Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The BNP, Racism, and Contemporary Europe

Mark Featherstone

On Thursday night 8 million people watched Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, appear on the BBC’s premier political debating programme, Question Time. The immediate reaction to Griffin’s appearance in the national press may have led one to believe that it was a complete failure for the racist right – on Friday 23rd October The Daily Express explained that ‘BNP Leader Nick Griffin is...A Complete Disgrace to Humanity’ while The Independent wrote that ‘The BBC gave him the oxygen of publicity. He choked’ – but my own reaction to his moment in the full media glare was not so certain.

It is true that Griffin’s appearance was marked by confusion, irrationality, and illogical statements. Even his racism was not logically worked out. That is to say that even Griffin’s abhorrent racist belief that Britain should be maintained exclusively for the benefit of some mythological British people, primarily made up of a mythological white working class, collapsed at various points. These points, when he made the effort to hide his racism behind the veil of a brand of ultra-nationalism able to tolerate minorities, but not displaced peoples seeking asylum, were telling because what they illustrate is what we all know only too well. That is that the BNP are well aware that their racism, the core value of their politics, is beyond the pale and must be hidden from view and never explicitly spoken about if they are ever to achieve any kind of mainstream support.

In my view it was this fact, the fact that BNP must engage in a politics of deception, a politics of deception that cannot possibly work, that rendered Griffin a comic figure on Question Time, a comic figure who had been pushed centre stage, and found himself in a situation he could not possibly cope with in the full glare of the mass media, primarily because he was forced to evade a truth everybody already knows.

However, I was also aware that Griffin’s comic appearance, his appearance as a fool, a clown, would appeal to a specific audience, simply because those already alienated from mainstream politics and turned on to the BNP were unlikely to be persuaded by a situation that could not help but show their man as a fool and the cynical discredited mainstream as a mocking audience, who were well aware of the truth their fool wanted to hide and therefore could not but appear to be to disdainful of their man. In this situation the mainstream parties really needed to resist the temptation to exploit the fool in order to confirm their own moral superiority, because this would, of course, only confirm their own bankruptcy rooted in recent events, such as the expenses scandal.

Unfortunately, I felt that this was a temptation that the mainstream parties could not resist. Herein, then, lay perhaps the main problem with Griffin’s appearance on Question Time and possibly the key factor behind the shocking result of a YouGov poll carried out hours after the broadcast that showed that 22% of British people would ‘seriously consider’ voting BNP in a future local, general, or European election and perhaps more worryingly that ‘more than half of those polled said they agreed...the party had a point in speaking up for the interests of "indigenous, white British people"’ (BBC News, Saturday, 24th October).

That is to say that the main problem with Griffin’s appearance was that the mainstream parties appeared to want to confirm their own superiority by moralising against Griffin, rather than defeating him through rational argumentation. From the point of view of Griffin’s politics this was, of course, totally unnecessary because he was already defeated by his need to hide the truth of his own position, which resulted in ridiculous statements pertaining to the tolerance of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, though, I believe that the mainstream parties could not resist exploiting Griffin’s comic persona in order to confirm their own moral righteousness, with the result that they only confirmed their own moral bankruptcy.

In my view this was the main result of Griffin’s appearance on Question Time. In other words, by over-playing their morality and tolerance and under-playing their arguments and policies, the mainstream parties have probably confirmed both their own moral bankruptcy and lack of political imagination in the eyes of those who were either alienated from or on the verge of being alienated from the political mainstream. But this begs the question, why would the mainstream parties adopt this approach to dealing with Griffin, the comedy fool?

I think that the answer to this question is that the mainstream parties wanted to simultaneously confirm, boost, or simulate their own tolerance, hide the bankruptcy of their own policies, and finally deflect attention away from the real nature of the political situation in Europe which, as sociologists such as Zygmunt Bauman and Slavoj Zizek teach us, is already closing in on a form of friendly fascism that cannot speak its name. The truth is that the BNP are amateurs and that they will be defeated if our mainstream parties engage them in reasonable debate over policies, rather than employing empty moralising about the ‘tolerant’ nature of British culture and British politics.

