Tag Archives: British Empire

Telling Stories

We all tell stories and the stories we tell each other often go unnoticed. When you pay a visit to your doctor, you may tell her or him a story about how long you’ve had symptoms. Stories are everywhere and they’re told for a variety of reasons, some of which are good and laudable and others not so.

Last year, when Boris Johnson announced the creation of a commission to investigate racial disparities, the words he used were “to change the narrative” with regards to institutional and structural racism. To do this, he insisted that stories of success be created to cancel out demands from Black Lives Matters protesters than structural inequalities be addressed and historic injustices be recognised. Johnson and his government then appointed Munira Mirza, a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who doesn’t accept the existence of institutional racism, to set up the commission. In turn, she appointed Tony Sewell, who shared her views. Sewell has been known to many of us for decades and not for the right reasons. I have personally seen him as a collaborator, who, like Trevor Phillips, provides racists with ammunition to attack minorities. Racists will say “Look, Tony Sewell says x, y, and z, so it must be true”.

This Tory government isn’t interested in addressing serious structural and institutional injustices. To its defenders who point to several people of colour on the government benches, like Priti Patel or James Cleverly, I say this: these people are actively involved in the maintenance of a system to keep minorities in their place. Thus, they themselves can be considered a enablers of racism, because they use their class privilege to deny the lived experience of those of us who encounter racism on a daily basis.

Stories have their place in our world, but they are often told to avoid facing up to uncomfortable truths and Britain has been telling itself stories for decades. Having lost their empire, the British ruling class were lost and frightened. So, rather that face up to their past, including the multiple atrocities committed in the colonies (and to its own people), they told themselves stories about how “great” they were. Indeed, many of the stories they told themselves were created from fragments of memories, myths and outright lies. Thus, when the report was released yesterday, it came bundled with stories about how Britain was a “beacon for white-majority countries”. But, by whose metric is this country a “beacon”? Why the story-tellers themselves.

Last January, Laurence Fox, scion of the Fox theatrical dynasty, appeared on the BBC’s Question Time and, in response to a point made by an audience member about racism in Britain, replied “Britain is a most lovely country and not at all racist”. That’s a story that he told himself because he cannot accept that racism continues to thrive in Britain. It’s a story that’s rooted in fear: fear of much needed change and fear of people of colour who are smart and who are able to articulate their concerns about racism. This makes bourgeois reactionaries like Fox feel uncomfortable.

The media, too, has played its part in normalising nativist discourses on nationality, citizenship and identity, through the use of storytelling. We saw this during the European Union referendum in 2016 with the constant production of stories around the themes of “independence” and “freedom” and being able to “make our own laws” rather than have “Brussels” impose rules on us. These stories fed into the national mythology of imperial greatness, along with tales about how “we stood alone” and “If it hadn’t been for Churchill, we’d all be speaking German”. Churchill himself actually advocated a United States of Europe, but it was the wrong kind of story because of its inconvenient truth. Instead, Churchill was painted as a staunch Eurosceptic, while his racism and bloodlust were elided.

If we go back further to 2005, the Blair government’s response to Michael Howard’s dog-whistling campaign (Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking) was feeble. In fact, in the remaining years of the last Labour government, we saw an acceleration of nativism under Gordon Brown, who said that he wanted to see Britain emulate the United States and become more “patriotic”. To achieve this, he told several stories about Britain’s “greatness” and even used the far-right’s phrase “British jobs for British workers”. This effectively widened the space opened up by Blair for the circulation of far-right discourses. If you want to know how we ended up with Union flags everywhere and statues of slavers and colonial thugs being given more rights than women who have been raped, then look no further than Brown. The Tories have simply carried on his work.

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Why right libertarians take semantic refuge in classical liberalism

Classical liberalism in action – Victorian workhouses were prisons for the poor

Recently, I’ve noticed the numbers of right libertarians who have suddenly started claiming that they’re really “classical liberals”. Like cockroaches when they’re exposed to the light, vigorous scrutiny of their soi-disant libertarianism sends them scurrying into the gap between the skirting board and the floor of discourse. There, in the darkness, they feel safe. There they can claim that they are “classical liberals”. But their new-found old position relies entirely on the mass ignorance of the term “classical liberalism” and the historical materialism of the 19th century when classical liberalism (then called liberalism) was first applied as an economic doctrine.

