Power and the politics of race


8:54 pm - June 22nd 2008

by Chris Dillow    


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This week’s events have corroborated my belief that we can learn more about society and politics from Big Brother than from Today in Parliament.

Alexandra’s expulsion from the house for “intimidating” behaviour demonstrates our ruling class’s terror of anything remotely resembling a physical threat; violence is something done to foreigners, not “respectable“ white people.

But eliminating “intimidating” behaviour – not that anyone with a spine would have found Alex’s comments anything other than risible* – does not mean eliminating power.
Exactly the opposite. Removing the threat of violence merely increases the dominance of “soft power”, by removing a counterweight to it. So, for example, it increases Rex’s ability to manipulate the house by using the sense of authority he gets from having a rich dad.

What we see here is that quashing violence transfers power from the black working class to the white rich.
Now, you might object that Big Brother’s producers are just vacuous cokeheads who aren’t representative of the ruling class.

You’d be wrong.

Item one. In the 80s, Thatcher quashed the intimidation and violence that allegedly occurred at union mass meetings. Stopping overt intimidation merely transferred power from workers to capitalists.
Item two. Naomi Campbell is found guilty of assaulting coppers. But let’s be clear here. She was the victim: BA had “mislaid” her property. But were the police investigating the alleged theft of her suitcase and thousands of others?

No. They were there to prosecute someone who responded to corporate venality with “intimidating” behaviour. The police – the bootboys of the ruling class – were quelling “violence” whilst allowing a big company to get away with mass vandalism.

The suppression of “intimidation” is therefore one way in which the ruling class maintains its power, not only by increasing “soft power“, of which it has more, but also by stigmatizing those with few other resources.

* Isn’t there a hint of racism here? A black person talks about gangsters and the  C4 bigwigs instantly think like an hysterical white supremacist from the 1930s Deep South, running round shrieking “niggers got guns.”

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Crime ,Equality ,Race relations

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Reader comments


I don’t think the words “Naomi Campbell” and “victim” belong in the same sentence, unless it’s “The latest victim of Naomi Campbell’s childish tantrums”.

this is bullshit from start to finish. if some white wannabe gangster had said the same, they’d have been out too. bugger ‘stigmatizing those with few other resources’, what that idiot Alexandra said was contemptible and repugnant, and if you think having ‘few resources’ is associated with that kind of moronism, you are the one stigmatizing those with few resources. Do you actually know any working class people, you Hampstead liberal? And the police as the bootboys of the ruling classes? that’s beyond contempt too – do you have a clue what the police do day in day out? This is teenage radicalism.

Did you see/read the transcript of what was said? Do you know the context of the history of her time in the house with regards to relations and emotions of other housemates? You’re a) reading too much in to the reasoning and b) ignoring what actually happened.

I find it interesting that we have so many articles on this site (especially from feminists) going on about the need to stop verbal abuse and the intimidation that comes with it, but that when a black person is kicked out by “whites” in power suddenly that person was completely entitled to antagonise, bully and intimidate those around her day in day out, and that we’re obviously just “misunderstanding” the class differences.

Plus, how anyone can accuse Big Brother of racism given what happened last year, I’m not sure.

The intimidating behaviour of an individual is completely different to the intimidating behaviour of a large profit making company.

The company doesn’t give a toss what colour skin you have.

Big Brother is specifically designed to engineer situations such as this. The show is, essentially, a Troll.

Respectfully,

Ben

This is easily the worst article I have ever read on LibCon.

I really don’t see the point of it. Perhaps you can expand on it.

I agree with Lee…this is baloney as an article I saw enough of Alex’s time in the house to know she was a viscious bully who deserved what she got….her behaviour was appalling to say the least….i’ve been accused of being racist when I worked out for chucking out two guys who were hopping into films who happened to be black…it’s this kind of nonsense approach that gives the fight against discrimination a bad name….

See this? Mat keeps telling me how brilliant you are, Chris, but wrong-headed bollocks like this is why I don’t read youyr blog, because now I have to do the netcast and I’ve got to do it while quashing a filthy temper because your wrong-headed bollocks has made me angry.

