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Revisiting Macpherson to Reimagine Public Safety

The Black Lives Matter movement has called for a global reckoning with the long history of anti-black racism and has specifically focused on the role of police in enforcing and enacting racial disadvantage. Included in their call to “defund the police” is a specific rejection of efforts to “reform the police” through interventions like training and community policing and instead focus on reimagining public safety independently of policing. This represents a sharp break with past efforts to eliminate racist policing.

In 1999 the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry found a problem of institutional racism within British policing. Officers had failed to take Lawrence’s murder seriously, had mishandled their relationship with the family, and showed a general indifference to the wellbeing of communities of colour. Later revelations exposed the fact that police were even surveilling the Lawrence family in order to undermine their efforts to hold police accountable. The ensuing Macpherson Report contained 70 recommendations designed to address racism within policing and the larger society. It included calls for police diversification, enhanced training around racial tolerance, and improved procedures for investigating racially motivated crimes all of which were designed to “increase trust and confidence in policing amongst minority ethnic communities.”

Twenty years later, significant gains have been made in hiring more diverse officers and implementing a variety of diversity and sensitivity trainings. And while more could be done, in theory, along these lines, there is little evidence that this has significantly reduced the disproportionate negative impacts of policing on communities of colour. Arrest rates, police use of force, and deaths in custody have not been reduced. Non-white communities continue to be over-policed. This should not be surprising, in part because the Macpherson report specifically said that there should be no change to underlying policing practices. They should just be done by a more diverse force with more racial sensitivity.

At the root of this problematic dynamic is the unwillingness of the Macpherson report or subsequent efforts to reduce racism through police reform to look at what is really driving deep racial inequalities. For the last 40 years the political leadership of the UK has largely capitulated to a politics of neoliberalism and austerity. In the face of global competition, they have cut services to those in need while subsidising the already successful through tax breaks and deregulation in hopes that they will become so successful that some of their new wealth will trickle down to everyone else. But this system has not produced widespread prosperity. It has produced a small group of extremely rich beneficiaries and growing precarity for everyone else. And the burden of this has fallen disproportionately on communities of colour. At the same time, it has fed racial resentment among white populations who have come to blame foreigners and racial minorities for their declining economic status.

The result of this has also been an increase in certain types of conventional street crime as well as problems of low-level disorder and the growth of so-called “vulnerable populations.” The management of these “problems” has fallen to the police. This has looked like increased police involvement in managing those who are homeless, young people acting out in schools, responding to mental health crisis calls, and intensively policing youth of colour across the board on the pretext of stopping drugs or violence.

In response to these failures there is a deep reimagining underway of what public safety could look like independent of the criminal legal system. A growing number of people are calling for replacing police-centred strategies with community investments and commitments to long term strategies for producing greater racial and economic justice. Groups like the 4Front Project in London are demanding that government address the very real problem of youth violence by investing in youth instead of police. They take a youth centred perspective that understands the challenges young people face in a hostile environment in which their families are in crisis, schools lack resources, and the prospects of long-term stable employment seem non-existent. Any effort to produce real safety for young people must start with stable housing, family supports, access to high quality schools, and the prospect of upward mobility.

Similarly, Kids of Colour in Manchester is demanding that schools become sights of safe and successful learning, rather than extensions of the criminal legal system or as we say in the US, “the school to prison pipeline.” As young people face increasing pressures at home and in the community just as educational and social supports are diminished, this is producing disruptive behaviour in and around schools. Rather than framing this as a discipline problem to be counteracted by increased suspensions and policing, they are demanding more resources for schools and the families of these young people.

This kind of reimagining of public safety asks us to reject the false equating of justice with punishment and to instead invest in new systems of justice rooted in restoring communities and individuals so that fewer harms are experienced including those inflicted by the criminal legal system. These “restorative justice” approaches work with young people to develop real interpersonal and communal accountability and to take steps to repair past harms and prevent new harms from occurring.

Racial justice is not going to come from a black police officer, it’s going to be achieved by addressing racism in a broad array of institutional settings such as housing and employment discrimination, unequal funding of social services and infrastructure and the failure to come to terms with the legacies of slavery and colonialism at the root of these ongoing disparities.

Where colonialism universalises the future, we must not. Where it disciplines all possibility to serving the needs of capital, our imaginings must refuse to. Where it presupposes European Whiteness as the final destination, we must swerve elsewhere, or be killed, and our imaginings of what next must leave no such room for exception. To outmanoeuvre the grasps of coloniality we must project forward in un-intelligible ways!

I say this because when imagining the future, it is tempting to seek blueprints. What, specifically, will those accountability processes look like when policing is abolished? How, exactly, will we organise society after nation-states and borders are dismantled? To seek concrete answers tends to universalise Eurocentric ‘solutions’ once again, and our inclination for ‘alternatives’ forgoes the possibility of leaving some things entirely behind. Instead of standardised ‘replacements’ perhaps the future should look a million different ways, filled with multitudes and uncertainty.

It is not an-other world that requires imagining. It is many, authored by many. And it is in the process of crafting the tools to build parts of what we can imagine, that what we could never imagine might manifest. ‘Let’s make new tools to dismantle the house’, could become an unexpected journey to kindling a fire that eats it up instead. Or, crafting what turns out to be a digging implement that collapses the house onto itself. Or, tearing open a dam elsewhere that drowns the house in ways never considered before.

It is tempting to look for Big Moments in the past to draw inspiration for this. Revolutions, insurrections and rebellions. But I am more interested in the overlooked imaginative practices of those whose world is an-Other world already. The practices of racialised, disabled and immigrant women, whose unglamorous practices make different futures possible all the time.

I am thinking about the immigrant women who told me they pretended not to understand instructions of factory bosses. Their playing on racist assumptions claimed an alternative timeline altogether. One which refused commodification into surplus value for the company, resisting racial capitalism’s claims to the entirety of their future. I am thinking of the kameti and pardner systems that migrant communities have used to pool, borrow and lend money without having their futures imprisoned to debt bondage through interest charges of banks who bend all futures to their subservience. Mutual care networks of disabled people disorder space/time by disobeying the demand to direct all futures towards the most valuable output for capital. By directing their worlds towards the wellbeing of lives deemed ‘unproductive’ excess, they invest in the inconceivable. The everyday de-escalation of conflict often shouldered by women – ‘that toy belongs to both of you! you have to share!’ – is a vision of collective ownership that disrupts the idea that property ownership must necessitate exploitation and dispossession.

So many different nows already exist that are unthinkable to the colonial imaginary. They create worlds we are told are impossible or would require years of reform but cannot be instated overnight. But our worlds are changed overnight by detentions, raids, arrests and assaults all the time. Impossibility is simply the vocabulary of those invested in the status quo. Their vocabulary aims to naturalise a deeply constructed world where genocidal policies are called ‘immigration controls’; imprisonment is ‘protecting us’; exploitation is ‘the 9 til 5’. When we give other names to this world, we make visible the fact many things we are told are natural, are man-made. This is not mere rhetorical squabbling. Anything man-made holds the possibility of being unmade, so the names we give not only reveal other nows, they make claim to other futures altogether.

Therefore, small, everyday practices can prick holes in the universalising future coloniality has draped before our eyes. Those practices are often rooted in the most derided of revolutionary forces: love and care. Because that is exactly where the most unimaginable futures stem from. From racialised and disabled people daring to imagine we might make it into the future. Undocumented people daring to imagine safety and reunion. To imagine ourselves not only alive, but laughing in our own futures, necessitates the end of the world as we know it and asserts space for a multiplicity of futures that might get us there. Afterall, our futures must not only be utilitarian.

When we imagine redistributed global resources; harm resolved by addressing material conditions instead of criminalisation; an end to imperialism in its military, ecological and development forms; or anything else – those imaginings are not ends in themselves. They are the bare minimum we can imagine, as a means to a future in which we may exist in ways beyond what we can imagine. Not just where we might have beyond our imagination, but where we might live, think, learn, heal and worship in ways beyond our wildest dreams.

This panel, part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), will explore the nature of racial inequalities and the politics of ‘race’ in the cultural industries. It will explore the impact of barriers and obstacles (and at times ‘opportunities’) facing racialised peoples in the creative sector, and how movements around access and representation fare in a time of crisis.

• Nike Jonah, Creative Producer, Counterpoint Arts

• Anamik Saha, University of Goldsmiths, CoDE

• Alex Wheatle, Writer

• K Biswas, Writer and Director of Resonance FM and Racebeat (Chair)

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Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

Covid-19 has induced the biggest shock to the UK economy seen in modern times and, without significant government action, the effect on the labour market will be severe. In this session, which is part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), we will explore how existing ethnic inequalities both in employment and in the transition from compulsory schooling through higher and further education into work may be exacerbated by the crisis with negative consequences for poverty and inequality.

• Andrea Barry, Senior Analyst, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

• Sandra Kerr, Race Director, Business in the Community

• Omar Khan, Director, TASO

• Ken Clark, University of Manchester, CoDE (Chair)

Panel was the third panel discussion in the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), hosted by Stuart Hall Foundation, Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

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Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

Ethnic minority people have experienced a much higher risk of COVID-19 related death, a stark disproportion that has impacted on all ethnic and religious minority groups. In this session, which is part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), we will explore how these inequalities mirror longstanding inequalities in health and well-being, which themselves reflect deep social and economic disparities underpinned by racism, and the approaches to address them.

• Natalie Creary, Programme Delivery Director, Black Thrive

• James Nazroo, University of Manchester, CoDE

• Parth Patel, Research Fellow, IPPR

• Dharmi Kapadia, University of Manchester, CoDE (Chair)

Panel was the second panel discussion in the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), hosted by Stuart Hall Foundation, Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

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Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

The emergence of the Black Lives Matters movement is marked by the deaths (incomplete lives) of minoritised people who encountered the police. This panel will explore experiences of policing during the pandemic, campaigning and activism in response to this, and the factors that perpetuate policing by force in the face of campaigning.

• Deborah Coles, Executive Director, INQUEST

• Leslie Thomas QC, Garden Court Chambers

• Patrick Williams, Manchester Metropolitan University, CoDE

• Scarlet Harris, University of Manchester, CoDE (Chair)

Part of the ‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ conference (9-12 March), hosted by Stuart Hall Foundation, Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

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Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated deeply entrenched racial and ethnic inequalities in the UK across a range of social arenas. The crisis has thrown existing inequalities into sharp relief, and in order to address this we must start to map and understand these key impacts of the current crisis moment.

‘Racial Inequality in a Time of Crisis’ is a week-long conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority people in the UK. The event takes place online each day at 5pm from Tuesday 9th to Friday 12th March, and is hosted in partnership between Stuart Hall Foundation, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) and Runnymede Trust.

We invited researchers and practitioners working across the fields of sociology, history, art, media, activism, politics, and healthcare to take part in a series of live online presentations and discussions that focus on a number of areas impacted by Covid-19: ‘Policing the Crisis’, Health and Well-being, Employment and Young People, and Culture and Cultural Activism.

“Poetry for me was a cultural weapon in the black liberation struggle” – Linton Kwesi Johnson Linton Kwesi Johnson discusses the role of the poet with Roger Robinson, Jay Bernard and Stuart Hall Foundation Chair, Gilane Tawadros in this excerpt from the 4th Annual Stuart Hall Public Conversation entitled: ‘Movement and Stillness: Art in a Time of Crisis and Upheaval’. On the 3rd of February 2021, we welcomed three of Britain’s leading artists and poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson and Jay Bernard as they came together to read and reflect on the role of art and poetry in our turbulent times for our 4th Annual Public Conversation. Since 2018, our Public Conversation event has been our yearly moment to pause and reflect, inviting an audience to engage with the work of artists and thinkers on a chosen theme that responds to recent political, cultural and social changes taking place. Previous years have pursued themes through multiple lenses, providing a chance for questions and discussion, and punctuated with interventions by poets, artists and musicians that open up a different space for thinking.  

Originally Published by the Media Education Foundation

The Media Education Foundation presents a newly discovered recording of a seminal lecture now available for viewing. The late cultural theorist Stuart Hall was one of the great intellectual and political figures of recent history. His voice is more necessary than ever in these unprecedented times. In this 2004 lecture – the basis of one of his most important essays – he demonstrates what made his theoretical contributions so relevant to contemporary events. As Professor Susan Douglas of the University of Michigan says, “Here we see a stunning (and exemplary) display of Stuart’s brilliant ability to move between the theoretical and the often quotidian examples he would use to illustrate theory, and make it more clear. With virtually no notes and barely a pause, Stuart offers, by turns, an astute, dexterous, probing and, as always, humble disquisition about the relationship between biography and intellectual work. His reflections on the processes – the work, the struggles, the misrecognitions – that go into thinking are inspiring and comforting. For those of us who have always thought that hearing Stuart speak brought his written work to life, and who deeply miss, still, his brilliance and his humanity, Through the Prism of an Intellectual Life is a blessing. This tour de force is a must watch.”

“Stuart Hall was a great intellectual freedom fighter and theoretical genius as manifest in this famous lecture! Don’t miss it.”

– Cornel West

“What a phenomenal gift! This recording of Stuart Hall’s talk at the Caribbean Reasonings conference offers us exceptional insight into the person, the politics, the method, the vision, and their profound interconnectedness. Those who already know his work will be awe-struck and those for whom this serves as an introduction will surely want more.”

– Angela Davis

“Stuart Hall was always a uniquely gifted lecturer, but he never spoke more eloquently than he does in this magnificent talk, given at a crucial biographical moment for him, on a late return to the Caribbean. We see and hear him in inspirational mood, weaving together an astonishingly fluent synthesis of the key ideas from all the different stages of his work. Here is that astonishing combination of personal warmth, rhetorical splendour and intellectual seriousness which characterised his manner – which is so engaging as to make one want to stand up and join in the ovation he receives at the lecture’s end.”

– David Morley

“In these extraordinarily challenging times, Stuart Hall remains, even after his death, a unique voice for “the vocation of the intellectual life.” In this emblematic lecture, he both elaborates and demonstrates how to be a political intellectual, how to understand the complexity and contingency of the present conjuncture in ways that will enable people to more effectively resist the forces at work, the systems of power, injustice and inequality. Hall challenges us to think what it means to think, and how to make thinking matter.”

– Larry Grossberg

Shiv Malik, and Susanna Rustin explore how intergenerational inequality, and the economic reality on which it has been based, has changed our politics and what this might mean for the future. In the last decade, intergenerational inequality has been at the fore of political argument, alongside other inequalities such as class, race, sex, with which the left has traditionally been engaged.

Read more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.

Speakers:

Shiv Malik is a technologist, author, broadcaster and former investigative journalist. He began his career reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan and subsequently worked for the Guardian for five years breaking exclusive front page stories on everything from UK government social policy to secret ISIS documents. He is a co-founder of the think-tank, the Intergenerational Foundation and the author of two books, the 2010 cult economics book Jilted Generation and The Messenger an intrepid personal tale about a relationship with a terrorist-cum-fatasist, published by Faber last year. He has been a full time contributor to the open source project Streamr, since 2017, where he evanglises about a new decentralised data economy and data ownership.

Susanna Rustin is a social affairs leader writer for the Guardian. She covers a range of topics including education, health, housing and environment for the leader (“Guardian view”) column. She has worked at the Guardian for 18 years and previous roles have included deputy opinion editor, feature writer, and deputy editor of the Saturday Review. Susanna lives in Queen’s Park, London, where she is a councillor on London’s only parish/community council. She has been a trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation since it was set up. Stuart (her uncle by marriage) was an important figure in her life. Susanna went to a comprehensive school in London and studied at York university and Birkbeck College.

The Article has been published in the Revista Brasileira de Psicanálise volume 54 numero 2 , 2020

Abstract

This article examines the meanings of the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic. It suggests that the concept of “combined and uneven development” is relevant to understanding the events which are now taking place. This is because the pandemic has brought together the genesis of a new disease in conditions where the interface between society and the natural world is unregulated, but also where modern forms of communication have enabled an unprecedentedly rapid spread of the disease to take place, across the entire globe. Multiple lines of social division are being exposed by the crisis, as social classes, ethnic populations, nations and regions are differentially harmed. Contrasting priorities, ideological in origin, are being revealed in governments’ response to the virus, in the commitment they give to the preservation of lives compared with other material interests.

In a second part of the article, psycho-social dimensions of the crisis are explored. A psychoanalytical perspective focuses on anxieties as these are generated by the extreme disruption and risks posed by the crisis. It is suggested that these are not only conscious but also unconscious, giving rise to destructive kinds of psychological splitting and denial, and disrupting capacities for reflective decision-making. It is argued that a loss of “containing” mental and social structures is now having damaging effects, and that their repair may be the precondition for constructive resolutions of a general social crisis.

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The Revista is a journal devoted to psychoanalysis, but the explanation of the causes and consequences of the pandemic (from which at the time of writing Brazil seems to be suffering most in all the world) has many aspects which are not best captured by psychoanalytic explanations. Before reflecting on how a psychoanalytic paradigm can engage with this ongoing tragedy, I would like to sketch out an understanding of the pandemic’s wider social and political dimensions. Surprisingly, a theoretical model which does illuminate the current situation is one set out by Leon Trotsky in his explanation of the distinctive attributes of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in his history of the Russian revolution (1932). This was his “Theory of Combined and Uneven Development.” His argument was that what had made the revolution possible was the presence in what was essentially a backward Russian society of some exceptionally “modern” and developed sectors. Among these were a flourishing industrial capitalism, an organised working class, and an advanced intelligentsia, of whom the Bolsheviks and other communists, socialists and anarchists comprised one element. But what condemned the revolution to extreme difficulties, and ultimately, given the choices that were made, to its deformation and failure, was the fact that this “modern” segment existed within a system which mainly consisted of semi-feudal means of agricultural production (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861) an illiterate peasantry, religiosity and superstition, and an autocratic and brutal form of government by the Tsarist state. This was, even in when it was published in 1932, a prescient analysis of the situation which the revolutionaries had faced, and which led to the eventual defeat of their modernising project. Justin Rosenberg, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, has recently revisited this theoretical model (under the reversed name of Uneven and Combined Development) to explain contemporary geo-political developments.(Rosenberg 2013).

 

How can this theoretical model of change be useful in explaining a crisis as different from a social revolution as the current global pandemic? The explanation lies in the conjunctions of the effects of some highly advanced and some “early” and backward aspects of social and economic development, which are each relevant to these very different phenomena, a revolution and a pandemic. It seems likely that the virus had its biological origins in food markets in China in which trade in live animals captured from the wild and slaughtered without preventive hygiene at the point of sale, was combined with many other forms of commerce in domestic animals and other foodstuffs. It was possible in those conditions (as with earlier epidemics such as SARS) for a virus to cross species, perhaps with intermediate wild animal vectors such as bats. This is the “pre-modern” element of the situation, one which has probably had many precedents in the mutation of diseases.

 

Superimposed on this close contact in food markets between the organs and diseases of wild animal species, and their human traders, (which we describe as a pre-modern form of commerce) has been the exceptional speed of transmission of this disease, which has been due to the rapid flow of human beings across the globe that takes place in the highly-modern modern communications environment. This has been described by one sociologist of globalisation as a “space of flows”, a concept developed within the elaboration of the theory of globalisation by many scholars (e.g. Beck 2000, Castells 1998, Giddens 1991, Harvey 1989, Massey 2002 and Urry 2007) in recent decades. Many component features of globalisation were predicted within this model, including the rise of global trade, vast and almost instantaneous flows of finance capital, and the central role of information technology among its generative features., And, as its negative by-products or “feedbacks”, the emergence of “fundamentalist” resistances to modernisation, large flows of refugees, and even global terrorism. It has turned out that another consequence of this situation of combined over- and under-development has been the exposure of the entire world’s population, in the space of just six months, to a virus, Covid 19, which health and social systems have so far mostly been unable to suppress. Prior to Covid 19 there were other viruses, such as HIV, Sars, and Ebola, which have been barely contained, and from which insufficient lessons were learned. Of course plagues have always afflicted humankind, such for example as the “Spanish flu” which killed millions after the First World War. What is singular about this one is the exceptional scope and speed of its transmission. One can say that it is fortunate that it is not even more lethal in its effects than it is.

 

There are other aspects of “uneven development” relevant to the pandemic, in addition to the one I have mentioned. Its impact is disclosing large differences in the vulnerability of populations to the virus, and in the capacities of social systems to contain it. These differences are in part a function of relative material wealth, as has always been the case with the incidence of epidemics. It is much more feasible for privileged social groups to isolate themselves, or flee to relative seclusion, than it is for the poor, in particular for those living in absolute poverty. (It was common in cities in Renaissance Europe for elites to take refuge in rural retreats in this way.) These differences are also a consequence of the quality and amount of resources invested in public health systems – the availability of doctors, hospital beds, testing and tracing facilities, reliable data etc. But levels of material wealth – average per capita income – are by no means the only significant cause of variance in the harms caused by the virus. It appears that differences in the ideologies and power-structures underlying social systems are also critical in shaping its effects.

 

It is striking, for example, that European nations have for the most part achieved far better outcomes than are being achieved in the United States in the management of Covid 19. Within Western Europe, the United Kingdom however (excepting Scotland, which has an autonomous public health system) has done conspicuously worse than its European equivalents, after a period when Spain and parts of Italy were overwhelmed by the first impact of the virus. China and other nations in South-East Asia have been substantially more capable in taking action to contain its effects than most other areas of the world. States in India which already had effective public health systems (some of them with histories of Communist regional and city government) have achieved better outcomes than some which did not. Readers of this journal will need no reminding of the disaster now befalling Brazil, where denial of the public health responsibilities of a government, indeed of the reality of the disease itself, is combining with long-standing inequalities of condition to facilitate the epidemic spread of the disease.

 

It seems that differences in the moral foundations and beliefs within social systems, in particular within the groups that are dominant within them, are decisive in determining societies’ response to the impact of the virus. It is evident that in some societies the value assigned to the protection of lives, all lives, outweighs all other purposes, such that they have been willing to sacrifice or defer other goals in order that this life-preserving goal is first achieved. But in some other societies, or among their ruling elites, this has not been the case. Some societies and their governments appear to be willing to tolerate an incidence of infection and mortality from the virus, conceived presumably as “a fact of nature”, to a degree which others are not. Many societies believe that they can eliminate the virus entirely, or at least for all practical purposes, while others seem prepared to tolerate infection rates in their tens of thousands, in order that economic life can be allowed to continue or be resumed without hindrance. A further explanation of this difference lies in the fact that some societies have the willingness and capacity to offset the economic harms done to individuals when markets are suppressed, by collective measures of compensation, or employment-creation, while for others this is ideologically repugnant. The defining difference between these normative systems seems to lie in the value they assign to individuals’ freedom, at whatever cost its exercise may be to other individuals, compared with the value they assign to the health and well-being of all persons, to which they hold that some individuals’ freedom need on occasion to be subordinated. Such differences in fundamental concepts of “social solidarity” are also revealed in other areas of social life. How else can one explain why the United States tolerates so high an annual loss of life through the use of firearms, compared with similarly rich nations in Europe. The comparison is even worse in regard to death inflicted by police.

 

These differences in conceptions of social and moral solidarity do not map in any simple way on to a political spectrum of left and right, although to be sure they do sometimes coincide. Some Asian nations which are far from socialist, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, have adopted socially-protective positions in their response to the Coronavirus, and of course China, which is ruled by a Communist party, has a substantially capitalist economy.

 

Many specific kinds of social fracture have emerged in those societies where a commitment to universal protection and well-being, in response to the virus, has been revealed to be lacking. It is striking that the specifically harsh burdens which have been inflicted on some sections of the population were not been anticipated. In the United Kingdom, two specific sub-populations were revealed to have been especially vulnerable to the virus. One of these was the elderly and infirm population of care homes, where the incidence of infection and death has been very high – some estimates say 20,000 out of 45,000 deaths by early July). Another were black and ethnic minority populations, which have also been afflicted in disproportionate numbers. There has to be recourse to explanations in terms of unconscious processes of denial (of social realities and people’s needs) and projection (of vulnerabilities and of attributions of value) adequately to account for these phenomena, which been deeply discriminatory in their effects. How could it be that a National Health Service in Britain would discharge elderly patients from hospitals to residential homes (“to free up beds” for Corona patients) without first testing them for infection, and without ensuring that care homes were shielded from infection? But it did these things, as other public health services (e.g. in Sweden) have also done. These decisions surely arose from an implicit belief that these elderly people were simply of lesser value than who were still young or in mid-life. The difference in the valuation of human beings has long been institutionalised in the separation in England and Wales between the system of “social care” for the elderly and infirm) and the National Health Service, in its funding and organisation. Health is a universal, relatively well-funded public service, “social care” is not.

 

The fact that the virus impacted so differentially, and so much for the worse, on members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities was another source of surprise, in particular as it was realised that this was especially evident among staff within the NHS who were working with Coronavirus patients. There have been many portrayals of the heroic work of National Health Service staff during the crisis, giving rise to a weekly ritual of public applause for them in British streets. In these reports, it has become evident how disproportionate is the number of ethnic minority doctors, nurses and care workers who have been taken ill or died. How could this be? it has been asked, and public inquiries have been set in train to discover the reasons. This situation then intersected with issues of police violence against black people which became world news, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis. So the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities has become linked to the broader Black Lives Matter campaign, giving rise to an enhanced and intense awareness of ethnic discrimination and inequality (“institutional racism” is one of its descriptions) in Britain, and of course also in the USA. Further racialised crimes have taken place in the UK as this crisis has developed. A probably-racially motivated murder of two young Asian-British women in London park (near to where I live) was followed by the circulation on social media of photographs (“selfies”) of the two dead women taken by two members of the Metropolitan Police, it appears for their own gratification. This event was deeply shocking even to the police authorities, causing almost as much offence as a physical assault.

 

It has become evident both in the USA, in Britain, and in other countries, that there are white racist groups who have now organised themselves organised in reaction to the movements for ethnic justice and redress. Demonstrations and campaigns against racial injustice are now frequently met with counter-demonstrations, giving rise to significant issues of public order. The conservative nationalist populism of Trump in the United States, and of Bolsanaro in Brazil, have these kinds of violent militancy embedded within their bases of support. The Boris Johnson government in Britain confines itself to the castigation of much protest by ethnic minority groups and their allies (for example the toppling of statues of former slave owners as in Bristol’s harbour) as threats to public order, while acknowledging the offensiveness to minority communities in particular of such commemorations of slavery. But different forms of public unrest are becoming joined up and superimposed on one another, as antipathy to racism, to the police as its perceived instrument, and to the virtual curfews of Covid 19 lockdowns, give rise to turbulent and sometimes violent encounters on the streets and even on some beaches.

 

A second major theoretical concept from the Marxist tradition which is useful for understanding this global situation is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “conjuncture”, and its modern development by Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978) and other contemporary writers (Hall and Massey 2010). The idea of conjuncture denotes those historically specific circumstances in which different contradictions and conflicts within a social order become unexpectedly juxtaposed to, or superimposed upon, one another, sometimes giving rise to situations of great uncertainty and unpredictability. In such situations the “wars of position” which Gramsci characterised as the normal somewhat static state of relations between conflicting social blocs, can create the conditions for more sudden changes, through ”wars of movement”, from which rapid changes in the distribution of power can result. This may be through the mobilisation of large movements of protest, and through the “joining together” (through what Laclau and Mouffe (1985) described as the discursive construction of “symbolic equivalences” between fields of meaning) of different levels and agencies of social action. The moment of radical protest of 1968 has often been recognised as such a conjuncture, although it was one in which the left’s political hopes of it were defeated. Its cultural outcomes were however a different and more successful story.

 

The current pandemic amounts to a “conjuncture” in the way in which it is both revealing and juxtaposing varieties of conflict, such for example as the divisions and inequalities being revealed by the crisis, and the contrasting ways of managing or not managing it effectively. From this point of view, compare China’s or Germany’s response to the pandemic with Brazil’s or the USA’s. There are other crucial dimensions of the crisis which need to be added to those already referred to. The most important of these is the economic crisis in which the pandemic is plunging the entire world, which is going to be at least as deep as those of Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2007-8. This crisis will raise the question for governments of how its economic and social effects are to be responded to.

 

We need to remember in this context that precedents are far from encouraging. The crisis of the 1930s was not resolved, until after several nations had collapsed into Fascism, and after an exceptionally destructive World War which brought those Fascist regimes to an end. It was the war and preparations for it, rather than Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, exemplary as the latter was, which brought the Great Depression to an end. And although, after 2007-8 some measure of economic stability was restored, in good part thanks to the resilience of the Chinese economy, and some moderately positive steps were taken by the Obama government in the USA, little more than a partial stabilisation was achieved. Instead of the inclusive, redistributive economic adjustment of capitalist economies that was required to avert future crises (and which I at the time mistakenly believed governments would institute in their systems’ own interests) there was instead a reversion to “austerity economics”, with a period of contraction and stagnation which saw the rise of radical right wing populism in many nations, not least the USA, the UK, and Brazil. (I believe is was the regression of the global economy which ultimately made the situation of the left-of-centre government of Brazil which followed Lula’s unsustainable). Another crucial factor in all of this is the difficulty which formerly dominant “white” countries, and their elites, are having in adjusting to their relative decline in face of the rise of China and other emerging nations. This decline – which involves a challenge to “white supremacy”, demonstrations of impotence in failed wars and interventions (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.), and inability to improve the living standards even of its own majority populations – is being experienced as traumatic. This situation gives rise to what psychoanalysts might call manic denials of reality and the rejection of rationality and truth itself, in the politics of the United States and those nations shaped by similar “structures of feeling (1).”  These repeated flailings of the United States government (withdrawal from global arrangements which formerly served to assure its hegemony, the disruption of commerce and orderly economic relations through an almost indiscriminate use of sanctions, the President’s wild and incontinent utterances) are not the demonstrations of autonomy and strength they purport to be, but are wild responses to the traumas of decline and failure. We could add to this picture a problem which faces the world which is even deeper and more grave than the pandemic, that of climate change. In this situation it would be unwise to be unduly hopeful about the prospects for benign solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. However there are some more positive elements to be seen in the situation, where there remain some capacities for rational and constructive action. One might note, for example, that some years ago the problems of global warming and climate change were hardly recognised, while now at least some substantial action to avert their consequences is taking place.

 

Psychological Aspects of the Crisis

 

So far in this article, I have mainly discussed the aspects of the current crisis whose explanation lies in the domain of social structures and processes, rather than the spheres which might be of specific interest to psychoanalysts. The reason for this is my belief that the principal explanations of this crisis have to be sought in the dynamics of societies, rather than primarily in the psychological dispositions of individual actors. Individual fears, anxieties and enactments of individuals in situations like the present one, though entirely real are largely shaped by the social environments in which they are formed. It is differences between societies which cause and most fully explain what happens to the individuals within them, rather than it being the case that differences between individuals cause and most fully explain what happens to societies. The dispositions and personalities of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, of course have significant consequences for their societies (and for all of us). Nevertheless their attributes and characteristic kinds of action are best understood as the effects of their social milieus rather than as their cause. Freud (and those like Adorno (1951) who developed his analysis of Fascism) saw “leaders” as produced by the socio-psychological needs and collective transferences of their followers, rather than as the primary causes of their behaviours.

 

Nonetheless, one should ask, what does a psychoanalytic perspective add to our understanding of a crisis and conjuncture of the present kind? Is there a conception of unconscious mental processes, as these function at shared and collective levels of mind, which adds illumination, and needs to be incorporated within the framework of a socio-political analysis? Here is the broader problem of how one might bring about a theoretical integration of psychoanalytical and sociological understandings. which is a topic I have discussed elsewhere (Rustin 2016).

