Fighting our fundamentalisms

Fighting our fundamentalisms: an interview with
A. Sivanandan

At a time when people are becoming entrenched in their particularistic politics, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism ( CA RF) asked A. Sivanandan how relevant his writings in Communities of Resistance were for the anti-racist movement today [November 1994]

You argued in the early ’90s about the prospect of building ‘communities of’resistance’. What happened to them?

We have had four years of Tory rule since then and four years of Labour Party retreat towards consensus politics. The resistances have broken down, the promise is no longer there. Everything about Thatcherism that allowed people to come together against it, and would have given life to resistance, has been eroded more and more. Central government has become more centralised; local government has lost yet more ground and therefore local people have lost the art of governing themselves, of participating in local things. There has been massive bureaucratisation, a breaking down of infrastructures and privatisation, so that the two-thirds, one-third society we fought against has become entrenched and, worse, accepted as such by the Labour Party. The social welfare net has been undermined and those who fall through the net have fallen into despair.

When autocracy takes over, when a whole generation has grown up accepting Toryism as valid, the resistance has changed. It has become fragmented, because people have been pushed in various ways on to the breadline and, then, at the breadline they are divided in various ways – all fighting to survive.

And, at that level of survival there are no communities, there is only oneself. At that point, resistance becomes criminalised in a literal sense. Resistance to society is no longer political but criminal and what you get is not communities of resistance but criminals against their own communities. And the state then uses the pretext of defending the community by estranging criminals from the community even further. In sum, these deprived communities face two sets of enemies at two different levels: the state which is responsible for their deprivation and their own kith and kin whose resistance to it has turned into criminal activity. And then the state, on behalf of the community, wins over the community to outlaw its own and. in the process. people overlook, or put up with, the further inroads the state makes into their lives. And one example of this is the Criminal Justice Bill.

Thatcherism has not just divided society into a two-thirds, one-third society, but now defines the one-third as criminals. And they are bringing in laws, to privatise the police force, for example. or put parents to police their children and telling the two-thirds society that ‘this is for your protection against the one-third, so why are you protesting about the right to silence for criminals?’ They are telling middle-class people that they are good and law abiding and therefore their civil rights don’t need protecting. They are only taking away the rights from the baddies, they say. The righteous have nothing to worry about. so why are they complaining about things like the right to silence being taken away?

The middle class is won over because the old morality is gone. For the two-thirds, one-third divide is now under-girded by a new morality which is about self and not others. Anyone who speaks up against the Criminal Justice Bill – which is to all intents and purposes a reasonable thing to do – is then represented as unreasonable, as Left loonies, SWP. anarchists, etc.

While the state is doing all this on the one hand, on the other, left politics has, by and large, descended into social movement politics. identity politics, which emphasise group interests and group loyalties and identity interests and identity loyalties. not loyalties that  cut across such interests and identities into the formation of ·communities of resistance’. In a word, cultural politics has spelt the death of a more generalised political culture and led to people fighting each other over the issues that transgress their identities and therefore their alle­giances, rather than to opposing the larger tyrannies of the state that affect them all.

We are squabbling over language, representation and discourse. and over what is and what is not politically correct, and not fighting over homelessness, unemployment, the degradation of human life. The only thing working against all that is the theatre of degradation that  the Tory Party itself presents every week.

To come at it differently, there have, on the one hand, been massive inroads into civil liberties and, on the other, the resistance to that has not been on the basis of civil liberties but of cultural liberties, so to speak. The unit of political transaction is no longer the citizen as versus the state but the individual as defined by his or her particular  rights as a gay, a woman, a Black, etc.

On the economic level, there has been an exploitation of people which underlies the two-thirds, one-third divide tremendous inequalities exist today – but the resistance has been not to the exploitation but to the oppression. The removal of the working class as the driving force of change by the changes in the level of the productive forces, brought about by the technological revolution, has substituted the cultural dimension for the economic dimension – hence oppression and not exploitation has become the key word.

And in the Labour Party there is no vision and there is no ideology, only policy, and policy changes, with electoral gain in mind. It is no longer trades unions which run the Labour Party but think-tanks.

You criticise the politics of culture and identity which has broken down a political sense of Blackness but aren’t you just trying to put the clock back? ls there still a Black politics?

