La trahison des clercs*


*Edited version of a talk given at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 18 May 1995.

Global capitalism has been let loose on the world. Racism and poverty are locked in deadly embrace. The industrial working class has decomposed under the impact of the technological revolution. The intellectuals have defected, and walled themselves up behind a new language of privilege. Those who are poor, and are powerless to do anything about their poverty, are also those who, by and large, are non­ white, non-Western, Third World. Poverty and powerlessness are imbricated in colour and race. Discrimination and exploitation feed into each other.

There’s nothing new in that. But the relationship was clearer under industrial capitalism which made no bones about exploitation, about reifying work and turning workers into so many units of labour. And discrimination – racial, gendered – was an aid to such exploitation. And the only way workers could survive was by bonding together in the work-places and in their communities and wresting from the bosses a living wage for themselves and some sort of life for their children. The Factory Acts, the Education Acts, the Public Health Acts all came out of that bitter fight, as did the so-called bourgeois freedoms of speech and of assembly, the free press, universal suffrage. They were not devolved from bourgeois benefice, they were wrought in the white heat of battle between capital and labour. And in that same battle were thrown up the values and mores of modern society: public honesty, political responsibility, solidarity. accountability.

But capital, by and large, has won the battle – for now anyway. The technological revolution has dis-aggregated the work-force, removed it from its congeries of thousands on the factory floors and ship-yards and coal-mines, and diffused it across the globe while, at the same time. ‘aggregating’ capital into multinationals and concentrating it across the globe. And the fall of communism has strengthened the hand of capital, given it free rein.

Capital is no longer rooted in one place, importing cheap labour. It can, instead, take up its plant and walk to where labour is cheap and captive and plentiful. And that invariably means the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. As within the Third World itself. capital can move from one reserve pool of labour to another at will, extracting the last ounce of profit from the daughters and sons of illiterate peasants drawn by western consumer culture into the quick-fix, feel­ good, hi-tech money economies of the city.

We are back to primitive accumulation, plunder on a world scale. Only, this time, the pillage is accompanied by aid, sustained by expert advice and underpinned by programmes and policies that perpetuate dependency. The IMF, the World Bank, SAPs, GATT are just a few of the organisations, schemes, projects which, under the guise of developing the Third World, plunder it, under the guise of giving it aid, throw it into eternal debt and, under the guise of  promoting democracy, set up governments accountable to them and not to their own people.

But then, western governments are themselves in thrall to multi­ national capital. The state no longer controls capital. capital controls the state. Monetarism and the market are one expression of it. the European Union is another. Trade no longer follows the flag. the flag follows trade. Western governments go where multinationals take them, to set up regimes that are friendly to capital. Democracy is the ploy that gives the West entry, aid is the gift that bids it stay. Trade agreements and patents and intellectual property rights then lock them into paralytic dependency.

And along with that dependency goes a certain paternalism – reluctant but habitual – which decrees that second-hand double deckers, third-rate experts and ‘thraada’ (a Sinhalese word meaning rubbishy, decadent) cultural exports such as paedophilia and baby­ buying are good enough for Third World countries. Racism is tied into dependency. No longer credo or ideology. racism is an everyday fact of dependent life: a historical deposit of slavery and colonialism. which lies in the interstices of dependency and seals it. At best, it allows of charity, not of equality; of patronage, not justice; of compradorism, not freedom.

The term Third World may, after the fall of communism, no longer serve as a valid category in terms of its original paradigm. but, in terms of the exploitative relationship between the richest and poorest nations of the world, there is still a Third World – and it is still demarcated from the other two by race and power. And in the context of global capitalism, ‘Third World’ is a term that is more evocative of its status than ever before: the First World is naturally, organically, capitalist;  the Second World opts to be capitalist; the Third World has capitalism thrust upon it. The only difference now is that the bourgeoisie of the Third World is not a national bourgeoisie opposed to international capital on behalf of its people, but an international bourgeoisie in cahoots with international capital in the exploitation of its people- and such a bourgeoisie is colourless.