 

I believe the psychoanalytical concept most valuable in the understanding of the present crisis is Bion’s idea of “containment” (Bion 1975) and what arises from its presence or absence, its strength or its weakness. What the present crisis, with its overlapping and intersecting dimensions, is bringing about is the collapse of many “containing” structures, and the habits of mind and capabilities which depend on them. What is “contained”, in the psychoanalytic view, by containing structures are anxieties, both recognised and unrecognised, and both conscious and unconscious, which are not quite the same thing. What emerges when containment is lacking are many often extreme defences against anxiety, such as splitting and denial, the projection of feared threats and evils into others. and a reversion to paranoid-schizoid and narcissistic states of mind. Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion both believed that the capacity for reflection and thought, and for holding together in the mind the awareness of dispositions both to love and to hate, had their preconditions in a persons’ emotional and mental development. Klein thought of this as the attainment of “depressive” capabilities, or the “depressive position”. (Segal 1973, Rustin and Rustin 2017). Bion thought of it as the presence of a secure relation between “container and contained.” Such experiences of containment take place in the first instance in the earliest months and years of life, in the context of the intimate family. That is, in a relationship between infant and mother, but also between mother and father, father and infant, and between members of a larger family group, including siblings. This is the primary location or incubator of the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which once formed usually becomes extended beyond the sphere of the family into a wider environment of communities and workplaces. And also into establishing relationships, which have both an internal and an external dimension, with other kinds of “objects” which can have symbolic as well as emotional meanings, such as vocations, places, forms of art or science, cultural or social “goods”. Early experiences of containment are the micro-settings within which the capacities for life in society are developed and made possible.

 

Such micro-settings depend for their existence, however, on wider environmental contexts of security and well-being. In well-functioning societies these can often be taken for granted, to a greater or lesser degree, as the good-enough contexts for lives to be lived and for personal development to take place, and even adventures into the unknown to be embarked on. What happens when grave multiple crises such as those of the present occur is that such surrounding contexts, or conditions of existence, become deeply threatened and disrupted. In relation to the Covid 19 disease itself, we see trust in others, and also in governments, being eroded, as danger and risks to individuals and families grow. We now see many governments becoming concerned that the reserves of public trust and the compliance on which practical means of containing this disease (e.g. quarantines, the use of face-masks, social distancing, vaccination, caution public spaces) depend will be eroded, if people lose confidence in governments’ capabilities and actions. This breakdown of trust is already occurring in many places, and for understandable reasons.

 

Another level of disruption is occurs when particular social groups (e.g. people of colour), come to believe that the society in which they live, and especially holding power within it, neglects, mistreats and even brutalises them. Additional anxieties arise when when basic material security becomes endangered, for example through economic recession and unemployment. Further kinds of threat are experienced at the level of cultural identity, when it is felt that the symbolic worth of a group’s entire “imagined community” is put in jeopardy, for example through denigration by others, or by the perceived capture of power and privilege by competitors. Arlie Hochschild’’s book, Strangers in their Own Land (2016), showed the origins of the resentment of Republican voters in the American South in their feeling that they had been excluded from the opportunities offered by the “American dream” by the privileging of rival groups in society, located in their minds mainly in northern cities. Fintan O’Toole (2018) has described the emotional core of the Brexit campaign in England as made up of a combination of triumphalist omnipotence and masochistic victimhood and self-pity. Resentment towards “others” who are perceived to be in the ascendant, and the building of animosity towards such groups, are a principal resource of nationalists and populists like Trump for sustaining, often by demagogic means, their base of political support.

 

The crisis of “combined and uneven development” which I have characterised has both revealed and intensified many kinds of structural inequalities within and between nations. This crisis is giving rise to understandable and indeed justifiable demands for their redress. Some in this situation find themselves taking up highly radical and even utopian positions in asserting what now ought to be done. Some believe that the entire social system should be dismantled and started afresh, difficult as it is to give a feasible meaning to this idea. What we know, however, is that demands made of society from those lacking recognition and power are liable to provoke countervailing demands and reactions from those who currently possess it. Redistributions and adjustments of power and privilege to resolve substantially opposed and competing claims are usually difficult to achieve. Conflicts arising from such struggles can give rise to the risk of organised violence and social breakdown, as we have seen in the past. Strategies for reform and redress of inequalities and injustices need in my view to take account of the probability of such counter-reactions, and to find ways of limiting their severity and destructiveness.

 

I am inclined to believe that in the present crisis the restoration of a measure of “containing” government, which can begin tackle and resolve immediately critical problems (like those caused by the Corona virus and by global warming) is a pre-requisite for bringing about the many fundamental changes which the general condition of “combined and uneven development” makes desirable and necessary.

 

However, it should be noted that a concern with states of “containment” is not the only psychoanalytic preoccupation with a social condition which one might have. In an astute observation about Freud’s own writings, the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (2009) noted that the main anxieties which preoccupy a society were subject to change, even between social epochs. Freud’s main preoccupation, Bauman wrote, was with the excessive repression of desires, and with the constraints imposed in his time on thought and action, especially in the sexual sphere. This was prior to the liberating effects of his own teaching on this cultural climate (2).  Excessive repression was also a concern of Melanie Klein, as we see in her focus on the destructive effects on personalities of a persecutory super-ego. But in modern times, in Bauman’s view, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, such that a dominant social anxiety now arises in regard what are perceived to be excessive freedoms of sexual expression and action. Thus we have almost phobic anxieties about the sexual safety of children, and about whether sexual initiatives in interpersonal life are to be experienced as aggressive or abusive, or are merely to be recognised as overtures and approaches without which no sexual relationship could ever come about. (Of course they can be either of these.) In the broader sphere, the additional scope for expression and communication which has been enabled by the expansion of social media seems to justify anxieties, about the diffusion of almost indiscriminate verbal aggression, through “trolling”, of which President Trump’s incessant and often abusive “tweeting” is a conspicuous example. In Britain at this time, intense conflicts are occurring about who has the right to define sexual identities, in particular those characterised as “trans” and involving decisions to change sexual identities as these are assigned at birth. One can believe that at the present time some moves towards the restraint of such unrestrined kinds of social media is desirable, even urgent. It is in this cultural climate that I believe a psychoanalytic focus on the “containing” end of the spectrum between freedom and control, has relevance. Times differ, and what is psychoanalytically indicated as being desirable and appropriate for such times may differ also.

 

Some of those with power, such as those in Trump’s administration, are seeking to call a halt to the processes of globalisation and its instruments, and thereby to hold on to the advantages they believe they already possess. My view is that the solution to these problems lies not in arresting the processes of globalisation, but rather in making these universal and comprehensive in their extent. This would aim at a form of combined and even rather than uneven development. (I’ve elsewhere imagined this as a “progressive modernisation.” (Rustin 2019) .

 

This is to imagine a world order in which, for example:

  • The goals of good public health and the means to secure this become universal.
  • In which the arrest of global warming becomes a common human task.
  • In which the problems of unmanageable flows of refugees from impoverished and wartorn countries is dealt with not through constructing barriers and “beautiful walls”, but by enabling problems of poverty and disorder to be addressed in the regions from which refugees come.
  • In which goals of economic development are set for the entire world, and not merely for individual nations.
 

It is only of course competent and well-supported governments, working together with each other, which could bring such a benign process about, in cooperation with other social, economic and cultural actors. It might seem an impossible prospect, though not necessarily so when one sees what Europe accomplished in the years after the Second World War, or indeed what the Chinese have been accomplishing, in regard to poverty and living standards, within their own national boundary.

 

Of course such goals are not far from those which have been advanced by many international agencies, and by visionary theorists of human development and “flourishing” such as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993) and which became embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index and Annual Reports.

 

And after all, are there other alternatives to global catastrophe?

Footnotes

  1. This term is Raymond Williams’s (1977) and refers to the collective mentalities which are generated in different configurations of relations between social classes.
  2. Ernest Gellner, who had previously (1985) been a severe critic of Freud, wrote later in his work (1995) of the great debt which society owed to Freud, in the effect of his writing in diminishing social repression, and in thereby making possible wider experiences of pleasure and enjoyment.

References

Adorno, T. (1951/1978) “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1951) reprinted in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Oxford: Blackwell (1978) pp 118-137.

 

Bauman, Z. “Freudian Civilisation Revisited: or Whatever happened to the reality principle?” (2009) Journal of Anthropological Psychology No. 21, 2009, Department of Psychology Aarhus University pp 1-9. https://psy.au.dk/fileadmin/Psykologi/Forskning/Forskningsenheder/Journal_of_Anthropological_ Psychology/Volume_21/target.pdf 

 

Beck,U. (2000) What is Globalisation? Cambridge: Polity Press.

 

Bion, W.R. (1975) Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.

 

Castells, M. (1998) The Information Age: Economy Society and Culture, Vols 1, 2 and 3. Oxford: Blackwell.

 

Gellner E. (1985) The Psychoanalytic Movement. London: Paladin.

 

Gellner, E. (1995) “Freud’s Social Contract”. in Anthropology and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 62-93.

 

Giddens, A. (1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

 

Hall, S. and Massey, D. (201) “Interpreting the Crisis”. Soundings 44, pp. 57-71.

 

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Roberts, B. (1978/2013) Policing the Crisis: mugging, the state and law & order. Basingstone: Palgrave/Macmillan

 

Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Modernity Oxford: Blackwell

 

Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.

 

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.

 

Massey, D. (2002) ‘Globalisation: what does it mean for geography?’, Geography, 87, 4, 293-6 https://think-global.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/dea/documents/dej_9_2_massey.pdf

Nussbaum, M. and Sen. A. (eds.) (1993) The Quality of Life. Oxford:: Oxford University Press.|O’Toole, F. (2019) Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. London : Apollo.

 

Rosenberg, Justin (2013) “The ‘Philosophical Premises’ of Uneven and Combined Development.” Review of International Studies, 39 (3). pp. 569-597

 

Rustin, M.J. (2016) “Sociology and Psychoanalysis”, in A. Elliott and J. Prager (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities. London: Routledge. pp 259-277.

 

Rustin, M.J. (2019) “Is there an alternative to reactionary modernisation?” Soundings 71, pp 116-127.

 

Rustin, M.E. and M.J. (2017) Reading Klein. London: Routledge.

 

Segal, H. (1973/1988) Introduction to the Thought of Melanie Klein. London: Karnac Books.

 

Trotsky,L. (1932/) The Russian Revolution. New York: Simon Schuster..

 

Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities, Cambridge: Polity Press.

 

Williams, R. ((1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 128-136.

 

Biographical Note

Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock

Clinic, and an Associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He has written widely on interconnections

between psychoanalysis, society and politics, in books including The Good Society and the Inner World (1991)

and Reason and Unreason (2001). His most recent books include Social Defences against Anxiety:

Explorations in a Paradigm (edited with David Armstrong, 2015); Reading Klein (with Margaret Rustin, 2017),

Researching the Unconscious: Principles of Psychoanalytic Method (2019) and New Discoveries in Child

Psychotherapy : Findings from Qualitative Research (edited with Margaret Rustin (2019.) He is an editor of

Soundings, a Journal of Politics and Culture.

m.j.rustin@uel.ac.uk

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands Stuart Hall, with Bill Schwarz (Penguin Books, 2017).

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands is “not a memoir in any formal sense” (10), but rather “an experiment in drawing out” the “connections between the ‘life’ and ‘ideas’” of Stuart Hall (63), the enormously influential intellectual whose incisive commentary is sorely missed by many of us living in Britain’s uncertain present. I hope he would have forgiven me for describing him as such: for Hall, the term “intellectual” suggests “too much posturing,” and he explains that although it “doesn’t seem exalted enough for most people,” he prefers to think of himself “as a teacher” (13).

Across nine essays, this characteristically untraditional memoir gives an account of Hall’s existence between entangled colonial and post-colonial worlds, centring on his 1951 journey from colony to metropole: from Kingston, Jamaica to a post-war Britain rife with racism. It gives insight into his life prior to his Directorship of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (and later Professorship of Sociology at Open University). And narrating these first thirty-two years, before he became known as the godfather of multiculturalism, Familiar Stranger maps the early development of Hall’s ground-breaking ideas on cultural theory, through various challenges including stints of generally rather inadequate formal education, and through key partnerships, alliances, and periods of feverish political engagement.

Born in 1932 to a socially-ambitious family with a “fantasy relationship to colonial dependency” (51), Hall was educated alongside future political and literary giants at elite

boys’ school Jamaica College. In the midst of challenges to Colonial rule, Hall details his alienation, from an early age, from the stifling respectability of the Jamaican middle class, the product of “a social system … inflected by the full force of white bias” (63). He arrived in England three years after the Empire Windrush, as a nineteen-year-old Rhodes scholar – a recipient of funding from the Jamaican Government to read English Literature at Merton, “a seductively beautiful place” of “medieval seriousness, solidity and gloom” (156, 155). Of his first meal in College, he remembers thinking that his “survival chances did not look good!” (156)

Upon completing his undergraduate degree, Hall embarked on and then abandoned a graduate thesis on Henry James, and left in a College basement the trunk in which he had brought all his belongings. “I sometimes wonder what became of it,” he writes. “For all I know it’s still there” (155). He did some work for BBC’s Caribbean Voices, crossed paths with V. S. Naipul, and forged friendships with American students, also outsiders at Merton, and others from the Caribbean including George Lamming and working migrants with whom he played jazz piano.

Describing his “rebirth” as “a diasporic subject” caught between “colonial formation” and “anti-colonial sentiments” (171), Hall names the University of Oxford as a key location in which those arriving from places where “colonization had done its divide-and-rule work … came to understand that they were seen by the British as all having the same racial/ethnic identity” (164-165). Ultimately, the “diasporic perspective” provided an “opportunity to change not the answers but the questions” (172). Becoming “seriously committed to critical

ideas” and more actively involved in British politics was, for Hall, “the start of a lifelong intellectual disengagement from Oxford and all it stood for” (223).

In a transforming social landscape, between 1956 and 1964, “‘normal life’ was suspended” by “political activity” (228). Hall gives brief and exciting sketches of early meetings and collaborations with key figures such as Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, his involvement in the founding of the New Left political movement, the Universities and Left Review and the New Left Review, and his work with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was at a CND march in 1962 that he met Catherine Hall, then Catherine Barrett, before she embarked on her own ground-breaking academic career. He pays tribute to her influence on his own thinking, and explains that “even when we are not actually speaking, I am in perpetual conversation with her and have been for years” (267).

Familiar Stranger ends in 1964, with Stuart and Catherine Hall on the eve of their move to Birmingham, where each would take up university posts. Describing some of the racist abuse they would be targeted with there, as a newly-married couple, Hall draws a parallel with the experiences of his daughter some twenty years later. Reading his memoir, fifty-five years after he moved to Birmingham, Hall’s desire to “change British society, not adopt it” continues to be felt (271). And, happily, his enormous body of writing is still being collected and published, partly in the form of the eponymous series from Duke University Press that includes Familiar Stranger as well as Selected Political Writings, which covers a five-decade period beginning in the year the former ends.

It seems apt that Familiar Stranger, published three years after Hall’s passing, is the product of collaboration with long-term interlocutor and friend Bill Schwarz. Hall’s lifelong commitment to working and writing in partnership is just one aspect of the inspiring model he offers for doing important thinking generously. In that spirit, the text makes frequent direct and indirect reference to some of the scholars and writers who have informed Hall’s thinking, and a list of works cited (including some of Hall’s own) is helpfully included in the appendices. It seems characteristically generous, also, that Hall and Schwarz worked intermittently over a period of two decades to create the material Schwarz has carefully edited into this final volume, which is incredibly rich. Exemplifying Hall’s concern with the relationship between the individual and the collective, it discusses the formation of his ‘life’ and ‘ideas’ as part of broad patterns of historical change: “the social processes of history” (63). It is at once academic and personal; it is often funny and deeply moving.

At a time when his insistence that Britain had never come to terms with colonialism and its legacies is further evidenced daily, we might consider this self-described teacher’s memoir as a lesson of sorts. Our struggles to live in an increasingly-divided Britain should be guided by Familiar Stranger, a product of Hall’s longstanding dedication to carefully grappling with the nature of belonging – “the chaos of identifications which we assemble in order to navigate the social world” (63) – and with his own personal relation to the still-painful entanglement of race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic class.

Ruth Ramsden-Karelse Stuart Hall Doctoral Scholar (2017-2020)

Stuart Hall Foundation Film by Jess Hall and Richard Harrington.

Inspired by the life and work of Professor Stuart Hall, the Stuart Hall Foundation is committed to public education, addressing urgent questions of race and inequality in culture and society through talks and events, and building a network of SHF scholars and artists in residence. 

Find out more about what we do here.  

Catherine Hall and Ruth Ramsden-Karelse discuss the Legacies of British Slave Ownership. They explore the importance of new histories, reparations, working to decolonise education and shifting collective memories to imagine new futures.

The most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests rejuvenated popular debates over the removal of statues of British slave owners from public spaces. The fall of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol and calls to remove statues of Winston Churchill, Lord Nelson and Cecil Rhodes has forced the British public to reconsider questions of history and colonial legacies.

Read more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.

Speakers:

Catherine Hall is Emerita Professor of History and Chair of the Centre of the Study of British Slave-ownership at UCL. She has written extensively on the history of Britain and its empire including Civilising Subjects (2002) Macaulay and Son (2012) and, with others, Legacies of British Slave-ownership (2014). From 2009-2016 she was principal investigator on the LBS project www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs. She is currently writing a book on Edward Long, Jamaica and racial capitalism. She is a trustee of the Stuart Hall Foundation.

Ruth Ramsden-Karelse is founder and co-convener of the Oxford Queer Studies Network and a DPhil candidate in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford. The inaugural Stuart Hall Doctoral Studentship, in association with Merton College, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the Stuart Hall Foundation, supports her research on the world-making capacity of collaborative works by self-described gays and girls from communities formerly classified “Coloured” in Cape Town, South Africa, from 1950 to the present, with a specific focus on the Kewpie Photographic Collection. Ruth’s writing has appeared in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

Originally published by Race & Class, 2018 Institute of Race Relations, Vol. 60(1): 3–21 10.1177/0306396818769791 journals.sagepub.com/home/rac

Abstract

This article asks whether history writing can be reparatory. Opening with a discussion of the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 and the national conversation that was created at that time, it goes on to reflect on contestations over memory and the significance of the emergence of reparations as a key term with which to think about the wrongs of the past and the possibilities of repair. It uses a discussion of the author’s individual and collaborative historical work to argue for the importance of a different understanding of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries, of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism.

Keywords: collective memory, disavowal, historical wrongs, Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, Macaulay, ‘race’, reparation, slavery

What is reparatory history?

What does it mean to do it in Britain?

This essay reflects on some of the ways in which the histories of ‘race’ and slavery have figured in the recent past in Britain. It argues that debates on reparation need to include questions about the historical narratives on ‘race’ and empire that have been and are being produced. It utilises a discussion of some of my own work as a historian over the past twenty years to think about what history that was reparative might look like.

 

Creating a national conversation

The bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 provoked what could be described as a ‘national conversation’ in the United Kingdom.[1] This had happened before: at the end of the eighteenth century, pro-slavers and abolitionists engaged in fierce debate and polemic culminating in the abolition of the trade in 1807. The hope that once the trade had been dismantled slavery would disappear was soon shown to be an illusion, and this led to the activism of the 1820s, once again challenged by the pro-slavers. The major revolt of 1831 in Jamaica combined with popular pressure across the country brought about the Act of 1833 abolishing slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. During 2007, once again, the question of British responsibility for the enslavement of Africans became a subject of mainstream political and cultural debate. The context for this re-awakening was the major changes which had taken place in British society since the late 1940s, the scale of the African-Caribbean presence, the turbulent politics of race particularly in the wake of the killing of Stephen Lawrence (1993) and the Macpherson Report (1999) recognising the significance of institutional racism in the police, and the pressing questions from second and third generation young people as to whether it was possible to be black and British. In 2007 the bi-centenary provided an opportunity to re-open questions about the slave trade and slavery. Anti-racists had a number of different political agendas but were perhaps united in their hopes for new political and educational initiatives that would tackle persistent racism and repair historic wrongs.

Blair’s New Labour government looked to the future and advocated the idea of a modern multicultural Britain. The limits of their commitment were all too apparent, however, in the response to the Parekh Report of 2000, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, which discussed ‘the many varieties of racism and exclusion that disfigure modern Britain and that have been woven into the fabric of British history for many centuries’.[2] The report provoked a furore in the rightwing press. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary who had supported the establishment of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain by the Runnymede Trust, backtracked, effectively abandoning any efforts to follow up on the report’s more radical recommendations.[3] The following year, at the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, the British government did not support Caribbean nations’ claims for reparation for slavery and the Conference Declaration was limited to acknowledging the historical and contemporary practices of the slave trade and slavery as morally outrageous.[4] That same year, Randall Robinson, an African-American lawyer, author and activist, published The Debt: what America owes to Blacks. This significant intervention in the US debate on reparation argued that responsibility for the terrible effects of slavery across generations, the destruction of a hereditary identity, lay with the US government and people. Restitution could and should be made.[5] Questions about racisms, reparations and historical wrongs were increasingly present in public debate across the Atlantic world.

So when it came to 2007 the government felt the need to respond. ‘It is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to express our deep sorrow and regret’, as prime minister Tony Blair put it, ‘for our nation’s role in the slave trade and for the unbearable suffering, individually and collectively, it caused.’ He was very careful, however, as many pointed out, not to apologise; for an apology might have indicated historic responsibility and had material consequences.[6] 2007 gave all Britons an opportunity, he argued, to reflect on ‘the spirit of freedom, justice and equality that characterised the efforts of the early abolitionists, the same spirit that drives our determination to fight injustice and inequality today’. We could ‘rejoice at the different and better times we live in today’.[7] The government’s chosen focus was abolition, not slavery, echoing the narrative that had been established from the early nineteenth century.[8] This was part of an updated version of the Whig story of progress, of Britain’s capacity to lead the world on issues of liberty and freedom. ‘There is a golden thread which runs through British history,’ said Gordon Brown, ‘that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215 when arbitrary power was fully challenged with the Magna Carta, on to the first bill of rights in 1689 where Britain became the first country where parliament asserted power over the king,’ to the abolition of the slave trade and on to democratic reform.[9] This was the narrative that informed the liberal humanitarian interventions of the Labour government, some of which had such disastrous effects.

While the official response to 2007 was to celebrate Britain’s record, others asked, how can we celebrate this? Establishment figures such as cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg and former Tory leader William Hague, albeit from different political perspectives, were united in their admiration for William Wilberforce, the saintly and iconic figurehead of the abolitionists whose evangelical Christianity was central to his struggle against both slavery in the Caribbean and vice at home. A rather different perspective informed the critique of what some called the Wilberfest.[10] ‘Our object’, as Wilberforce had put it, ‘was by ameliorating regulations, and by stopping the influx of uninstructed savages, to advance slowly towards the period when these unhappy things might exchange their degraded state of slavery for that of free and industrious peasantry.’[11] This language of ‘uninstructed savages’ and ‘unhappy things’ is redolent of the ways in which much abolitionist discourse assumed white superiority, a discourse that has had powerful echoes into the present. At the same time, Wilberforce’s vision of ‘free and industrial peasants’ marked the gap between conservative abolitionists such as himself, who believed in class, gender and racial hierarchies, and those radicals, Robert Wedderburn and Elizabeth Heyrick, for example, who rejected his pastoral vision of everyone in their proper place and sought not only the ending of slavery but also a transformation of society and the creation of an egalitarian world.

The ‘national conversation’ was greatly facilitated by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s decision to commit a substantial sum, between 15 and 20 million pounds, to bi-centenary projects. The money made possible both large-scale projects such as the establishment of the New Centre for the Understanding of slavery in association with the Liverpool Museums and many small-scale initiatives, some of which have now been archived in an effort to conserve what was an extraordinary set of activities. ‘Remembering 1807’ (http://antislavery.ac.uk/remember- ing1807) reflects the ways in which hundreds of heritage groups and local organisations around the UK marked the anniversary. Museums, galleries, archives, community groups, churches, theatres and schools organised exhibitions, debates, music, dance, theatre, storytelling, poetry, film, carnivals and festivals. The BBC commissioned radio and TV programmes. Universities organised conferences, seminars and exhibitions.[12] Artists produced new materials, such as Lubaina Himid’s ‘Swallow Hard: the Lancaster dinner service’. Himid collected plates, jugs, tureens and dishes from local shops in Lancaster and Whitehaven, significant ports for slaving vessels. She decorated them with images of traders, ships, sailors, buildings, servants, the enslaved, maps and goods, exploring the connections between the North West and the development and abolition of the slave trade. The dinner service was initially exhibited on the splendid mahogany dining table in the Judge’s Lodging in Lancaster, reminders both of the flourish- ing mahogany trade from Jamaica and Honduras and its importance to the development of eighteenth-century consumer society, and of the centrality of the law to class power in that period. 

Contested memories

The ‘national conversation’ about the slave trade and slavery in 2007 marked a contestation over memory – what was to be remembered and how? It was Maurice Halbwachs in the period after the first world war who initiated much of the work on collective memory, drawing on his own experience and illuminating the ways in which memory is constructed, mediated and shaped in the social world. Individual and collective memory are always related; experiences and private recollections are tested by and shaped in encounters with collective memory. It is collective memory that constitutes social values, shapes convention, law and language. If we are haunted by past memories that are not shared by others, it can be deeply lonely and indeed alienating. ‘I have shown’, he argued, ‘that memory is a collective function … If recollections reappear, this is because at each moment society possesses the necessary means to reproduce them.’[13] In 2007 the question that was being asked was what should be remembered? Was Wilberforce really the carrier of the story of abolition? Can trauma pass through generations affecting the descendants of the enslaved? If so, how? How can the different legacies be given weight and significance in the minds and cultures of people today? There will always be different perspectives and voices but which narratives would/should achieve cultural and political hegemony? Would it continue to be white abolitionists or those black abolitionists, men such as Ottobah Cugoano, kidnapped at 13 in West Africa, sold into slavery and eventually freed in England, who believed that redress would never be adequate, and drew attention to ‘the incommensurability between pain and compensation’.[14] And what about the women? What about the practices of the trade and slavery itself, the hundreds and thousands of African men and women who had been transported across the Middle Passage, and sold to planters and merchants across the British Caribbean? What impact did all of this have on the lives of those in the UK? What kind of responsibility did Britons, generations later, have for those wrongs committed by their forbears? There was no common view, but many voices were raised, unsettling what had seemed to be settled narratives.[15] In that sense 2007 was a reparative moment, marking new discoveries and provoking new questions.[16]

Reparations 

There is a long history of claims for reparations for the wrongs associated with slavery. As early as the 1780s there were petitions from those who had previously been enslaved. Hundreds of Quakers both freed enslaved men and women and paid them compensation. Some abolitionists argued in the nineteenth century that freedom should include compensation, some challenged the payment of compensation to slave-owners at the time of emancipation in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape.[17] Arguments were made for compensation in the US after the civil war and Marcus Garvey sought payment to descendants as part of the back to Africa movement. Congressman John Conyers, who represents Detroit, has marked every session for the last twenty-five years by introducing a bill calling for the congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects and recommending remedies.

 ‘The subterranean stream of Western history’, Hannah Arendt wrote in the immediate postwar years, ‘has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our position. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of the future, are vain.’[18] Such a recognition of the weight of the past, ‘that subterranean stream’, marked a very different attitude from earlier periods. For Marx the past had weighed like a nightmare on the brain of the living: but it was to be transcended. It was not until the 1990s that the need to come to terms with the past and the insistence that the legacies of the past lived on in the present became more urgent. Notions of reparation and a demand for reparative justice became a global phenomenon. The Holocaust was the most powerful symbol of the impossibility of ignoring the misdeeds of the past, and of thinking about that past as catastrophic, for it was still a living memory. Holocaust survivors, slave labourers in Nazi camps, Australian aborigines, Native Americans in Canada, Maori in New Zealand, the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa were making claims on governments. Such claims implied a break with the idea of history as progress, that the future would always be better than the past, an idea heavily influenced by both Enlightenment stadial theory and Marxism. Now the emphasis is on reconstituting the past, in ways that enable thinking about responsibility in the present. Some have argued that this preoccupation with the past is a result of the decline of a more future-oriented and utopian politics. The combination of the horrors of Stalinism and of fascism, together with the end of the Soviet Union, the resurgence of nationalism, the unfinished work of decolonisation, the ‘failures’ of postcolonial states and the apparent triumph of global capitalism, have destroyed beliefs in the possibility of a transformative politics, the loss of a sense of common destiny, and a retreat into a growing concern with particular groups and claims, with victims and their rights.[19] It may be that the crisis of neoliberalism and the growing critique of capitalism and the market that characterises one aspect of our contemporary world, albeit alongside the successes of authoritarian populism, will mark the onset of a very different political moment. Could re-thinking the past, taking responsibilities for its residues and legacies, be one way of challenging rightwing politics and imagining a different future?

In the aftermath of the first world war, the word reparations was associated with the punishing payments demanded by the victors from the defeated. Sometime after the second world war, the word was transformed from its original connotations with war reparations. Karl Jaspers’ The Question of German Guilt argued for the need for the German people as a whole to atone: the Nuremberg trials and the hanging of individual Nazis were in no sense an adequate response to what had happened. Reconstruction and restoration would require recognition of the full meaning of what had happened and its implications for the majority population.[20] A shift took place from the language of perpetrators to the notion of beneficiaries, facilitating efforts to claim reparations for wrongs done in the past, for gross violations of human rights and their effects into the present. As Mahmood Mamdani put it in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

Where the focus is on perpetrators, victims are necessarily defined as the minority of political activists; for the victimhood of the majority to be recognized, the focus has to shift from perpetrators to beneficiaries. The difference is this: whereas the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice as criminal justice, that on beneficiaries shifts the focus to a notion of justice as social justice.[21]

Responsibilities are then understood as belonging to nations and peoples, to ‘by- standers’, those who acquiesced or benefitted, as well as those who pressed the button. In a similar vein, Michael Rothberg, exploring what the legacies of slavery mean today in terms of justice and historical responsibility, has proposed the term ‘implicated subjects’. He argues that there is a need to develop a new cate- gory describing the implication of people in events that are temporally or spatially distant and in which they have not played a direct role either as perpetrators or victims.[22] Those of us living in the rich societies of the West have all, albeit profoundly unequally, enjoyed the fruits of racial capitalism, we are all survivors of slavery, not just those who can directly trace their lineages.

John Torpey makes a helpful distinction between ‘reparations’ (plural) in the more literal meaning of rectifying past injustices (whether or not you are directly responsible for committing the wrongs), and ‘reparation’ (the singular noun), which covers the wider terrain of reparation politics. Transitional justice, with its many permutations of truth, justice, and reconstruction; the tropes of forgive- ness, apologies, and regret; efforts at reconciliation, memory, and communal memorialisation, all these can play a part in attempts to take responsibility for as well as hope to put wrongs right.[23] While the word reparations generally means compensation of some kind, reparation has come to mean repair. People make reparation, states and corporations pay reparations. Reparation politics can include transitional justice, the legal mechanisms such as criminal trials and truth commis- sions which would mostly be concerned with perpetrators. ‘Transitional justice’, writes David Scott, ‘is the name of a post-Cold War development in liberal justice that, through the political technologies of successor trials and above all, historical truth commissions, aims to draw a line between the illiberal past and the liberalizing present.’[24] Then there is compensation and restitution of a material kind such as the German payments to Israel and the return of art works stolen by the Nazis. Reparation can include acknowledgement as in the case of the Japanese-American claims over internment, which involved token payments, apologies, as Blair refused in relation to slavery, some churches have made for sexual abuse, most recently Hollywood for misogyny/sexual harassment, or statements of regret. Efforts to reshape historical memory can also be made through history writing, school textbooks, exhibitions in museums, memorials, statues and commemorative plaques. Many of the activities associated with 2007 were indeed of this kind.