There is no Black politics in the sense of Black qua Black. There is no Black struggle in the sense of anti-racist plus anti-imperialist, in the sense of Black = Third World. There are Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets fighting the BNP, African-Caribbeans in Chapel town fighting the police, etc. There are no Black and Asian (as they term it) struggles, there are only ethnic struggles. The only exception where these ethni­cities can and do come together is in the fight against the fascists. Even the anti-racist struggle is anti a particular  racism, i.e., a racism against a particular community, an attack on a particular community and, sometimes, a particular ethnic group. So Bangladeshis don’t go to help refugees, Pakistanis don’t help Somalis. We are even finding African­ Caribbean youth in racist gangs beating up Asians, and Asians  involved in attacks on Somalis. Hence we must begin with the principle that those who have suffered racism should not themselves be racist and that racism is indivisible.

We must organise not.for culture but against racism, against fascism, against the erosion of civil liberties, against injustice and inequality – against racism qua racism instead of particularising the racisms. We are not organising.for the Bangladeshis (in the East End of London) but against racism. That is what a national organisation like ARA should have done and failed to do.

You seem to imply that ‘Black’ is over, that it’s not a principle to organise around Are you actually saying anything different from those post-modernists who say ‘Black’ obscures more than it reveals, that it also obfuscates the oppression within non-white communities?

I do not accept that Black is not an organising principle, though that may be all that it is today: an organising principle for unity, against racism, against imperialism. But of course there is no longer a Black struggle in Britain which embraces all the non-white communities. There is not even Black on the one hand and Asian on the other.
But they have a common problem in racism. Racism principally affects non-white communities; the way to fight racism is for the groups affected by it to come together to fight it. They can come down their different ethnic, religious, sexual paths but at the point of rendezvous their politics becomes Black. Thus, anti-racism becomes equated with Black politics and, in the process, Black politics becomes imbued with the principle that Blacks shall never be racists.

Black is an organising principle, anti-racism is a programme. But it’s the programme that establishes the principle and, in turn, informs the programme. Like the Left is an organising principle levelled at the Right: Left is not a programme.The programme is to overthrow racism, and those affected by it are non-whites, and they do so by uniting. At that point, Black becomes a political colour – like Red.

So do you mean you would not speak of the Black Experience or the Black Community now?

No, I wouldn’t. There was a Black community in the ’60s and ’70s in the political sense – in the sense of an anti-racist bloc. But, in the last two decades, multiculturalism and, subsequently, ethnicism have fragmented Black politics, have negated Black political culture. And, what you have today is cultural politics, ethnic politics, identity politics. Hence, there is not only no Black qua Black experience but not even an Asian qua Asian or African-Caribbean qua African-Caribbean experi­ence that we can speak of.

Well why, then, do you appear to be so critical of the way that Black­ made TV programmes criticise their own communities? You have come out against ‘washing our dirty linen in public’.

There again, you are extrapolating my views from another time. It was necessary, twenty or thirty years ago, when racism was un­differentiating of Asian and African-Caribbean peoples, when most ‘immigrants’ were still working class, when, therefore, we had a common fight against state racism and had to come together to build unity to defend our families against bussing or ESN schooling, immigration laws, or police harassment and Paki-bashing, then it was necessary to deal with our internal differences internally.

But now we are far more diffuse, differentiated, sophisticated. Our communities have broken up. (Communities are not static, nor are they imagined. They break up and re-form in different configurations at different times.) And we have got our own middle classes: MPs, media moguls, bureaucrats, our own people in positions of power. The more differentiated we become, the more fissures appear in our communities. And we need to examine these.

I am not against washing our dirty linen in public. I am against the powder that is used. We must not just borrow from the white ‘canon’, we must create a black one. Self-criticism – of an individual, class, group – is valid and necessary. But when it is for public consumption, then we need to take into account who will use it against us and, thereby, deepen further the fault-lines that we were seeking to erase. We want to examine our faults and foibles not expose them. Not washing one’s dirty linen is to remain dirty. But if it is to be washed in public, then the public must be given to understand the conditions under which that linen has got dirty.