These born-again classical liberals will apply the same narratives that exponents of neoliberalism will use as a defence of their doctrine: that wealth can only be created for all  if the state is “smaller” and business is freed from “bureaucracy” and “red tape” and that wealth will consequently trickle down to those below. This, they argue, will bring forth ‘freedom’ but the freedom that they speak of only applies to a small section of the population: the factory owners and the rentier capitalists. Trickle down doesn’t work, yet these born again classical liberals will claim that it does – though none of them can point to examples of where trickle down has succeeded.

So what are the key defining features of classical liberalism and how does it differ, if at all, from right libertarianism?

Classical liberalism’s key features are

  • Individual liberty
  • smaller state/limited government
  • Laissez faire capitalism/free markets
  • Freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly
  • Disregard for the poor and the needy
  • Social Darwinism
  • Utilitarianism

Right libertarians

  • Individual liberty
  • Laissez faire capitalism/free markets
  • Smaller state/limited or no government
  • Freedom of speech. religion, press and assembly
  • Disregard for the poor and needy
  • Social Darwinism

As you can see, there isn’t much difference between either of them and when right libertarians suddenly proclaim that they are “classical liberals”, they are dishonest in making this largely artificial distinction. The real reason for declaring themselves as classical liberals has more to do with romanticism, nostalgia and outright dishonesty than anything else. They want to go back to a time when people knew their place and stayed there. Social mobility did not exist; the working class stayed in their place. They were denied access to higher education and were tied to their places of work. Knowledge was reserved for the privileged and the powerful. In the eyes of the dominant political hegemony, knowledge in the hands of the subaltern classes was considered dangerous (think of William Tyndale’s struggle to publish the Bible in English). Because with knowledge and ideas came the possibility that authority could be questioned, which could lead, in turn, to civil disobedience and insurrection…even though this happened anyway and was met with considerable force.

The neoliberals and those right libertarians who subscribe to the small state notion are actually the  descendants of classical liberals. They can no more return to the past, then I can become the King of Tonga. They have selectivized the past by appropriating certain memories of the classical liberal period, which always seem to orbit the sun-like narrative of the British Empire. When one puts the point to them that Adam Smith’s assertion that “free markets will lead to world peace” is fallacious proposition, they will respond by asking, “did free market states go to war against each other”? It’s a red herring. There were plenty of wars, many of them waged by free market states against other nations. Free trade relied on wars and the colonization of other countries. It also meant outdoing the competition from other free market nations. Presumably, for our apologists, the Opium Wars were not waged in the name of free trade but were waged to punish the Chinese for not accepting opium rather than silver as payment for silk? It’s a fatuous argument but it’s the sort of defence right libertarians would use.  In the 19th century, the British Empire was the biggest drug pusher on the planet- there is no getting away from it.  It was because of this idea of  “free trade” that countries like China were forced to “open” their markets and thus open themselves to decades of foreign domination.

Classical liberals denied the right of workers to organize. It was only when the last of the Combination Acts was repealed that workers were able to organize in any meaningful way.  Socially, classical liberals were very much against the idea of the relief of poverty and sought to contain it within the Poor Laws. The workhouse, which had been around since the 14th century, saw an expansion in the 19th century after the passing of the Poor Law of 1834. Today’s born again classical liberals have similar ideas with regards to the poor and the unemployed, for whom they have resurrected the artificial distinctions of “deserving” and “undeserving”. Any money spent on the relief of poverty was seen as another impediment to the freedoms of the rich and powerful. One ‘argument’ that I encountered was “The working class were richer (sic) in 1899 than they were in 1801”. But this is another red herring: the working class were never “rich” and lived in overcrowded rented accommodation. Few of them moved up the social ladder. Those that did became the petite bourgeoisie: the shopkeepers, market traders or were otherwise recruited as instruments of oppression, nor did they buy their own properties in leafy districts of the industrial cities nor did any of them become industrialists. There was a glass ceiling preventing those at the bottom from becoming say, MPs, because of the property qualification.