Soft coercion is, of course, just as wrong as physical violence, but just because it’s harder to control soft coercion DOES NOT make physical violence any less wrong, and does not mean we should allow a certain amount of physical violence “for balance”.

We should be fighting harder to stop BOTH sorts of coercion.

The worst submission on here I’ve seen. Utter rubbish.

Chris Dillow is an excellent writer and blogger, but we all have off days, and this was easily his worst post over at Stumbling & Mumbling by some distance. Quite what possessed him to go for the double in also making it also the worst ever post on Liberal Conspiracy I don’t know.

Andy S: maybe it’s coincidence, but every time I think “everyone goes on about how great an analyst he is; maybe there’s something in it” and go and look at his blog he’s posted something that riles me similarly. I gave up looking after the fifth or sixth time it happened…

Your loss, Jennie.

Oh dear, it seems Chris has rather thrown everyone sideways with his remarks because everyone, so far, seems to view his comments from a highly personalised perspective rather than as a sociological commentary. i.e. empathising with the victim rather than thinking in terms of the broader power dynamic, which is what Chris is talking about.

Chris’s analysis, as I see it, bears some similarities to the idea, which you’ll find expressed in the writings of both PJ O’Rouke and Hunter Thompson, that one of the main political and sociological functions of the constitutional right to bear arms in the US is to provide for a last line of defence against a descent in to authoritarian rule by holding the threat of armed insurrection over the government and civic authorities.

Or, to quote Jefferson:

“And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. … The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Likewise, if you look at the history of the UK over the last couple of hundred years, many of the liberalising and democratising measures passed by parliament have come about against the background of threatened insurrection.

Take universal suffrage, for example, where what was taught in school as history when I was younger was a narrative of enlightened liberal politicians taking up the cause of extending the franchise out of a sense of moral duty and social/political enlightenment.

If you look at what really happened – and Paul Foot’s ‘The Vote’ is probably the best place to start – then you’ll find that almost every step in the extension of the franchise took place against a background of civil unrest and the threat of insurrection/revolution and, more often than not, what ultimately overcame parliamentary resistance to electoral reform was the perception that if the ruling class did not give at least some ground to buy off the pressure, then they were very likely going to wind up swinging from Westminster Bridge.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the moral case for universal suffrage that saw the franchise extended to all men in 1918, it was the fear of what might happen if the vote was denied to several million men returning from WW1, all of whom had been trained to handle a rifle and kill.

As a more up to date example, thing about how the riots of the early 80s changed policing in BME communities, particularly in regards to the repeal of the old Suss laws – another example of a liberalising measure introduced on the back of intimidation and the threat of social unrest.

When Chris notes that ‘quashing violence transfers power from the black working class to the white rich’ he’s pointing out some rather uncomfortable and yet very contemporary truths;

a) that throughout history civil liberties have been won not by advancing moral and political arguments but by holding the threat of mass violence against the minority ruling class; and

b) that the absence of such a threat at the present time is what most enables and emboldens the current government in its efforts to strip away our civil liberties.

Unity, I am bang alongside the idea of peaceful protest, but side with Ghandi on the idea that to get anywhere you must use violent protest, which seems to be what you are advocating here.

If you have to use violence then you’re doing it wrong, surely?

Jennie:

Even a non-violent protest at a large enough scale carries with it an implied threat of violence because crowds are fundamentally unpredictable. Regardless of a leader’s intentions, if the crowd is big enough then a minor incident can still easily envelop the crowd and spark-off large scale violence.

Pretty much any mass gathering will, therefore, have the capacity to generate an intimidatory effect.

Would I personally advocate violence?

Not unless it really was the last and only resort but just because I wouldn’t like to go down that route doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate or understand how powerful a political force it can be.

Lots of things make powerful political statements which I would be uncomfortable advocating or participating in – just look at what is happening in Zimbabwe at the moment – it’s not that I don’t understand that violence makes a powerful statement, it’s that I think that no matter how powerful a statement it makes, it is still wrong to hurt other people.