Claims from the Caribbean for reparation from the erstwhile empires were given new life by the publication of Hilary Beckles’s book Britain’s Black Debt in 2013, documenting the evidence of the destruction wreaked by slavery, the benefits that accrued to Britain, and the arguments for reparation. This was followed by the launch of the CARICOM ten-point programme in 2014, a claim from the regional states for reparatory justice from the European states ‘whose countries grew rich at the expense of those regions whose human wealth was stolen from them’. A full apology was demanded alongside debt cancellation, development programmes, resources to tackle ill health and illiteracy and psychological forms of rehabilitation for those who were ‘denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and pal- aces of Europe’.[25] The search was for a ‘path to reconciliation for victims of crimes against humanity and their descendants’ in the region. The CARICOM claim has been met with a deafening silence from European governments, has provoked criticism from Pan-Africanists for its failure to challenge the system of racial capitalism with its global reach, and from those in the wider diaspora for the exclusive focus on harms done in the Caribbean. Many black people are suspicious of the whole enterprise, many white people think that there is no reason to saddle them with responsibility for things they did not do. But might the reparations argument have the potential, as David Scott puts it, to

“redescribe the past’s relation to the present … to foreground the sense in which Caribbean debt is the other side of European theft – that the ‘persistent poverty’ of the Caribbean has been a constituting condition for ill-gotten European prosperity … The point is that this is not the story of a mere episode in a marginal history; it is the integrated story of the making of the modern world itself.”[26]

It is to be hoped that the new Centre for Reparations that has been established at the University of the West Indies will be able to build a detailed case that European governments will not be able to ignore. The priority is to seek reparations for the descendants of the enslaved and of those indigenous peoples who suffered genocide. But as Robin Kelley has written in relation to the US, ‘The reparations campaign, despite its potential contribution to eliminating racism and remaking the world, can never be an end in itself … without at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist culture that consumes us, even reparations can have disastrous consequences.’[27]

Reparation and the UK

Reparatory work in the UK needs to be connected with these wider struggles but also to be rooted in the locality. Anti-racists have been challenging the systemic racism that has blighted the lives of generations, tackling inequality and discrimination for decades. Historians, writers, visual artists and critical race theorists have been exploring colonialism and its legacies, challenging the silences on ‘race’ and slavery. In her brilliant essay on the apparent absence of ‘race’ in the American literary canon, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison analysed a range of texts, from Willa Cather to Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain. ‘Her project’, she argued, ‘is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.’ She examined

“the impact of notions of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored, or altered those notions. The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behaviour of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters.”[28]

The recognition of white privilege, grasping the extent to which white identities have been built on the capacity to ‘other’ those who are defined as lesser is a crucial part of the work that is underway and needs to be sustained in Britain.

My own first effort to do something I have come to call ‘reparatory history’ began in the 1980s when questions about the politics of ‘race’ erupted angrily amongst feminists, with demands from black feminists that white women should think about themselves and the positions of privilege they/we occupied. I began to research the question of ‘race’, the ways its presence and significance had been denied and disavowed in British history, and what this meant for white populations, whether ‘at home’ or in the empire. Britain’s domestic history had been systematically demarcated from its imperial history as if the two had nothing to do with each other. My study became an investigation of the impact of colonial- ism on English identities in the period after the abolition of slavery, an exploration of the long historical links between England, particularly Birmingham, and Jamaica. What did it mean to be a coloniser: how central was that identity, that sense of power over others who were thought lesser, to notions of Englishness and Britishness? How were white identities constituted in relation to black? What were the distinctive characteristics of white masculinities and femininities? How was class articulated with this? What happened to thinking about ‘race’ in the wake of abolition? Once slavery, with its supposedly clear binary between white and black and assumption of black subjection, was abolished, other legitimations had to be found for the systematic forms of exploitation, expropriation, cruelty, terror, coercion, violence, abuse, destruction and hatred of ‘others’ that continued across different sites of empire. Othering could take many forms as has been clear from the treatment of the Irish, of Jews and of people of colour in the metropole.[29] As Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht have argued, the demand for reparation put a particular purchase on history and the history of ‘race’. ‘It challenges the progressive onward march of freedom from below by demanding the recognition and repair of exploitation, expropriation and violence not just by building monuments or demanding financial payback.’

There is much work to be done: exploring the continuities between the racisms of the past and the present, investigating the history of the descendants of the enslaved,  documenting  resistance  and  exploring  the  constructions  of  ‘race’, including whiteness, across different sites of empire, investigating the role of states and corporations. We need histories of the enslaved and their survival, they argue, of the perpetrators and the beneficiaries, of those who refused the Manichean binaries of ‘race’. Reparatory history must be about more than identifying wrongdoers and seeking redress: it begins with the descendants, with trauma and loss, but the hope is that the work of mourning can be linked to hopes for reconciliation, the repair of relations damaged by historical injustice.[30]

The attachment to the idea of abolition as a mark of Britain’s love of liberty and freedom was linked to a deep, yet disavowed, attachment in English culture to Britain’s imperial power. In the wake of decolonisation and the loss of Empire,Paul Gilroy diagnosed ‘postimperial melancholia’, marked by

“an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, the profound change in circumstances and moods that followed the end of the Empire … Once the his- tory of the Empire became a source of discomfort, shame, and perplexity, its complexities and ambiguities were readily set aside. Rather than work through those feelings, that unsettling history was diminished, denied, and then, if possible, actively forgotten.”

Such a denial has had profound moral and psychic costs, he suggested, not least shaping hostile responses to strangers and settlers, stirring up fears of ‘swamp- ing’ and invasion. ‘An anxious melancholic mood has become part of the cultural infrastructure’, he argued in 2004.[31] Gilroy’s analysis recalls Freud’s emphasis in Mourning and Melancholia that if a loved object cannot be relinquished and mourn- ing completed, melancholia will ensue, akin to a state of paralysis.[32] That melancholic mood has more recently been transposed into widescale resentment, an anger associated with the loss of an imagined time of purity, when England was white and her borders were secure.[33]

Disavowal and evasion

The concept of disavowal, first articulated by Freud and subsequently developed by a range of other psychoanalytic thinkers has become central to me in my efforts to understand the erasure of ‘race’ and empire in much British history writing. Freud asked, how do we remember, forget and reconfigure the past, and how is it that we can make a thing appear never to have happened? We can ‘know’, according to this account, something unconsciously even as we are consciously ‘innocent’ of the knowledge. Freud’s thinking was based upon the idea that mind is always conflicted, and that we actively rid ourselves (sometimes unbeknownst to ourselves) of certain mental contents. The body may speak another ‘unconscious’ story: thus Freud described a hysterical patient who seemed to know nothing of sexual desire, yet whose hands conveyed a different drama: the one unbuttoning her clothes, the other doing them up.[34] Others have investigated the ways we may misrecognise ourselves, avoid pain, bury our guilt, and disclaim our desires. Lacan’s famous reading of a story by Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’, zeroed in upon a hidden object, the epistle in question, hidden in plain view, on a mantelpiece where nobody (except the alert detective) could see it. Hence the casual leaving of a secret in an accessible location may turn out to be, by and large, a brilliant hiding place. As historians are well aware, archives may be technically ‘open’, but nobody bothers to look in them, or they/we look with ‘blind eyes’, asking some questions, forgetting others. Freud’s emphasis is on an unconscious process, the rejection of a reality that is potentially traumatic. Forgetting is understood as actively produced, not just a matter of failed remembering, rather it is willed, unconsciously. Disavowal is connected with a denial of external realities, a refusal to think what is unthinkable, a wish to put aside what cannot be integrated. And this is as relevant in our intimate and interpersonal relations as in relation to forgotten histories. Statements of denial are assertions that something did not happen, does not exist, is not true, or is not known about. It can be argued that individuals or collectives, indeed whole states and societies can be engaged in it.[35] Disavowal is the refusal to avow, the disclaiming of responsibility or knowledge of, repudiation or denial. It is often linked to the notion of a ‘blind eye’ or the refusal of something in plain sight, so carrying the implication of knowing and not knowing.

Hannah Arendt was no disciple of Freud, yet there are connections with her concept of thoughtlessness, characterised in part by the absence of internal dialogue. This was a crucial concept for her exploration of the imperial roots of totalitarianism and the Holocaust. She re-named Nazi rule ‘race imperialism’. The priority, she insisted was to examine the past ‘bearing consciously the burden that events have placed upon us – neither denying their existence nor submitting meekly to their weight as though everything that in fact happened could not have happened otherwise. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality – whatever it may be or might have been.’[36] She saw the repetition of empty and trivial truths as a key aspect of ‘modern times’.

‘In matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary dis- course’, Morrison wrote. ‘Evasion has fostered another, substitute language in which the issues are encoded, foreclosing open debate. The situation is aggravated by the tremor that breaks into discourse on race.’[37] A similar argument can be made about history writing, a topic that I have been investigating in recent times. One case study has focused on Macaulay’s History of England, the great popular history of the nineteenth century, read across the globe.[38] It was an epic story of progress from Elizabeth I to modern times, 1848. It covered the period of the conquest of Jamaica and the expansion of the slave trade and the development of colonial slavery. Macaulay’s father, Zachary, had a lifelong preoccupation with Africa and the Caribbean. An abolitionist, he had spent formative years as a bookkeeper in Jamaica and then time in Sierra Leone, and became Wilberforce’s right-hand man. Yet his son banished the slave trade and slavery to the uttermost margins of his volumes. The peoples and politics of the Atlantic were irrelevant to his vision of history as was the huge flow of wealth from Caribbean slavery and commerce. Despite the development of the Royal Africa Company under Charles II and James II there was no discussion of the slave trade or plantation slavery, the subjects that had occupied most of Zachary Macaulay’s waking hours. This was a startling silence. Sugar and slavery were becoming central to England’s wealth and power by the late seventeenth century. But slavery was a system that Macaulay preferred to forget. It was abolition that should be memorialised. This was a process that had begun in 1808, with the publication of Thomas Clarkson’s history, celebrating the actions of a group of humanitarian white men on both sides of the Atlantic: it was they who had effected abolition. The Wilberforce brothers’ hagiographic account of their father’s life confirmed this way of constructing England’s role: it was humanitarianism that was to be remembered, not the country’s investment in the slave trade and slavery.

In Macaulay’s mind there was nothing significant to be said about the Caribbean, those colonies had no History, with a capital H, History was a story of progress, the story England exemplified. The Caribbean was locked in what Dipesh Chakrabarty famously named ‘the waiting room of history’, possibly seeking entry at some future date.[39] The ‘great experiment’ of emancipation was increasingly problematic in the 1840s, the years Macaulay was writing, the freed men and women had found no real freedom and were frequently in conflict with their erstwhile owners, the Caribbean islands no longer dominated sugar production and were increasingly irrelevant to global economics and politics. There was no story of progress there. Macaulay’s history was of the making of the multi-ethnic nation named England, with its inclusion, as lesser siblings, of the Scots, and, much more problematically, the partial inclusion of the Irish, who could not be comfortably assimilated in his imagination. England provided a model in his analysis, a successful example of the route to modernity, laying out a path which others could follow. His underlying assumption, rooted in his ethnocentrism, was that it was the route. In that sense his History purported to be a universal history.

Macaulay never chose to write a biography of his father, far from it. He preferred to distance himself from all that his father had most valued, evangelicalism and the struggle against slavery. We cannot think, as he had once proclaimed, as our fathers do. His disavowal of the significance of the slave trade and slavery to his nation’s history could be read as the most potent rejection of his father’s legacy. Abolition had been effected: in its wake he had no time for ‘impracticable, uncompromising reformers’, who never did good and led ‘miserable lives’ and he hated ‘negrophiles’ as much as ‘nigger drivers’. He disliked the whole subject of slavery, did not want to talk, think, or write about it, refused to act as the Vice- President of the Edinburgh Antislavery Society. It was a relief when the subject was avoided, as at a dinner with Sumner, the Massachusetts anti-slavery leader: ‘We had no talk about slavery, to my great joy.’ Avoiding subjects, blocking off difficulties, making the world in his own image: these were some of his strategies for keeping trouble at bay.

He had been in the House of Commons in the difficult days when the terms of abolition were being negotiated. He had done his duty to his father. The supreme authority of the ‘parent state’ had been enacted with the abolition of slavery in 1833 by the imperial parliament, in the face of opposition from the colonial assemblies. England had done its duty and so had he. Now he could put it aside. But putting it aside meant deliberately avoiding and forgetting: disavowal. Macaulay was well aware of the extent to which the slave trade and slavery had sustained the economy and society. He was a member of the government that negotiated compensation to the slave-owners: he knew what the payment of 20 million pounds meant in terms of the government’s overall expenditure. But he preferred not to know, he could not face reality. The West Indies rarely crossed his mind, peopled as they were by ‘stupid ungrateful’ gangs of ‘negroes’. He paid lip service to the abolitionists, but Africa and the Caribbean, effectively excluded from his history, only featured in one paragraph.

Yet what a paragraph: the tremor in his text was marked by the forgotten but not to be dispelled spectre of the slave trade and slavery. Evoking the terrible earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692, he described ‘The fairest and wealthiest city which the English had yet built in the New World, renowned for its quays, for its warehouses, and for its stately streets, which were said to rival Cheapside.’ On that fateful day all ‘was turned into a mass of ruins’. Here the focus was on the city, built by Englishmen and brought into homely purview by being compared to Cheapside. The markets where the enslaved were sold as commodities, the wharves where the slavers docked, the Africans who peopled the island – none of these were in his line of vision. It was the impact on home that preoccupied him, the effect of the disaster on ‘the great mercantile houses of London and Bristol’. Thus Jamaica was domesticated and slavery disavowed. That earthquake signalled the eruption of repressed memories, for repression cannot always contain its troublesome baggage. Macaulay’s History marginalised slavery and empire in the nation’s story. The work of such an influential historian, read across generations, can tell us much about the construction of Anglophone visions of white civilisation. Unpicking that narrative, demonstrating how that marginalisation was effected, what and who were excluded, how the story is fundamentally changed once questions of gender, ‘race’ and class are opened up, exploitation and expropriation registered, is one way of attempting repair.

To focus on undoing the legacies of ‘great white men’ is one possible strategy. New understandings can never undo the devastation and loss that was suffered in the past and that lives on for descendants in the present. But thinking differently can perhaps awaken a sense of the responsibilities of ‘implicated subjects’ who have benefitted culturally, economically and politically from the hurts inflicted on others, in the hope that change can happen, racisms could be eradicated. Recognition matters. The reparation done for the Holocaust has made a difference – the absence of reparation for slavery means that the wound is still open for many people of African-Caribbean descent. Acknowledgement can mean that those implicated in oppression can align themselves with the oppressed and try to repair.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs) (LBS) which seeks to put slavery back into British history, on which I was a principal researcher from 2009 to 2015, has also focused on individuals, but this time on a significant group, the slave-owners.[40] The aim has been to shift the narrative of Britain’s relation to slavery from a focus on abolition to one on the benefits associated with the business of slavery and its importance to the making of modern Britain and in the process to contribute to undoing whitewashed histories. Little systematic attention had been paid to British slave-owners though there were invaluable case studies of particular families and Eric Williams had pointed the way in his attention to the absentee West Indian elite, living in Britain.[41] We decided to use them as a lens through which to explore the tentacles of the slav- ery business in the metropole. Pro-slavers resisted emancipation as long as they could. Once they knew the battle was lost they used their parliamentary power to get the best terms possible for themselves. They drove a hard bargain. The 20 mil- lion pounds (16 billion in today’s money) paid to them in compensation for the loss of ‘their’ human property was combined with a system of apprenticeship, binding the freed men and women to working unpaid for their former masters for fixed hours over four to six years. The compensation records were meticulously collected in the wake of emancipation, providing a census of slave-owners at that time, a unique source.[42] By documenting the 46,000 individual claims for compensation and detailing the legacies – commercial, financial, political, cultural and imperial of the absentees – those with addresses registered in Britain, the extent of Britons’ involvement in slave-ownership has been laid bare. Some of the wealthy slave-owners such as John Gladstone, William’s father, were well- known. But the 3,500+ who received compensation in the metropole were enormously varied, ranging from modest widows living on annuities that were funded by the labour of the enslaved to middle-range merchants, bankers and lawyers, and rich ‘West Indians’ based partially in Marylebone and enjoying a country residence. Twenty per cent of those who received compensation in Britain were women. The compensation records deal with individuals but they illuminate the structures of class and state power. It was the imperial parliament which legislated the ending of slavery, just as it had previously legislated the trade and the notion of an enslaved person as a commodity.

Tracking the legacies has meant looking at the West India lobby and its retention of significant political influence into the 1840s, protecting the interests of the planters. British railway and canal systems, merchant banks and insurance companies, urban developments in spa towns such as Leamington, all bear witness to wealth derived from slavery. British museums and galleries display the perquisites of slavery and empire, visitors to country houses can marvel at the riches associated with sugar. Enterprises in the new colonies of white settlement were partially built on the fruits of slave-ownership. Scrolling through the LBS documentation of slave-owners who contributed to philanthropic enterprises we dis- cover that they supported asylums and schools for the urban poor, hospitals and an Institute for the Blind, the Governesses Benevolent Society and the Lifeboat Institution, typical objects of middle- and upper-class charity. Modern Britain was better equipped to respond to ill-health, poverty and disability than were the lands and peoples it colonised.

Bringing slavery home means tracking all these material traces, following the money and the people, making visible the legacies of slave-ownership, excavating what has been suppressed and marginalised, re-inscribing the slavery business in modern British history in an effort to reshape what is understood as the truth of what has happened. The database provides the evidence of the webs of connections to slavery that continue into the present within the white British elite and key social and economic institutions. It confirms Eric Williams’ insistence on the contribution that slave wealth made to the development of capitalism. It is a resource opening up the entangled histories of Britain’s relation to the Caribbean and offering extensive refutations of that binary between black and white which the slave-owners tried to impose, the ‘race-making’ that was central to their power.[43] It challenges the systemic disavowal, the knowing and not knowing of the realities of slavery that has characterised British history writing and British society. Anecdotal evidence from educational institutions, the media and public debates suggests that LBS has made a difference. The national narrative has shifted: it is impossible now to think about abolition without compensation. Furthermore, the empirical work has given people who are making political claims the historical grounding from which to do so.

LBS’s current project is documenting the structure and scale of Britons’ owner- ship in the Caribbean between 1763–1833, this time establishing patterns of land holding and levels of production when possible, uncovering the political, economic and cultural legacies, and utilising the Slave Registers to record the numbers of men, women and children who worked on the estates.[44] Digitising these histories, in so far as we can, including locating estates on maps, means extensive additions to the database and new possibilities for family and local historians as well as academic researchers. Attempting to grasp the world of the planter historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, the subject of my current research, is greatly facilitated by this wider comparative context across the British Caribbean. I aim to situate him as a child growing up in a family whose plantations had been established in the 1650s, fill out the details of his twelve years on the island as a planter, grasp the significance of his authoritative work as a historian and his life amongst the West Indian elite as an influential pro-slaver in Marylebone and the home counties.

The hope is to understand more about how racial thinking works, what are its logics and its mechanics, how did slave-owners such as Long establish the practices that attempted to fix the binaries between black and white, master the world in which they lived? The ability to see and not see was fundamental to Long’s life, to disavow and deny realities. He relied on what Ann Stoler has called ‘imperial dispositions’ to legitimate his own behaviour, as a planter, a legislator in the House of Assembly, a writer and polemicist, and in the network of his family and kin. He learned to ignore, turn away, refuse to witness: these were the ‘well-tended conditions of disregard’ that enabled slave-owners to live with the contradictions of their practices.[45] Long could be a loving family man and a buyer and seller of human property, valuing others only as commodities and relying on violence and coercion to extract their labour. This culture and the divisions between black and white were not ‘natural’, they had to be created and learned. This was the work of ‘making race’.

So can we think of such work as reparative? Its primary intention is not to seek new resources for education and health in the Caribbean, nor is it focused on the long-term effects of the slave trade on Africa. It is not about the politics of sur- vival and existential struggle under the conditions of ‘bare life’ as Vincent Brown evokes in his discussion of studies of slavery.[46] It cannot offer the kinds of insights into the harshness of Jamaican plantation life that Diana Paton has been able to unearth in her study of slave courts or the complexities of the sex-gender system captured through a fragment in the life of a free woman of colour.[47] My chosen focus is on the UK and the need to develop a different understanding here of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism. This means thinking about understandings of ‘race’ and difference. How significant were the ideas about ‘race’ which developed in the Caribbean to English/British under- standings of difference? Debates over slavery and abolition brought this material ‘home’: pro-slavers and abolitionists tried to marshal their forces and their organisations, worked hard to influence policy and practice. Anti-slavery activism was vital, but it did not always undermine notions of white superiority.[48]

A decade after 2007 it is possible to make some assessment of what shifts have and have not taken place in the UK on the question of slavery and its legacies into the present. There have been some welcome changes in schools and universities, more scholarship produced, more materials made available, a sense that the story cannot any longer be told in quite the way it once was. Politically, ground has been lost. On his visit to Jamaica in 2015 the then prime minister David Cameron’s refusal to consider reparations together with his extraordinarily ill-judged promise of 25 million for a new prison on the island marked a low point. The harsh policies of the current Conservative government on immigration and deportation and of the police on stop and search leave little faith in platitudes about tolerance.[49] The appalling statistics on African-Caribbean levels of inequality, whether in edu- cation, employment, prisons or mental health speak volumes about the persistence of racism.

Colin Prescod has recently recognised the work that has been done by archivists and curators on Black cultural heritage, but makes a powerful argument for mov- ing beyond including the Black experience to allowing Black agency in the making of the record.[50] Black community groups have registered anger and frustration about the opportunities that have been lost, the disappointment of hopes raised in 2007 of changes that would be made, collaborations that would develop, more genuinely inclusive policies that would be implemented. It is just as urgent to insist that Black Lives Matter in the wake of Grenfell as it was in 2007, 1807 or 1833. Morrison’s call for a ‘serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behaviour of masters’ seems no less important in the current climate of Islamophobia and xenophobia, the abandonment of refugees as ‘disposable people’. We need to understand that we are dealing with deeply embedded assumptions in the UK, what Stuart Hall described as ‘a reservoir of unconscious feelings’ about ‘race’.[51] There remains much reparatory work to be done: history writing can be one way in.

References

  1. This essay was originally a talk at the ‘Reparatory Histories’ conference in Brighton in April 2017 and then at the Bluecoats conference in Liverpool in October Thanks to all the par- ticipants at those conferences for their thoughts and then to Sally Alexander, Nick Draper, Cora Kaplan, Keith McClelland, Rachel Lang and Diana Paton.
  2. Runnymede Trust, The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain (London: Profile Books, 2000), p.
  3. The Guardian, 12 October 2000.
  4. For a critical account of the Durban conference see Hilary Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt: repara- tions for Caribbean slavery and native genocide (Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2013).
  5. Randall Robinson, The Debt: what America owes to Blacks (New York: P. Dutton, 2000). There were echoes here of Orlando Patterson’s emphasis on the  systematic  alienation  and  social death associated with Atlantic slavery, Slavery and Social Death: a comparative study (Cambridge, MA, 1982).
  6. For a helpful discussion of the value of political apologies see Janna Thompson, ‘Is political apology a sorry affair?’, Social and Legal Studies 21, 2 (2012), pp. 215–25.
  7. Government Press Notice,
  8. John Oldfield, ‘Chords of Freedom’: commemoration, ritual and British transatlantic slavery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); ‘Repairing historical wrongs: public history and transatlantic slavery’, 21, no. 2 (2012), pp. 243–55.
  9. The Guardian, 27 February
  10. Toyin Agbetu intervened dramatically in the service at Westminster Abbey commemorating the bi-centenary which the Queen attended on 27 March 2007, saying that the service was an insult to those of African
  11. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (abridged version) (Seeley: Burnside & Seeley, 1843), p. 501.
  12. For one of the volumes that came out of new research in 2007 see Cora Kaplan and John Oldfield, eds, Imagining Transatlantic Slavery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  13. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 183, quoted in Erika Apfelbaum, ‘Halbwachs and the social properties of memory’, in Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz, eds, Memory. Histories, Theories, Debates (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), pp. 77–92.
  14. Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Fugitive justice’, Representations 91, no. 1 (2005), pp. 1–12; Quobna Ottabah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999).
  15. For some of the reflections on 2007 see the special issue of Slavery and Abolition (30, 2 [2009]), ‘Remembering Slave Trade Abolitions; reflections on 2007 in international perspective’ (edited by Diana Paton and Jane Webster); Laurajane Smith et al., eds, Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums (London: Routledge, 2014).
  16. On the importance of discovery to possibilities of reparation see Karl Figlio, Remembering as Reparation: psychoanalysis and historical memory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  17. Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: slave-ownership, compensation and British society at the end of slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  18. Hannah Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1973 [1951]), p.
  19. See, for example, the discussions in John Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: on reparation politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); David Scott, Omens of Adversity: tragedy, time, memory, justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Robert Meister, After Evil: a politics of human rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).
  20. For an introduction to aspects of the complicated history of postwar responses in Germany see Geoff Eley, ‘Contemporary Germany and denial: is “Nazism” all there is to say?’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 44–66.
  21. Unpublished paper quoted in Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: transitional justice and the challenge of truth commissions (New York, 2001), p.
  22. Michal Rothberg, Unpublished paper, ‘On being a descendant: implicated subjects and the  legacy of slavery’, Utrecht, June 2013. See also his book, Multidirectional Memory: remembering the Holocaust in the age of decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009) which brings together holocaust studies and postcolonial studies, aiming to change thinking about collective memory and group identities. See also Elazar Bakan, Guilt of Nations: restitution and negotiating historical injustices (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2000).
  23. Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed. I have found Torpey’s discussion of reparations very helpful and have drawn on it in this
  24. Scott, Omens of Adversity, pp. 26–27.
  25. Beckles, Britain’s Black Debt; http://www.leighday.co.uk?News/March2014/Caricom- nations-unanimously-approve-10-point-plan.
  26. David Scott, ‘Debt, redress’, Small Axe 43 (2014), pp. 1–4.
  27. For an account of the scale of the politics of reparation movements see Robin Kelley, ‘A day of reckoning: dreams of reparations’, in Freedom Dreams (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 110–34.
  28. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993 [1992]), pp. 90, 11–12.
  29. Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination 1830-1867 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).
  30. 17. Cathy Bergin and Anita Rupprecht, ‘History, agency and the representation of “race” – an introduction’, Race & Class 57, 3 (2016), pp. 3–17.
  31. Paul Gilroy, After Empire: melancholia or convivial culture? (London: Routledge, 2004), 98.
  32. Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 14 (London: Vintage Classics, 2001) pp. 239–60.
  33. Max Hastings, well-known military historian, editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and one- time editor of the Evening Standard has recently commented on the disaster of producing a film such as Dunkirk in this conjuncture, the calamitous fantasies it encourages of Britain standing alone.
  34. I am quoting in this paragraph from a longer version of this argument: Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick, ‘Thinking about denial’, History Workshop Journal 84 (Autumn 2017), 1–23.
  35. Stan Cohen, States of Denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
  36. Arendt, ‘Preface to the first edition’, xviii.
  37. Morrison, Playing, p.9.
  38. For a longer account of Macaulay’s history writing see Catherine Hall, Macaulay and Son: archi- tects of imperial Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). The citation in the following paragraphs are drawn from
  39. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
  40. The project was funded by the ESRC, and supported by the Department of History at
  41. See, for example, S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones: A family biography 1764-1851 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).
  42. Draper, The Price of Emancipation.
  43. Catherine Hall, Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Donington and Rachel  Lang,  The Legacies of British Slave-ownership and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  44. This project has been funded by the ESRC and AHRC and supported by the History Department at The establishment of a Centre for the Study of British Slave-ownership at UCL is now supported by the Hutchins Center, Harvard University.
  45. Anne Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 256.
  46. Vincent Brown, ‘Social death and political life in the study of slavery’, American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (December 2009), pp. 1231–49.
  47. Diana Paton, ‘Punishment, crime, and the bodies of slaves in eighteenth-century Jamaica’, Journal of Social History 34, 4 (Summer 2001), pp. 923–54; ‘Mary Williamson’s Letter, or seeing women in the archives of Atlantic slavery’, lecture to the Royal Historical Society, 9 February 2018. The work of doing reparatory history will always be collective and collabora- tive, drawing on the many and varied skills of historians across the world, located in specific national, transnational and global contexts.
  48. Hall, Civilising Subjects; Clare Midgley, Women against Slavery: the British campaigns 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992).
  49. Any illusion that official understandings have changed could be dispelled by the Treasury tweet of 9 February about compensation that was ill-judged and See David Olusoga, ‘The Treasury’s tweet shows slavery is still misunderstood’, The Guardian, 13 February 2018.
  50. Colin Prescod, ‘Archives, race, class and rage’, Race & Class 58, no. 4 (2017), pp. 76–84.
  51. Stuart Hall interviewed by Les Back, Darkmatter.101.org/site/2010/11/28/stuart-hall- in-conversation-with-les-back.

In the second of the #ReconstructionWork series, ‘Parliamentary Politics and Grassroots Organising’, David Lammy and Amina Gichinga discussed how best to effect political change through grassroots activism and the parliamentary system, whilst taking into consideration the role of community, culture and theories of change.

Find out more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.

Speakers:

After being elected for the 7th time as the Member of Parliament for Tottenham in December 2019, David Lammy was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. He became the first black MP to hold the Justice post, either in government or opposition. This appointment concluded a busy year for David, who has fought for justice on behalf of the Windrush Generation, spearheaded the struggle to resist Brexit, campaigned for a humane immigration system, sought to protect vulnerable teenagers from surging knife-crime, re-applied pressure on the Government to compensate the victims of the Grenfell Tower Fire and continued to expose racial bias within the British criminal justice system. These are just some of the issues that David explores in his recently published book, Tribes, an exploration of both the benign and malign effects of our very human need to belong.

Amina Gichinga is a musician, a speaker and a community organiser. Amina became disillusioned with the elitist environment of parliament in her teens and turned to grassroots activism in Newham, where she’s always lived. Wanting to demonstrate a radical approach to how party politics could be done differently, she stood as Take Back the City’s GLA candidate for the City and East Constituency in the 2016 Mayoral & London Assembly elections. Since early 2018 she has worked as an organiser with London Renters Union, organising with local tenants in Newham & Leytonstone to harness their collective power. Amina combined her love of music with her dedication to social justice and founded Nawi Collective, an all-black women and non-binary femmes choir, in 2017.

Gary Younge and Lola Olufemi discuss ‘looking back to look forward’. In the first #ReconstructionWork conversation, writer and academic Gary Younge and black feminist writer, organiser and researcher Lola Olufemi explored how histories of black cultural and political activism can help us construct just and equal futures, working across different generations and geographies.

Learn more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.

Speakers:

Gary Younge is an award-winning journalist, author and professor of sociology at Manchester University.  He has written five books, most recently Another Day in the Death of America, which was awarded the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize from Columbia Journalism School and Nieman Foundation. Gary worked for The Guardian for 26 years where he was a columnist and the US correspondent for 12 years, returning to become the paper’s editor-at-large and leaving for Manchester University in April 2020. He is also the Alfred Knobler Fellow for Type Media and on the editorial board of The Nation in the US.

