Racism 1992

UK commentary Racism 1992

 A shorter version of this article appeared in New Statesman & Society (4 November 1988). The full article was published in Race & Class, 30/3, January 1989.

There is a new racism emerging from the interstices of the old – less visible, more virulent, open to fascism and European – a racism directed against the migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers displaced from their own countries by the depredations of international capital. Indeed, it is capital’s need to break its national fetters and become European – to compete with American and Japanese capital, not least in the exploitation of the Third World – that has led to the growing influx of migrants into Europe. On the face of it, Europe does not want them, it would like to give full rein to capital without incurring its consequences: Third World immigrants create social and political problems. And yet, it is their labour, cheap and captive, that fuels vast areas of an ever-expanding service sector and makes their privatisation profitable. The problem as before is how to make economic gain without incurring social cost or political dislocation. And the answer as before is to let an unfettered racism, a racism open to market forces, exercise (an informal) internal control while at the same time imposing soft-option regulations on the intake of refugees, preferably on humanitarian grounds as bespeaks European culture and mores. 

The development of such a Pan-European racism is already present in Britain alongside the old British variety. But Britain, unlike the rest of Europe, has relied so much and so long on (imported) colonial labour and has been so slow to grasp the nettle of the technological revolution that the change-over to the European mode has been slow and halting. Even so, the Immigration Act of ’71 had already heralded Britain’s entry into Europe two years later by putting an end to all primary or settler immigration from the ‘New Commonwealth’ and opting, instead, for the Gastarbeiter labour of Europe. Common wealth citizens were henceforth on a par with aliens. Other restrictions followed, making it virtually impossible for those already settled here to bring their fiancés and dependants over. Deportations were made easier and Mrs Thatcher assured the nation that she at least would not let it be ‘rather swamped by people with a different culture’.


For a while it looked as though the Powellite project of ‘induced repatriation’ might take off. But the campaigns of blacks against unjust immigration laws and quick-fire deportations, proclaiming that they were ‘Here to stay, Here to fight, and the rebellions of young blacks against an increasingly racist and repressive system, put paid to such a hope or programme. And it was left to the Nationality Act of ’81 to “regularise’ the nationality of Britain’s black population, citizenise them, in preparation for a Europe sans frontières.

That Labour’s concept of that citizenship allowed black people to move up the class ladder without foregoing their cultures (in a sort of pluralist capitalism) while the Tory version required that they become truly British to get anywhere in Thatcherite Britain (‘Labour says you’re black we say you’re British’ their election slogan ran) is worth noting only in passing. The point, however, is that in the Nationality Act of ’81 (which Labour framed and the Tories passed) both parties agreed to abandon the ancient right of birth on British soil (jus soli) as the basis of citizenship and located it instead in descent, patriality (jus sanguinis) – with the corollary of course that those who had already acquired British citizenship by virtue of settlement here could hand down such citizenship to their descendants. 

British citizenship, henceforth, could not automatically devolve on Commonwealth citizens (including those settled here since the ’71 Immigration Act came into force in ’73) on British Overseas Citizens or citizens of British Dependent Territories, excepting Gibraltar (because it is in Europe!) and, since ’83, the Falklands (because it is British!!). 

The purpose of the Nationality Act, in effect, was not just to tidy up the citizenship mess left by successive immigration acts but to rid Britain of its remaining obligations of Empire and bring it into line with Europe. 

Similarly, the visa restrictions imposed on certain black Common wealth countries in ’85 and ’86, the fines made against airlines bringing in passengers without the required documents in the Carriers’ Liability Act of ’87, and the provisions of the ’88 Immigration Act criminalising overstayers and making deportations even more summary, have more to do with the new Third World immigrants and refugees coming into Europe than with the blacks already settled in Britain – and with defining, in the run-up to 1992, exactly who is a citizen and who has a right to work. 

The problem for an open Europe, in other words, is how to close it – against immigrants and refugees from the Third World. But not so that their labour is entirely lost. For it is they who do the low-skilled, menial, dangerous and dirty jobs in silicon-age capitalism — as their counterparts did a generation ago in the reconstruction of post-war Europe. Except that, now, such work – temporary, flexible and casual – is the very basis on which post-industrial society is run. And not just in the service sector, which is more readily perceived, but also, less visibly, in manufacturing and the distributive trades and, in some parts of Europe, in agriculture. 

The number of such immigrants might be higher in mainland Europe than in Britain, but here too the hotel and catering workers, the contract cleaners in hospitals, airports, etc., the security guards in the private security firms, petrol pump attendants, domestics, fast food assistants, hospital auxiliaries and porters and so much more – come increasingly from Colombia, Chile, Turkey, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Iran. And they enter not so much as migrant labour, tied to a work permit and hence to a specific job (such as the 14,000 Filipinos recruited in the ’70s into the hotel and catering industry and as domestic servants), but as refugees and asylum seekers, fleeing the economic mayhem and political terror in their countries. With no rights of settlement, rarely the right to work, no right to housing or to medical care, and under the constant threat of deportation, the new migrants are forced to accept wages and conditions which no indigenous worker, black or white, would accept. They have no pension rights, no social security, the employers do not have to insure them – they are illicit, illegal, replaceable. 

All of which makes feasible the privatisation of key areas of the state’s service sector, makes viable government policies to return the mentally sick and the old to community care and further enhances the yuppie culture with servants and slaves. 

In manufacturing, revolutionary changes in the production process have led to the use of an increasingly flexible work-force, divided into a functionally flexible ‘core group’ which can adjust to changes in technology, and a numerically flexible ‘peripheral group’ which can be adjusted to changes in the market and is, therefore, temporary, part-time, ad hoc, casual. And who better to fit that bill than the peripatetic migrant or refugee? 