“If you have to use violence then you’re doing it wrong, surely?”

That doesn’t fit the evidence. Gandhi is cited as a Great Reformer by people who want to spread that myth. However, a) the various wars around the time of Indian independence and partition killed several million people b) Indian independence was in postwar Britain’s political, economic and moral interests anyway, so making it happen wasn’t a very hard sell. And Gandhi aside, all significant peaceful protests have failed, while all significant advances for liberty/the left have involved either serious violence or the serious threat of violence.

“No matter how powerful a statement it makes, it is still wrong to hurt other people” is true, but irrelevant – sometimes you have to choose which unpleasant course of action is *least* wrong, and sometimes that will be the one which involves hurting other people.

So I assume Chris and other supporting his view point here are for the Iraq war? 😉

I was for the war, before I was against it 😉

I haven’t watched one second of the show, but I did read that transcript.

Quashing violence transfers power from the violent to the law-abiding – a fairly uncontroversial principle, I’d hope.

Only Chris brought race into it. Due to ‘hate crime’ legislation we’ve already subverted equality of the law depending on the victim. Chris seems to want to create inequalities on the offender side too.

A recipe for disaster.

“sometimes you have to choose which unpleasant course of action is *least* wrong, and sometimes that will be the one which involves hurting other people.”

There’s a lot of mealy-mouthed patronisation going on in this thread, isn’t there? Can I join in?

What we’re talking about here is the ends justifying the means, and I don’t think that the end of a more equal society is furthered by any side showing violence towards the other. Sooner or later there has to be a peaceful solution, and violence only puts that peaceful solution further away.

Quashing violence transfers power from the violent to the law-abiding – a fairly uncontroversial principle, I’d hope.

Try saying that in Harare and see whether people there think its an uncontroversial principle?

It’s not that simple, PT – the conduct and legitimacy of the ruling class in a given situation has a major bearing one whether such a principle can be considered uncontroversial or even valid.

‘a highly personalised perspective rather than as a sociological commentary’

Actually, putting names and faces to the power dynamics actually serves to make it pretty clear what a bunch of power-worshipping wank-stained Stalinism that ‘sociological commentary’ always was.

What we’re talking about here is the ends justifying the means

Basically, yes. Sometimes utilitarian solutions are the least worst in not the only viable option.

As I’ve just pointed out to PT, if the people of Zimbabwe were suddenly to find themselves in a position to put Mugabe up against the wall few would complain about it if someone then pulled the trigger and many would argue not only that the end justified the means but that such an action was justified by way of necessity.

We have the luxury of being in a position to take, and debate, the moral high ground, many others in Zimbabwe, Burma and other parts of the world are nothing like as fortunate.

Actually, Soru, it has far more to do with Lenin, Trotsky and Bakunin than it does Stalin and harks back to Marat and the Jacobins.

Well, this has actually developed into a good debate…just to drag things back a little; in the context of this article Chris is clearly wrong, Alex is an obnoxious person and an out and out bully so she got what she deserved.

Moving on…political violence, I have sympathise with both sides of the debate. If, for example, MDC supporters were armed to defend themselves then I would agree with that and dont see how anybody can question their right to do that; if I am attacked in the street and punch my assailant in the process of self-defence I would not expect somebody to feel I was violent. I would expect them to feel that if i then went onto beat my assailant down and seriously injured them and that is the nub of this…where is the line crossed. In the example I have crossed the line from self-defence to active aggression.

You cannot draw arbitarily condemn both sets of violence as being morally equal; they are not. If self-defence ibncludes a violent response then I feel that is justifiable and supportable, it is when the line is crossed that it becomes unacceptable.

For this reason I would never say I am a pacifist because pacifism implies, in some contexts, meek surrender and the abandonment of peoples right to defend themselves.

And Gandhi aside, all significant peaceful protests have failed, while all significant advances for liberty/the left have involved either serious violence or the serious threat of violence.

Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, anyone? Fall of Apartheid in South Africa?

Ultimately, it wasn’t the moral case for universal suffrage that saw the franchise extended to all men in 1918, it was the fear of what might happen if the vote was denied to several million men returning from WW1, all of whom had been trained to handle a rifle and kill.

Universal suffrage would seem to include its extension to women: had they been “trained to kill” as well? Were the authorities afraid of the terrifying prospect of more women throwing themselves under horses at the Darby?

Or did the ruling party believe that such an extension would increase its majority at Westminster?

It’s not that simple, PT – the conduct and legitimacy of the ruling class in a given situation has a major bearing one whether such a principle can be considered uncontroversial or even valid.

Chris was discussing the UK at this moment. We have one of those elected government that everyone claims to be keen on. So what is the justification for violence?

Does he think that democracy is fine – as long as the electorate votes for the people he likes?

That Unity has to equate the UK sitiuation with Zimbabwe to support his/Chris’ argument shows how weak the argument is.

Let’s get specific. Does Chris think that black-on-white violence in the UK ought to be allowed or encouraged?

unity: I see you don’t dispute the wank-stained, though.

Fantasy-violence is one thing, but in reality, if you have an effectively superior ability to put your opponents up against a wall, and protect your supporters from those who want to stamp on their necks, then you _are_ the ruling class. It’s just what the words mean.

If, once in that situation, you entertain a fantasy of being the true representative of the people, fighting an underdog war against the powers that be, then you are not just a king, but a mad king, a nutter living in fantasy-land, a Hitler, a Robespierre or a Mugabe.

“If, once in that situation, you entertain a fantasy of being the true representative of the people, fighting an underdog war against the powers that be, then you are not just a king, but a mad king, a nutter living in fantasy-land, a Hitler, a Robespierre or a Mugabe.”

Well I think psychologically that is called a god-complex and does tend to be something that people who lead initially popular (sometimes mass) movements are prone too; they come to see themselves as the embodiment of that movement and their will as being it’s will so any means become autmatically justified to further their own, ‘the peoples’, ends…..

Unity said “We have the luxury of being in a position to take, and debate, the moral high ground, many others in Zimbabwe, Burma and other parts of the world are nothing like as fortunate.”

It’s not a luxury, it’s a right. The fact that the Left seem to consider freedom of expression to be a luxury may explain the lamentable inaction vis-a-vis Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Sudan, Burma etc etc.

“Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, anyone? Fall of Apartheid in South Africa?”

Hmm. The former was definitely equivalent to Britain in India – the USSR was falling apart politically and economically, so no longer had the will or the blood ‘n’ treasure to maintain its empire.

In South Africa, there *was* a major campaign of violent resistance to apartheid, and by the mid-90s the white population had declined to levels where politicians were no longer confident they’d be able to stave off a violent revolution if one came. Mainstream white South Africans’ fear of becoming Zimbabwe, rather than well-meaning liberals’ boycott of naughty grapes, was what drove democratisation and liberalisation.

That “violent resistance to apartheid” was pretty much wiped out by the 1990s: therefore apartheid was NOT ended by the violent campaign.

As for the claim that it was inevitable that Soviet rule would fall when it did: I notice that no one seemed to predict it before it happened. And yet, an amazing number of people seem to know after the fact that it was inevitable.

Point to any major political event, and you can be sure that plenty of people will say “it was inevitable”, after it happened.

And that is just as true of the violent events as the non-violent ones.

That “violent resistance to apartheid” was pretty much wiped out by the 1990s: therefore apartheid was NOT ended by the violent campaign.

No, the violent campaign was what brought people to the table. As in NI, the talks were a reward to the ex-terrorists for giving up violence; as in NI, the same outcome would never had been achieved had the ex-terrorists not taken up violence in the first place.

“As for the claim that it was inevitable that Soviet rule would fall when it did: I notice that no one seemed to predict it before it happened… Point to any major political event, and you can be sure that plenty of people will say “it was inevitable”, after it happened.”