Lola Olufemi is a black feminist writer, organiser and researcher from London. She holds an undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London. Her work focuses on the uses of the feminist imagination and its relationship with futurity. She is co-author of A FLY Girl’s Guide to University (2019), author of Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power (2020), a member of ‘bare minimum’, an interdisciplinary anti-work arts collective and the recipient of the techne AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership between The Stuart Hall Foundation, CREAM and Westminster School of Arts.

The news that major institutions from the Bank of England, a number of universities and Oriel College Oxford, to companies such as Lloyds of London and Greene King have acknowledged their varied links to the slave trade, slavery and empire and announced their intentions to take down portraits and statues, provide money to redress inequalities and be more inclusive in their practices is most welcome. It has been a long time coming. Attempts to address Britain’s historic engagement with the slavery business and its life into the present have been going on for decades. Visual artists, film makers, writers, activists and historians have worked to unpick the national story of a liberty loving and humanitarian people who led the world in the abolition of slavery, and challenge the assumption that race and slavery are problems for the US, not here. The bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 kick-started an unfinished and unresolved national conversation about the meanings and legacies of race and slavery. This time the serious protest movement in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd and the toppling of the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, under the banners of Black Lives Matter, ‘end racial injustices’ and ‘we can’t breathe’, has forced another reckoning. There are huge differences – not least the scale of the angry, passionate and energetic involvement now of young people – black, brown and white – and the role of social media in mobilising protest. In 2007 Blair refused to apologise for Britain’s slave trading past. This time the scale of the major demonstrations alongside public recognition of the disproportionate number of South Asian and black deaths due to Covid-19 have forced responses from institutions and companies that have had the information available as to their shameful histories for years but have chosen to ignore it.

 

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership database (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs), was made public in 2012, and we have been adding material to it ever since. The recent press coverage of Lloyds, Greene King etc has drawn directly on the research conducted by the LBS team, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Board and supported by UCL. Public money has produced public history. The initial research concerned the 20m paid in compensation to the slave-owners when their human property, enslaved men and women across the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape, were emancipated in 1834. Slave-owners were paid a proportion of what was deemed to be the market value of these 300,000+ persons. People who had been bought and sold were now for the last time priced as commodities and the money went to the slaveholders. They invested their spoils in a whole range of economic, political and cultural activities – from building railways and developing merchant banks to buying art works some of which now grace our national collections, refurbishing country houses some of which the National Trust and English Heritage preserve, and investing their capital, both human and mobile, in the development of the new colonies of white settlement in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Emancipated men and women, meanwhile, struggled with their varied conditions of limited freedom. Our subsequent research has focused on the Britons who owned property in land and people in the Caribbean from the mid-eighteenth century to 1833 – opening up the long histories of white families who lived off the exploitation of enslaved people over generations. Our aim has been to provide unequivocal evidence of the ways in which white Britons have benefitted from the slavery business and how practices of racial injustice are historically embedded in British society and culture, how the past lives on in the present.

 

We use the term the slavery business to encompass the range of economic activities associated with British slavery. There is confusion in many people’s minds between the slave trade – the capture of men, women and children, mainly in west Africa, their sale to European traders in exchange for guns, textiles etc, their terrible forced crossings of the Atlantic and sale in the New World – and slavery, the condition of being enslaved, working on plantations, in stock-breeding pens and as urban workers, in the Caribbean, producing the sugar which had become part of British life, treasured not least for that iconic English cup of tea. Both the slave trade and slavery were supported by a host of other activities which were crucial to the development of the British economy in the late C18 and early C19. Merchants provided the credit lines for both traders and plantation owners, the metal industries produced guns, fetters, bolts, nails, all manner of iron work necessary for the plantation economy, the famous firm of Boulton and Watt sent some of their earliest steam engines to Jamaica, the shipbuilding industry, the dockworkers, the sailors, the sugar refining industry, the grocers who sold to the consumers – and so it went on. And none of this stopped after emancipation, when British capital moved into cotton and fed the massive expansion of US slavery in the South, the extensive use of indentured labour on the tea plantations in India and for sugar in the Caribbean.

 

The history of Greene King gives one glimpse into some of these entanglements. Benjamin Greene was the son of a draper and apprenticed to the leading brewing firm of Whitbread in London. In 1801 he moved to the country town of Bury St Edmunds and established a partnership with William Buck, the father-in-law of the famous abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. A neighbour, Sir Patrick Blake, owned estates in St Kitts and when he died childless Greene became the manager of the estates. In due course he inherited the estates from Blake’s widow and he also took over the management of properties belonging to a Norfolk family. There were many West Indians, as they were called, absentee slave-owners living off their Caribbean estates, not to speak of the widows enjoying annuities funded by enslaved labour. Greene became an active pro-slaver, and in 1828 bought the Bury and Suffolk Herald to use as a platform for his ultra-Tory views. He steadfastly opposed parliamentary reform, attacked Thomas Clarkson and defended the West India interest. He was one of the c4,000 in Britain (20% of whom were women) who received compensation. His share was £4,000 for 1,396 enslaved men and women in St Kitts and Montserrat.

 

In 1829 he had sent his oldest son Benjamin Buck Greene to manage the estates and he gained a great reputation as a successful planter. By the time he returned in 1836 there were 18 properties and he had substantially increased the family fortunes. His father moved to London that same year and established a shipping and sugar importing firm in Mincing Lane. Benjamin Buck Greene married the daughter of a man with extensive trading and sugar interests in Mauritius and a new partnership, Blyth and Greene, became a leading London merchant house dealing in colonial merchandise and shipping. Benjamin Buck Greene gained recognition as a most respectable entrepeneur, public man and philanthropist, ‘a pattern of what an English merchant should be’. He was appointed a deputy governor of the Bank of England in 1850 and served as Governor from 1873-5. Meanwhile the brewery flourished under the management of his brother Edward Greene, later to partner with King, and the Caribbean estates continued to be profitable up to the 1840s.

 

A younger son of Benjamin Greene, Charles had been dispatched to St Kitts aged 16 to look after the estates but died 3 years later having fathered, it was believed, 13 illegitimate children. The novelist Graham Greene, his great-nephew, wrote powerful depictions of the closing years of empire in his fiction, peopled with disillusioned colonial officials and whisky sodden priests, one of the traces of a long history of connection between metropolitan and colonial worlds. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, published in 1971 Greene does not mention slavery but records his encounters with ‘coloured Greenes’, one of the many legacies of British slave- ownership. His family’s activities as slave-owners and merchants, buttressed by inheritance, strategic marriages and partnerships, had secured their fortunes for generations. The ‘coloured Greenes’, alongside the descendants of the enslaved and the indentured on their plantations bear witness to the unequal legacies of racial capitalism as it was practiced across the empire.

 

In the next phase of our work we aim to aim to establish a new database documenting the enslaved of the British Caribbean in the last decades before emancipation, thus facilitating tracking connections between named men and women, the slaveholders and the estates and properties. between 1817-33. Who knows what connections into the present will emerge from this work and what demands it will be possible to make on the basis of new evidence?

SHF DPhil Scholar’s Caetano Santos talk ‘Haitian immigrant artists in Brazil: diasporic negotiations of belonging and citizenship, cosmopolitanism from below and the political aesthetics of migration’, presented at the Stuart Hall Foundation Scholars and Fellows event on 7th February 2020.

This paper focuses on the current theme of offline response that is the result of research conducted on digital identity work and labour amongst queer and female British South Asian Instagrammers. In this context, online space is defined as internet-based social media platforms and offline space refers to the local diaspora community or family in which the participant is embedded.

This quote from Christine Hine speaks to the complex ways in which we navigate our way through these online and offline spaces:

The internet has brought us together in myriad new ways, but still much of the interpretive work that goes on to embed it into people’s lives is not apparent on the Internet itself, as its users weave together highly individualized and complex patterns of meaning out of these publicly observable threads of interaction.’

(Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday)

The image above is a screenshot taken from Instagram. It is a doctored image of Gandhi as the devil posted up to an account called SouthAsia Art. This image, along with others on this account are the result of an Indo-Fijian artist’s residency, where she has researched the plight of female South Asian indentured labourers in Fiji and Gandhi’s complicity with the British empire in deciding their fate. The offline conversations and activities that have resulted in this image go some way in highlighting these complex

patterns of meaning that Hine is talking about that aren’t obviously apparent on the internet alone. It would be interesting to gain an insight into the activity being done currently in Fiji around this forgotten history and the meetings and conversations that are taking place amongst the South Asian diaspora there. And it is the uncovering of a working-class female South Asian history, being done by female scholars from the diaspora that is at the heart of the activity behind this image. In this same vein, this research presents an opportunity for young British South Asians who exist outside of male, cis-gendered heteronormativity to reflect on and speak for themselves, about themselves and others who inhabit this online space. Just as the diaspora is recovering its histories, so too should it be allowed to articulate its present.

The decision to analyse participant responses was taken as opposed to analyses of digital content that users put up on their Instagram profiles as a different truth (and albeit one that is rarely researched) was found in participant’s reflections of this digital world. We know that we are beyond the point of the early days of tech utopia and simple empowerment online because the real-world systemic inequalities are perpetuated in the digital world. But what transformative elements of this world exist for its users? What are the limitations and barriers? How could participants explain, in their own words what this world represented to them? And in turn, what would these responses reveal about the wider South Asian diaspora in Britain today?

Thirty years after Stuart Hall’s discussion of ‘new ethnicities’, this paper is an attempt to try and think through the ways in which young female and queer British diaspora communities articulate themselves but also reflect on their digital selves and the issues that are confronted through their responses. Drawing on anonymised interviews conducted with 34 Instagrammers, this study attempts to make visible things that their digital content usually renders invisible.

Instagram is a photo and video sharing smartphone app launched in 2010 that enables an account holder to share content with followers who have chosen to subscribe to their account and vice versa. The particular sphere of Instagram the participants inhabit will be referred to as the South Asian Digital Diaspora space (the SADD space) throughout this paper. It is defined as a networked space that privileges articulations of gender, sexuality and culture through the lens of South Asian diaspora communities.

Many themes and issues were covered by participants in the interviews, but what stood out most were the anxieties and connections that lie behind the accounts within the SADD space. Here are some of the themes that really came to the fore and the ones that will be discussed in this paper:

  • The private and public account
  • Respectability politics
  • Digital space invasion
  • Racial neoliberalism

The private and public account

The private and public account theme was a prominent one amongst participants: this is where a user can choose to either make an Instagram account private so when someone clicks onto the account, they can’t see the content and have to put in a request to follow it. It is up to the account holder to grant them access to the content. A public account is open so anyone can view content when they click on the account. One participant talks about having a private account that ends up being infiltrated by what they term a ‘lurking profile’:

“So it’s typically a profile with not many posts at all, they follow more people than they are followed by and there’s often no profile picture and they just lurk and watch people’s stories. One of my friends alerted me coz people were making really homophobic comments about me in WhatsApp chats and I was like ‘oh damn’ I have to be careful. I blocked a lot of people after this and I thought it was a safe space because it was private but apparently it wasn’t. You don’t know whose watching, especially when you’re wanting to further your career and a lot of your art entails themes of queerness, there’s this sense of impending danger that you have lurking somewhere at the back of your mind. I think in one way, while Instagram is good in getting stuff out there, you also expose yourself which is difficult to navigate because you don’t know who’s watching.”

Another participant recently made her profile private after her comments on a photograph of a prominent Muslim Instagrammer sparked some outrage:

“There was an argument going on in somebody else’s comment section, as always! She [this famous instagrammer] wears her headscarf in quite a unique way so you can see a little bit of her hair. Then someone commented, a guy, who clearly didn’t know what he was on about saying ‘this is what fame does to you, you forget your morals, you forget your principles, you don’t wear the hijab correctly’ […] I said ‘that’s funny coming from you coz you’re a male and you don’t know the struggles of covering your hair’ […] he got angry at me and said ‘you don’t wear your hijab properly either’ and at that moment I realised for him to say that he’s seen my pictures on my Instagram […] it made me feel something, unsafe I think […] he’s looking at my photos and using that against me.”

Through these responses, we begin to understand how the public and private functions of the SADD space operate. Trying to articulate the intersections of your identity or defending another person’s can put you at risk. For the first participant, it was an ex-school friend who had created the ‘lurking profile’ – this friend had connections to the participant’s family and so there was risk of the offline world becoming an unsafe space for them. For the second participant, before this negative interaction, her profile had been public for a very long time meaning that the SADD space was where she felt safe. After this interaction, this space became unsafe.

To counter the public profile, private ones are made so there is a secret online life being lived alongside the offline life. This doubling of life isn’t new to those that have grown up in strict, conservative South Asian families, the difference is the detail that goes into this digital life and the constancy of it (you’re always carrying it around with you on your phone), which can create real anxiety for participants. The societal risks that exist within the offline and online South Asian community at large creates a barrier to self-representation for the participants, especially when it comes to issues around gender and sexuality.

Respectability politics

This barrier to self-representation, even when challenged, can remain a barrier, the result being the self-censoring of content. Participants are held up to the politics of respectability in the SAAD space. This participant says:

“I know there’s been cases where my mum’s been like ‘take that down now’ because I’m too exposed, and my mum is very liberal. She’s like ‘your projecting the wrong image out there’ and basically compared me to being a sex worker”

The images we would see on this participant’s profile isn’t how she truly wants to be seen, but how her family will allow her to be seen. What this remark makes visible are these private conversations between parents and offspring that happen behind closed doors and influence the images in the SADD space. Even though this participant describes her mum as very liberal, she tells her daughter that she is projecting the ‘wrong’ image by posting up pictures of herself in what she considers provocative clothing, equating the showing of flesh to sex work, which is very problematic for reasons we don’t have time for today . This participant’s notion of parental liberalism, or her mother’s liberalism, permits her to do things, like wear a short skirt and drink as long as it is done away from the community, that it remains invisible. And that no trace of it exists in the SADD space.

This idea of the ‘wrong image’ is echoed in this participant’s answer:

“I’m not going to say I censor it, but I can very easily choose certain issues that I know spark some kind of outrage within my parents’ communities – I would avoid those deliberately. I’m not gonna talk about my personal life so there’s nothing essentially on my profile that would make people think ‘oh my god, look what your daughter’s doing’. What am I doing? I’m just posting photos, so there’s not really anything wrong that I’m doing.”

This participant subconsciously conflates her personal life with doing something wrong – the personal: i.e: the emotional, the intimate is made to feel wrong in the SADD space, so is best kept invisible.

The SADD space is a space of self-representation that can end up being externally policed by those outside of it, especially when it comes down to articulations of sexuality, gender and lifestyle. One way of making the SADD space safe is to make it private, but even then, as demonstrated earlier, it can be infiltrated. So how can participants navigate these complex online/offline relations with some ease?

Digital space invasion

One participant said that the SADD space gave her the confidence to be more vocal about who is she within her local community:

“I think for the confidence levels and the confidence to be outspoken and political and to kind of take that change and put it back into the community as well. I’ve been able to, rather than living that entirely online, I have been able to take that back out and because I’ve shown that side of myself publicly on the internet, now it’s allowed me to show that person to the people I see in the community who’ve seen it on Instagram.”

There is an awareness that this approach comes with risk of confrontation or worse, but it demonstrates one way that these anxieties can be relieved. This approach comes down to how safe somebody already feels within their offline community.

The popularity of the SADD space goes beyond articulations of self to demonstrate the ways in which participants circumvent the traditional cultural industries, making them space invaders of industries that have historically rejected or compromised the work of British South Asian creatives, as Nirmal Puwar writes:

“As we witness a number of policy initiatives under the banner of ‘diversity’, the ‘guarded’ tolerance in the desire for difference carries in the unspoken small print of assimilation a ‘drive for sameness’. Through these processes the kind of questions that are asked as well as the voices that are amenable to being heard within the regular channels of the art world, academia, or other fields of work, can become seriously stunted.” (Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, 2004)

This digital invasion of the cultural industries has forcibly opened up a space of difference without compromise and industry gatekeeping. One participant runs her business entirely through the SADD space and has relied on it heavily to gain recognition and get work, promoting herself specifically as a South Asian tattoo artist:

“I used my Instagram as my portfolio when I was looking for tattooing apprenticeships, and I was lucky enough to have found the apprenticeships I had because of Instagram. I used to be an apprentice at the studio I now own and they had offered me a job there because they saw and liked my work on Instagram.”

Participants have stated that they have gotten art and writing commissions, exhibitions, collaborations and job opportunities off the back of the SADD space and they also make a point of supporting each other through it:

“I’ve been able to connect with some really lovely people locally because of it and have been able to show up to events that were exclusively advertised on IG and learn about a lot of underrated hyperlocal culture that I felt needed visibility as well.”

Staying culturally true to yourself, connecting with others like you, not giving in to dominant whiteness and still financially succeeding by way of bypassing traditional gatekeepers is undeniably empowering for members of the SADD space.

Racial neoliberalism

However, it could be argued that this space, as a social media platform could be described as a cultural industry, whereby the processes of cultural production of British South

Asian identity are not without their problems. Under the racial neoliberal address, there is a call for a shift from the politics of representation to a politics of production (Anamik Saha, Race and the Cultural Industries, 2018), the constraints of which appear largely invisible within the SADD space. On a platform like Instagram, you can feel like you are in control of the processes of production behind your self-representation without having to question it further. This is a platform that has approached participants to sell products, that exists on an economy of likes and sponsorship deals and I think to not interrogate these processes of capitalist production further is to do a disservice to Stuart Hall’s conception of a politics of representation – we mustn’t forget the political. When we do, we begin to see the essentialising effects of the neoliberal processes of production, churning out what we believe to be our own truths, as one participant puts it:

“There’s this South Asian monolithic nation project happening out there which I think is something that I’m quite cautious about because I think that growing up in this country, a lot of South Asians, you’re growing up with loads of people from diasporas and to self – exoticise yourself sometimes because it does go to that at points, there is a real risk because with this collective consciousness which is coming about on Instagram, there is a convergence of more niche people into this bigger aesthetic in order to get recognition to be a part of that project.”

The convergence of South Asian religious and ethnic identities within the SADD space (usually Hindu/Punjabi and middle-class), removes the potential for a radical politics of representation, but this essentialism is not lost on some participants who inhabit the SADD space, which is promising.

Conversely, these processes of production are significant to users because the aforementioned religious and patriarchal barriers present much more of an oppression compared to that of capitalist neoliberal processes of production, which offer a type of safety and freedom to allow participants to be honest without major consequence. As recognised by some participants, these neoliberal forms of self-representation do not offer a long-term solution to systemic oppressions, but it also cannot be denied that the SADD space can be an affirming space for many of its users; this positive response from one participant is a reminder that ultimately we are all searching for ways to belong:

“It makes so much difference to know there are also other south Asians living alternative lifestyles, helping and supporting one another. Giving visibility to and sharing content from these accounts is important to me because I’m trying to be the person I needed when I was younger.”

In ‘Our Mongrel Selves’ (1992), Stuart Hall highlights how ‘strengthening of ‘local’ allegiances and identities’ might erode ‘‘centred’ nationalisms of the west European nation state’; this development could enable greater co-operation across national boundaries, but risks ‘re-valorisation of smaller, subordinate nationalisms’ based on these local allegiances.[1] Hall warns against temptations ‘to produce a purified ‘folk’ and to play the highly dangerous game of ‘ethnic cleansing’.[2] His fears are informed by genocide and forced migrations that, while he wrote, were accompanying the break-up of Yugoslavia; however, his caution might also apply more widely:

“Here, the real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities of Europe, which have been made and remade across the tortured and violent history of Europe’s march to modernity, are subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity, by a surreptitious return to ‘tradition’ […] that recasts cultural identity as an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future.”[3]

The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures while resisting an essentialised, purist approach that could develop into fascism. One figure who grappled successfully with Hall’s problem is Bill Griffiths, a poet, Old English scholar, archivist, prisoners’ rights activist, classical pianist and sometime Hell’s Angel who stands out among the British avant-garde of the late 20th and early 21st centuries for his folkic methods, developing friendships with peripheral communities and letting their voices inform his writing. Even his earliest poems, written in the 1970s, incorporate idioms from prisoners, biker gangs and Roma. In 1990, Griffiths’ folk interests gained new focus when he moved from London to Seaham, a fishing and mining town in County Durham. He remained based there until he passed away in 2007.

Griffiths shares Hall’s appreciation of ‘real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ in any culture’s genealogy. This understanding of ‘folk’ is international, interracial and transcultural, remaining open to ongoing change. For Griffiths, ‘folk’ offers not a conservative force, but potential for radical resistance. This essay considers how these values impacted the folk-oriented research that Griffiths initiated in Seaham, including extensive work alongside long-term residents to celebrate North East dialect in the face of hegemonic, centralised Englishness. This all fed into his poetry, which periodically deployed dialect throughout his time in the region. The linguistic texture and poetic stakes show in the opening of the poem ‘On Vane Tempest Provisionally Shut, 23 October, in the Afternoon, 1992’:

While the bishop that tawks to the pollis that bray’d the miners woz marchin’,

wiv a thrang, weel-hair-comb’d mob, tiv address a petishun

til their Lord

whe lives mony a sunny mile frev here,

Satan, wiv a singular bat o’ his gristly neeve

tew’d Vane Tempest sarely, aal but drav it

clean belaw ti the sea. [4]

Vane Tempest was the last of three collieries around Seaham to shut. ‘Thrang’ means ‘busy’ or ‘crowded’; to ‘bray’ and ‘bat’ mean to ‘hit’ or ‘beat up’; to ‘tew’ is to ‘trouble’; while a ‘neeve’ is a fist.[5]

The poem demonstrates how dialect enables closely worked sound patterns. A series of subtle, often unstressed rhymes and pararhymes runs through the passage – ‘wiv’, ‘tiv’, ‘frev’, ‘wiv’, ‘neeve’, ‘drav’ – that disappear with the standard English ‘with’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘with’, ‘fist’, ‘drove’. Likewise, dialect pronunciation and vocabulary introduce puns that accentuate meaning. With ‘pollis’, pronunciation of ‘police’ approaches the word’s Greek root, πόλις (‘polis’) or ‘city’, aligning law enforcement with the poem’s city, either Durham (home of the local bishop, with ‘Lord’ suggesting God) or London (seat of the government whose policies led to the mine’s closure). Either way, the city represents power distanced from local concerns.

Griffiths’ engagement with North East dialect originates at his moment of arrival in Seaham. Shortly afterwards, Griffiths wrote to poet Eric Mottram: ‘I have only been here a week or so, but the difference to the tensions of the London Borough of Hillingdon is already striking, and I look forwards to making many good friends here (when I have learned the language).’[6] From most people, the parenthetical remark would seem a throwaway quip, but Griffiths meant it. He began researching local dialect, self-publishing books on the subject, as he had long done for his poetry; initially there was an anthology of

dialect texts, Durham and Around: A Dialect Reader (1993), and a lexicon, Durham & Around: Dialect Word List (1994).

It is worth noting that, for Griffiths, issues of language (dialect or otherwise) are intensely political. As early as 1974, he distributed to friends the mimeographed pamphlet Notes on Democracy, where he ruminates on the coercive power of language and outlines a programme for abolishing government itself:

Present govts seem scared to minimize change. Paradox: instability precipitates govt, but govt is limited by its own ambitions and creation from dealing with total reality. Events, populations, resources, are non-stable. So we have no continuous govts but a series of attempts. Each time a govt’s failure or corruption is exposed, and the concept of authority comes under scrutiny, we are told the only solution is an intensification of authority. Consider this in relation to English prison policy in the 1970s.[7]

Griffiths’ politics feel like anarchism, though he prefers the term ‘democracy’, holding that  no British government has yet implemented democracy in its true sense. His principles extend to this text’s circulation, with a conversation or negotiation envisaged between writer and reader. He provides a wide margin on each page, as medieval scribes and early modern printers often did so that readers could add marginalia and initiate their own conversations with a text. The pamphlet concludes: You are invited to use the space at the right of each page or any extra paper, to make your own comments and further points upon. You might like to return the annotated copy to Bill Griffiths, 107 Valley Drive, London NW9 9NT.’[8] Indeed, throughout his career, Griffiths leaves his texts open to continuing transformation; his editor, Alan Halsey, describes how ‘in some cases this involves revision in the commonly accepted sense, in others it is more a case of re-vision – the text reproduced verbatim but in a different page space and/or variant setting’.[9] What would this democratic, anarchistic poetics of constant renegotiation mean when actually enacted in a community, though? A few months after arriving in Seaham, Griffiths wrote A Pocket History of the Soul (1991). This essay describes how political hierarchies derive from a pernicious theology in which the human soul, with authority over the body, is in turn policed by God. Griffiths proposes that hierarchies of religion, nationhood, landlordship, colonialism and capital should all be dismantled, replaced by systems more accountable and responsive to the people they serve. This requires cultivation of skills and heightened participation in local culture by the residents:

Without participation there can be no meaningful ‘democracy’. […] Participation is thus something quite different from token consultation at a General Election, or token opportunity to put objections to some local scheme devised elsewhere by planners at county or country level. It is the opposite of social engineering since no grand theory is involved but only local conditions are taken into account.[10]

Griffiths actually came close to a position where he might have implemented his localism on a larger scale, and though he did not quite succeed, he nevertheless leveraged benefits for his neighbourhood. The inciting incident was an announcement of ‘grandiose plans for dockland redevelopment and new executive housing’, as his friend, historian Bill Lancaster, recollects:

This ‘wash and brush-up’ of Seaham was seen by Bill as the gentrification of his coastal village and a personal threat as the demolition of his home was part of the scheme. Although new to Seaham he organized and led the protests against the plan, which culminated in him standing as candidate for the council. Labour’s hold on Seaham was traditionally watertight and their candidates were usually elected unopposed. He came within a few votes of winning the seat, a shock to Labour who wisely revised the plan and left Bill’s area as it was.[11]

Griffiths saw even the Labour Party, traditional ally of North Eastern mining communities, as too distant from Seaham’s local concerns. Campaigns for regional devolution have long been active in the North East: in the 1970s, poets Colin Simms and Basil Bunting were on the committee of the Campaign for the North; a successor organisation, the Campaign for a Northern Assembly, was active but unsuccessful in 2004’s referendum on devolution for the North East; and recently, Newcastle-based scholar Alex Niven has persuasively argued for regional devolution across England.[12] None of this would satisfy Griffiths, for whom even the Durham County Council’s fiefdom is unwieldy and dehumanising. For him, the town is the level at which local democracy and culture should operate.

Griffiths’ election bid was in May 1995; the following November, Durham County Council published Turning the Tide, a report proposing removal of mining spoil from beaches between Seaham and nearby Easington. In a journal article the following year, Griffiths explained that the plan would accelerate coastal erosion, and questioned whether some spoil should be ‘tipped into Hawthorn Quarry […] making one site (the coast) pretty and another site (the abandoned, renascent quarry) ugly’.[13] He argued that the County Council’s participation in a ‘cult of the restoration of the past is necessarily delusory, unavoidably a fantasy’, betokening a ‘myth of a return to former Aryan glory’.[14] Evoking

white supremacist ideology, Griffiths parallels Hall’s wariness of seeing folk culture as ‘an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future’, as well as the link between this and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Griffiths, unlike the Council, shows willingness to celebrate the unexpected, notionally ‘impure’ materials that history may present.

These conflicts all manifest in the poem about Vane Tempest. The piece was published posthumously; in his computer files, Griffiths grouped it with dialect poems published in 1992–93, but it must postdate these, as it portrays later events.[15] After the description of the mine closure, the narrator receives mail:

[…] a letter cam hoy’d thru me door axin’ if we’d mebbe like

the toon-cooncil abolisht, like? Kas oor views might metter. An’ wad we like the toon-centre jis pulled doon too,

while thor at it.[16]

This refers to the gentrification scheme, and to a referendum that preceded Griffiths’ election bid, concerning the possible abolition of Easington District Council so that its functions could be centralised at County Council level.[17] Despite reservations about the District Council’s track record, Griffiths abhorred this attempt to appropriate power, as did many of his neighbours, to judge by referendum results which saw the District Council retained.

The poem continues; Satan reappears. An arch-Thatcherite, he urges Seaham’s miners to use their redundancy payments to buy shares in a newly privatised Hell – a post-

regeneration vision of Seaham where the Devil will ‘landskip ye aal in kak’.[18] This alludes to the County Council’s scheme to infill nearby Hawthorn Quarry with spoil from the beach – a near-literal landscaping of the area with excrement. Griffiths reflects:

An’ Aa stud in a stiumor. For whe knaws, i’ true, What’s plann’d?

It’s sittled

An’ leave us wi’ nowt

But dialeck for democracy.[19]

Buying shares in privatised industries, like the parliamentary phantom of democracy, bestows merely illusory control over the world – Seaham’s future is already ‘plann’d’ and ‘sittled’ between the Council and its corporate allies. ‘Dialeck’ remains the one area where some measure of personal choice can persist in defiance of such forces. Though it, too, is under siege by a hegemonic culture industry enforcing standard English, its potential remains far from trivial. It is in the aftermath of his political and environmental campaigns of 1995 and 1996 that Griffiths’ dialect activities truly took wing. While they may seem indirect actions compared to, say, running for office, in fact it was in dialect research that he was able to bring his political poetics most completely into practice.

Through the mid-1990s, Griffiths continued his dialect research in partnership with his friends Gordon Patrickson and Trevor Charlton.[20] By 1998, there was enough local interest to establish the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, a larger-scale project to catalogue the region’s distinctive vocabulary. This ran along collectivist lines, with Griffiths

taking the title ‘Co-ordinator’ rather than becoming leader per se.[21] In a 2006 interview, recorded during wider research into North Eastern dialects by B.B.C. Radio Newcastle, Griffiths is interviewed alongside the Group’s Secretary Tom Richardson and colleague Nichol Hopper. The conversation gives a valuable insight into their decentred methodology and organisational structure.

The interviewer asks about the trio’s experience of using or hearing local dialect terms. What’s noticeable about Griffiths’ contribution is his diffidence. He happily supplies findings from the group’s research, or etymology from his medieval studies, but lets his friends handle all the questions about personal use of dialect. It is refreshing that, despite his accomplishments, he does not impose himself as spokesman; instead, he behaves as a specialist within a collective whose other members may have expertise more pertinent to certain questions. Even when the interviewer requests an account of the Dialect Group’s methods, Griffiths asks ‘Shall I do that?’ and waits for agreement from the others before proceeding.[22] He then describes opening project to even wider participation by soliciting dialect words from the region’s wider population.

Griffiths: […] in 2001 we put out a questionnaire, quite a simple one, and that got a lot of responses, about 500 came in, and we built on that to build up a dictionary, which is published now. And that’s a mix of words from previous publications and all the words that were sent in. And, ah, people was very keen on it. We get words coming in every week, certainly, if not every day. There’s a lot to collect still. […] One I hadn’t heard before was ‘pagged’ for ‘tired out’.

Richardson: That one’s been in common use for as long as I remember, yeah. But you’ve just added it to the list, haven’t you?

Griffiths: That’s the first I heard it.

Richardson: Yeah, maybe you should get out more, Bill?[23]

Griffiths also built a website with a feature that allowed contributions to be submitted internationally. Dozens of co-authors were thereby welcomed into what eventually became A Dictionary of North East Dialect (2004; second edition 2005).

