justice by all the various state agencies tasked with doing so. All of it together amounts to one thing – the effective impunity of the British police. And, no surprise, Britain’s Asian and, particularly, African-Caribbean communities are bearing the brunt of it.
Enter British Home Secretary Theresa May, who is apparently promising to change all this, portraying herself as all but the saviour of the black community, fearlessly taking on the police in a battle to reign in their abuses. She has addressed a community meeting in Brixton, met with the families of two of those who have died in custody (Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis), and written an Op-Ed for The Voice, Britain’s largest-circulation black newspaper. She has even done something which no Home Secretary – perhaps even no British government official – has apparently done before: admit that deaths occurring in custody is a problem, and that the families campaigning for justice have been denied it. Specifically, last month, she acknowledged the “pain and suffering of families still looking for answers, who have encountered not compassion and redress from the authorities, but what they feel as evasiveness and obstruction.”
May has made no bones about the failings of the police. Her speech to the Police Federation last year was unequivocal, beginning with a roll-call of some of the latest scandals to embroil the force: “In the last few years, we have seen the Leveson Inquiry. The appalling conclusions of the Hillsborough independent panel. The death of Ian Tomlinson and the sacking of PC Harwood. The ongoing inquiry by an independent panel into the murder of Daniel Morgan. The first sacking of a chief constable for gross misconduct in modern times. The investigation of more than ten senior officers for acts of alleged misconduct and corruption. Allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics. The sacking of PCs Keith Wallis, James Glanville and Gillian Weatherley after Plebgate. Worrying reports by the inspectorate about stop and search and domestic violence…”
Then came the stern warning: “Make no mistake. If you do not make significant progress towards the implementation of the Normington reforms [36 reforms proposed by a review led by David Normington in January 2014], if the Federation does not start to turn itself around, you must not be under the impression that the government will let things remain as they are…”
Back in 2011, May had ordered a review of the police’s use of stop and search, which, she subsequently pointed out, is “excessive and inappropriate” and disproportionately targeted at Black and Asian people. The review revealed that over a quarter of the million or so stop and searches conducted that year may have been carried out illegally.
In April last year, she threatened the police with a barrage of statutory reforms to the practice unless the police improved their performance: “I want to make myself absolutely clear:” she told the House of Commons, “if the numbers do not come down, if stop and search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the government will return with primary legislation to make those things happen.”
The following August, all 43 police forces in England and Wales voluntarily signed up to her reform program, which included restrictions on the use of “no suspicion” searches, the recording of the outcome of every stop and search, and the involvement of community groups in observing searches being carried out and triggering action against their misuse. As from this month, details of stop and searches carried out by every force – including age, ethnicity, and outcome of each search – will be published on the national police website.
Now Theresa May has turned to deaths in custody. In October 2014, at a conference part-organised by Black Mental Health UK, she announced a number of measures she claimed would tackle the problem. Specifically, she promised to create more alternatives to police custody for those with mental health difficulties, and more transparency in the use of restraint and tasering.
A number of explanations are possible. The most obvious is the quest for the “black vote.” At the Tories’ 2002 annual conference, Theresa May famously lambasted her party for having an appeal and popular base that was “too narrow.” “You know what some people call us,” she said, “The Nasty Party.” If they wanted to get reelected, she argued, they would have to “diversify” their support base – and with the Tories’ current wafer-thin majority, this remains as true as ever. With almost two thirds of African-Caribbeans seeing the police as systematic liars, taking on the police could be a smart electoral move – especially taking them on in the areas in which police racism most visibly manifests itself: stop and search, and deaths in custody.
An editorial in The Voice in summer 2013 suggested this was already paying dividends, with May’s work on stop and search specifically identified as a sign that the Conservatives were gaining ground from Labour in terms of appealing to black and minority voters. With the non-white population growing – and May widely seen to be positioning herself as a future party leader – this could all be a very astute attempt to build up a solid base of support.
However, there is almost certainly more to it than that. For the Tory party’s battles with the police go far beyond the issues outlined here; indeed, ever since coming to power in 2010, the party has been involved in more or less open war with the Police Federation (the closest thing the police are allowed to have to a trade union) over the austerity agenda.
Thatcher had been very careful to exempt police from the attacks to which the rest of the workforce were subjected – even significantly increasing their pay (not to mention providing lucrative overtime opportunities during the miners’ strike) whilst everyone else was seeing theirs cut. Cameron’s party have not gone down this road, arguing instead that the crisis today is so deep that no one (no workers, anyway) should be exempt. And this attempt to push cuts and privatization onto the police has sparked fierce opposition from within the police force, with a 30,000 strong demo by the police held in 2012 quite possibly the biggest political action by the police since they went on strike in 1919 (when the government genuinely feared revolution). Given that Theresa May has so far threatened a lot more than she has actually delivered in terms of statutory reform, could it be that she is simply using the threat of removing the police’s time-honored impunity as leverage to drive through the cuts agenda?
Personally, I am both not as cynical as this – but also much more so. Although it remains to be proven, I believe Theresa May could well be genuine about her desire to tackle black deaths in custody – not, however, because she wants to see fewer black people killed, but more – far more – and not because she wants to move us away from being a police state, but ever further toward it.
