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  • Geoff Mulgan

Racism/anti-racism: how movements move & how to avoid binary thinking

The extraordinary sight of the BLM movement taking off all over the world has been invigorating. History is being talked about seriously; history is being made; and injustices are out in the open. As someone who believes that any mature democracy should constantly interrogate its own history and myths I see this as all to the good.


Here I share a few reflections - both on how social movements move and how to avoid the risks of binary thinking - which partly draw on some personal history.


As a teenager I was very active politically, and in particular in the then vicious struggle against the far right. The National Front and British National Party were beginning to make headway, particularly in white working-class areas of Britain. Immigration and race were their big issues. Their preferred method was to take to the streets and assert their strength through marches – and as with far-right parties in the past they found that this was a good way of attracting support, particularly from young men. They wanted fights, and they wanted to win them, in part because their world view associated might with right.


We tried to confront them. Whenever they marched we would march and we tried to make sure our marches were bigger. Often the police attacked us (and at that time quite a lot of the police were sympathetic to the far right). At my first ever demonstration (when I was 13) the marchers on the left were charged by the police; one demonstrator was killed and hundreds were left bloodied and bruised.


Although I was brought up to believe in rational argument I remain convinced that for some battles you have to be willing to be there physically; to embody your values; and sometimes you have to be willing to be roughed up. And I also believe that you have to mobilise culture as well as argument: which is why projects like Rock against Racism were so important.


There are many reasons why the UK’s far right never achieved the electoral strength of their equivalents in France, Belgium or Germany. But the combination of cultural mobilisation and effective confrontation on the ground undoubtedly helped, whether on the streets or through the kind of intense door to door campaigning that helped defeat the far right in Barking, Oldham and other places in the late 2000s.


I also learned about the risks of mirroring. Often in politics movements come to mirror their enemies. It happened to the Communists and Fascists in the 1920s and 1930s and today, too, the far left and far right sometimes mirror each other as well as needing each other – the sins of each reinforce the sense of moral virtue of the other side. The far left also need to provoke the police to attack them (not always so hard) to prove their theory that the capitalist state is coherent and oppressive.


There are equivalents in the media - in the propaganda outlets for authoritarian states and in the more ideological newspapers. The Daily Mail, for example, needs the far left just as much as extreme right-wing parties do. This piece from a few days ago is a wonderful example, and it’s not surprising that many commentators – like the Revolutionary Communist Party/Spiked group - have effortlessly switched from far left to far right, seeing the world in binary terms - where one side has a monopoly of good, and the other side is all evil. In my view, all of these mirroring behaviours, and their tendency to reduce issues to binaries, are bad for democracy, bad for actually solving deep problems, and bad for the tone of everyday life in societies where we have to learn to live together.


A second lesson came on one march I had helped organise. We expected a few hundred to turn up, challenging a far-right march of perhaps two or three hundred. Instead several thousand turned up on our side, including many white, black and Asian working-class teenagers who’d had no involvement in politics before. The march started off quite orderly but soon ran out of control. Hundreds of our side started running and attacked the far-right supporters as they waited in and around pubs. Baseball bats and sticks appeared from nowhere; a lot of windows were smashed; and plenty of people were arrested. Me and the other organisers had completely lost any grip. We thought we were leading but the followers had other ideas. A big lesson for me was that social movements can’t be controlled, and that may be no bad thing. It’s in the nature of movements that they move.


Britain is now a very different country from then. Even the Conservative Party looks a lot more like the Britain it tries to serve (although many of its BAME leaders are from extraordinarily privileged backgrounds). But while attitudes have changed, and are continuing to change dramatically, expectations have changed even more – the under-30s in particular are hardly going to feel grateful that they’re less likely to be beaten up, patronised or humiliated than their parents were.


Uprising which I helped set up out of the Young Foundation with Rushanara Ali before she became an MP, is a good example that’s tried to harness some of that ambition. It’s now trained thousands of young black, Asian and white 18-24 year olds to become public leaders in cities across the UK (including my home town of Luton). Our ideal was that in a healthy democracy the top jobs should not just represent but also reflect the people they’re meant to serve.


We’re still a long way from that ideal, whether in politics, justice or business, though the gulf isn’t quite as big as it was. The sector I have just joined, higher education, hasn’t got a great record (94% of Vice-Chancellors are white) and we didn’t do very well at my former organisation, Nesta. If nothing else, BLM will force actions to better align with words.


I hope it also influences how history is taught. I’m still astonished how little schoolchildren in Britain learn about the British Empire – whether our role as drug pushers in the Opium Wars, or as predators and thieves in Bengal, in both cases seriously impoverishing what were then very advanced parts of the world. My guess is that most of the current Cabinet think the Empire was basically a good thing, more because of ignorance than malice.


But it’s also important not to lose sight of complexity and not to get caught in the binaries. The arguments in the UK aren't quite the same as in the US, or for that matter France. Race matters a lot; but so does class, and a lot of white working class Britain is as excluded from power and opportunities as ever, a major factor in modern politics. I don’t much like the catch-all phrase BAME mainly because it disguises the big differences in status and wealth between groups, which often reflect cultural capital and class (Brahmin Indians and African aristocrats living in London share some experiences of racism with my relatively poor neighbours from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds in Luton, but they face very different life chances). Racists like to believe that the world is binary. It isn’t.


So too with empire and slavery, which were the norm through much of human history, not inventions of British Kings. The history of slavery continues to cast a huge shadow over the US, and over so much British history and public life (I’m still waiting for the debate to begin over the Tate galleries, for example). But removing a few statues isn’t enough. Slavery has also been an ugly constant in human society pretty much everywhere. Adam Hochschild estimated a third of the world’s population were slaves in 1900 (and it is of course the origin of the word ‘Slav’).


I had thought it was a thing of the past but was so shocked when I read Kevin Bales’ book on modern slavery in the early 2000s – when I was running the government Strategy Unit - that I set up a review on it, and what could be done for the enslaved maids in Kensington, fruit pickers in the English countryside or garment factories, or in countries like Mauritania (one of many actions that ultimately led to the Modern Slavery Act in 2015). I hope that the groups campaigning against statues are aware there are likely to be slaves, right now, only a few miles away from where they are.


BLM will transform the world. It looks set to be one of the pivot moments of history, like the pandemic it has coincided with. The greatest ugliness of racism is that it generalises; it treats people as categories not as human beings; it’s blind to potential and character; it tries to silence large parts of the population; and precisely for these reasons it encourages a mindless violence.


The binary thinking of racism scars the perpetrators as well as the victims. That is why it’s so valuable to have a vigorous, questioning anti-racism, that doesn’t mirror the racism it fights, and avoids the trap of also seeing people only through the lens of categories and labels.