By collecting input from living speakers in this way, the Dialect Group documented speech that speech that is no mere ‘essence, moving, apparently without change’, but that constantly adjusts to its environment. For example, numerous ‘dialect terms seem to have survived by a process of doubling-up, whereby the unfamiliar term is linked into a self- explanatory compound’ – for example ‘guissy-pig’, where ‘guissy’ itself means ‘pig’.[24] Also, established dialect words have taken on new meanings:

canch (stony ridge) now used for ‘kerb’

charver (young person) now used for ‘club-goer’ duds (clothes) now used for ‘boxer shorts’

dut (bowler hat or cap) now used for ‘small woolly hat’ midden (rubbish tip) now used for ‘dustbin’

skeets (boots) now used for ‘football boots’ sneck (latch) now used for ‘catch on a yale lock’

and from earlier sources: settle (bench) used (1938) for ‘couch’.[25]

Both the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, and North East dialect itself, hence epitomise Griffiths’ anarchistic, democratic poetics. Like one of his ‘re-visioned’ poems, or the provisional text of A Note on Democracy, dialect words’ meanings can change when introduced to new contexts, and are subject to renegotiation through conversation. The Group exemplifies democratic participation of the kind imagined in A Pocket History of the Soul, where success depends on locally specific knowledge, and on willingness to concede

the floor when one’s own knowledge is less pertinent to particular circumstances than someone else’s (as does Griffiths in the B.B.C. interview). Most notably, just as Griffiths rejects the idea that the Durham coast ever had a supposedly ‘pure’ past, the Group celebrates (in Hall’s words) the ‘dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ of their region. This manifests not only in the modern dialect’s constant flux, but in the fact that the dialect has never not been in flux. The Dictionary of North East Dialect is painstaking in cataloguing etymologies; not only are there abundant legacies of the Anglian and Norse languages (which Griffiths suspects of having creolised together to a degree during the early medieval period), but loan-words are borrowed from throughout nearby regions and nations, as well as from peripatetic communities like the Roma (the abovementioned ‘charver’ has Romani origins).[26] Griffiths also rejects the racist trope that ‘dialect signals ethnic descent.’[27] It is impossible to read the Dialect Group’s research and come away, as Hall puts it, ‘subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity’ for the North East. A good dictionary may be the best antidote to fascism.

Griffiths’ cultural activism in Seaham, particularly around dialect research, remains a testament to the possibility of local resistance against the totalising influence of the nation – either the existing nation-state, or the ‘new nationalisms’ of locality. Likewise, in Griffiths’ poetry, dialect is how a marginalised community voices opposition to the individuals in power, highlighting the latter’s actual helplessness to grant freedom from the structures that bestow this power. In contrast, proposing one’s own structures, as Griffiths and his allies attempted through political, environmental activism, and via linguistic research, may well distribute power more equitably. The poem on Vane Tempest concludes:

Onyway,

Aa had me environmentalist badge alang wi’ me, and howk’d it oot, and confronted him wi’it,

an’ Satan bowked oot an awefu’ pump, and lowped inti the hole

the pit wiz yance,

an’ the sun cam spanglin’ oot, an’ someone somewhere

gov the bishop a thanks

as tho’ any wun man can de owt thru power

ti release ye.[28]

References

  1. Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, ed. by Sally Davison et al. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2017), p.276.
  2. Hall, p.278.
  3. Hall, p.278.
  4. Bill Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3 (1992-96), ed. by Alan Halsey (Hastings: Reality Street, 2016), p.144.
  5. Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect (Second Edition) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria University Press, 2005), p.173, p.19, p.9, p.170–171, p.122.
  6. Griffiths, Letter to Eric Mottram, 9 June 1990; London, King’s College, MOTTRAM 5/100/1–36.
  7. Griffiths, A Note on Democracy (London: Pirate Press, 1974), n.p. Typographical errors corrected.
  8. Griffiths, A Note on Democracy, n.p. Griffiths’ italics.
  9. Alan Halsey, ‘Pirate Press: A Bibliographical Excursion’, in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths, ed. by Will Rowe (Cambridge: Salt, 2007), pp.55–71: p.55.
  10. Bill Griffiths, A Pocket History of the Soul, n.p.; section 40.
  11. Lancaster, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Lancaster, Bill, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Journal of British and Irish Poetry, 6.1 (March 2014), 13–26: 16.
  12. Colin Simms, ‘A Glimpse of the “Inly-Working North”: A Meeting of the Campaign for the North’, in Northern Review, 6, Spring 1998, 69–70; Alex Niven, New Model England: How to Build a Radical Culture beyond the Idea of England (London: Repeater Books, 2019).
  13. Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham: Turning the Tide or Losing the Beaches?’, in Northern Review, 4, Winter 1996, 100–104: 103.
  14. Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham’, p.103, p.101.
  15. Alan Halsey, notes to Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, pp.512–513.
  16. Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.145.
  17. Griffiths, A Century of Self-Service?: Aspects of Local Government in the North East with Special Reference to Seaham (Seaham: Amra Imprint, 1995), n.p. (section 1).
  18. Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.146.
  19. Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147.
  20. Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group: 2005-03-22T12:00:00 (archived website): London, British Library.
  21. Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group.
  22. ‘‘Conversation in Seaham about Accent, Dialect and Attitudes to Language’, B.B.C. ‘Voices’ Recordings, 2005: London, British Library, 00:01:07.
  23. ‘Conversation in Seaham…’, 00:01:09.
  24. Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, Northern Review, 11, 2002, 41– 51: 49.
  25. Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.49. Griffiths’ underlining.
  26. Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.xiii; p.30.
  27. Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.44.
  28. Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147. A ‘pump’ is a fart – Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.136.

Diasporic Negotiations of Belonging and Citizenship, Cosmopolitanism from Below and the Political Aesthetics of Migration

By Caetano Maschio Santos

caetano.santos@merton.ox.ac.uk

Introduction

Echoing W.E.B. Dubois, Stuart Hall once said that the fundamental challenge of the 21st century would be “how to live with difference”. In this brief excursion through parts of my work with the Haitian diaspora in Brazil, I’ll try to showcase how music making provides us with valuable insights to reflect on how this specific black migration wave has spurred processes of negotiation and construction of cultural identities, and is struggling to be recognized as a legitimate part of Brazilian society. In the processes of creating its own spaces and pathways for political action, we find complex entanglements of Hall’s Fateful Triangle: race, ethnicity, and nation.

Haitian immigration to Brazil

Albeit still little known within the Global North, Haitian migration to Brazil has an important place within that which some name as the global “crisis” of migrants and refugees. In the Haitian case, a combination of the longue durée effects of colonialism and imperialism, restrictive immigration policies, internal political crisis (Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ousting in 2004), international occupation through United Nations’ MINUSTAH mission from 2004 to 2017, and natural catastrophes (the Port-au-Prince 2010 earthquake) has come to affect time-honoured migration routes to the US, Canada and France that stretched back at least to the 1950s, now bent towards South America, specially to Brazil and Chile. Scholars researching Haitian migration to Brazil have linked it to the country’s significant economic growth in the first decade of the millennium, its military presence in Haiti leading MINUSTAH, to Haitians perception of or belief in a cultural affinity between Haiti and Brazil (centred on the sharing of African roots) and to restrictive immigration policies in the Global North (Audebert, 2017).

In the borderline between economic migration and climate refuge, Haitians arriving in Brazil have been granted a special humanitarian visa that affords them right to work and reside, and the possibility of bringing relatives through family reunification processes. Even though a significant percentage of migrants held higher education degrees, the staggering majority ended

up taking very precarious work, becoming cheap labour force, in activities such as civil construction and meat processing. Whilst many have worked their way out of this, one is reminded of Hall’s powerful suggestion on how race is the modality through which classed is lived – something true not only for Haitians but also for Afro-Brazilians even today, more than a century after the abolition of slavery, as income statistics continue to demonstrate the structured racial and gender inequalities in Brazilian society. Last but not least, scholars studying Haitian migration have shown how a racializing gaze has been determinant in forging the native/other divide in Brazil (Uebel, 2015), and a common experience to Haitian migrants has been the sudden confrontation with the fact of their own blackness, underscoring once more the continuing importance of the work of Frantz Fanon.

Music and Migration: Haitian artists in Brazil

As it seems to be the case with most diasporas, with Haitians also came along music, or, shall I say, an overwhelming diversity of Haitian and Caribbean musics: konpa, rap kreyòl, reggae, bachata, reggaeton, merengue, twoubadou, gospel music, etc. Haitian immigrant artists’ music making is a noteworthy grassroots cultural industry, despite still barely visible (and audible), and has gradually increased its output and sophistication, specially during the last 3 years. It is all the more surprising if we stop to consider the intense work routine that most of these artists/workers live on a daily basis, having to find the time to compose and record, the latter mostly carried out in the home studios that they have been setting up through patient savings and collective efforts. Within the remarkable diversity of this diasporic musical output, what I wish to stress here is Haitian artists’ significant engagement with Brazilian reality, a reflexive and dialogic engagement that denotes the work of truly organic intellectuals, in the Gramscian sense, through the commentary, critique and interpretation of their own lived reality in Brazil. It’s the kind of intellectual workings of what Stuart Hall called a diasporic consciousness – of those who have one foot in and one foot out, are both here and there, constantly living in translation and remaking themselves (Hall & Werbner, 2008). Particularly, I’d like to briefly comment on two specific cases to illustrate what I’ve just said.

The first one is the song “Lula livre”, by Surprise69.[1] Surprise69 is a musical group formed by Mariolove, Elnegroflow, and RealBlack, artistic names of three Haitians migrants living in São Paulo. According to them, Surprise69’s main aim is to help Haitian immigrants within and outside Brazil through art, encouraging them to pursue their dreams and vocations. In the final weeks of the 2018 presidential campaign, as right-wing candidate and now president Jair Bolsonaro approached victory, Surprise69 released in social media and Haitian WhatsApp groups a new song and video clip entitled “Lula livre” (Free Lula). Mixing freestyle hip hop verses and a sort of political campaign jingle chorus over a digitalized breakdance beat, the song was an overt manifestation of support for Workers Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, and also a critique of Lula’s questionable imprisonment due to operation Car Wash. As a participant in some of the digital networks of the Haitian diaspora in Brazil, I was then witnessing Haitians’ apparent unease with Bolsonaro’s likely victory, and the compelling critiques they addressed him, facts connected to his openly xenophobic, racist and anti-minority posture. Surprise 69’s song, despite circulating mainly within the circles of the Haitian diaspora, nonetheless succeeded in converting a reading of the political moment into music that sought to enable political action, aligning itself with a powerful tradition of politically engaged music making in Haitian history known as mizik angaje (Averill, 1997), one of the most distinguished marks of cultural resistance against the Duvalier dictatorship. Since as migrants Haitians are dispossessed of the right to vote, Surprise69s’ musical agency can be viewed as manifesting a type of cultural and sonic citizenship, stemming from their own conjunctural reading and using the available means to craft belonging and make themselves heard as politically conscious subjects.

The second case I’d like to address here is overwhelmingly infused with particularities. It concerns the individual articulation of cultural identity through music by Alix Georges, a Haitian migrant living in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. It concerns his strategic use of a popular regional song through lyric quotation in daily conversation and his translation of the song to French.[2] The song, “Canto Alegretense” by the family-based ensemble “Os Fagundes”, refers their native town of Alegrete, close to the border with Argentina and Uruguay, and can be seen to stand as a synecdoche to the state’s hegemonic narrative of cultural identity, one in which discourses surrounding the symbolic figure of the gaúcho (the horse rider and ranch peon of the countryside) have historically invisibilized the state’s black population and culture, and highlighted amongst other things the conflicting qualities of hospitality and defense against foreign invaders (Oliven, 1996). Alix’s development of a personal identification with what is known as “gaúcho regional music” (Lucas, 2000) since his first years living in the state has rendered him able to articulate his belonging in a social and cultural environment significantly marked by the hegemony of Eurocentric and white cultural standards.

The main impulse for his use of the song came from daily intercultural encounters, in which his blackness would be the focus of racializing and othering gazes, epitomized by the question of: “Where are you from?”. In these dialogues framed by what Judith Butler has called “normative schemes of intelligibility” (Butler, 2005), in the crossroads of axis of race, ethnicity and nation, Alix’s answer with the initial lines of the song (“Don’t ask me where Alegrete is, follow the path of your own heart”) resulted in a powerful and effective claim to his right to be and to belong, momentarily disrupting power relations and his own othering as a black migrant through a form of conversational sampling (Roth-Gordon, 2012). He even came up with a hybrid identity moniker to mark the uniqueness of his position: Haitiúcho, a combination of Haitian and gaúcho. The final product of this process, his translated version of the song, achieved considerable popularity within the state, and, as a consequence, got him to know the composers of the song and get their authorization to include it free of copyright charge in his CD. Significantly, he later was invited to Alegrete and awarded the official prize of “Black Star of Alegrete” by the city’s municipal chamber, as part of the celebrations of the Brazilian Black Consciousness day. This second example allows us to see how, through the able use of what is regarded as an authentic asset of regional cultural identity, Alix musically played with identity through difference, effectively countering the binary native/migrant divide. This might be seen as a consequence of his cosmopolitan outlook and engagement with local culture, a cosmopolitanism from below, of those who had little or no choice as to whether become cosmopolitans, as Hall once said (Werbner & Hall, 2008). Amongst other things, then, Alix’s musical agency speaks loudly to Stuart Hall’s comments on cultural identity within the Caribbean diaspora (Hall, 1992): the matter of “becoming” as well as “being”, the unstable points of suture made within practices of representation, within discourses of history and culture – made through a politics of positioning affected by unequal power relations.

Concluding remarks

Despite having had set aside many of the complexities of these examples, in way of conclusion I wish to stress that the black labor migrant wave that characterizes the demographics of Brazil in the last decade, of which Haitians are perhaps the most significant part, has brought to the fore issues of race and identity in a unique way, questioning the hegemonic understanding of racial relations in Brazilian society, still today marked by the ideal of racial democracy, the harmonious interracial model of the three races owed to the thinking of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre in the 1930s – consequences that, I might say, I’m not really sure that Freyre would unhesitatingly accept. However, in real life one is confronted by the enactment of a racially marked regime of differentiated citizenship, structurally lived and enforced, both formally and informally, affecting the daily lives of Afro-Brazilians and black migrants such as Haitians. It is in such a context that the musical production of Haitian artists such as Surprise69 and Alix Georges attests to what ethnomusicologist Phillip Bohlman has named the political aesthetics of migration (Bohlman, 2011), and stands out as a significant engaged grassroots musical phenomenon. In a global context of escalating nationalism, authoritarian and conservative right-wing populism, Haitian migrants’ aesthetic agency is providing us with valuable lessons on how to learn to live with difference.

Footnotes

  1. The song can be viewed at < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTsE7oJIIgo> [16/03/2020].
  2. Alix’s version can be viewed at < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRHKvQJQ80I> [16/03/2020].

References

Averill, Gage. A day for the hunter, a day for the prey: popular music and power in Haiti. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Audebert, Cedric. The recent geodynamics of Haitian migration in the Americas: refugees or economic migrants?. Revista Brasileira de Estudos de População. Belo Horizonte, vol. 34, n. 1, jan./abr. 2017, pp. (55-71). Available at: <http://www.scielo.br/pdf/rbepop/v34n1/0102-3098-rbepop-34-01-00055.pdf>. [04/11/2018]

Bohlman, Phillip. When migration ends, when music ceases. Music and arts in action, vol. 3, issue 3, 2011, pp. (148-165)

Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. Ashland, Ohio: Fordham UP, 2005. University Press Scholarship Online.

Hall, Stuart. Cultural identity and the diaspora. In: WILLIAMS, Patrick; CHRISMAN, Laura. Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory: a reader. London, Harverster Wheatsheaf Ed., 1994, 222-237.

Hall, Stuart; WERBNER, Pnina. “Cosmopolitanism, Globalisation and Diaspora”. In: Werbner, Pnina. Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives. Oxford: Berg, 2008.

Lucas, Maria Elizabeth. “Gaucho Musical Regionalism”. British Journal of Ethnomusicology 9.1 (2000): 41-60.

Oliven, Ruben George. Tradition Matters: Modern Gaúcho Identity in Brazil. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

Roth-Gordon, Jennifer. “Linguistic Techniques of the Self: The Intertextual Language of Racial Empowerment in Politically Conscious Brazilian Hip Hop.” Language and Communication, 32.1 (2012): 36-47.

Uebel, Roberto Rodolfo Georg. Analysis of the sociospacial profile of international migration to Rio Grande do Sul in the beginning of the 21st century: networks, actors and scenarios of Haitian and Senegalese immigration. Master thesis, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Geography Graduate Program, Brazil, 2015.

Our third Annual Public Conversation pursued the theme of Resistance through multiple lenses. The event, which took place on Saturday 8th February, welcomed special guests; multidisciplinary artist and designer Bahia Shehab, journalist and author Jack Shenker, investigative journalist Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, sociologist Yusef Bakkali, and jazz pianist and composer Nikki Yeoh. The afternoon was chaired by Professor Ethel Brooks. Watch a selection from the day’s sessions: – Keynote from Jack Shenker 00:00:04​ – Discussion panel with, Yusef Bakkali, Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Jack Shenker, chaired by Ethel Brooks 00:30:33​ – Stuart Hall Foundation Chair Gilane Tawadros, introduces Nikki Yeoh 1:25:50​ – Performance from Nikki Yeoh 1:26:43​ www.stuarthallfoundation.org

Abstract

My recently completed PhD thesis addresses how sound and listening relate to knowledge production within the field of acoustic archaeology, or archaeoacoustics. In this presentation I will describe the epistemological challenge of the sonic for knowledge in my project, which mobilizes the echo as a feminist and decolonial material-semiotic figuration. I ask to what extent the sonic can justifiably or not be considered an “epistemological rupture”, and how the figure of echo might function within this.

It’s my great pleasure to come and speak at this Stuart Hall Foundation event today, having recently completed my PhD viva and following minor corrections, I will be soon closing this chapter of my life which began with the kind support of the SHF. I had the great honour of being the first SHF PhD scholar in 2015-16 at the department of Media & Communication studies at Goldsmiths College, supervised by Prof. Julian Henriques, a trustee of the SHF and family friend of Stuart Hall himself. These gatherings in previous years have always clashed with teaching obligations, so I really am happy to be here today and to meet other SHF scholars and fellows and learn about their research, which in its different ways continues Hall’s important legacy.

I wanted to use the talk today as opportunity to reflect on the work carried out as part of my PhD and tentatively ask in particular how it sits within a larger gesture of Hall’s work, which I will conceive of as measured moves towards what Hall often leaned on French Marxist structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser’s work to term “epistemological breaks” or “epistemological ruptures.” I find it useful to understand Hall’s intellectual biography as one poised on the inescapable tension between a hegemonic knowledge production paradigm and its possible alternatives. As John Akomfrah’s 2013 documentary film The Stuart Hall Project so evocatively depicted, Hall’s intellectual work was inextricable from his politics which were in turn inextricable from his lived experiences as a young Jamaican on a Rhodes scholar to Oxford University in the 1950s and subsequent decades of living as a Black academic and public intellectual in the UK. The complexity of questions of “home” “belonging” “Britishness” and race, the hybridity of postcolonial experiences – exemplifying W.E.B. Du Bois’s term of “double consciousness” in which a Black person in a white society sees themselves “through the eyes of others” and always feels one’s “two-ness” – has not only importance for understanding culture in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain, but also epistemological significances. In my thesis, I chose to use the terms “a hegemonic here” to describe the onto-epistemological paradigm inherited from an all-pervasive Eurocentric, white supremacist, cis – heteronormative- patriarchal, military-industrialist capitalist histories. Against, or rather – within and against – this “hegemonic here” of prevalent Western knowledge paradigms, I posed a “political-philosophical elsewhere” which I understand to be a common project of anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, feminist and anti-capitalistic thought and action for thinkers, writers and activists who also share these aims.

I’ll spend my talk today, then, attempting to explain how my project relates to this larger endeavour which aligns with how Hall conceived of the work of Cultural Studies encapsulated in part by the term “epistemological break”. As Hall describes in re-telling the history of the establishment of Cultural Studies in British academia in the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies in the 1970s, Althusser’s “epistemological rupture” was often used in an absolutist fashion in which the break is imagined as “clean” and distinct, rather than messy and complicated. Whatever ins and outs of Marxist and post-Marxist philosophy had happened in the academic Left in this period, Hall sought to foreground that Althusser’s general argument and approach to only understand terms and concepts in context, not in isolation from their context, as a way to comprehend “‘the problematic’—and in relation to the ‘constitutive unity of effective thoughts that make up the domain of an existing ideological field’ (Hall, 2006, p. 13), or in other formulations “the conjuncture” of a particular historical moment. Grounding investigations within a “conjuncture” was a hugely useful heuristic in my PhD investigation, thus, based within the emerging field of sound studies I’ve chosen to title my talk “a sonic conjuncture”.

To set the scene, I’d like to play an excerpt of an audio recording from my PhD fieldwork. It’s a field recording taken 3000m high up in the Central Peruvian Andes, at a 3000-year-old ceremonial temple complex and archaeological site called Chavín de Huántar. We hear three conch shell horns, known locally as pututu horns being played on the open plain. Four years of PhD research and 100,000 words I wrote in the end – there’s too much to cover in the remaining time but I’ll do my best to explain how my project attempted to probe into what a “sonic conjuncture” might mean, with regards to the project of an “epistemological break” – of the messy and complicated kind, of course.

The field of archaeoacoustics, or acoustic archaeology began with research usually cited as dating back to mid-1980s in France and became a sub-field of archaeology around 2003. Sound, listening and acoustics had long been neglected in archaeological studies of sites, but the field of archaeoacoustics sought to dislodge the dominance of the visual in archaeological knowledge production and opened up archaeology to a multi-sensory approach of which attending to how sound and listening may have played a role in human behaviours of the past was one of a few novel concerns. A small but growing field made up of a handful of researchers, my thesis involved interviews with the field’s main protagonists and participant-observer fieldwork with some key researchers. The clip I just played resulted from a trip supported by the generous participation of Dr Miriam Kolar, who has undertaken extensive archaeoacoustical research at the Andean site.

Whilst the researchers themselves, such as that evident in Dr Kolar’s extremely rigorous high calibre research, are focused on aiding archaeological understanding of a site through acoustic and psychoacoustic tests and investigations, the object of knowledge in my thesis was different to the people I interviewed. A central question in my thesis was: how do sound and listening configure within larger questions of epistemology and academic knowledge production? If Western modernity has been multiply named (and implicitly shamed) as ocular- or visuocentric, that is to say, dominated by vision, then what of sound?

Is sound and the sonic a challenge to traditional Eurocentric epistemologies? And if so, in what way?

What I’m calling for the purposes of the talk today – a sonic conjuncture – is not intended to replicate the overblown absolutist ideas of an epistemological break from the past and Eurocentric epistemological histories; none of us are “innocent” of being shaped by these dominant and deeply embedded ideas – as Patricia Hill Collins’ work in Black feminist epistemology has demonstrated the exclusion of Black women’s ideas and scholarship has perpetuated the further elevation of elite White male ideas, and disconcertingly White feminisms have all too often done little to dismantle this (Hill Collins, 2000). These structural oppressions make up the intellectual and conceptual and material “bricks” which are stuck firmly together to make institutional walls or barriers to ideas and persons who challenge this, as Sara Ahmed’s concisely chosen metaphor helps us articulate (Ahmed, 2017). Rather, as sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne proposes, what the sonic does provide, however, is a different map to the territory (Sterne, 2003, p. 15). A sonic conjuncture, therefore, overlays onto a particular historical moment and convergence of people, things, ideas, institutions, but opens itself with curiosity to how matters of sound and listening might implicate our understanding of this moment.

As Kolar’s work, along with colleagues at the Stanford University project has helped to uncover, the site of Chavín de Huántar does have some impressive and overwhelming evidence for significant sonic behaviours taking place at the site over its 3000 year history. At least twenty intact and highly decorated conch shell horns, known locally as pututus, have been found at the site; these were transported over thousands of miles from the coast off modern-day Ecuador; engravings at the site depict anthropomorphic figures holding and blowing into these horns, suggesting beyond dispute their sonic (or music) use during ceremonies; in addition, Kolar’s detailed acoustical work has demonstrated that the complex network of built internal spaces within the mountain-top site aids the sonic transmission of the frequencies produced by the pututu horns. Sound and these horns, was by no means the only significant element of archaeological investigation of the site, but it is fair to say there is substantial evidence for it playing some substantial role in the cultures and peoples who built and used the site.

The site and its archaeology, are fascinating, undoubtedly. However, for my PhD investigation, focused on the epistemological questions provoked by sound and listening, the site of Chavín offered a particularly rich set of circumstances from which to theorize from. It was important to conceptualize knowledge production at and of Chavín thoroughly in my thesis, situating myself as a researcher, as well as situating the knowledges produced by researchers there historically from the battles between a European influenced establishment of Peruvian archaeology and its positivist epistemological models, and the Indigenous archaeology which countered some of its pervasive and false narratives about the cultural and intellectual sophistication of the Indigenous people historically in Peru. The epistemological ramifications of colonialism are multi-faceted. Yet, nevertheless, it was central to articulate that at the time Chavín was built and was active as a ceremonial temple complex by its builders, this was a pre-colonial time; before the inception of Western colonizers and merchants who enforced their cultural, political, social and economic models such as capitalism, white/European ethnocentric superiority and heteronormativity based on a dimorphic sexual difference (Lugones, 2007, 2010). Chavín existed in a conjuncture before this had become established, which is not to suggest that certain forms of what we might recognize as patriarchy did not exist, rather, it did not exist in the form which has become so prevalent since Western domination beginning from the various waves of colonialism since the 1500s and the concurrent onset of the modern period.

This outside of the “hegemonic here”, as I referred to it earlier, seems to begin to be – at least partially conceivable in a place like Chavín. A provocative idea guides us: could it be considered a political-philosophical elsewhere, an outside (an epistemological break?) which offers an alternative mode of knowledge production, perhaps one which is not constrained by the same oppressive modes and models of modern Eurocentric patriarchal capitalist- extractivist histories? This is a question I probe and pose in my thesis. Not in order to assume any kind of clean rupture from the hegemonic here, as Hall was clear to emphasize, but rather to conceive of the potential of an alternative way of thinking and doing whilst all the time acknowledging the epistemological limitations within which this endeavour is necessary implicated and embedded within.

This is a recording made at Chavín of me clapping facing the staircases. This is a well- researched phenomenon at the pyramids of Chichén Itza in Yucatan, Mexico where this chirping sound is known to emanate from the staircases and has been theorized in archaeoacoustics to be symbolic of the Quetzal bird, a significant creature in Mayan mythology. A similar phenomenon can be observed at Chavín, although nobody as yet has undertaken any formal investigation as to whether this sonic phenomenon was of potential use or significance to Chavín’s builders.

In closing, I’ll turn to the figure of echo which was fundamental in my PhD research. I conceived of echo as a feminist and decolonial figuration which is both material and semiotic. This conceptualisation leaned heavily on feminist science scholar Donna Haraway’s famous conception of the cyborg (Haraway, 1991). A cyborgian echo, not so much in its high-tech incarnation, but rathermore in its characterisation as a material-semiotic figure, is a usefully flexible tool for understanding echo. It understands, that an echo in its contemporary definition has been formed by a scientific-acoustic model of sonic matter which is reflected to the hearer; this is its dominant material-semiotic meaning. Other commonly understood meanings can be found in the Ancient Greek myths of echo which are still well known, in which Echo is a nymph who for various reasons has been cursed to only repeat the words of others on mountaintops or other scenes of nature. My conceptualisation leans instead on Gayatri Spivak’s, who read Echo as a devious and defiant figure of différance (in a Derridean sense of deferral and difference) (Spivak, 1993). A shifting figure of the boundaries, which exudes hybridity and inbetweenness and never settles on a single fixed origin or identity. This material-semiotic figuration of echo, which I imbue with feminist and decolonial theoretical meaning in my thesis, addresses the sonic conjuncture of archaeoacoustics. This figure of echo might just offer, perhaps not “a” or “the” big epistemological break, but in the spirit of Hall’s work, help push towards the hybridity made of the multiple, minute and larger, epistemological breakages from the hegemonic epistemological modes of the modern and post-modern West that we still very much need to pursue. In Hall’s words on Cultural studies, “where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes…[these] breaks are worth recording” (Hall, 1980, p. 57). A sonic conjuncture, in my project, was an attempt to understand how sound and listening help to figure and reconfigure knowledge paradigms of the present.

References

Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a feminist life. Duke University Press.

Hall, S. (1980). Cultural studies: Two paradigms. Media, Culture & Society, 2(1), 57–72. https://doi.org/10.1177/016344378000200106

Hall, S. (2006). Culture, media, language working papers in cultural studies, 1972-79. Routledge ; in association with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.

Haraway, D. J. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149–182). Routledge.

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Lugones, M. (2007). Heterosexualism and the Colonial / Modern Gender System. Hypatia, 22(1), 186–209.

Lugones, M. (2010). Toward a Decolonial Feminism. Hypatia, 25(4), 742–759.

Spivak, G. C. (1993). Echo. New Literary History, 24(1), 17–43. https://doi.org/10.2307/469267 Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Duke University Press.

Listen to the audio recording of The Second Annual Stuart Hall Public Conversation, held at Conway Hall on 2nd February 2019. The event gathered our growing community of artists, students, academics, cultural activists and engaged citizens to consider how to reimagine and reclaim public space in the context of our present social and political upheavals.

Pursuing this question through multiple lenses, the afternoon centred on two sets of conversations. The first, between artist Willie Doherty and curator Elvira Dyangani Ose, addressed the question of ‘how to share a place’ through Doherty’s longstanding engagement with the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. The second conversation featured a panel including Guardian columnist John Harris; sociologist Michael Rustin; and senior editor, Novara Media, Ash Sarkar. Titled ‘Meeting the Crisis: Trump, Brexit, and the Left’, it asked ‘what is to be done’. These two discussions were punctuated with interventions and perspectives from a new generation of artists, scholars and cultural activists.

Programme:

14.00: Welcome note Hammad Nasar, Stuart Hall Foundation Executive Director

14.10: Black Cultural Activism Map Presentation Farzana Khan

14.15: My time as a Stuart Hall Scholar Ruth Ramsden-Karelse

14.20: How to share a place Willie Doherty in conversation with Elvira Dyangani Ose

15.10: Joining the Stuart Hall Foundation’s work Rebecca Hall and Hammad Nasar

15.20: Tea & coffee break

15.50: Meeting the Crisis: Trump, Brexit, and the Left John Harris, Michael Rustin and Ash Sarkar, chaired by Claire Alexander

17.05: Closing remarks Gilane Tawadros, Stuart Hall Foundation Vice-Chair

17.10: Musical improvisation * Elaine Mitchener, Mark Sanders and Neil Charles * Acoustic performance—not recorded.

17.30: Event finishes

Image: Willie Doherty, At the Border IV (The Invisible Line), 1995. Image courtesy the artist and Kerlin Gallery.

“We are living through a period of profound political instability, in which old paradigms are crumbling, and new ones struggling to be born. At this moment of both possibility and danger, what does ‘resistance’ look like to those seeking it on the ground, and what exactly are the forces ranged against them?”  – Jack Shenker.

The 3rd Stuart Hall Public Conversation pursued the theme of Resistance through multiple lenses, providing a chance for questions and discussion, and punctuated with interventions and perspectives from a new generation of artists, scholars and cultural activists.

The event was introduced by the Stuart Hall Foundation’s new Executive Director Ruth Borthwick, who welcomed multidisciplinary artist and designer Bahia Shehab to deliver the opening presentation.

Journalist and author Jack Shenker took to the stage for a keynote speech. Drawing on his deep reporting on grassroots movements in different parts of the world over recent years, Jack told the story of two young people several thousand miles apart – one in Manchester, England, another in Cairo, Egypt – to explore how the children of the financial crisis are fighting to widen their political imaginations, and often paying a heavy price in return.