Let me explain. We are living through times of an unprecedented emerging crisis of the capitalist world system, both economically and militarily. Economically, the world system is tipping once again into a classic overproduction crisis, of a type endemic to capitalism: a crisis which re-emerges with greater force and destructive potential each time around. Within capitalism, overall demand is never enough to consume all the goods that are produced – because people, as a whole, are not paid the full value of their labor. For some time, this crisis was staved off with the “credit trick”: artificially boosting demand by lending people money to buy things they could not afford – but this collapsed in 2007-8. Capital, desperate for profitable sources of investment, then flooded into property, “commodities” and government bonds, sparking price bubbles in each one. One by one, these bubbles are now bursting.
The day of reckoning – the day, that is, when banks suddenly realize their “assets” are only worth half, or a third, or a quarter, of what they had previously been valued at, and their cash machines stop giving out money – is drawing near.
The Conservatives understand this very well, better perhaps than most of the left; after all, they have had more experience of navigating this system than probably anyone else in the world. So they are preparing for this future. One way they are preparing is through militarism: endless wars to destroy rival capital, and to create the basis for more profitable investment of their own. Libya was here a textbook case: a war costing barely £300 million produced investment opportunities (reserved, we now know, for the conquering forces) of £300 billion.
But this war was just the prelude to bigger conflicts, becoming a launchpad for proxy wars against Syria, Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. These in turn are laying the groundwork for yet more future wars, being prepared as we speak. People do, and will increasingly, flee these battlefields. Yet Europe would rather sink their boats than let them flee to Europe, and have already turned this desire into official policy. Economic crisis is leading increasingly to ever more desperate and depraved forms of warfare against the global South – that is, against the homelands of a large section of the British population.
Malcolm X said it clearly when he said, “You can’t understand what’s going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what’s going on in the Congo.” What he meant is that the lynchings and discrimination being experienced by African Americans were part and parcel of the US and Western Europe’s ongoing war against African liberation, and third world liberation as a whole; part of the colonizers’ permanent aggression against Africa, Asia and Latin America. He always fought for black and minority communities in North America to see themselves as part of this worldwide struggle, and to identify with the homelands in their struggle against such oppression.
It was for this reason that he was seen as such a threat by the authorities, and for this reason that the Black Panther Party, who continued to put this thinking into practice after this death, were identified by the FBI as the number one threat to US national security. The presence of black and Asian people in Europe and its extensions has always been seen as a threat precisely because of their potential allegiance to their homelands in the ongoing imperialist wars against them. They have always been seen as a potential “fifth column.”
Yet their treatment as a so-called fifth column, and the violence towards them this entails, has the effect of reinforcing their skepticism and hostility toward the state, and deepening their sympathies towards the anti-imperialist movements and states abroad. Racist state violence, then, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: the state’s permanent suspicion about the loyalty of its black and Asian population creates a very real basis for disloyalty; by treating them as “prone to rebellion,” it prompts them to rebel.
Being subjected to racist violence by the British state automatically creates a kinship with those subjected to racist violence by that same state abroad, which is the victims of British wars and economic subjugation. If she is serious about dealing with racist police violence and impunity (which, I reiterate, remains to be seen) Theresa May could in fact be attempting nothing less than the final obliteration of any identification of its non-white population to their blitzed and besieged homelands.
Ultimately what is being attempted is a form of racist flattery: where once black people were effectively told “You’re no better than the n*****s in Africa,” Theresa May is now effectively telling them: “You’re nothing like those n*****s in Africa: they deserve to be drowned and droned and beheaded; but you are worth so much more’.” This is a bold new racism for the 21st century: all British citizens, no matter what their skin colour, should be able to support the drowning, strafing and droning of Arabs and Africans.
Yet just as violence and oppression is being ramped up abroad, so too at home. The combined reality of permanent mass unemployment and a benefits system unable to provide basic subsistence is leading to a growing underclass potentially drawn to revolt, and likely to be drawn into frequent contact with the police. The state’s response has been mass surveillance and, increasingly, mass incarceration.
The public have been led to accept this increasing intrusion of the state into their lives on the grounds of Islamophobic “anti-terrorist” propaganda and hate stories about “feral youth.” Yet police racism and police violence continue to be major fault lines in relations between police and a large section of the public, a major obstacle to the acquiescence of the black community in accepting this massively increased role for the police and security services in the governance of Britain. To co-opt black and Asian people into accepting the structural violence of mass poverty and incarceration requires a limitation on the arbitrary meting out of individual violence and persecution by racist officers. Remember that, against a backdrop of the massive use of racist stop and search, widespread unemployment and benefits cuts, it took the execution of Mark Duggan to actually trigger a riot.
Theresa May, then, is attempting to improve police relations with the black community for a very simple reason: to buy their acquiescence in her war against the poor at home and abroad. We should not be fooled. Through its war on both Libya and migrants in the Mediterranean, this government has facilitated a massive ramping up of violence against Africans, and is preparing the grounds for mass incarceration at home.
Nevertheless, even as we recognize this, and without any illusions, we must use this moment to push for an end to police impunity: to insist on an end to all the institutional practices that allow the police to escape accountability and to demand murdering officers are prosecuted. Genuine community control is the only way to ensure this happens. But we must never forget that it is not only police officers, but Theresa May too, who must be held to account for her crimes.