In other words, the way we criticise the reactionary or ‘backward’ aspects in our communities, whether it is arranged marriages, gun­ culture or whatever, should be in terms of both our particular back­ grounds and our particular histories in this country, so that we can diagnose the problem correctly and so resolve it. To use the white canon, on the other hand, standards, that is, taken from white society which, to some extent, have conditioned our problems in the first place, is not only to arrive at an incorrect diagnosis, and so distort the problem, but also to lend ourselves once again to racial stereotyping. In sum, we have got to develop our own criteria of criticism for our own communities.

And the first thing that occurs to me is that, although we have become sophisticated in some ways, we are still not sophisticated enough to develop our own canon of criticism – a black canon if you like – certainly an anti-racist canon. Which also applies to the way we present our programmes, the format they take. I remember that Colin Prescod, when he was series editor at Pebble Mill, tried to get the BBC’s Black Hearsay series to look at issues like policing and mental illness that the community was concerned about. He wanted to create programmes which gave centre stage to those who had organised or campaigned around those issues. But the priorities of everyone else, from producer to presenter to researcher, effectively nullified the project by making sure every studio discussion was ‘balanced’.

Applying  the  white  media’s conception  of  balance  and studio debates means we manipulate Black opinions and pit one against the other so that they all get cancelled out. Worse, when it comes to issues like fascism, we found after Beackon’s election that it was Black programme-makers who actually invited the BNP into the studio for the sake of ‘balance’. My argument is why are we balancing pro­grammes when the whole of society is already balanced against us, and it is that imbalance we want to discuss.

Finally, the things we examine critically in our communities should be substantial things, not trivia, not the stuff of television: sensational, voyeuristic, with an eye to ratings, such as programmes on Black rent boys, the hiring of thugs to find runaway girls in the Asian community, Indian transsexuals and the series on Black sex lives, Doing it  with you is taboo.

One of the subjects which needs to be looked at seriously and responsibly, and which only a ‘Black canon’ can do with sensitivity and understanding, is the growing incidence of inter-ethnic violence. Why is this happening now? What are the causes? What is the social context? How is it that the younger generation have so little understanding of the racism that their parents have suffered that they could replay it themselves? Have they no knowledge of their own history in this country- or of their slave and/or colonial past? Why do they not know that racism runs against the grain of our histories? And how do we combat it? So that the oppressed themselves do not become oppressors. Old ‘immigrants’ do not attack new ‘immigrants’, African-Caribbeans do not attack Asians, Asians do not attack Somalis. In examining the inter-racial troubles within our communities, in other words, we should also point to the fact that we who have had the experience of racism should not ourselves be racist.

But doesn’t it follow then that there should be no oppression meted out by the oppressed, be it racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever?

Absolutely. I have said before that the experience of oppression in anything- ‘race’, gender, sexuality- should sensitise us, open us out, to the oppressions of others. To have the experience and miss the meaning is a mortal sin.
Do I understand you to say then that you are opposed to groups like Hiz:b ut-Tahrir which are openly homophobic, antisemitic and anti-Hindu?

Yes. Their perception of themselves as an oppressed people or religion does not justify their oppression of others in turn, any more, say, than the oppression of gays and lesbians by Blacks or of new ‘immigrants’ by old.

What about their right to freedom of speech, then?

I don’t hold freedom of speech as an absolute. There are other freedoms that come before freedom of speech, like the freedom to life. And if the freedom of speech of one lot consists of threatening the life, life-style, beliefs of another lot, then I am afraid I will come out against such freedom of speech.

Put it another way. Anybody who uses the freedom of speech to deny others their basic freedoms is not a democrat but a totalitarian. Freedom of speech in such hands is no longer a principle but a tactic, and when it is de-based to that level, it is no longer freedom of speech as we know it. And the failure to distinguish between the two is the mistake that the liberals make.

Do we then fight fundamentalism in the same way as we fight the fascists?

No. Firstly fundamentalism is a blanket word, a portmanteau word. There are all sorts of fundamentalisms, some worse than others, some with little organisation and power, some with whole states backing them. I would say Zionism is a fundamentalism. There is Christian fundamentalism which has been instrumental in the Republican landslide in the States. Not all fundamentalisms are equally powerful. So the way we fight them would be different. Different strokes for different tyrannies.