Delivered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 5 June 2019

A panel discussion with David Morley, Angela McRobbie, Roshini Kempadoo and Clive Nwonka, chaired by Julian Henriques

 

Despite the fact that the title for the session stresses Stuart`s relevance to the `here and now`, just for a moment, I want to go back and say some things of a more general nature. In doing so, I want to focus not so much on what Stuart did or said but on how he did it—his `methodology` we might say—and on how we might learn from that.

However, in saying that, we also have to note how difficult it is to learn things from the past. There is an exemplary rendition of that difficulty in the publicity for Nick Beech`s forthcoming event on Policing the Crisis. In that publicity Nick quotes Stuart on how, if you want to use something like Gramsci’s comments on regional culture in Sardinia to inform your own analysis of some other situation, you have to ‘dis- inter’ them from their original context, very carefully, if you are hoping to transplant them elsewhere—as it’s rather more than a cut-and-paste job

But apart from all that, today has many resonances for me: 20 years ago, I took part in another launch event here at the ICA, for a book of essays by and about Stuart called Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. One of its reviewers remarked in a jocular (but telling) ‘aside’ that anyone writing a novel about the British intellectual left in the post-war period might well find themselves ‘spontaneously reinventing a figure exactly like Stuart Hall, so much had his personal narrative and the public history and 20th century Britain been intertwined—at once, deeply symbiotic and sharply at odds’. Looking back at the publication of that book in 1997—and at the influence which Stuart’s work continues to have today, both in academia and in public discussion of cultural politics—it is its sheer prescience that is most striking…

The question of his continuing influence also relates to his conception of how cultural power operates. He was particularly interested in how systems of hegemony work almost ‘invisibly’—through their capacity to set the limits of common sense—and thus set the horizons of thought—in a given period. They do this by establishing certain propositions to be so self-evidently true that they don`t have to be stated explicitly – so they literally ‘go without saying’. (1) The ideological twist here, of course, is that while common sense always presents itself as natural and ‘timeless’, its actual contents are radically changeable over time. To take one example, in the early 70s ‘monetarism’ was an obscure (and much derided) bit of specialist economic theory; a decade later it had become the taken for granted common sense of Thatcherism. Today it still provides the intellectual rationale for the assumed necessity to reduce the ‘national deficit’—a presumption which has condemned us all to the last 10 years of austerity politics

While I`d certainly regard Stuart’s influence on things as considerably more benign than that of monetarism, I want to propose a formal analogy, in so far as in both cases, the influence is so profound that it becomes almost invisible. His work has had a similarly transformative effect on the ‘common sense’ of the many academic

disciplines which have, in recent years, undergone a ‘cultural turn’ as a result of their engagement with the cultural studies that Stuart originated.

Nowadays, it ‘goes without saying’ that issues of culture and representation are as important as questions of economics; that we must pay attention not only to class, but also to questions of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality; and that our very definition of the field of the ‘political’ must be extended to include its popular and vernacular forms. However, if all that now seems to be no more than common sense, that is precisely because work such as Stuart’s has made it so

Having said that, let me turn to the books. My most difficult task, as the editor of the two volumes whose publication we celebrate today, was that of finalising the selection, from the vast range of Stuart`s essays, of a plausibly ‘representative’ sample. My priority has been to situate them in the context of the conjunctural debates to which they were variously contributed. I`ve also been concerned to highlight the continuities that underlay them. If Stuart always wanted to push any argument forward, he was nonetheless opposed to any simple model of intellectual ‘progress’: and was also concerned, as he put it, to ‘honour’ his intellectual debts to the positions he was trying to transcend.

Let me just mention some of those continuities, which became increasingly apparent, the more I re-read essays written sometimes 30 or 40 years apart…

One was the continuing influence of his early training in literary methods of analysis and his insistence on the necessity of close attention to the text—an approach derived from literary scholars such as F R Leavis (2). Indeed, while he entirely rejected Leavis’ politics, he was still at pains to recognise his ‘moral seriousness’—a quality which informed Stuart`s own abiding concern with questions of aesthetic and cultural value. He had no time for the uncritical celebration of popular culture, but rather, aimed for the ‘de-canonisation of the established categories alongside the retention of the critical function’.

What also became clearer to me in the editing process was the extent to which concerns with race and ethnicity already informed his earliest work—so that even when he is ostensibly talking about class, he is usually doing so from a diasporic perspective. Conversely, it was his critique of conventional Marxism`s deterministic models of class, which provided what Kobena Mercer described as the ‘architechtonic grounding’ which enabled his later deconstruction of essentialist models of race and ethnicity. From what I have heard, it seems that the recently opened archive of Stuart`s files at the Cadbury Research Library in Birmingham will throw considerably more light on these inter-connections.

Another striking continuity I found was how Stuart`s analyses of the recomposition of the class structure in the ‘affluent societies’ of the 1950s, had already laid the conceptual groundwork for his later work on the emergent consumer cultures of the ‘new times’ of Post-Fordism and then of Neo-Liberalism

If, as you probably all know, Stuart said that he had found himself ‘dragged into Marxism backwards’ by the events of 1956, what also became clearer to me, the longer I was immersed in the essays, was how much, right from his time in Oxford,

Stuart had always been engaged with Marxism from outside its Eurocentric presumptions. As he notes, almost all the group to which he belonged were from the ex-colonies. We see there a glimpse, right at the beginning, of the hybrid origins of what came to be called ‘British’ Cultural Studies

It was that perspective which provided the intellectual basis from which he went on to produce his later critique of ethnocentric perspectives on globalisation: his Marxism was always ‘de-centred’ by his liminal perspective as a ‘marginal native’ or, as Bill Schwarz`s book-title has it, a ‘familiar stranger’ in the West.

Nonetheless, the central concerns of Marxism—how changes in the mode of production related to changes in socio-political formations; how to provide a historical perspective on present day events— were never far away. Right to the end, he remained deeply concerned with these questions—and especially the question of periodisation. But we also find him already posing them (if in a rather different vocabulary) as early as 1958, when he asks, in ‘A Sense of Classlessness’— ‘where does the old end, where does the new—the really new, not the superficially new—begin?’

Stuart would never, of course, have claimed to have a definitive answer to any such question—his was always a more modest search for provisional truths. However, it was a search conducted in the utmost seriousness, if accompanied by a wry chuckle at the most intellectually challenging moments. That chuckle was no incidental mannerism—David Scott is right to point us towards Fanon’s observation that the quality of a man is to be found not simply in his acts, but in the ethos of his intellectual style. In Stuart`s case, the conviviality of his particular style was manifested not simply in what he did himself but also in what he enabled so many others to do—and can still enable us to do, today.

But, to return to my beginning… today’s panel also has a resonance with other important events here—such as the conference which led to the first publication of Stuart`s ‘New Ethnicities’ paper in 1988 in the ICA’s ‘Black Film and British Cinema’. Evidently today, the relative optimism of that moment has been largely superseded, as poisonous forms of xenophobia, which we might have hoped to have left behind by now, have been re-legitimised by contemporary political discourse. But I will say no more of that for now, as I know that my fellow panellists also have plenty to say about all this…

Notes

  1. In the discussion of the changing modes and varieties of ‘authoritarian populism’ which took place in this session, Tony Jefferson made the important point that one of the things about common sense is that it is, itself, inevitably authoritarian—precisely insofar as it sets limits to what it is that might be deemed to be ‘sensible’.
  2. In her presentation of Stuart’s essay on ‘Deconstructing the Popular’ in this session, Angela McRobbie discussed the complex ways in which the media ‘ventriloquise’ popular sentiment. In doing so, she offered one very good example of where close textual analysis is necessary to reveal the complexity of the ideological processes in play. She referred to the resonant phrase which was used at one point in discussion of ‘welfare scroungers’—who were described in the popular press as wasting their time ‘sleeping off a life lived on benefits’. The rhetorical slight of hand in the phrase is astonishing: alcohol is never mentioned directly, but the clear implication is that such (feckless) people are only not working because they are too preoccupied with ‘sleeping off’ their hangovers. More than that, their whole life is somehow metaphorically reduced to being no more than one long, wasteful ‘hangover’. Overall, those seven little words offer in a seemingly colloquial fashion, a vicious characterisation of the ‘undeserving’ poor.

1

SWEET TOOTH is a cross-disciplinary music theatre piece devised by vocal and

movement artist Elaine Mitchener. It uses text, improvisation and movement to stage

a dramatic engagement with the brutal realities of slavery, as revealed by historical

records of the British sugar industry and to illuminate its contemporary echoes. The

work was commissioned by Bluecoat Liverpool in partnership with the Stuart Hall

Foundation and the International Slavery Museum. It was premiered at the Bluecoat,

Liverpool in November 2017 and at St. George’s Bloomsbury, London in February 2018.

Gilane Tawadros (GT): How did you come to conceive SWEET TOOTH

as a performance work?

Elaine Mitchener (EM): Musical ideas spring from the strangest sources.

The idea for SWEET TOOTH came from a shared addiction of Scottish

Tablet with my late father. That crumbly sweet substance sparked many

questions in my mind concerning the deadly cost to human life and livelihood of

one race in order to feed the addiction and greed of another; and how far people

will go to satisfy their desire to gain wealth and satiate an appetite.

The Sugar Trade and the enslavement of millions of Africans, represented the

zenith of capitalism; in other words, the removal of its most costly item: paying

people for their work. By dehumanising one race, another gained in prosperity

and wealth and the vast funds received in turn were used to develop Western

society at all levels – education, culture, medicine, science – which we profit from

today.

How could I tackle this vast topic through music? Was music the right medium

through which to examine this area of human history? Did I have a right to? I had

no idea how all-consuming this exciting journey would be.

2

My practice works primarily in movement and voice. Over the last five years

working collaboratively with the choreographer Dam Van Huynh, I have created

a technique which is grounded in classical vocal training (my teacher Jacqueline

Bremar is brilliant) but also enables me to employ the physicality of

contemporary dance. My philosophy of encounter-enact-engage allows me to

develop and devise works combining found texts, sound, movement,

vocalization, improvisation, and collaboration to create intimate and

experimental music theatre performance pieces. Pulling together a team of

extraordinary musicians, Sylvia Hallett, Marks Sanders and Jason Yarde along

with Dam Van Huynh and invaluable guidance and insight from historian Christer

Petley, we undertook two years of research and development.

I started creating from a blank space. The only definite idea I had was that I knew

I wanted people to experience the work live and that sound would be integral.

Through reading research, discussion and learning, it became clear to me that

the work required a strong aural basis and not just a physical one. Meditating on

what it might have been for enslaved Africans to experience the unknown and

the sound and smell of fear, the strength, self-determination and resolve of

rebellion; the essential activity of song and dance as a constant reminder of one’s

own humanity, history, tradition; these became the cornerstones of the work

from which I was able to build a skeletal framework to hang ideas on.

The next stage was to ask the team to engage with the topic fully and to find

their own personal ways into it. To embody the feelings for themselves; place

themselves and their families into the situation and to express their reactions

musically. What became clear (and what I had in mind) was that this work was

not going to be a comfortable experience for us or the audience and it ought

not be. I will have failed if people applaud loudly, whoop and cheer. So far the

response has been silent reflection and thoughtful discussion afterwards, but I

can’t prevent an audience from responding to the work in a more enthusiastic

way.

GT: SWEET TOOTH is a very uncomfortable piece to experience and it is an

experience rather than a spectacle. It draws you in to a sequence of episodes or

movements but has no overarching, linear narrative as you would expect from

a fictional novel or a historical account. Can you say some more about the

piece’s relationship to historical research and how your approach to source

material differs from that of a historian?

EM: It’s such an immense subject that it was very clear early on that I would

need to work with an expert to check facts and to alert me to current research

and resources that might prove useful to the development of my ideas around

the work and how to present it. Working with Dr Christer Petley proved

3

invaluable and I believe we learnt a lot from each other. I wanted to avoid

voyeurism, victim ‘porn’ or any kind of spectacle and the idea was to try and

evoke an unnerving sense of tension, claustrophobia and entrapment. Of course,

one can never know what that really felt like, but we have narratives and

accounts, diaries which describe each step of the experience, albeit mainly from

the oppressor’s point of view.

Not being a historian enabled me to focus on other aspects of the source

material. Being a musician, I decided to draw the audience’s attention to sound

as the narrative, the sound of people, their voices, their expression of rage, fear,

defiance, joy, comfort. These would be reminders that, although reduced by

their oppressors to being part of the huge machinery of slavery, enslaved

Africans were people who dreamed, loved, hoped and resisted, and finally

overcame.

The vast knowledge base of historians is enviable. They are able to digest what

they’ve painstakingly researched and re-present it for public understanding.

However, I find that this is all conducted in a clinical way, as though these events

are being viewed under a microscope or at arm’s length. The purpose of SWEET

TOOTH was to give a voice to those millions of people lost to slavery. Recalling

their given names reminds us of their humanity. Referencing their work songs

and rituals allows us to honour the culture which they developed and the legacy

of which remains to this day. My job was to liberate the dry historical facts and

somehow breathe life into them.

It was a challenge for me to view the historical material researched with an

academic eye. I had to seek ways to absorb information, much of which was

deeply upsetting, disturbing and difficult to accept. I had to digest it as historical

fact and allow myself to find a creative and artistic response to it.

My decision to work abstractly with words was a conscious one in that I did not

want them to obstruct the sound experience. Where words are used, they are

used sparingly and are quickly fractured. Because SWEET TOOTH is also a visual

work, I felt strongly that any ‘narrative’ could be felt and heard without the use

of words.

GT: Can you say something about the episodic structure of SWEET TOOTH

which has been conceived as a series of distinct chapters or movements?

EM: The decision to call these movements ‘chapters’ was a deliberate way of

anchoring the work and the fact that it concerns a tragic episode, not only in the

history of black people but in the history of humanity. This holocaust has

repeated itself at different periods of human history. I employed a creative

4

semantic approach to liberate the source text material from books. Slavery in

the British Caribbean was operated at a conveniently safe distance (not within

the British Isles as in North America), and therefore I couldn’t draw upon

personal familial accounts or records. In this way I was more like an historian

because of the slight impersonal distance.

GT: You are also a jazz musician, working with other musicians and using

improvisation and other techniques to create unique sounds and compositions.

How has this influenced the way in which you approached and composed

SWEET TOOTH?

EM: I consider myself as a musician who works across and draws on difference

genres: experimental/free-jazz, avant-garde contemporary new music, gospel,

Afro-Caribbean (Jamaican) music, free-improvisation and I think these influences

can be heard in this work. I never thought about ‘composing’ the work. Having

worked with composers and performed works by composers, I realised that my

approach would need to be different to work effectively. I always wanted a sonic

experience and with movement SWEET TOOTH is a work that is seen and felt.

Early on I imagined it as a radio piece (so I’m pleased it was eventually broadcast

on BBC Radio 3), but as the piece developed over two years it told me that it

also had to be a visual / movement experience. Lighting also plays a musical part

in this work and Alex Johnston has designed incredibly striking lighting moods

which move the work forward.

The artists I have brought together for this project bring with them a wealth of

experience and expertise along with an openness to trying new ideas. We are

all well versed in the world of free-improvisation, however, for SWEET TOOTH

I knew its musical world couldn’t be defined or restricted in this way. So we

came together to workshop and research ideas and devise the piece along with

Dam who was invaluable in helping us to access organic natural movement whilst

playing.

Over time I was able to construct a method of structured improvisation upon

which we were able to hang the skeletal form of the work. This method allows

us the freedom to improvise whilst retaining the structural, musical form of the

work. So although the concept is mine, how we arrive at realising it is very much

a collective effort. My job was to work out what to retain or mull over an idea

and to have the confidence to discard something because it’s not right for the

work. It’s very important that each of us feels ownership of the work and finds

our own narrative that can be communicated. It then becomes a powerfully

direct statement of humanity to humanity.

5

GT: The events and experiences to which SWEET TOOTH refers took place

in the historical past. What can this past teach us in the present?

EM: According to Michael Craton in his book Testing the Chains: Resistance to

Slavery in the British West Indies, ‘Historians who believe history to be the story

of man’s rise to civilisation tend to define civilisation to include the acceptance

by all classes of their place with the socioeconomic system.’ Even from a liberal

point of view its appearance is essentially that of accommodation and

acceptance. These ideas have been challenged by writers and commentators

such as CLR James and Herbert Aptheker, also the Jamaican writer and cultural

theorist Sylvia Wynter and her theory of the human, which she discusses in her

essay “Unsettling the Colonially of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the

Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument.” The Atlantic Slave

Trade, the Middle Passage, which largely took place during the so-called Age of

Enlightenment, marked a brutal and catastrophic period of human history. The

past teaches us a lesson that we seem unable to understand and learn from:

humanity’s capacity for inhumanity. Professor Catherine Hall said that it’s easy

to think that those involved in the slave trade are different to us, that we are

different to them. We are not. Only when we acknowledge this simple truth are

we able to change and make changes.

Gilane Tawadros is Vice-Chair of the Stuart Hall Foundation.

SWEET TOOTH has been supported with public funding from Arts Council England.

Commissioned by Bluecoat in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation, London and The

International Slavery Museum with further support from PRSF Open Fund, Edge Hill

University, John Hansard Gallery, Centre 151 and St George’s Bloomsbury.

Stuart Hall Foundation is a registered charity in England and Wales. Charity number: 1159343

SWEET TOOTH is a cross-disciplinary music theatre piece devised by vocal and movement artist Elaine Mitchener. It uses text, improvisation and movement to stage a dramatic engagement with the brutal realities of slavery, as revealed by historical records of the British sugar industry and to illuminate its contemporary echoes. The work was commissioned by Bluecoat Liverpool in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation and the International Slavery Museum. It was premiered at the Bluecoat, Liverpool in November 2017 and at St. George’s Bloomsbury, London in February 2018.

 

Gilane Tawadros (GT): How did you come to conceive SWEET TOOTH as a performance work?

Elaine Mitchener (EM): Musical ideas spring from the strangest sources. The idea for SWEET TOOTH came from a shared addiction  of  Scottish Tablet with my late father. That crumbly sweet substance sparked many questions in my mind concerning the deadly cost to human life and livelihood of one race in order to feed the addiction and greed of another; and how far people will go to satisfy their desire to gain wealth and satiate an appetite.

The Sugar Trade and the enslavement of millions of Africans, represented the zenith of capitalism; in other words, the removal of its most costly item: paying people for their work. By dehumanising one race, another gained in prosperity and wealth and the vast funds received in turn were used to develop Western society at all levels education, culture, medicine, science which we profit from today.

How could I tackle this vast topic through music? Was music the right medium through which to examine this area of human history? Did I have a right to? I had no idea how all-consuming this exciting journey would be.

My practice works primarily in movement and voice. Over the last five years working collaboratively with the choreographer Dam Van Huynh, I have created a technique which is grounded in classical vocal training (my teacher Jacqueline Bremar is brilliant) but also enables me to employ the physicality of contemporary dance. My philosophy of encounter-enact-engage allows me to develop and devise works combining found texts, sound, movement, vocalization, improvisation, and collaboration to create intimate and experimental music theatre performance pieces. Pulling together a team of extraordinary musicians, Sylvia Hallett, Marks Sanders and Jason Yarde along with Dam Van Huynh and invaluable guidance and insight from historian Christer Petley, we undertook two years of research and development.

I started creating from a blank space. The only definite idea I had was that I knew I wanted people to experience the work live and that sound would be integral. Through reading research, discussion and learning, it became clear to me that the work required a strong aural basis and not just a physical one. Meditating on what it might have been for enslaved Africans to experience the unknown and the sound and smell of fear, the strength, self-determination and resolve of rebellion; the essential activity of song and dance as a constant reminder of one’s own humanity, history, tradition; these became the cornerstones of the work from which I was able to build a skeletal framework to hang ideas on.

The next stage was to ask the team to engage with the topic fully and to find their own personal ways into it. To embody the feelings for themselves; place themselves and their families into the situation and to express their reactions musically. What became clear (and what I had in mind) was that this work was not going to be a comfortable experience for us or the audience and it ought not be. I will have failed if people applaud loudly, whoop and cheer. So far the response has been silent reflection and thoughtful discussion afterwards, but I can’t prevent an audience from responding to the work in a more enthusiastic way.

GT: SWEET TOOTH is a very uncomfortable piece to experience and it is an experience rather than a spectacle. It draws you in to a sequence of episodes or movements but has no overarching, linear narrative as you would expect from a fictional novel or a historical account. Can you say some more about the piece’s relationship to historical research and how your approach to source material differs from that of a historian?

EM: It’s such an immense subject that it was very clear early on that I would need to work with an expert to check facts and to alert me to current research and resources that might prove useful to the development of my ideas around the work and how to present it. Working with Dr Christer Petley proved

invaluable and I believe we learnt a lot from each other. I wanted to avoid voyeurism, victim ‘porn’ or any kind of spectacle and the idea was to try and evoke an unnerving sense of tension, claustrophobia and entrapment. Of course, one can never know what that really felt like, but we have narratives and accounts, diaries which describe each step of the experience, albeit mainly from the oppressor’s point of view.

Not being a historian enabled me to focus on other aspects of the source material. Being a musician, I decided to draw the audience’s attention to sound as the narrative, the sound of people, their voices, their expression of rage, fear, defiance, joy, comfort. These would be reminders that, although reduced by their oppressors to being part of the huge machinery of slavery, enslaved Africans were people who dreamed, loved, hoped and resisted, and finally overcame.

The vast knowledge base of historians is enviable. They are able to digest what they’ve painstakingly researched and re-present it for public understanding. However, I find that this is all conducted in a clinical way, as though these events are being viewed under a microscope or at arm’s length. The purpose of SWEET TOOTH was to give a voice to those millions of people lost to slavery. Recalling their given names reminds us of their humanity. Referencing their work songs and rituals allows us to honour the culture which they developed and the legacy of which remains to this day. My job was to liberate the dry historical facts and somehow breathe life into them.

It was a challenge for me to view the historical material researched with an academic eye. I had to seek ways to absorb information, much of which was deeply upsetting, disturbing and difficult to accept. I had to digest it as historical fact and allow myself to find a creative and artistic response to it.

My decision to work abstractly with words was a conscious one in that I did not want them to obstruct the sound experience. Where words are used, they are used sparingly and are quickly fractured. Because SWEET TOOTH is also a visual work, I felt strongly that any ‘narrative’ could be felt and heard without the use of words.

GT: Can you say something about the episodic structure of SWEET TOOTH which has been conceived as a series of distinct chapters or movements?

EM: The decision to call these movements ‘chapters’ was a deliberate way of anchoring the work and the fact that it concerns a tragic episode, not only in the history of black people but in the history of humanity. This holocaust has repeated itself at different periods of human history. I employed a creative

semantic approach to liberate the source text material from books. Slavery in the British Caribbean was operated at a conveniently safe distance (not within the British Isles as in North America), and therefore I couldn’t draw upon personal familial accounts or records. In this way I was more like an historian because of the slight impersonal distance.

GT: You are also a jazz musician, working with other musicians and using improvisation and other techniques to create unique sounds and compositions. How has this influenced the way in which you approached and composed SWEET TOOTH?

EM: I consider myself as a musician who works across and draws on difference genres: experimental/free-jazz, avant-garde contemporary new music, gospel, Afro-Caribbean (Jamaican) music, free-improvisation and I think these influences can be heard in this work. I never thought about ‘composing’ the work. Having worked with composers and performed works by composers, I realised that my approach would need to be different to work effectively. I always wanted a sonic experience and with movement SWEET TOOTH is a work that is seen and felt. Early on I imagined it as a radio piece (so I’m pleased it was eventually broadcast on BBC Radio 3), but as the piece developed over two years it told me that it also had to be a visual / movement experience. Lighting also plays a musical part in this work and Alex Johnston has designed incredibly striking lighting moods which move the work forward.

The artists I have brought together for this project bring with them a wealth of experience and expertise along with an openness to trying new ideas. We are all well versed in the world of free-improvisation, however, for SWEET TOOTH I knew its musical world couldn’t be defined or restricted in this way. So we came together to workshop and research ideas and devise the piece along with Dam who was invaluable in helping us to access organic natural movement whilst playing.

Over time I was able to construct a method of structured improvisation upon which we were able to hang the skeletal form of the work. This method allows us the freedom to improvise whilst retaining the structural, musical form of the work. So although the concept is mine, how we arrive at realising it is very much a collective effort. My job was to work out what to retain or mull over an idea and to have the confidence to discard something because it’s not right for the work. It’s very important that each of us feels ownership of the work and finds our own narrative that can be communicated. It then becomes a powerfully direct statement of humanity to humanity.

GT: The events and experiences to which SWEET TOOTH refers took place in the historical past. What can this past teach us in the present?

EM: According to Michael Craton in his book Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies, ‘Historians who believe history to be the story of man’s rise to civilisation tend to define civilisation to include the acceptance by all classes of their place with the socioeconomic system.’ Even from a liberal point of view its appearance is essentially that of accommodation and acceptance. These ideas have been challenged by writers and commentators such as CLR James and Herbert Aptheker, also the Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter and her theory of the human, which she discusses in her essay Unsettling the Colonially of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument.” The Atlantic Slave Trade, the Middle Passage, which largely took place during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, marked a brutal and catastrophic period of human history. The past teaches us a lesson that we seem unable to understand and learn from: humanity’s capacity for inhumanity. Professor Catherine Hall said that it’s easy to think that those involved in the slave trade are different to us, that we are different to them. We are not. Only when we acknowledge this simple truth are we able to change and make changes.

Gilane Tawadros is Vice-Chair of the Stuart Hall Foundation.

SWEET TOOTH has been supported with public funding from Arts Council England. Commissioned by Bluecoat in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation, London and The International Slavery Museum with further support from PRSF Open Fund, Edge Hill University, John Hansard Gallery, Centre 151 and St George’s Bloomsbury.

To celebrate the launch of Ting-Ting Cheng’s On the Desert Island, the outcome of the first ever Stuart Hall Library Artist’s Residency, Ting-Ting was in conversation with Stephanie Moran, Iniva’s Library Manager.

Offering a unique way to explore Iniva’s remarkable collection, On the Desert Island takes its cue from Professor Stuart Hall speaking to Sue Lawley on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in February 2000. On the long-running radio show, the presenter asks the guest to punctuate their conversation with eight records they would choose to take with them if they were cast away on a desert island. Ting-Ting Cheng draws on the recording of Professor Stuart Hall’s interview to create an audio map which imagines the Stuart Hall Library as islands with its bookshelves and contents as land mass to be negotiated.

Find our more about the Stuart Hall Library Residency here  

The Stuart Hall Library Residency has been jointly funded by Iniva and the Stuart Hall Foundation.

During​ the big antiwar protests in early 2003, Ta-Nehisi Coates was a deliveryman for a deli in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He, too, was ‘sceptical’, he wrote a decade later in a blog post for the Atlantic, ‘but if the US was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object?’ After all, as Coates remembered, ‘every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew – left or right – was for the war.’ ‘I am not a radical,’ Coates said. Even so he found it ‘searing’ to watch ‘reasonable people assemble sober arguments for a disaster’.

In retrospect, the most remarkable of these reasonable people were not the neoconservatives but the liberals – some of them now Coates’s colleagues and supporters – who recommended war and condoned torture while advancing America’s mission to bring democracy to the world’s benighted. In The Fight Is for Democracy (2003), George Packer argued that a ‘vibrant, hardheaded liberalism’ could use the American military to promote its values. The subtitle of The Good Fight (2006) by Peter Beinart, the then editor of the New Republic, insisted ‘Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again’. ‘It’s time to think of torture,’ Newsweek declared a few weeks after 9/11. ‘Focused brutality’, Time recommended. Vanity Fair praised Rumsfeld for his ‘oddly reassuring ruthlessness’. As the invasion of Iraq got underway, the Atlantic, described as ‘prestigious’ by Coates in his new book, walked its readers through the advantages of ‘torture-lite’ in a cover story. In the New York Times Magazine, Michael Ignatieff, biographer of Isaiah Berlin and professor of human rights, exhorted Americans to embrace their imperial destiny and offered his own suggestions for ‘permissible duress’. Even the New Yorker, fastidiously aloof from Beltway schemers during the Cold War, published a report by Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic’s current editor, detailing links between al-Qaida and Iraq – links later revealed to be non-existent. Goldberg’s article was seized on by Bush and Cheney: the New Yorker had become, as an unusually bold writer in the Nation pointed out, ‘one more courtier straining to get the king’s ear’. But the Bush administration didn’t need eggheads to euphemise pre-emptive war, torture, rendition and indefinite offshore detention. Bush’s own demotic – ‘We’ll smoke them out,’ ‘wanted dead or alive’, ‘Pretty soon, we’ll have to start displaying scalps’ – repeatedly invoked wars of extirpation against what the Declaration of Independence had called ‘merciless Indian Savages’. ‘When this is all over,’ Cofer Black, Bush’s chief counterterrorist adviser, assured his boss, ‘the bad guys are going to have flies walking across their eyeballs.’ The mood was infectious among the personnel in charge of exterminating the brutes. The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan cheerfully reported that ‘Welcome to Injun Country’ was the refrain among American soldiers worldwide. The primal blood-lusts of the war on terror survived Obama’s renaming of it. The Seal Team that in 2011 eventually scalped Osama bin Laden (code-named Geronimo) carried 14-inch hatchets made by a North Carolina knife-maker known for his blades in the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans. Obama administration officials volunteered details of the wildly popular slaying to the makers of the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted (falsely) swarthy villains revealing bin Laden’s hideout under torture. ‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war,’ James Baldwin wrote in 1967, ‘the assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ During the war on terror the traffic between the US and various shithole countries wasn’t only in assumptions: there was also a wholesale exporting of equipment, technologies of torture and bad lieutenants. To take one instance, Richard Zuley, a specialist at Guantánamo, had become reassuringly ruthless while working for a Chicago police unit that for decades interrogated predominantly African-Americans at so-called black sites. It’s only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hardheaded liberals – who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war – are coming to grips with ‘America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’ (an unlikely recent headline in Foreign Affairs). Back in the early 2000s the liberal universalists seemed unaware that their project might be fatally flawed, and that America’s own democracy had been secured by mass bondage, colonial dispossession and wars of aggression; they still hadn’t fully reckoned with the historical legacy of institutionalised racial cruelty, inequality and division – what Coates has come to describe. ‘In America,’ Coates writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’ ‘To be black’ is to be perpetually ‘naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease’. The liberal freedoms of propertied men were always defined against omnipresent threats: mutinous natives, rebellious slaves. The white man, Tocqueville wrote as he observed race relations in America, ‘is to the men of other races what man himself is to the animals’, in the sense that he ‘makes them serve his purposes, and when he cannot make them bend, he destroys them.’ A social order built on systemic violence made the black man, Tocqueville recognised, an ever present menace in his white master’s imagination. This proximity to a nemesis made a culture of fear central to American politics, entailing a continuous investment in the machinery of coercion, surveillance and control, along with pre-emptive brutality against internal and external enemies. Coates, who was born in 1975, came of age just as a new Jim Crow was emerging domestically to accompany Bush Sr’s new world order. ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!’ So Bush Sr said in a euphoric victory statement at the end of the Gulf War. The kicking of the Vietnam Syndrome and ‘Saddam Hussein’s ass’ signalled the removal of all restraints on American power imposed by dogged gooks and their traitorous allies on the American left. With America free to police the world, old legal and moral barriers were also dismantled at home. Just as Coates entered Howard University and began his harsh education in American history, the stage was set for a pitiless imposition of market discipline and evisceration of welfare-state protections. Such drastic socioeconomic re-engineering required a fresh public consensus, and a racialised view of crime and national security came in handy in separating the deserving from the undeserving. Under Reagan, the police had started to resemble the military with its special weapons and bellicose posturing. The prison-industrial complex burgeoned under Bill Clinton: an incarcerated population of 300,000 in 1970 expanded to 2.1 million in 2000 – the majority black and brown, and poor. Liberals did not simply inherit Republican schemes of harsh policing and extreme punishment. They took the initiative. Clinton, hailed as the ‘first black president’ by Toni Morrison, ended what he called ‘welfare as we know it’ and deregulated financial markets. Amid a national panic about ‘street terrorists’, he signed the most draconian crime bill in US history in 1994, following it up two years later with an anti-terrorism bill that laid the foundation for the Patriot Act of 2001. The intimate relationship between America’s internal and external wars, established by its original sin, has long been clear. The question was always how long mainstream intellectuals could continue to offer fig-leaf euphemisms for shock-and-awe racism, and suppress an entwined history of white supremacism and militarisation with fables about American exceptionalism, liberalism’s long battle with totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Hurricane Katrina, coming after the non-discovery of WMDs in Iraq, undermined liberal faith in Bush’s heavily racialised war. American claims to global moral leadership since the 1960s had depended greatly on the apparent breakthrough of the civil rights movement, and the sidelining of the bigots who screamed: ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’. In New Orleans, black bodies naked before the elements of the world – elements which included trigger-happy Blackwater mercenaries guarding the rich – made it clear that old-style racial separation had been replaced by sharply defined zones of prosperity and destitution: segregation for ever. But the apparent successes of social liberalism, culminating in Obama’s election, managed to obscure the new regimes of racial sequester for a while longer. Since the 1990s, the bonanzas of free trade and financial deregulation had helped breed greater tolerance for racial and sexual variety, primarily among the privileged – the CIA under Obama set up a recruiting office at the Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. Overt racism and homophobia had become taboo, even as imprisonment or premature death removed 1.5 million black men from public life. Diversification and multiculturalism among upwardly mobile, college-educated elites went together with mass incarceration at home and endless military interventions abroad.