The right libertarian is a dishonest creature that substitutes myths and tropes for facts. They extrapolate their arguments from sets of numbers in the hope that no one will spot the flaws in their thesis – which always overlooks society in favour of cold economic statistics. This decontextualization of numbers from the societal whole is their only defence and it’s a weak one. But the worst offence is to claim that they are “classical liberals” when they are really right libertarians looking for a way to divert attention away from their very postmodern interpretations of  selfishness and greed by hiding in the darkness of the past.

The use of the phrase “classical liberalism” by right libertarians is therefore an exercise in semantic subterfuge and should be laughed off as such.

UPDATE 11/5/11 @ 1213

I found this interesting blog written by an anarchist. Right libertarians don’t live in the real world.

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Life on Hannan World (Part 2)

That Littlejohn fella. He was right!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the misfortune of reading a blog in which Dear Dan cited the repugnant Richard Littlejohn. If you cite Littlejohn to support your argument, you’re at the top of a slippery slope.

First he says,

The grimly efficient Chris Grayling aims to rescue millions from this wretched state. Pilot tests run under the last government yielded astonishing results. When claimants were reassessed in Aberdeen and Burnley, 30 per cent of them were passed fit for work, and another 30 per cent classified as capable of some work.

Then he links to Littlejohn, Britain’s version of Rush Limbaugh.

To understand the magnitude of the task he faces, though, the minister should read this article by Richard Littlejohn (you have to scroll down to the penultimate entry). A woman from Essex was shifted from Jobseekers’ Allowance to Incapacity Benefit three years ago because she is allergic to rubber. The Department of Work and Pensions argued that such a condition needn’t preclude all forms of employment. According to the DWP lawyer: “Her allergy, although inconvenient, has not prevented her from leading a relatively normal life — shopping, socialising, travelling on public transport.” The judges, however, ruled in favour of the claimant: a decision that may encourage others to challenge their reassessment in court.

You can read the original Littlejohn article here but you need to scroll down the page to find the actual article titled “Our amazing India rubber benefit rules”.  If you look at the first article, you can see that it harks back to the 1980’s and the “Loony Left council” articles that filled the pages of the Tory tabloid press. These days, a few Torygraph bloggers use the same style. Plus ça change.

The title of Hannan’s blog is dishonest “Can 2.6 million people be too ill to work”?  Where does he get this figure from? You get the feeling Hannan is the sort of person who sees clinical depression as the ‘blues’ and a little ‘hard work’ will cure that. All they need to do is “snap out of it”. But it isn’t that easy if you suffer from depression.   Here’s the crux of the blog

Between 1971, when Invalidity Benefit was introduced, and the mid-1980s, there were typically around 700,000 claimants. Today, there are 2.6 million (the name was changed to Incapacity Benefit in 1995). We have, tragically, encouraged some people to arrange their affairs around qualifying for the allowance.

There’s only one problem with that figure. It’s wrong. But in order to ram the point home, he includes an image of Wayne and Waynetta Slob. Cheap.

This article from FullFact.org debunks the myth of 2.6 million.  It also does so here. Here’s a snippet,

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that when they have completed the 1.5 million assessments 23 per cent of these people will be fit for work – not 94 per cent, or even 75 per cent. This demonstrates how misguided it is to apply a statistic related to ESA applicants across the board to all Incapacity Benefit claimants.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Eh?

In another blog, Hannan apologizes for the Empire and gets in some praise for his hero, Enoch Powell. The blog has the title “In all the coverage of the atrocities in Kenya, two words are missing”. And which words are those, Dear Dan?

The British Empire was a surprisingly peaceable place. There were sporadic insurgencies, of course, and brutal wars in Ireland, India, Cyprus and Palestine; but many colonies were brought to independence without a shot being fired in anger.

This narrative of the Empire skips over many inconvenient truths to promote the idea that the British Empire – as opposed to the other empires – was, in spite of its evident failures,  a force for good. The rest of the paragraph gets a little confused.

The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was the exception. The mutineers were uncommonly ruthless, perpetrating monstrous atrocities against loyalist and neutral Kenyans, of whom nearly 3,000 were murdered. The response was commensurately severe: 1,090 terrorists were hanged and as many as 71,000 detained without due process.

On the one hand he condemns the actions of the so-called Mau Mau and on the other, he tells us that the response to the rebels (whom he refers to as mutineers) was severe. But this was always the response when native people were yoked to a greater, colonizing nation. They fight to wrest control of their land from the invader and will kill anyone who is seen as a collaborator. Presumably the resistance movements of World War II cut no ice?