Prior to 1989, there were plenty of non-violent protesters in eastern Europe. The Soviet army shot them and got away with it. In 1989 it decided not to shoot them, and so the non-violent protestors won. So the key difference between 1989 and pre-1989 was not the presence or absence of non-violent protestors, but the army’s lack of will to shoot them.

For my money, that was due to economic collapse combined with the devastating, violent military defeat the USSR received in Afghanistan. Maybe it was due to the devastating rhetoric of Presidents Reagan and Bush. But it certainly wasn’t due directly to the non-violent protestors, brave as they were.

John B, isn’t a decision not to shoot people a non-violent response, then?

Yes Jennie it is but ultimately if people are being shot at they have the right to shoot back, in my view.

“John B, isn’t a decision not to shoot people a non-violent response, then?”

Yes, of course – but the reason it had an impact was because it was being made by the USSR (or at least, by the USSR’s soldiers) rather than by the dissidents, and “hoping the enemy decide not to shoot you” doesn’t strike me as the best tactic for would-be freedom fighters.

“Hoping the enemy get near-destroyed in an unwinnable war against terrifying tribal maniacs who have no qualms at all about killing, and also have half a billion dollars’ worth of American weaponry” might be a better one – if I were a non-violent protestor from eastern Europe I’d certainly be sending the Taleban some flowers and a thankyou note…

It’s not a luxury, it’s a right. The fact that the Left seem to consider freedom of expression to be a luxury may explain the lamentable inaction vis-a-vis Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Sudan, Burma etc etc.

Thus speaks someone whose political idol was boson buddies with General Pinochet.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Tories approach to human rights during the Bosnian conflict. I’m sure Zimbabwe must have some assets we can help them privatise to fund Mugabe’s forces the way the Tory government of the time helped facilitate the privatisations in Serbia that bankrolled Milosevic.

‘Thus speaks someone whose political idol was boson buddies with General Pinochet.’

I once spoke to someone who had a link to a website run by a chap whose aunty used to be a Nazi…

‘Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Tories approach to human rights during the Bosnian conflict. I’m sure Zimbabwe must have some assets we can help them privatise to fund Mugabe’s forces the way the Tory government of the time helped facilitate the privatisations in Serbia that bankrolled Milosevic.’

Earth to Unity (taps screen).

Ah yes, I see you’re still too dumb to understand political argument…

BTW – do you do repairs to chipped windscreens?

As in NI, the talks were a reward to the ex-terrorists for giving up violence;

An army that gives up violence before entering negotiations is an army that believes itself to be losing.

Prior to 1989, there were plenty of non-violent protesters in eastern Europe. The Soviet army shot them and got away with it.

They shot a lot of violent demonstrators too – so where is the evidence that those non-violent demonstrators would have been wise to use violence? If you shoot at people with guns they will tend to shoot back. And if they have a lot more firepower than yourself, you prove your stupidity more often than your heroism.

Under such circumstances it is often more sensible to try to talk your adversaries people into switching sides. Many a coup has taken over a country without firing a shot.

As for a “devastating military defeat” in Afghanistan – they lost 15,000 troops out of an army numbering millions. One quarter the American casualties in Vietnam. Devastating defeats certainly have come down in the world.

It might be more accurate to call it an embarrassment. Many empires have undergone a similar experience and happily gone on to conquer someone with fewer mountains to hide in.

Ultimately the system fell because the people it relied upon to defend it did not really want to. It was amazing how many people managed to be away from their desks when the orders came through. But they would have fought if they thought that their lives were at stake.

To add to my post above: I would not say that “non-violence is always best”, but I certainly would not say the reverse either. In particular, if you launch a violent attack upon the state, than those who regard its rule as legitimate are bound to come to its defence.

So your best bet is usually to persuade people that their honour and self-interest both require them to support your side, rather than that of the other lot.

Hence Lawrence of Arabia’s famous (if exaggerated) remark that the most important weapon in the arsenal of a modern commander is a printing press.


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