Unfortunately, this is likely to be a lot harder than it sounds, since the empty moralising of the mainstream parties over the blindingly obvious racist nature of the BNP has a very particular purpose, which is to confirm their tolerance and hide their intolerance regarding the flows of homeless, displaced, refugees, and asylum seekers created by the form of globalisation sponsored and advanced by the generation of neo-liberals, including Brown, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi, and the master builders of the immigration architecture of Sangatte and the Schengen zone.

For the social and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek (See his ‘Berlusconi in Tehran’, London Review of Books, 23rd July, 2009), Italy, the new front line of the European battle to control immigration, is dominated by a new form of authoritarian capitalism, led by another comedy fool, Silvio Berlusconi. In Zizek’s view, the popularity of the offensive comedy fool, Berlusconi, who praised Obama for his suntan, in Italy, the front line of immigration and people trafficking in Europe, and laboratory for the new emergent form of authoritarian capitalism, is not coincidental, since what Berlusconi and the new Italy exemplify is a new form of state organisation that is more than happy to exploit the poor workers of the global south for their labour, so that consumers can have cheap training shoes, but not allow them to penetrate its borders, where they would become legally liable for the benefits their labour warrants.

It is the struggle against this situation, the struggle against exploitation based on racial and ethnic inequality, that must be understood as the real front line of anti-racism in Europe today. We know the BNP are racists. But we must recognise that they have, in many respects, already missed the boat. It is not that we are threatened by racism to come, but rather that the racist situation is already upon us. Given this reality, I think that we must resist the temptation to use the abhorrent nature of the BNP to affirm the mythology of the tolerance of contemporary globalisation and instead recognise the racist intolerance already pervading Europe and our own society. It is this situation that we must address if we are to really save our tolerant ideals, rather than simply use the comic fools of the BNP to kid ourselves that we live in a society that is free of racism.

One way to start to achieve this would be to break the popular support for the BNP by illustrating to the alienated white minority who have turned to them in times of need that the problem of contemporary society is not one relating to race and ethnicity, but rather one rooted in the new form of neo-liberal capitalism that plunges everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or age, into a precarious world, where everything is uncertain. The effect of this approach would be to dismantle the mythological connection between precariousness and race that enables the BNP and other parties of the far right to scapegoat minorities, and turn popular attention towards the real problem, the form of capitalism that turns people against each other like never before.

However, this approach presents a utopian challenge. It presents a utopian challenge because such an approach would, of course, require that our political, capitalist, elite really want to do away with the BNP, that they really want to do away with the comedy fools who allow them to simulate their own tolerance and maintain the brand of authoritarian capitalism rooted in exploitation, and that they really want to found a society free of exploitation and racist intolerance.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

New articles from Pnina Werbner

Our distinguished professor of social anthropology, Prof Pnina Werbner, has also published some new pieces recently. You can find more about her work by following the links:

New article on the Public Sphere in a time of terror in the South Asian Diaspora journal

New article on dialogical subjectivities and ethical leadership among women in Botswana in the African Identities journal

New article on Tswana girls' puberty rituals and the problem of history in the American Ethnologist journal

Sociology update: New academic year, new ideas...

We have been busy over the last few weeks, settling in nearly 300 new students in Sociology and Criminology, and making sure the rest are back in the saddle. We have a big Open Day weekend coming up this weekend, so if you're thinking about studying Sociology or Criminology, please do come and visit us.

Meanwhile, Sociology staff have also been busy teaching option modules this semester on Urban Cultures, Witchcraft, Sociology of the Body, Women and Global Activism, Transnational Cultures and the Information Society. I'll let the Criminology staff do their own update - unlike lots of Criminology programme, this one is taught by dedicated research-active Criminologists who exclusively teach this subject, not cut-and-pasted from other subjects!

And all of the teaching staff in the School of Sociology and Criminology are research active. As well as various ongoing research projects, staff have been attending conferences, giving internal and external seminars, publishing their work.

Recent publication highlights include:

Dr Emma Head on the ethics of paying participants in qualitative research in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology

Dr Mark Featherstone on Klein's Shock Doctrine, Negri's Empire and Retort's Afflicted Powers in Fastcapitalism.com Issue 5.2

Dr Dana Rosenfeld on hetero- and homo-normativity amongst gay elders in Gender and Society

We have a busy Sociology seminar series this semester, to which all are welcome. Next semester's speakers will be circulated shortly.

And there is still time - just! - to apply for a PhD scholarship in the Sociology or Criminology end of the Institute for Law, Politics and Justice...