Such an understanding of capitalism-sans-frontiers, and  the worlds it throws up, not only sheds light on the displacement of whole popu­ lations within and between Third World countries and continents, but also on the forced migration of peoples to the West in search of asylum. And, invariably, these are political refugees fleeing the authoritarian governments that the West has set up and/or sustained in the interests of multinational capital. To decry them, then, as economic refugees is to overlook the basic fact that it is your economics that create our politics that make us refugees in your economies. Racism and imperialism work in tandem, and poverty is their handmaiden.

And it is that symbiosis between racism and poverty that, under those other imperatives of multinational capitalism, the free  market and the enriching of the rich, has come to define the ‘underclass’ of the United States and, increasingly, of Britain and western Europe. It is not so much a class that is under as out – out of the reckoning of mainstream society: de-schooled, never-employed, criminalised and locked up or sectioned off. If they are an under-class, they are an under-class within that deprived, immiserated third of society that monetarism and the market have created – a replica of the Third World within the first. And it is that one-third society, asset-stripped of the social and economic infrastructure that gave it some sense of worth and some hope of mobility, that provides the breeding ground for fascism. It is there, where the poorest sections of our communities, white and black, scrabble for the left-overs of work, the rubble of slum-housing and the dwindling share of welfare, that racism is at its most virulent, its most murderous.

And that is the racism that interests me – the racism that kills –  not so much the racism that discriminates. Not because racial discrimina­ tion is not important, but because it is racist violence that sets the agenda for state racism, official discrimination, in particular. It provides the rationale for the government’s numbers game – no immigrants, no rivers of blood. And it follows, too, in the wake of some of the government’s asylum policies which have led to the illegal transport of human cargo and to the throwing overboard of stowaways by ships’ captains unwilling or unable to pay the massive fines imposed on them for carrying illegals – policies that run right across Europe. The sheer violence of that racism resonates right through society – on the playing fields of the national game, in the headlines of the yellow press, in the canteen culture of the police force – and parades as humour in the performances of Bernard Manning, Jim Davidson and their ilk.

The culture of racism is a culture of violence. bred in the nexus of ‘colour’ and poverty and powerlessness, both global and local, at once not just out there in the tropics, as Eliot might have said, but ‘squeezed in the tube-train next to you’ –  and requires to be addressed at that level of complexity and immediacy, both at once.

But at the very moment that we need analysis and strategy and commitment, the intellectuals and the academics have either retreated into culturalism and ethnicism, or, worse, fled into discourse and deconstruction and representation – as though to interpret the world is more important than to change it, as though changing the inter­pretation is all we could do in a changing world. The first is a retreat, the second a betrayal.

The retreat into culturalism and ethnicism is a retreat from the struggle against racism – a struggle for culture, not against racism – a struggle for a particular way of life and not for the general quality of life, or even for a standard of living – because that would be to ‘privilege’ (their word) the economic dimension of racism over the cultural. And cultural politics is careful to set its face against such economic determinism. That way, it does not have to confront economic power (including the state), only cultural power (including cultural centres of authority, as they term it). And such power can be personal, vested in the individual, and/or in the office of the individual. Hence the personal is the political: the fight for my blackness or Asian-ness, as they would call it, is also my fight against racism. Granted, but the converse is not necessarily true: the political is not necessarily personal: the fight against racism does not necessarily help my Asian-ness. The one is about cultural politics as it affects some sections of society. the other is about political culture as it affects the whole of society.

I have collapsed here a number of cultural schools, but what they all have in common is a penchant for culture and cultural politics. and a contempt for class or economic determinism. But then those who deride economic determinism are those whose lives are not econo­mically determined. For the poor and the deprived, the first and fundamental determinant is economic. Culture for the comfortable is expression and cultural politics, a preoccupation with their identities, their proclivities, their hang-ups. Culture for the less well-off is more escape than expression, and politics is the struggle to have some say over their own lives.

For the postmodernists, such arguments are too simplistic, such a narrative too totalising, such a schema too foundationalist. According to them, we live in an age, or, rather, a condition (note the temporality of the word) in which everything is transitory, fleeting, contingent; everything is fractured, fragmented, free-floating. ‘Everything that is solid melts into air.’ Knowledge itself has been shaken to its founda­tions, they say, and can no longer be based on unchanging laws. There are no grand narratives that explain the world in its totality, no universal truths. And no ultimate answers, not even answers that can command any sort of consensus.