In many ways​ , Coates’s career manifests these collateral trends of progress and regress in American society. He grew up in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic. One of his own friends at Howard University in the 1990s was murdered by the police. Coates didn’t finish college and had been working and writing for small magazines when in 2008 he was commissioned by the Atlantic to write a blog during Obama’s campaign for president. Three books and many blog posts and tweets later, Coates is, in Packer’s words, ‘the most influential writer in America today’ – an elevation that no writer of colour could previously have achieved. Toni Morrison claims he has filled ‘the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died’. Philip Roth has been led to histories of American racism by Coates’s books. David Brooks credits him for advancing an ‘education for white people’ that evidently began after ‘Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings’. Even USA Today thinks that ‘to have such a voice, in such a moment, is a ray of light.’ Coates seems genuinely embarrassed by his swift celebrity: by the fact that, as he writes in his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, ‘I, who’d begun in failure, who held no degrees or credentials, had become such a person.’ He also visibly struggles with the question ‘Why do white people like what I write?’ This is a fraught issue for the very few writers from formerly colonised countries or historically disadvantaged minorities in the West who are embraced by ‘legacy’ periodicals, and then tasked with representing their people – or country, religion, race, and even continent (as in the New York Times’s praise for Salman Rushdie: ‘A continent finding its voice’). Relations between the anointed ‘representative’ writer and those who are denied this privilege by white gatekeepers are notoriously prickly. Coates, a self-made writer, is particularly vulnerable to the charge that he is popular among white liberals since he assuages their guilt about racism.

He doesn’t have a perch in academia, where most prominent African-American intellectuals have found a stable home. Nor is he affiliated to any political movement – he is sceptical of the possibilities of political change – and, unlike his bitter critic, Cornel West, he is an atheist. Identified solely with the Atlantic, a periodical better known for its oligarchic shindigs than its subversive content, Coates also seems distant from the tradition of black magazines like Reconstruction, Transition and Emerge, or left-wing journals like n+1, Dissent and Jacobin. He credits his large white fan club to Obama. Fascination with a black president, he thinks, ‘eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home and all the old, fitfully slumbering questions he’d awakened about American identity.’ This is true, but only in the way a banality is true. Most mainstream publications have indeed tried in recent years to accommodate more writers and journalists from racial and ethnic minorities. But the relevant point, perhaps impolitic for Coates to make, is that those who were assembling sensible arguments for war and torture in prestigious magazines only a few years ago have been forced to confront, along with their readers, the obdurate pathologies of American life that stem from America’s original sin. Coates, followed by the ‘white working classes’, has surfaced into liberal consciousness during the pained if still very partial self-reckoning among American elites that began with Hurricane Katrina. Many journalists have been scrambling, more feverishly since Trump’s apotheosis, to account for the stunningly extensive experience of fear and humiliation across racial and gender divisions; some have tried to reinvent themselves in heroic resistance to Trump and authoritarian ‘populism’. David Frum, geometer under George W. Bush of an intercontinental ‘axis of evil’, now locates evil in the White House. Max Boot, self-declared ‘neo-imperialist’ and exponent of ‘savage wars’, recently claimed to have become aware of his ‘white privilege’. Ignatieff, advocate of empire-lite and torture-lite, is presently embattled on behalf of the open society in Mitteleuropa. Goldberg, previously known as stenographer to Netanyahu, is now Coates’s diligent promoter. Amid this hectic laundering of reputations, and a turnover of ‘woke’ white men, Coates has seized the opportunity to describe American power from the rare standpoint of its internal victims. As a self-professed autodidact, Coates is primarily concerned to share with readers his most recent readings and discoveries. His essays are milestones in an accelerated self-education, with Coates constantly summoning himself to fresh modes of thinking. Very little in his book will be unfamiliar to readers of histories of American slavery and the mounting scholarship on the new Jim Crow. Coates, who claimed in 2013 to be ‘not a radical’, now says he has been ‘radicalised’, and as a black writer in an overwhelmingly white media, he has laid out the varied social practices of racial discrimination with estimable power and skill. But the essays in We Were Eight Years in Power, so recent and much discussed on their first publication, already feel like artefacts of a moribund social liberalism. Reparations for slavery may have seemed ‘the indispensable tool against white supremacy’ when Obama was in power. It is hard to see how this tool can be deployed against Trump. The documentation in Coates’s essays is consistently impressive, especially in his writing about mass imprisonment and housing discrimination. But the chain of causality that can trace the complex process of exclusion in America to its grisly consequences – the election of a racist and serial groper – is missing from his book. Nor can we understand from his account of self-radicalisation why the words ‘socialism’ and ‘imperialism’ became meaningful to a young generation of Americans during what he calls ‘the most incredible of eras – the era of a black president’. There is a conspicuous analytical lacuna here, and it results from an overestimation, increasingly commonplace in the era of Trump, of the most incredible of eras, and an underestimation of its continuities with the past and present. In the sentimental education of Coates, and of many liberal intellectuals mugged by American realities, Obama is the culmination of the civil rights movement, the figure who fulfils the legacies of Malcolm X as well as Martin Luther King. In Jay Z’s words, ‘Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run; Obama is running so we all can fly!’ John McCain, hapless Republican candidate in 2008, charged that his rival was a lightweight international ‘celebrity’, like Britney Spears. To many white liberals, however, Obama seemed to guarantee instant redemption from the crimes of a democracy built on slavery and genocide. There is no doubt that compared to the ‘first black president’, who played the dog whistle better than the saxophone, a hip-hop enthusiast and the son of a Kenyan Muslim represented a genuine diversification of America’s ruling class. Obama offered his own ascent as proof that America is an inclusive society, ceaselessly moving towards a ‘more perfect union’. But such apparent vindications of the American dream obscured the limited achievement of the civil rights movement, and the fragility of the social and political consensus behind it. The widespread belief that Obama had inaugurated a ‘postracial’ age helped conceal the ways in which the barefaced cruelties of segregation’s distant past had been softening since the 1960s into subtle exclusions and injustices. A ruling class that had been forced to make partial concessions to the civil rights movement subsequently worked, as Nixon blurted out, to ‘devise a system’ to deal with the black ‘problem’ without appearing to do so. With the wars on crime, drugs and welfare queens, the repertoire of deception came to include coded appeals to a white constituency, the supposedly ‘silent majority’. But the cruellest trick used by both Republicans and Democrats was the myth that America had resolved the contradiction at the heart of its democracy. For the conviction that African-Americans were walking and running and would soon start flying, enabled by equal opportunity, paved the way for an insidious ideological force: colour-blind universalism. Its deceit was summed up best by the creepy Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia: ‘In the eyes of the government, we are just one race here. It is American.’ The rules of colour-blind equality and the ‘level playing-field’, as they came to be outlined in the 1980s and 1990s, created a climate in which affirmative action came to look like reverse racism: unacceptably discriminatory against whites. With structural injustice presented as a thing of the past, what appeared to deform the lives of black people was their culture of single-parent households, scant work ethic, criminality and welfare dependency. This widespread attitude was summed up by a New Republic cover in 1996 urging Clinton to slash welfare: it showed a black woman, or ‘welfare mom’, bottle-feeding an infant while smoking. Blacks, in this politically bipartisan view, needed to get with the American programme just as various immigrant communities had done. As the original exponent of centrist liberalism, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, charged, they had become too prone to ‘nourishing prejudice, magnifying difference and stirring up antagonism’ – in other words, blacks were guilty of identity politics. The detractors of ‘identity liberalism’ are still prone to the fantasy that the end of de jure racial inequality ushered in a new era of opportunity and mobility for African-Americans. In reality, even the black people admitted into the networks of prosperity and privilege remained vulnerable compared to those who had enjoyed the inherited advantages of income and opportunity over several generations. This became gruesomely evident during the financial crisis of 2008, when African-American families, deceived into home-ownership by banks peddling subprime loans, found themselves in economic freefall, losing half their collective wealth. When Coates and Obama simultaneously emerged into public view in 2008 the political and ideological foundations of racial progress ought to have looked very shaky. But this structural weakness was obscured by the spectacular upward mobility of an Ivy League-educated black lawyer and constitutional scholar. There were signs during Obama’s campaign, particularly his eagerness to claim the approbation of Henry Kissinger, that he would cruelly disappoint his left-leaning young supporters’ hopes of epochal transformation. His actions in office soon made it clear that some version of bait and switch had occurred. Obama had condemned the air war in South Asia as immoral because of its high civilian toll; but three days after his inauguration he ordered drone strikes in Pakistan, and in his first year oversaw more strikes with high civilian casualties than Bush had ordered in his entire presidency. His bellicose speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize signalled that he would strengthen rather than dismantle the architecture of the open-ended war on terror, while discarding some of its fatuous rhetoric. During his eight years in office, he expanded covert operations and air strikes deep into Africa; girding the continent with American military bases, he exposed large parts of it to violence, anarchy and tyrannical rule. He not only expanded mass surveillance and government data-mining operations at home, and ruthlessly prosecuted whistleblowers, but invested his office with the lethal power to execute anyone, even American citizens, anywhere in the world. Obama occasionally denounced the ‘fat cats’ of Wall Street, but Wall Street contributed heavily to his campaign, and he entrusted his economic policy to it early in his tenure, bailing out banks and the insurance mega-company AIG with no quid pro quo. African-Americans had turned out in record numbers in 2008, demonstrating their love of an ostensible compatriot, but Obama ensured that he would be immune to the charge of loving blacks too much. Colour-blind to the suffering caused by mortgage foreclosures, he scolded African-Americans, using the neoliberal idiom of individual responsibility, for their moral failings as fathers, husbands and competitors in the global marketplace. Nor did he wish to be seen as soft on immigration; he deported millions of immigrants – Trump is struggling to reach Obama’s 2012 peak of 34,000 deportations a month. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, he had eloquently sympathised with the marginalised and the powerless. In power, however, he seemed in thrall to Larry Summers and other members of the East Coast establishment, resembling not so much the permanently alienated outsider as the mixed-race child of imperialism, who, as Ashis Nandy diagnosed in The Intimate Enemy, replaces his early feeling for the weak with ‘an unending search for masculinity and status’. It isn’t surprising that this harbinger of hope and change anointed a foreign-policy hawk and Wall Street-friendly dynast as his heir apparent. His post-presidency moves – kite-surfing with Richard Branson on a private island, extravagantly remunerated speeches to Wall Street and bromance with George Clooney – have confirmed Obama as a case of mistaken identity. As David Remnick, his disappointed biographer, said recently, ‘I don’t think Obama was immune to lures of the new class of wealth. I think he’s very interested in Silicon Valley, stars and showbusiness, and sports, and the rest.’ Embodying neoliberal chic at its most seductive, Obama managed to restore the self-image of American elites in politics, business and the media that had been much battered during the last years of the Bush presidency. In the updated narrative of American exceptionalism, a black president was instructing the world in the ways of economic and social justice. Journalists in turn helped boost the fantastical promises and unexamined assumptions of universal improvement; some saw Coates himself as an icon of hope and change. A 2015 profile in New York magazine describes him at the Aspen Ideas Festival, along with Bill Kristol, Jeffrey Goldberg, assorted plutocrats and their private jets, during the ‘late Obama era’, when ‘progress was in the air’ and the ‘great question’ after the legalisation of gay marriage was: ‘would the half-century-long era of increasing prosperity and expanding human freedom prove to be an aberration or a new, permanent state?’ Coates is awkward among Aspen’s panjandrums. But he thinks it is too easy for him to say he’d be happier in Harlem. ‘Truthfully,’ he confesses, ‘I’m very happy to be here. It’s very nice.’ According to the profile-writer, ‘there is a radical chic crowd assembling around Coates’ – but then he is ‘a writer who radicalises the Establishment’. For a self-aware and independent-minded writer like Coates, the danger is not so much seduction by power as a distortion of perspective caused by proximity to it. In his account of a party for African-American celebrities at the White House in the late Obama era, his usually majestic syntax withers into Vanity Fair puffs: ‘Women shivered in their cocktail dresses. Gentlemen chivalrously handed over their suit coats. Naomi Campbell strolled past the security pen in a sleeveless number.’ Since Clinton, the reflexive distrust of high office once shared by writers as different as Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald has slackened into defensiveness, even adoration, among the American literati. Coates proprietorially notes the ethnic, religious and racial variety of Obama’s staff. Everyone seems overwhelmed by a ‘feeling’, that ‘this particular black family, the Obamas, represented the best of black people, the ultimate credit to the race, incomparable in elegance and bearing.’ Not so incomparable if you remember Tina Brown’s description of another power couple, the Clintons, in the New Yorker in 1998: ‘Now see your president, tall and absurdly debonair, as he dances with a radiant blonde, his wife.’ ‘The man in a dinner jacket’, Brown wrote, possessed ‘more heat than any star in the room (or, for that matter, at the multiplex)’. After his visit, Joe Eszterhas, screenwriter of Showgirls and Basic Instinct, exulted over the Clinton White House’s diverse workforce: ‘full of young people, full of women, blacks, gays, Hispanics’. ‘Good Lord,’ he concluded in American Rhapsody, ‘we had taken the White House! America was ours.’ A political culture where progress in the air was measured by the president’s elegant bearing and penchant for diversity was ripe for demagoguery. The rising disaffection with a narcissistic and callous ruling class was signalled in different ways by the Tea Party, Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders’s insurgent candidacy. The final blow to the Washington (and New York) consensus was delivered by Trump, who correctly read the growing resentment of elites – black or white, meritocratic or dynastic – who presumed to think the White House was theirs. Writing in Wired magazine a month before Trump’s election, Obama hailed the ‘quintessentially American compulsion to race for new frontiers and push the boundaries of what’s possible’. Over lunch at the White House, he assured Coates that Trump’s victory was impossible. Coates felt ‘the same’. He now says that ‘adherents and beneficiaries’ of white supremacy loathed and feared the black man in the White House – enough to make Trump ‘president, and thus put him in position to injure the world’. ‘Every white Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist,’ Coates writes in a bitter epilogue to We Were Eight Years in Power. ‘But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.’ This, again, is true in a banal way, but inadequate as an explanation: Trump also benefited from the disappointment of white voters who had voted, often twice, for Obama, and of black voters who failed to turn out for Hillary Clinton. Moreover, to blame a racist ‘whitelash’ for Trump is to exculpate the political, business and media luminaries Coates has lately found himself with, especially the journalists disgraced, if not dislodged, by their collaboration in a calamitous racist-imperialist venture to make America great again.

As early as​ 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois identified fear and loathing of minorities as a ‘public and psychological wage’ for many whites in American society. More brazenly than his predecessors, Trump linked the misfortunes of the ‘white working class’ to Chinese cheats, Mexican rapists and treacherous blacks. But racism, Du Bois knew, was not just an ugly or deep-rooted prejudice periodically mobilised by opportunistic politicians and defused by social liberalism: it was a widely legitimated way of ordering social and economic life, with skin colour only one way of creating degrading hierarchies. Convinced that the presumption of inequality and discrimination underpinned the making of the modern world, Du Bois placed his American experience of racial subjection in a broad international context. Remarkably, all the major black writers and activists of the Atlantic West, from C.L.R. James to Stuart Hall, followed him in this move from the local to the global. Transcending the parochial idioms of their national cultures, they analysed the way in which the processes of capital accumulation and racial domination had become inseparable early in the history of the modern world; the way race emerged as an ideologically flexible category for defining the dangerously lawless civilisational other – black Africans yesterday, Muslims and Hispanics today. The realisation that economic conditions and religion were as much markers of difference as skin colour made Nina Simone, Mohammed Ali and Malcolm X, among others, connect their own aspirations to decolonisation movements in India, Liberia, Ghana, Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine. Martin Luther King absorbed from Gandhi not only the tactic of non-violent protest but also a comprehensive critique of modern imperialism. ‘The Black revolution,’ he argued, much to the dismay of his white liberal supporters, ‘is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes.’

Compared to these internationalist thinkers, partisans of the second black president, who happen to be the most influential writers and journalists in the US, have provincialised their aspiration for a just society. They have neatly separated it from opposition to an imperial dispensation that incarcerates and deports millions of people each year – disproportionately people of colour – and routinely exercises its right to assault and despoil other countries and murder and torture their citizens. Perceptive about the structural violence of the new Jim Crow, Coates has little to say about its manifestation in the new world order. For all his searing corroboration of racial stigma in America, he has yet to make a connection as vital and powerful as the one that MLK detected in his disillusioned last days between the American devastation of Vietnam and ‘the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society’. He has so far considered only one of what King identified as ‘the giant American triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism’ – the ‘inter-related flaws’ that turned American society into a ‘burning house’ for the blacks trying to integrate into it. And in Coates’s worldview even race, despite his formidable authority of personal witness, rarely transcends a rancorously polarised American politics of racial division, in which the world’s most powerful man appears to have been hounded for eight years by unreconstructed American racists. ‘My President Was Black’, a 17,000-word profile in the Atlantic, is remarkable for its missing interrogations of the black president for his killings by drones, despoilation of Libya, Yemen and Somalia, mass deportations, and cravenness before the titans of finance who ruined millions of black as well as white lives. Coates has been accused of mystifying race and of ‘essentialising’ whiteness. Nowhere, however, does his view of racial identity seem as static as in his critical tenderness for a black member of the 1 per cent. As long as Coates is indifferent to the links between race and international political economy, he is more likely to induce relief than guilt among his white liberal fans. They may accept, even embrace, an explanation that blames inveterate bigots in the American heartland for Trump. They would certainly baulk at the suggestion that the legatee of the civil rights movement upheld a 19th-century racist-imperialist order by arrogating to the US presidency the right to kill anyone without due process; they would recoil from the idea that a black man in his eight years in power deepened the juridical legacy of white supremacy before passing it on to a reckless successor. The intractable continuities of institutional brute power should be plain to see. ‘The crimes of the American state,’ Coates writes in one of the introductions to We Were Eight Years in Power, ‘now had the imprimatur of a black man.’ Yet the essays themselves ultimately reveal their author to be safely within the limits of what even a radicalised black man can write in the Atlantic without dissolving the rainbow coalition of liberal imperialism or alienating its patrons. Coates’s pain and passion have committed him to a long intellectual journey. To move, however, from rage over the rampant destruction of black bodies in America to defensiveness about a purveyor of ‘kill lists’ in the White House is to cover a very short distance. There is surely more to come. Coates is bracingly aware of his unfinished tasks as a writer. ‘Remember that you and I,’ he writes to his son in Between the World and Me, ‘are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic.’ Nowhere in his published writings has Coates elaborated on what this cosmic consciousness ought to consist of. But his own reference to the slave trade places the black experience at the centre of the modern world: the beginning of a process of capitalism’s emergence and globalisation whereby a small minority in Europe and America acquired the awesome power to classify and control almost the entire human population. The black slave, captured early in this history, presaged the historical ordeal of the millions yet to come: dispossession and brutalisation, the destruction of cultures and memories, and of many human possibilities. Today, the practices of kidnapping, predation, extraction, national aggression, mob violence, mass imprisonment, disenfranchisement and zoning pioneered in the Atlantic have travelled everywhere, along with new modes of hierarchy and exclusion. They can be seen in India and Myanmar, where public sanction drives the violent persecution, including lynching, of various internal enemies of the nation. They can be seen in Africa and Latin America. They have returned home to Europe and America as renewed animus against migrants and refugees. All this reproduces to a sinister extent the devastating black experience of fear and danger – of being, as Coates wrote, ‘naked before the elements of the world’. Coates’s project of unflinching self-education and polemic has never seemed more urgent, and it has only just begun.

Originally published in London Review of Books, Vol. 40 No. 4 · 22 February 2018 

 

During​ the big antiwar protests in early 2003, Ta-Nehisi Coates was a deliveryman for a deli in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He, too, was ‘sceptical’, he wrote a decade later in a blog post for the Atlantic, ‘but if the US was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object?’ After all, as Coates remembered, ‘every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew – left or right – was for the war.’ ‘I am not a radical,’ Coates said. Even so he found it ‘searing’ to watch ‘reasonable people assemble sober arguments for a disaster’.

  In retrospect, the most remarkable of these reasonable people were not the neoconservatives but the liberals – some of them now Coates’s colleagues and supporters – who recommended war and condoned torture while advancing America’s mission to bring democracy to the world’s benighted. In The Fight Is for Democracy (2003), George Packer argued that a ‘vibrant, hardheaded liberalism’ could use the American military to promote its values. The subtitle of The Good Fight (2006) by Peter Beinart, the then editor of the New Republic, insisted ‘Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again’. ‘It’s time to think of torture,’ Newsweek declared a few weeks after 9/11. ‘Focused brutality’, Time recommended. Vanity Fair praised Rumsfeld for his ‘oddly reassuring ruthlessness’. As the invasion of Iraq got underway, the Atlantic, described as ‘prestigious’ by Coates in his new book, walked its readers through the advantages of ‘torture-lite’ in a cover story. In the New York Times Magazine, Michael Ignatieff, biographer of Isaiah Berlin and professor of human rights, exhorted Americans to embrace their imperial destiny and offered his own suggestions for ‘permissible duress’. Even the New Yorker, fastidiously aloof from Beltway schemers during the Cold War, published a report by Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic’s current editor, detailing links between al-Qaida and Iraq – links later revealed to be non-existent.   Goldberg’s article was seized on by Bush and Cheney: the New Yorker had become, as an unusually bold writer in the Nation pointed out, ‘one more courtier straining to get the king’s ear’. But the Bush administration didn’t need eggheads to euphemise pre-emptive war, torture, rendition and indefinite offshore detention. Bush’s own demotic – ‘We’ll smoke them out,’ ‘wanted dead or alive’, ‘Pretty soon, we’ll have to start displaying scalps’ – repeatedly invoked wars of extirpation against what the Declaration of Independence had called ‘merciless Indian Savages’. ‘When this is all over,’ Cofer Black, Bush’s chief counterterrorist adviser, assured his boss, ‘the bad guys are going to have flies walking across their eyeballs.’ The mood was infectious among the personnel in charge of exterminating the brutes. The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan cheerfully reported that ‘Welcome to Injun Country’ was the refrain among American soldiers worldwide. The primal blood-lusts of the war on terror survived Obama’s renaming of it. The Seal Team that in 2011 eventually scalped Osama bin Laden (code-named Geronimo) carried 14-inch hatchets made by a North Carolina knife-maker known for his blades in the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans. Obama administration officials volunteered details of the wildly popular slaying to the makers of the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted (falsely) swarthy villains revealing bin Laden’s hideout under torture.   ‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war,’ James Baldwin wrote in 1967, ‘the assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ During the war on terror the traffic between the US and various shithole countries wasn’t only in assumptions: there was also a wholesale exporting of equipment, technologies of torture and bad lieutenants. To take one instance, Richard Zuley, a specialist at Guantánamo, had become reassuringly ruthless while working for a Chicago police unit that for decades interrogated predominantly African-Americans at so-called black sites. It’s only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hardheaded liberals – who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war – are coming to grips with ‘America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’ (an unlikely recent headline in Foreign Affairs). Back in the early 2000s the liberal universalists seemed unaware that their project might be fatally flawed, and that America’s own democracy had been secured by mass bondage, colonial dispossession and wars of aggression; they still hadn’t fully reckoned with the historical legacy of institutionalised racial cruelty, inequality and division – what Coates has come to describe.   ‘In America,’ Coates writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’ ‘To be black’ is to be perpetually ‘naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease’. The liberal freedoms of propertied men were always defined against omnipresent threats: mutinous natives, rebellious slaves. The white man, Tocqueville wrote as he observed race relations in America, ‘is to the men of other races what man himself is to the animals’, in the sense that he ‘makes them serve his purposes, and when he cannot make them bend, he destroys them.’ A social order built on systemic violence made the black man, Tocqueville recognised, an ever present menace in his white master’s imagination. This proximity to a nemesis made a culture of fear central to American politics, entailing a continuous investment in the machinery of coercion, surveillance and control, along with pre-emptive brutality against internal and external enemies.   Coates, who was born in 1975, came of age just as a new Jim Crow was emerging domestically to accompany Bush Sr’s new world order. ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!’ So Bush Sr said in a euphoric victory statement at the end of the Gulf War. The kicking of the Vietnam Syndrome and ‘Saddam Hussein’s ass’ signalled the removal of all restraints on American power imposed by dogged gooks and their traitorous allies on the American left. With America free to police the world, old legal and moral barriers were also dismantled at home. Just as Coates entered Howard University and began his harsh education in American history, the stage was set for a pitiless imposition of market discipline and evisceration of welfare-state protections. Such drastic socioeconomic re-engineering required a fresh public consensus, and a racialised view of crime and national security came in handy in separating the deserving from the undeserving. Under Reagan, the police had started to resemble the military with its special weapons and bellicose posturing. The prison-industrial complex burgeoned under Bill Clinton: an incarcerated population of 300,000 in 1970 expanded to 2.1 million in 2000 – the majority black and brown, and poor. Liberals did not simply inherit Republican schemes of harsh policing and extreme punishment. They took the initiative. Clinton, hailed as the ‘first black president’ by Toni Morrison, ended what he called ‘welfare as we know it’ and deregulated financial markets. Amid a national panic about ‘street terrorists’, he signed the most draconian crime bill in US history in 1994, following it up two years later with an anti-terrorism bill that laid the foundation for the Patriot Act of 2001.   The intimate relationship between America’s internal and external wars, established by its original sin, has long been clear. The question was always how long mainstream intellectuals could continue to offer fig-leaf euphemisms for shock-and-awe racism, and suppress an entwined history of white supremacism and militarisation with fables about American exceptionalism, liberalism’s long battle with totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Hurricane Katrina, coming after the non-discovery of WMDs in Iraq, undermined liberal faith in Bush’s heavily racialised war. American claims to global moral leadership since the 1960s had depended greatly on the apparent breakthrough of the civil rights movement, and the sidelining of the bigots who screamed: ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’. In New Orleans, black bodies naked before the elements of the world – elements which included trigger-happy Blackwater mercenaries guarding the rich – made it clear that old-style racial separation had been replaced by sharply defined zones of prosperity and destitution: segregation for ever. But the apparent successes of social liberalism, culminating in Obama’s election, managed to obscure the new regimes of racial sequester for a while longer. Since the 1990s, the bonanzas of free trade and financial deregulation had helped breed greater tolerance for racial and sexual variety, primarily among the privileged – the CIA under Obama set up a recruiting office at the Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. Overt racism and homophobia had become taboo, even as imprisonment or premature death removed 1.5 million black men from public life. Diversification and multiculturalism among upwardly mobile, college-educated elites went together with mass incarceration at home and endless military interventions abroad.  

In many ways​, Coates’s career manifests these collateral trends of progress and regress in American society. He grew up in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic. One of his own friends at Howard University in the 1990s was murdered by the police. Coates didn’t finish college and had been working and writing for small magazines when in 2008 he was commissioned by the Atlantic to write a blog during Obama’s campaign for president. Three books and many blog posts and tweets later, Coates is, in Packer’s words, ‘the most influential writer in America today’ – an elevation that no writer of colour could previously have achieved. Toni Morrison claims he has filled ‘the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died’. Philip Roth has been led to histories of American racism by Coates’s books. David Brooks credits him for advancing an ‘education for white people’ that evidently began after ‘Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings’. Even USA Today thinks that ‘to have such a voice, in such a moment, is a ray of light.’ Coates seems genuinely embarrassed by his swift celebrity: by the fact that, as he writes in his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, ‘I, who’d begun in failure, who held no degrees or credentials, had become such a person.’ He also visibly struggles with the question ‘Why do white people like what I write?’ This is a fraught issue for the very few writers from formerly colonised countries or historically disadvantaged minorities in the West who are embraced by ‘legacy’ periodicals, and then tasked with representing their people – or country, religion, race, and even continent (as in the New York Times’s praise for Salman Rushdie: ‘A continent finding its voice’). Relations between the anointed ‘representative’ writer and those who are denied this privilege by white gatekeepers are notoriously prickly. Coates, a self-made writer, is particularly vulnerable to the charge that he is popular among white liberals since he assuages their guilt about racism.