In the retail sector, too, migrant labour has become absolutely crucial. The computerisation of distribution and sales has allowed big stores like Marks & Spencer to do away with warehousing and middle-men. Instead, they have at their bidding a number of small manufacturers and suppliers whose contracts (and therefore livelihood) depend upon their ability to change production according to the demands and vagaries of the market. They must be able, as in the garments industry for instance, to switch lines at a moment’s notice from one fast-fashion to another, discard a pattern today, produce from a new one tomorrow. And that demands a completely flexible   workforce which can be taken on or laid off at will, which will be prepared to work long and unsocial hours to fulfill a particular contract. Increasingly, that workforce comes not only from Asian women working in the home but also from the un-unionised, illegal, Third World migrants working in the sweat-shops. 

In some countries of Europe like Italy, the agricultural sector is becoming dependent upon the super-exploitation of peripatetic Third World workers. The chic grape-picking holiday in France, once popular with students, has given way to a more systematised use of cheap labour. Agricultural migrant workers travel from harvest to harvest, as each crop demands to be picked at a definite time. By definition the work is intense and short-term and the rates of pay (for piece-work, always) abysmal. Recent reports in Italian newspapers have put the pay of immigrant tomato pickers in Southern Italy at 40p for 35 kilos and, in Caserta, Ghanaians looking after cattle were said to be earning £11 for a twelve-hour day.

And between jobs’ the Third World worker ekes out a living on the pavements and beaches of Europe. He might sell newspapers in Vienna, ‘Lacoste’ jumpers in Lisbon, sun-glasses or African jewellery on the Costa del Sol, entertain tourists outside the Pompidou Centre. But wherever he is (and it is invariably a he), he is still un-free – dependent upon a supplier for his goods, open to the harassment of police identity-checks, facing the racist hostility of local traders. 

Little has been written about the life and condition of these workers in Britain, where the tradition of investigative journalism has been choked off by the paparazzi – and even less is known about the crucial role they play in modern capitalism. But in Germany, Günter Wallraff, a writer-journalist, lived in the guise of an illegal Turkish worker, ‘Ali’, and exposed the plight of the lowest of the low’ and the racism that keeps them that way in a riveting book, Ganz Unten (now published in England by Methuen).  The book, which sold millions of copies both in Germany and France, earned the opprobrium of, and law suits from, many of the largest German multinationals. For, in revealing the unacceptable face of the Turk, Wallraff also revealed the unacceptable face of post-industrial capitalism. After a pitiless stint in fast-foods at MacDonalds, Ali makes for the factories and building sites where he unblocks lavatories ankle-deep in piss and covered in racist graffiti; removes sludge from pipes atop tall buildings in 17 degrees of frost; shovels and inhales coke dust hour after hour below ground level; crawls into a pig-iron ferry to clear a blockage with pneumatic tools and no mask. Wallraff’s revelations, of how pharma ceutical industries are only too ready to use illegal Third World immigrants as guinea-pigs in their experiments with new drugs (for commercial rather than medical purposes) and of the cynical way in which sub-contractors are prepared to hire out ‘temporary’ Turks to clean up nuclear power plants so that they return home before the radiation takes effect, testify to the fact that the Turk is literally regarded as sub-human and, therefore, disposable (the word is Wallraff’s). 

But the racism that defines the Third World immigrant as inferior and locks him permanently into an under-class is also that which hides from the public gaze the murkier doings of industry. And contracting out the shit work allows management to avert its face from its own doings and come up smelling of roses. That also saves it from the legal consequences of employing unregistered, uninsured workers and transgressing safety regulations-for these are the responsibility of the sub-contractor. The law does not want to know either: the labour is alien, foreign and therefore rightless. Nor does the government, which wants the work – cheap, unorganised, invisible – but not the workers. 

A whole system of exploitation is thus erected on the back of Third World workers, but racism keeps it from the light of day- and racism and institutional sclerosis put it beyond the unions’ purview. And the workers themselves are prevented by the constantly changing, ad hoc nature of their work from organising on their own behalf. Seldom are the same workers allowed to do the same job or work in the same place for too long-and often they do not speak the same language or connect culturally. And because many are illegal or seeking asylum and are fearful of being sent back to the authoritarian regimes they escaped from, they become capital’s captive labour par excellence. 

But it is capital, multinational capital, that throws them up on Europe’s shores in the first place. Requiring regimes that are hospit able to their investment, provide markets for their goods, yield labour for their activities, multinational corporations predicate the dictator ships that imperialism sets up for them. Trade no longer follows the flag, the flag follows trade. All sorts of trade: the trade in armaments which foments local wars, the trade in tourism which makes hotels out of fishermen’s homes and peasants’ huts and bids the people eat cake, the agribusiness trade which, as in Sri Lanka, is turning rice fields into pineapple plantations as once it turned them into tea, the trade in debt which keeps the Third World for ever on its knees and feathers the bed of international finance – and the trade in peoples which follows as a consequence of these. 

The fascist dicatorships and the authoritarian democracies that western powers set up in Third World countries in their own economic and political interests are also those that provide the West with the flexible labour force it needs to run post-industrial society. Racism is the control mechanism that keeps that labour force within social and political bounds. 

We are moving from an ethnocentric racism to an Eurocentric racism, from the different racisms of the different member states to a common, market racism, without losing out on the institutional differentials which are necessary to manage the insurgent black population within each nation state. Citizenship may open Europe’s borders to blacks and allow them free movement, but racism which cannot tell one black from another, a citizen from an immigrant, an immigrant from a refugee – and classes all Third World peoples as immigrants and refugees and all immigrants and refugees as terrorists and drug-dealers – is going to make such movement fraught and fancy.