In the second paragraph, he uses the atrocities committed at the Hola Camp to have a pop at the Guardian.

Abuses took place in the internment centres, culminating in the beating to death of eleven detainees by security guards at the Hola camp. Guardianistas, of course, slot the episode neatly into their evil-imperialists-versus-nice-natives narrative.

Mmmm, hmmm, Let’s read the rest,

But the point about the Hola killings is that they led to an outcry in the House of Commons, a wave of revulsion in the country, and a hastening of the independence process.

What he doesn’t mention is how long it took for anyone to complain.

Linking to this blog, he says,

I’m not a great fan of empires – we would have done far better to have carried on with our unofficial protectorates and trading outposts than to assume responsibility for large tracts of land – but there is little doubt that, as empires go, ours was relatively benign. Niall Ferguson makes the obvious but rarely remarked point that, for most of the countries under British dominion, the alternative was not unmolested evolution towards modernity, but conquest by someone else: France, Germany, Turkey, Russia, Japan or – worst of all – Belgium.

Yes, that’s the same Niall Ferguson who teaches what he and Carswell describe as “proper history”.  Are protectorates any less wrong that colonies? Not really, but this piece of lazy thinking implies that “if we hadn’t have colonized them,  some other power would have done so and the situation would have been much worse”. Belgium, as he rightly points out, was one of the worst colonizers. King Leopold II treated the Congo as his own personal property and subjected the natives to horrific and barbaric treatment. But the Congo was called  a “Free State”, that is to say, a country where the normal rule of law and civil and human rights are suspended in order to pursue a tidy profit.  It is an idea that gets most Randists moist. This site promotes the idea of a free state. But it’s a vision that exists outside of history and reality.  The BBC reports on the Lekki Free Trade Zone in Nigeria and tells us that other African countires are following suit. Is this another Scramble for Africa? Recently the government announced its intention to create so-called Enterprise Zones. Guess what that means for workers? The only people who get excited about these zones are parasites.

Ironically, the MP who brought the Hola Camp abuses to the attention of the Commons was the mercurial Enoch Powell, who would later go on to deliver his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. Powell was a fervent free-marketeer and like those who give unquestioning devotion to the classical liberal model, he promoted that idea in isolation from the historical facts. This blog is, as much as anything else, an effort to rehabilitate the reputation of Powell by constructing a new, kinder memory of him outside of the materialism of history. Thatcher appropriated the memory of Churchill and isolated his wartime premiership from the rest of his inglorious past. It was a mistake and it came back to haunt her.

On to today’s blog and Hannan claims that the money that this country (sic) has given to the Portuguese bailout could have been spent on

254,150 nurses (there are around 390,000 nurses in the NHS)

114,109 NHS doctors (more than the actual total of 110,000)

180,575 police constables (there are 170,000 police officers in the UK)

194,553 teachers (out of 450,000)

246,856 Army privates (as against 106,550 actual regulars, of all ranks)

What’s so ironic about his figures for doctors and nurses is that, not so long ago, he appeared on Fox News to tell the American people that the “NHS was a 60 year old mistake”.

This blog is a mix of anti-EU sensationalism and snide attacks on his political enemies.

He takes a cheap swipe at the March of the Alternative

So where is the “March for the Alternative”? Where are all the students, Socialist Workers and trade union activists who thronged through London just a couple of weeks ago?

At the end he adds this,

So where is the TUC? Where is UK Uncut? Where are all those who asserted last month that a much smaller sum meant the end of social security in Britain? Are they missing something? Or am I?

There are none so deaf as those that refuse to hear, Dan. Tell you what, if you’re so fired up about the bailout, why don’t you organize your own march? There’s nothing stopping you. Or maybe the Rally Against Debt, which has so far attracted little support and that he supported on his blog, is more his thing? I understand, that like Hon Tobes, he’s chickened out of appearing at the rally. The fact of the matter is that the bailout of Portugal is part of a series of mistakes made by countries who adopted the neoliberal economic model in an attempt to play with the big boys of the G20 nations. This is the same economic model that was forced onto this country by the Thatcher government in the 1980’s.

Naturally, such facts are always met with silence. I wonder why?

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