There arc only processes and provisionality and ever-changing perspectives – through which subjects are ‘constituted’, identities are negotiated·. problems ·represented’. Thus. there is no racism in schools. only ‘a racialisation process’. no ghettos but a ‘racialisation of space’ no ‘binary oppositions’ such as old racism/new racism but all sorts of racisms feeding off and into each other.

In an Information Society, besides, it is communication  that matters, and what is real is that which is conveyed, communicated –  and language, as communicant, is the first reality. The medium is the message. the word is the deed, the reality is in the interpretation. Experience of itself is nothing till it is ‘linguisised’, discoursed, repre­sented — till it is played around with in word games and language games, abounding in tropes and metaphors and sleight-of-hand imagery, where one image transforms into another before your very eyes, and experience disappears before the anodyne of presentation – and the will to act is sapped. You have the experience, but they have the meaning. Between the experience and the act falls the interpretation.

Let me give you an example. There’s a school of thought that hangs out in the East End of London. I say a school of thought in the sense that there’s a school there, a building. and it has produced a thought: to contain racism (as opposed to challenging it) through ‘educational and cultural work among [white] adolescents who may be drawn into this type of activity [i.e., racial harassment of ethnic minorities] through a quest for homing devices associated with the territorial assertion of racialised identities’. For: ·the lethal aspect of racial harassment is not the material damage done, but the hidden wounds inflicted as it sets in motion the ancient regression from room to womb and turns the womb into a kind of tomb’. And this from an ethnicity unit in the East End where. out on the street, Quddus Ali is being beaten to within an inch of his life. where fascists are carrying out their educational and cultural work much more successfully, where a BNP candidate was voted on to the local council. Unabashed by all this, however, our intrepid scholars predict that once ‘racism is declared a no-go area for these young people. they [would] look elsewhere for ways of constructing a white working-class ethnicity’ — and, then. they (the scholars, that is) would hopefully be ready with their postmodern kit to ‘offer a more general model for the recomposition of white working-class identities along non-racist lines’. Provided, of course, that these youngsters have not been ‘subjected to censorious or self-righteous homilies from the moral, doctrinaire and symbolic school of anti-racism’. So, it is anti-racists who are turning reformed characters back into racist thugs. The solu­tion, clearly, is to get anti-racists off the streets and house them safely in universities.

In another time, these intellectual playboys of the western world would be of little consequence: they would not affect the struggle on the ground. But in post-industrial society, where information is paramount and does aid or alter material fact, the intellectuals are in the engine room of power: they are the workers of mind and brain, if you like, that run the Information Society. And, it is they who are the best placed and best equipped to unmask governments, counter disinformation, invigi­late the communication conglomerates – (not Britannia, but Murdoch, rules the waves) – and, in the process, rekindle the drive for a just and equal society that the unprecedented prosperity, unleashed by the technological revolution, promises. In place of which, they blame modernity for having failed to abolish ‘poverty, ignorance, prejudice and the absence of enjoyment’ (the list is Lyotard’s) and so decide to abolish modernity instead. And to justify their betrayal, the post­ modernists have created a whole new language of their own which allows them to appropriate struggle without engaging in it and. while appearing radical, further their own interests – a class in itself and for itself. (Poor Marx.)

Hence we have discourse sans analysis: information that never becomes knowledge – theory that never becomes practice. Decon­struction sans construction: you disassemble dominant value systems, but have none of your own to replace them – and that vacuum is a virtue. And the temporal sans the eternal. But it is animals that live in time, humankind lives in eternity, in continuity, in meta-narrative. That’s why we have recall and memory, reflection and tradition, values and vision. The notion that everything is contingent, fleeting, evane­scent is the philosophical lode-star of individualism, an alibi for selfishness, a rationale for greed. They are the cultural grid on which global capitalism is powered, and the postmodernist intellectuals have helped to keep it in place, lent it their skills, their ideas – usurers in the temple of knowledge. It is time we drove them from the temple.