  He doesn’t have a perch in academia, where most prominent African-American intellectuals have found a stable home. Nor is he affiliated to any political movement – he is sceptical of the possibilities of political change – and, unlike his bitter critic, Cornel West, he is an atheist. Identified solely with the Atlantic, a periodical better known for its oligarchic shindigs than its subversive content, Coates also seems distant from the tradition of black magazines like ReconstructionTransition and Emerge, or left-wing journals like n+1Dissent and Jacobin. He credits his large white fan club to Obama. Fascination with a black president, he thinks, ‘eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home and all the old, fitfully slumbering questions he’d awakened about American identity.’ This is true, but only in the way a banality is true. Most mainstream publications have indeed tried in recent years to accommodate more writers and journalists from racial and ethnic minorities. But the relevant point, perhaps impolitic for Coates to make, is that those who were assembling sensible arguments for war and torture in prestigious magazines only a few years ago have been forced to confront, along with their readers, the obdurate pathologies of American life that stem from America’s original sin.   Coates, followed by the ‘white working classes’, has surfaced into liberal consciousness during the pained if still very partial self-reckoning among American elites that began with Hurricane Katrina. Many journalists have been scrambling, more feverishly since Trump’s apotheosis, to account for the stunningly extensive experience of fear and humiliation across racial and gender divisions; some have tried to reinvent themselves in heroic resistance to Trump and authoritarian ‘populism’. David Frum, geometer under George W. Bush of an intercontinental ‘axis of evil’, now locates evil in the White House. Max Boot, self-declared ‘neo-imperialist’ and exponent of ‘savage wars’, recently claimed to have become aware of his ‘white privilege’. Ignatieff, advocate of empire-lite and torture-lite, is presently embattled on behalf of the open society in Mitteleuropa. Goldberg, previously known as stenographer to Netanyahu, is now Coates’s diligent promoter. Amid this hectic laundering of reputations, and a turnover of ‘woke’ white men, Coates has seized the opportunity to describe American power from the rare standpoint of its internal victims.   As a self-professed autodidact, Coates is primarily concerned to share with readers his most recent readings and discoveries. His essays are milestones in an accelerated self-education, with Coates constantly summoning himself to fresh modes of thinking. Very little in his book will be unfamiliar to readers of histories of American slavery and the mounting scholarship on the new Jim Crow. Coates, who claimed in 2013 to be ‘not a radical’, now says he has been ‘radicalised’, and as a black writer in an overwhelmingly white media, he has laid out the varied social practices of racial discrimination with estimable power and skill. But the essays in We Were Eight Years in Power, so recent and much discussed on their first publication, already feel like artefacts of a moribund social liberalism. Reparations for slavery may have seemed ‘the indispensable tool against white supremacy’ when Obama was in power. It is hard to see how this tool can be deployed against Trump. The documentation in Coates’s essays is consistently impressive, especially in his writing about mass imprisonment and housing discrimination. But the chain of causality that can trace the complex process of exclusion in America to its grisly consequences – the election of a racist and serial groper – is missing from his book. Nor can we understand from his account of self-radicalisation why the words ‘socialism’ and ‘imperialism’ became meaningful to a young generation of Americans during what he calls ‘the most incredible of eras – the era of a black president’. There is a conspicuous analytical lacuna here, and it results from an overestimation, increasingly commonplace in the era of Trump, of the most incredible of eras, and an underestimation of its continuities with the past and present.   In the sentimental education of Coates, and of many liberal intellectuals mugged by American realities, Obama is the culmination of the civil rights movement, the figure who fulfils the legacies of Malcolm X as well as Martin Luther King. In Jay Z’s words, ‘Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run; Obama is running so we all can fly!’ John McCain, hapless Republican candidate in 2008, charged that his rival was a lightweight international ‘celebrity’, like Britney Spears. To many white liberals, however, Obama seemed to guarantee instant redemption from the crimes of a democracy built on slavery and genocide. There is no doubt that compared to the ‘first black president’, who played the dog whistle better than the saxophone, a hip-hop enthusiast and the son of a Kenyan Muslim represented a genuine diversification of America’s ruling class. Obama offered his own ascent as proof that America is an inclusive society, ceaselessly moving towards a ‘more perfect union’. But such apparent vindications of the American dream obscured the limited achievement of the civil rights movement, and the fragility of the social and political consensus behind it. The widespread belief that Obama had inaugurated a ‘postracial’ age helped conceal the ways in which the barefaced cruelties of segregation’s distant past had been softening since the 1960s into subtle exclusions and injustices.   A ruling class that had been forced to make partial concessions to the civil rights movement subsequently worked, as Nixon blurted out, to ‘devise a system’ to deal with the black ‘problem’ without appearing to do so. With the wars on crime, drugs and welfare queens, the repertoire of deception came to include coded appeals to a white constituency, the supposedly ‘silent majority’. But the cruellest trick used by both Republicans and Democrats was the myth that America had resolved the contradiction at the heart of its democracy. For the conviction that African-Americans were walking and running and would soon start flying, enabled by equal opportunity, paved the way for an insidious ideological force: colour-blind universalism. Its deceit was summed up best by the creepy Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia: ‘In the eyes of the government, we are just one race here. It is American.’ The rules of colour-blind equality and the ‘level playing-field’, as they came to be outlined in the 1980s and 1990s, created a climate in which affirmative action came to look like reverse racism: unacceptably discriminatory against whites. With structural injustice presented as a thing of the past, what appeared to deform the lives of black people was their culture of single-parent households, scant work ethic, criminality and welfare dependency. This widespread attitude was summed up by a New Republic cover in 1996 urging Clinton to slash welfare: it showed a black woman, or ‘welfare mom’, bottle-feeding an infant while smoking. Blacks, in this politically bipartisan view, needed to get with the American programme just as various immigrant communities had done. As the original exponent of centrist liberalism, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, charged, they had become too prone to ‘nourishing prejudice, magnifying difference and stirring up antagonism’ – in other words, blacks were guilty of identity politics.   The detractors of ‘identity liberalism’ are still prone to the fantasy that the end of de jure racial inequality ushered in a new era of opportunity and mobility for African-Americans. In reality, even the black people admitted into the networks of prosperity and privilege remained vulnerable compared to those who had enjoyed the inherited advantages of income and opportunity over several generations. This became gruesomely evident during the financial crisis of 2008, when African-American families, deceived into home-ownership by banks peddling subprime loans, found themselves in economic freefall, losing half their collective wealth. When Coates and Obama simultaneously emerged into public view in 2008 the political and ideological foundations of racial progress ought to have looked very shaky. But this structural weakness was obscured by the spectacular upward mobility of an Ivy League-educated black lawyer and constitutional scholar.   There were signs during Obama’s campaign, particularly his eagerness to claim the approbation of Henry Kissinger, that he would cruelly disappoint his left-leaning young supporters’ hopes of epochal transformation. His actions in office soon made it clear that some version of bait and switch had occurred. Obama had condemned the air war in South Asia as immoral because of its high civilian toll; but three days after his inauguration he ordered drone strikes in Pakistan, and in his first year oversaw more strikes with high civilian casualties than Bush had ordered in his entire presidency. His bellicose speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize signalled that he would strengthen rather than dismantle the architecture of the open-ended war on terror, while discarding some of its fatuous rhetoric. During his eight years in office, he expanded covert operations and air strikes deep into Africa; girding the continent with American military bases, he exposed large parts of it to violence, anarchy and tyrannical rule. He not only expanded mass surveillance and government data-mining operations at home, and ruthlessly prosecuted whistleblowers, but invested his office with the lethal power to execute anyone, even American citizens, anywhere in the world.   Obama occasionally denounced the ‘fat cats’ of Wall Street, but Wall Street contributed heavily to his campaign, and he entrusted his economic policy to it early in his tenure, bailing out banks and the insurance mega-company AIG with no quid pro quo. African-Americans had turned out in record numbers in 2008, demonstrating their love of an ostensible compatriot, but Obama ensured that he would be immune to the charge of loving blacks too much. Colour-blind to the suffering caused by mortgage foreclosures, he scolded African-Americans, using the neoliberal idiom of individual responsibility, for their moral failings as fathers, husbands and competitors in the global marketplace. Nor did he wish to be seen as soft on immigration; he deported millions of immigrants – Trump is struggling to reach Obama’s 2012 peak of 34,000 deportations a month. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, he had eloquently sympathised with the marginalised and the powerless. In power, however, he seemed in thrall to Larry Summers and other members of the East Coast establishment, resembling not so much the permanently alienated outsider as the mixed-race child of imperialism, who, as Ashis Nandy diagnosed in The Intimate Enemy, replaces his early feeling for the weak with ‘an unending search for masculinity and status’. It isn’t surprising that this harbinger of hope and change anointed a foreign-policy hawk and Wall Street-friendly dynast as his heir apparent. His post-presidency moves – kite-surfing with Richard Branson on a private island, extravagantly remunerated speeches to Wall Street and bromance with George Clooney – have confirmed Obama as a case of mistaken identity. As David Remnick, his disappointed biographer, said recently, ‘I don’t think Obama was immune to lures of the new class of wealth. I think he’s very interested in Silicon Valley, stars and showbusiness, and sports, and the rest.’   Embodying neoliberal chic at its most seductive, Obama managed to restore the self-image of American elites in politics, business and the media that had been much battered during the last years of the Bush presidency. In the updated narrative of American exceptionalism, a black president was instructing the world in the ways of economic and social justice. Journalists in turn helped boost the fantastical promises and unexamined assumptions of universal improvement; some saw Coates himself as an icon of hope and change. A 2015 profile in New York magazine describes him at the Aspen Ideas Festival, along with Bill Kristol, Jeffrey Goldberg, assorted plutocrats and their private jets, during the ‘late Obama era’, when ‘progress was in the air’ and the ‘great question’ after the legalisation of gay marriage was: ‘would the half-century-long era of increasing prosperity and expanding human freedom prove to be an aberration or a new, permanent state?’ Coates is awkward among Aspen’s panjandrums. But he thinks it is too easy for him to say he’d be happier in Harlem. ‘Truthfully,’ he confesses, ‘I’m very happy to be here. It’s very nice.’ According to the profile-writer, ‘there is a radical chic crowd assembling around Coates’ – but then he is ‘a writer who radicalises the Establishment’.   For a self-aware and independent-minded writer like Coates, the danger is not so much seduction by power as a distortion of perspective caused by proximity to it. In his account of a party for African-American celebrities at the White House in the late Obama era, his usually majestic syntax withers into Vanity Fair puffs: ‘Women shivered in their cocktail dresses. Gentlemen chivalrously handed over their suit coats. Naomi Campbell strolled past the security pen in a sleeveless number.’ Since Clinton, the reflexive distrust of high office once shared by writers as different as Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald has slackened into defensiveness, even adoration, among the American literati. Coates proprietorially notes the ethnic, religious and racial variety of Obama’s staff. Everyone seems overwhelmed by a ‘feeling’, that ‘this particular black family, the Obamas, represented the best of black people, the ultimate credit to the race, incomparable in elegance and bearing.’ Not so incomparable if you remember Tina Brown’s description of another power couple, the Clintons, in the New Yorker in 1998: ‘Now see your president, tall and absurdly debonair, as he dances with a radiant blonde, his wife.’ ‘The man in a dinner jacket’, Brown wrote, possessed ‘more heat than any star in the room (or, for that matter, at the multiplex)’. After his visit, Joe Eszterhas, screenwriter of Showgirls and Basic Instinct, exulted over the Clinton White House’s diverse workforce: ‘full of young people, full of women, blacks, gays, Hispanics’. ‘Good Lord,’ he concluded in American Rhapsody, ‘we had taken the White House! America was ours.’   A political culture where progress in the air was measured by the president’s elegant bearing and penchant for diversity was ripe for demagoguery. The rising disaffection with a narcissistic and callous ruling class was signalled in different ways by the Tea Party, Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders’s insurgent candidacy. The final blow to the Washington (and New York) consensus was delivered by Trump, who correctly read the growing resentment of elites – black or white, meritocratic or dynastic – who presumed to think the White House was theirs. Writing in Wired magazine a month before Trump’s election, Obama hailed the ‘quintessentially American compulsion to race for new frontiers and push the boundaries of what’s possible’. Over lunch at the White House, he assured Coates that Trump’s victory was impossible. Coates felt ‘the same’. He now says that ‘adherents and beneficiaries’ of white supremacy loathed and feared the black man in the White House – enough to make Trump ‘president, and thus put him in position to injure the world’. ‘Every white Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist,’ Coates writes in a bitter epilogue to We Were Eight Years in Power. ‘But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.’ This, again, is true in a banal way, but inadequate as an explanation: Trump also benefited from the disappointment of white voters who had voted, often twice, for Obama, and of black voters who failed to turn out for Hillary Clinton. Moreover, to blame a racist ‘whitelash’ for Trump is to exculpate the political, business and media luminaries Coates has lately found himself with, especially the journalists disgraced, if not dislodged, by their collaboration in a calamitous racist-imperialist venture to make America great again.  

As early as​ 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois identified fear and loathing of minorities as a ‘public and psychological wage’ for many whites in American society. More brazenly than his predecessors, Trump linked the misfortunes of the ‘white working class’ to Chinese cheats, Mexican rapists and treacherous blacks. But racism, Du Bois knew, was not just an ugly or deep-rooted prejudice periodically mobilised by opportunistic politicians and defused by social liberalism: it was a widely legitimated way of ordering social and economic life, with skin colour only one way of creating degrading hierarchies. Convinced that the presumption of inequality and discrimination underpinned the making of the modern world, Du Bois placed his American experience of racial subjection in a broad international context. Remarkably, all the major black writers and activists of the Atlantic West, from C.L.R. James to Stuart Hall, followed him in this move from the local to the global. Transcending the parochial idioms of their national cultures, they analysed the way in which the processes of capital accumulation and racial domination had become inseparable early in the history of the modern world; the way race emerged as an ideologically flexible category for defining the dangerously lawless civilisational other – black Africans yesterday, Muslims and Hispanics today. The realisation that economic conditions and religion were as much markers of difference as skin colour made Nina Simone, Mohammed Ali and Malcolm X, among others, connect their own aspirations to decolonisation movements in India, Liberia, Ghana, Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine. Martin Luther King absorbed from Gandhi not only the tactic of non-violent protest but also a comprehensive critique of modern imperialism. ‘The Black revolution,’ he argued, much to the dismay of his white liberal supporters, ‘is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes.’

  Compared to these internationalist thinkers, partisans of the second black president, who happen to be the most influential writers and journalists in the US, have provincialised their aspiration for a just society. They have neatly separated it from opposition to an imperial dispensation that incarcerates and deports millions of people each year – disproportionately people of colour – and routinely exercises its right to assault and despoil other countries and murder and torture their citizens. Perceptive about the structural violence of the new Jim Crow, Coates has little to say about its manifestation in the new world order. For all his searing corroboration of racial stigma in America, he has yet to make a connection as vital and powerful as the one that MLK detected in his disillusioned last days between the American devastation of Vietnam and ‘the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society’. He has so far considered only one of what King identified as ‘the giant American triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism’ – the ‘inter-related flaws’ that turned American society into a ‘burning house’ for the blacks trying to integrate into it. And in Coates’s worldview even race, despite his formidable authority of personal witness, rarely transcends a rancorously polarised American politics of racial division, in which the world’s most powerful man appears to have been hounded for eight years by unreconstructed American racists. ‘My President Was Black’, a 17,000-word profile in the Atlantic, is remarkable for its missing interrogations of the black president for his killings by drones, despoilation of Libya, Yemen and Somalia, mass deportations, and cravenness before the titans of finance who ruined millions of black as well as white lives. Coates has been accused of mystifying race and of ‘essentialising’ whiteness. Nowhere, however, does his view of racial identity seem as static as in his critical tenderness for a black member of the 1 per cent.   As long as Coates is indifferent to the links between race and international political economy, he is more likely to induce relief than guilt among his white liberal fans. They may accept, even embrace, an explanation that blames inveterate bigots in the American heartland for Trump. They would certainly baulk at the suggestion that the legatee of the civil rights movement upheld a 19th-century racist-imperialist order by arrogating to the US presidency the right to kill anyone without due process; they would recoil from the idea that a black man in his eight years in power deepened the juridical legacy of white supremacy before passing it on to a reckless successor. The intractable continuities of institutional brute power should be plain to see. ‘The crimes of the American state,’ Coates writes in one of the introductions to We Were Eight Years in Power, ‘now had the imprimatur of a black man.’ Yet the essays themselves ultimately reveal their author to be safely within the limits of what even a radicalised black man can write in the Atlantic without dissolving the rainbow coalition of liberal imperialism or alienating its patrons. Coates’s pain and passion have committed him to a long intellectual journey. To move, however, from rage over the rampant destruction of black bodies in America to defensiveness about a purveyor of ‘kill lists’ in the White House is to cover a very short distance. There is surely more to come. Coates is bracingly aware of his unfinished tasks as a writer. ‘Remember that you and I,’ he writes to his son in Between the World and Me, ‘are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic.’ Nowhere in his published writings has Coates elaborated on what this cosmic consciousness ought to consist of. But his own reference to the slave trade places the black experience at the centre of the modern world: the beginning of a process of capitalism’s emergence and globalisation whereby a small minority in Europe and America acquired the awesome power to classify and control almost the entire human population.   The black slave, captured early in this history, presaged the historical ordeal of the millions yet to come: dispossession and brutalisation, the destruction of cultures and memories, and of many human possibilities. Today, the practices of kidnapping, predation, extraction, national aggression, mob violence, mass imprisonment, disenfranchisement and zoning pioneered in the Atlantic have travelled everywhere, along with new modes of hierarchy and exclusion. They can be seen in India and Myanmar, where public sanction drives the violent persecution, including lynching, of various internal enemies of the nation. They can be seen in Africa and Latin America. They have returned home to Europe and America as renewed animus against migrants and refugees. All this reproduces to a sinister extent the devastating black experience of fear and danger – of being, as Coates wrote, ‘naked before the elements of the world’. Coates’s project of unflinching self-education and polemic has never seemed more urgent, and it has only just begun.

Fifty years ago this January, the South Vietnamese Chief of Police shot dead a young man in a check shirt, at point blank range, in the streets of Saigon. For me, at 19, the photograph of this event had a double meaning. Of course, it showed starkly the casual brutality of the regime which the Americans were propping up. But it showed something else. The young man in the check shirt was not an innocent bystander, caught up in a stop and search raid. He was an officer in the National Liberation Front. He had been fighting –  and killing – as part of the NLF’s Tet –or new year offensive, which fought its way to the outskirts of the US Embassy itself, threatening the headquarters of the mightest military machine on earth.

So, for me and millions like me, the lesson of Tet was not the victimhood of the Vietnamese but their heroism. Alongside the antiwar movement, it forced Lyndon Johnson to abandon his ambitions for a second full presidential term. It inspired the uprising in American cities which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, and the rebellion of students and workers in France in May. In August, it was emulated by protestors at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and supporters of the Prague Spring. It was captured on film again in October, when Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in protest against racism and for human rights during the men’s 200 metres medal ceremony at the Mexico Olympics.

It’s all the more odd, then, to be told that the most enduring legacy of 1968 was the neo- liberalism of the 1980s. Yet the idea that has become increasingly prevalent. It is the core thesis of conservative historian Dominic Sandbrook’s monumental history of postwar Britain, already

over 3,300 pages long in four volumes, and he’s only up to 1979. It’s the view of former 60s revolutionary Regis Debray, who now argues that the uprising of which he was a part let loose the ultra-capitalism of the 80s and 90s.[1] Likewise, left-wing commentator, Anthony Barnett, argues in his Brexit book The Lure of Greatness that “the revolt that began in 1968 led to a renewal not of socialism but of capitalism”.[2] In a Guardian article about the V&A’s 2016 exhibition about the late 60s counter-culture, You Say You Want a Revolution?, Polly Toynbee accepted that “out of all this revolution against ‘the system’ came a ‘me’ individualism that grew into neoliberalism”.[3] The exhibition’s narrative began in swinging London and ended in Silicon Valley: its thesis was that Apple (Beatles) gave birth not to a new society but to Apple (Steve Jobs).

The idea that Thatcherism was somehow Tariq Ali’s fault would have seemed very surprising to the lady herself. In late March 1982, commenting on the Brixton riots of the summer before, Mrs Thatcher announced that “we are reaping what was sown in the sixties. The fashionable theories and permissive clap-trap set the set for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint were denigrated”.[4] Three years later, she grouped together a potpourri of 60s folk devils – striking teachers, football hooligans, left-wing local councillors, trade union pickets – as examples of the “enemy within”.[5]

Mrs Thatcher’s ideological marriage of economic libertarianism and social conservatism was not new, or – really – hers. 2018 also sees the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech in Birmingham. In his remarkable series of lectures and articles about emergent Thatcherism in the late 70s, Stuart Hall identified Powell and Powellism as its progenitor. Concentrating on another Birmingham speech, in Northfield during the 1970 election, Stuart noted how Powell had first identified an “invisible enemy within”, consisting of students “destroying universities” and “terrorising cities”, the near destruction of civil society in Northern Ireland and the accumulation of “further combustible material” of “another kind”.

Thereby, as Stuart argued in his 1978 lecture Racism and Reaction, black people, their identity grounded in obviously visible and unalterable biological fact, “became the bearers,  the signifiers of the crisis in British society in the 1970s”.[6] Not for nothing did Conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne write, after Mrs Thatcher’s triumphant success in the 1983 general election, that “What is now Thatcherism was originally known as Powellism: bitter- tasting market economics sweetened and rendered palatable to the popular taste by great creamy dollops of nationalistic custard”.[7] In Policing the Crisis, Stuart pointed out how – before the 1970 election – Edward Heath had squared the Powellite circle, by planning to combine what would later be called neoliberalism with the strong state that would be necessary to impose it,[8] a strategy which would be implemented successfully through the British coalfield in 1984-5. As she mobilised the police against the miners, Mrs Thatcher was also using the power of the state to eliminate Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, which, as James Curran points out in the forthcoming Culture Wars, represented the most consistent effort of the graduates of the late 60s to put their ideals into practice, consulting with, empowering and enabling gay people, women, ethnic minorities and the (rapidly declining) manufacturing workforce of London.

In his writings on Thatcherism, Stuart frequently described the two wings of Thatcherism as an “unstable combination”[9] of libertarian economics and social authoritarianism. Certainly, there were traditionalist conservatives, like Worsthorne, who thought that the problem with 70s Britain was not too little liberty but too much: in a 1978 essay collection of distinctly Thatcher-sceptic character, he insisted that the problem with Labour was “that it had set too many people far too free”.[10] But, today, it is the mirror image of the Thatcher coalition – the progressive left cocktail of social liberalism and economic interventionism – which is under serious – some would say existential – threat.

The theoretical inconsistency of the cocktail was not a major political issue through most of the postwar period, when Labour’s traditional (and traditionalist) supporters were happy to vote in their economic interests, and to put up with the party’s programme of social reform; though much of that agenda, particularly as it related to women workers’ rights, was clearly in its interests as well. This deal was consciously broken by New Labour, whose rejection of Labour’s traditional economic agenda had real effects on working people’s lives. Real wages continued to stagnate or fall (though disguised by the rise in personal debt and the topping up of low wages by tax credits). The unions remained shackled by Mrs Thatcher’s trade union laws, as management consultants “modernised” the working practices of private and public sector workforces, reduced and reducing in size. Under Thatcherism, as Stuart wrote in 1991, there was “not a school, hospital, social service department, polytechnic or college in the country which has not been so remodelled”.[11] Under New Labour, managerialism continued to challenge employee behaviour, “not by changing their minds but by changing their practices, and thus the ‘culture’”.[12] Socially liberal, proudly neoliberal (and globalist) in economics, New Labour (following Bill Clinton) had redrawn the political fault-line.

Initially this strategy was successful. But between 1997 and 2001 Labour lost nearly three million votes, many from its working-class core. In 2005 it lost another million and half – a significant number from its liberal wing, appalled both by the Iraq war and by Labour’s consequent resiling from its progressive social agenda. In July 2004, Blair paraphrased Mrs Thatcher’s critique of the 1960s, as an era in which young people “were brought up without parental discipline, without proper role models and without any sense of responsibility”, calling for an “end to the 1960s liberal consensus”.[13] While, as Stuart pointed out in 2011, the party that gave us the Human Rights Act went on to offer “widening surveillance, private policing and security firms, out-sourcing, the round-up and expulsion of visa-less migrants, imprisonment of terrorist suspects without trial, and ultimately complicity with rendition and a ‘cover-up’ of

involvement with torture”.[14] In 2010, the civil liberties sections of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestoes were virtually identical (no ID cards, National Identity Register, children’s database, or retention of innocent people’s DNA). Labour’s manifesto didn’t have a civil liberties section at all.

So when – somewhat to its and his surprise – the electorate invited David Cameron to form a coalition between free market Liberals and socially liberal Conservatives, it appeared to promise a fulfilment of New Labour’s promise. The Blue Labour tendency, which combined traditional interventionist economics with faith, flag and family social conservatism – its guru Maurice Glasman called for a complete halt to immigration – was an attempt to build a coherent mirror-image alliance on the other side of the new faultline.

Meanwhile, and with much greater success, the traditional working-class was being targeted, across the continent and beyond, by the populist right, who had spotted that social- democracy’s vacation of left economics had created a vacuum which it set out to fill. From Warsaw to Wisconsin, parties which had hitherto combined reactionary populism with free market economics heaved their economic platforms to the left. Poland’s hitherto traditionalist Law and Justice Party transformed itself to a populist right party, opposing immigration but supporting the welfare state, and appealing thereby to working-class families who had lost out during the shock therapy marketisation of the 1990s. The Austrian Freedom Party, once hostile to welfare spending and in favour of raising the retirement age, reversed those positions. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party converted itself from free-market antistatism to a proponent of workers rights and the minimum wage. In France, Marine le Pen declared the Front National to be “France’s leading working-class party”.[15]

In Britain, UKIP declared itself opposed both to big business and banking, came out against the bedroom tax, and dropped its earlier reservations about the NHS. As with New Labour before it, the coalition’s marriage of economic and social liberalism quickly morphed into a more traditional compound of neoliberal economics with – in Stuart’s glorious phrase

“low-flying authoritarianism”.[16] While Conservative ministers – particularly Theresa May at the Home Office – gave ample evidence of what would happen – from the snooper’s charter via Extremism Disruption Orders to repeal of the Human Rights Act – once they took to the open skies. Once again, in a government which combined the two, economic liberalism was sustained while the social liberal agenda withered.

And then came the referendum; in which, freed from traditional party contours, working-class electors were able to vote social-conservative without having to vote for the rest of the Conservative package as well. Like the rocks exposed by a lowering tide, the referendum was perceived as revealing an underlying hostility to social liberalism which had been there all along. Only a third of 2015 Labour voters voted Leave. But the strength of the Leave vote – and Ukip – led the newly crowned Theresa May and her advisors to target potential voters in Labour areas, hardening their stance on social issues while – to use a Stuartism – double-shuffling to the left on economics. In her first speech as Prime Minister, on the steps of Downing St, May promised to be on the side of what Ed Miliband had defined as the “squeezed middle” but which she rebranded as the “just about managing”.

Thus the Conservatives (along with right-populists on the continent) could position themselves as the direct mirror opposite of what was increasingly defined as a globalised, liberal, cosmopolitan elite. Hence May’s 2016 Conservative conference speech, in which she berated politicians who have “more in common with international elites than with the people down the road”, concluding that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. While, in the same month, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers”;[17] including, no doubt, the bank from which he stuffed his cabinet. This conspiratorial model has, of course, its roots further to the right, where American Neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach calls for nationalists to “stand united against our common foes, the rootless international clique of globalists and bankers that wish to dominate all free people on the Earth”.[18]

So, a year ago, the character of the conjuncture was clear. Abandoned by social democracy’s defection to neoliberalism, the left-behind half of the population was turning to right-populist parties offering a cocktail of mock-socialist economics and real social conservatism. In panic, Conservative parties sought to present a slightly watered down version of the cocktail. On the left, the socially progressive middle class split from its traditional working-class base. Clearly, when Theresa May called the election last spring – promising an adamantine Brexit and an attractive selection of Labour economic policies – she was on the way to a landslide.

Why didn’t it work? One reason was that – despite the apparent lesson of Brexit – the last 30 years has not seen a swing towards traditional values, but away from them. The much- touted correlation between Leave voting and belief in the death penalty is surely less significant than the fact that support for its restoration declined from 75% of the population in 1983 to under half today. There has been an extraordinary liberalisation in attitudes towards homosexuality, inter-racial marriage and extramarital sex. Published since the election, the latest British Social Attitudes survey confirms that support for same sex relationships has increased from 47% in 2012 to almost two thirds now.[19]

But the BSA survey tells us something else, which is that attitudes to tax, spending and welfare have also moved dramatically to the left. So, support for raising taxes and expenditure, 32% in 2010, is now 48%. Support for more cuts has dwindled from 35% ten years ago to 29% today. Public opinion seems to be moving leftwards on social and economic issues at the same time. Hence, Labour increased its purchase on the higher-educated middle class. But it also won the young working class (70% of DEs aged between 18 and 34). And thus won three and a half million more votes in 2017 than it had won two years before.

And how does this relate to 1968 and its legacy? Well, Jeremy Corbyn was 19 in 1968 and became a London borough councillor in the early 70s; John McDonnell was 17 and later became

deputy leader of the GLC. In terms of personnel, the current Labour leadership is the 1968 generation gone grey. But what happened last summer was not about a year in politics, but a decade in which the 1960s compound of social emancipation and anti-capitalism had been renewed. Jeremy Corbyn’s 600,000-strong model army clearly owes much of its size and strength (and social media nouse) to the activist movements which emerged in 2011: the Day X protestors against the student fee hike; the schoolkids protesting the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance; Occupy and UK Uncut. Which in turn were the inheritors of 1968.

First, by being youth movements. The election may not have seen as big a growth in youth turnout as was originally estimated[20], but there was clearly a dramatic increase – for Ipsos Mori, 20% – in the numbers of young people voting Labour. The cross-over point from Labour to Tory is now well into middle age: if the slogan of the 60s was “don’t trust anyone over 30”, now it’s “don’t trust anyone over 47”.

Then there’s the fact that the movements of the 10s echo those of the 60s, in style and substance. From Wages for Housework to MeToo, from Black Power to Black Lives Matter, from “We are all foreign scum” to “We are all Khalid Said”, from yippies levitating the Pentagon to UK Uncut invading Fortnum and Mason, from Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, from Chicago’s Lincoln Park to the steps of London’s St Paul’s, the form and content of late 60s protest saw itself renewed nearly 50 years later.

It’s easy to see the differences between now and then: as Paul Mason notes, the 2011 Egyptian uprising was planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast on YouTub2[21]. But it actually happened when people came together in a public space where – in the words of the Chicago yippies – the Whole World Was Watching. Led by the secular graduate young, the Egyptian revolution also mobilised the unionised Egyptian working class and the urban poor. MeToo challenges the lopsided gains and losses of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s; it is at root a protest against the abuse of power in the workplace.

And the protestors of the 60s and the 10s both faced the state. The tactic of kettling first came to prominence when it was used against students on Day X. Undercover policemen infiltrated environmental groups as the FBI had infiltrated the Black Panthers. Electronic and online surveillance has increased massively, in fact and in law. In Europe’s Fault Lines, Liz Fekete argues persuasively that, in Hungary, Greece and elsewhere, the state not only colludes with the far-right ideologically, but has complied with it militarily, in policing neighbourhoods and borders. Both in action and reaction, our world echoes the world of 50 years ago.

Apart from the overthrow of the Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan, the movements of 1968 won no direct political victory. But, as Stuart reminded us, one should not confuse the outcome of an event with its impact. The conjuncture which saw the desegregation of the American south, the bringing down of two presidents, and the birth of contemporary feminism, did indeed emancipate individuals. But those gains were won through collective protest, community and solidarity, by movements that were the enemy of the market state. And, guess what, they may be on the way back. Happy birthday, Stuart.

References

  1. John Lichfield: Egalite! Liberte! Sexualite! Paris, May 1968, Independent, 23 February 2008
  2. Antony Barnett: The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit & America’s Trump, p355
  3. Polly Toynbee: Did we baby boomers bring about a revolution in the 60s or just usher in neoliberalism?, Guardian, 8 September 2016
  4. Quoted in the Guardian, 18 March 1982
  5. Speech to the Conservative Central Council, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 23 March 1985
  6. Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p152-3
  7. Peregrine Worsthorne, Sunday Telegraph, 12 June 1983
  8. Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p159-61
  9. Ibid, p210
  10. Maurice Cowling (ed): Conservative Essays, p147-8
  11. Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p269
  12. Ibid, p307-8
  13. Guardian, 20 July 2004, quoted in Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good, pxv
  14. Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p327-8
  15. Liz Fekete: Europe’s Fault Lines, p118
  16. Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p295
  17. David Neiwart: Alt-America, p307
  18. Ibid, p242
  19. Guardian, 28 June 2017
  20. Britain Election Sudy Team: The myth of the 2017 youthquake election, 29 January 2018
  21. Paul Mason: Why It’s Kicking Off All Over, p13