Secondly, it is important to recognise the social process through which religion passes before it becomes fundamentalist, from belief to dogma – from being the ‘sigh of the oppressed’ to becoming the ‘opiate of the masses’. Fascism. on the other hand, is a finished process, a com­pleted, self-contained ideology, fundamentalist in its inception and in its conception. And the fight against it is clear-cut and uncompromising, because fascism is against all liberties, against democracy per se.

Of course, religious fundamentalism, especially when it is backed by state power, can become fascist. But there is still a point of time before that – and a space — during which and within which it can be challenged. Fascism allows no such opportunity. It has got to be fought from the word go.

The reason I am asking the question is that, at  the  moment  in  student unions. students don’t know whether to  support  the  Hizb  ut-Tahrir because they are part of  an  oppressed  minority  or  to ‘no  platform’  them for their extremist views.

I think the answer is quite straightforward. You fight oppression wher­ever it occurs and whatever shape it takes. In other words, you fight for a principle and not for a particular organisation. Equally, you do not stand up for your group if it does not uphold the principles you believe in. In the particular case you refer to, I would support Hizb ut-Tahrir when they are oppressed in their religion or ‘race’, and oppose them when they use their religious or minority credentials to oppress others. But to get away from campus politics, the liberal dilemma would equally apply to the case of Algerian asylum-seekers who are being held in Pentonville prison, ostensibly because they are Islamic fundamentalists. The question, then, is do we support the right of asylum for those who are fleeing persecution or do we, in opposing FIS fundamentalism, oppose their right to asylum too? And the answer, I would think, is that we support the principle that those who are fleeing political persecution have the right to asylum. (We should not misplace ourselves in the Algerian struggle.) But, if and when they are given the right to stay here and begin to propagate their extreme and/or undemocratic views, then we have got to fight them on that basis.

But the trouble today – and this comes out very clearly on the campuses – is that politics is defined not on the basis of principle but on the basis of identity. Students are no longer debating an issue but taking up positions based on who they are. Are you a Jew, a Muslim, a gay, a woman, a Black? It is intransigent and cannot be shifted. In other words, your loyalty is to your identity and not to a cause. Your cause is yourself.

We have to get beyond identity politics. We must travel from the issue to ourselves. A student, by definition, is someone who studies something, is put on inquiry, is curious, wants to look at all sides of a question before making up her or his mind. But if that student is fixed in her or his subjectivity, then it is impossible to examine issues objectively. Your loyalty is already defined by who you are and, therefore, the side you take is already defined, and there is no point in discussing other views on the subject. The debate is foreclosed before it has begun. (That is the tyranny of identity politics.)

And it affords no resolution. The resolution of the problem is then handed over to the authorities – campus and/or state – and leads to blanket bans and therefore to a larger tyranny. Students should not allow their problems to be taken out of their hands. That is a freedom they should never surrender. Equally, they should not themselves have recourse to bans. Rather, they should fight out their positions in terms of democratic principles and not in terms of their primordial affiliations.

But why are religious movements growing so fast among students in the West? I am wondering what exactly motivated Sayed Sheikh, a student at the London School of Economics who went to fight in Bosnia and was recently arrested in India, allegedly for taking part in the Kashmiri Liberation Front’s kidnapping of western tourists.

The reason is partly because there are no concerted struggles today, either within countries or internationally, against poverty and exploita­tion – against capitalism and imperialism. There are no great working­ class movements, no Third World revolutions. It is also because there is no cohering ideology that transcends national boundaries like socialism or communism. And so the struggles against immiseration, against exploitation, against imperialism grow up around religions and take the character of millenarian movements. And in the interstices of these movements also arise their distortions: fundamentalism.

Sayed probably could not bear the injustice that was meted  out to his people, or the injustices in the world at large, and turned to his religion for solace. And came to the conclusion that Muslims qua Muslims were being persecuted all over the globe, from Bosnia to India, and decided to end up fighting for a Muslim Kashmir. Twenty or thirty years ago he would probably have joined the Black People’s Alliance or the International Socialists; sixty years ago he would have joined the international brigade and fought fascism in Spain.

November 1994