Catching the Future on the Wing

Image: Rowan Heuvel

Wednesday 7th February, 2018

Adam Elliott-Cooper

Of all the late Sivanandan’s writing which has had the most profound effect on me, it is his speech to the GLC in March 1983, which was turned in to the introduction of Challenging Racism: Strategies for the ‘80s, that remains at the forefront of my mind. While it offered a detailed yet succinct, pragmatic yet clear, polemical yet well-evidenced appraisal of racism in London (and beyond) at that time; it remains salient in Britain today.

I first read Sivanandan as an undergraduate, enticed by titles including ‘Catching History on the Wing’ and ‘A Different Hunger’. Yet, I still struggle to identify what it was about this particular speech in the aftermath of Black revolt in ’81, that made me keep returning to it. It could be the romanticism of anti-racism in the 60s and 70s, which gave hope that a black social movement is possible, even in a Britain that felt frozen between Blairism and the nasty party in the mid-2000s. It may have been his monumental take-down of the black bourgeoisie, which spoke authentically to my experience as a young black student finding himself the target of ‘black role model’ initiatives, mentor schemes and diversity internships. The leaders of such initiatives were described by Sivanandan as ‘a tranche of the ethnic petit-bourgeoisie...chiefs for the Bantustans.’ I’ve often imagined the atmosphere at the GLC that day in 1983, as Sivanandan’s wit skewered in a single sentence racism, colonialism and their legacies in neoliberal Britain.

Yet, while Sivanandan’s speech railed against the destruction of independent anti-racist movements, and the co-opting of those that survived, it also contained a word of warning for the future. The race equality ‘industry’ of highly-paid and varyingly-skilled consultants, the re-branding of community policing, mass surveillance and deindustrialisation are all identified as key pitfalls of the path of neoliberalisation; all remain eerily relevant. But Sivanandan’s strategic thinking can illuminate our current political moment in other ways. In the midst of interminable wars and the march of neoliberalism, a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party has defied the odds and pushed the political landscape wide open. This ‘government-in-waiting’ has questioned the near-permanence of war that many in my generation have been sold as a foreign policy norm, and disrupted the doctrine of limitless privatisation. Equally important however, is its potential to change the politics of the near-future on the local level. Though Sivanandan rages against the liberal left, its ethnic/identity politics and the divorcing of race from class; he also urges us to seize the opportunities they offer:

We don’t have the tools, brothers and sisters; we’ve got to get the tools from the system itself and hope that, in the process, five out of ten of us don’t become corrupt. If we’ve got to get the tools and Ken Livingstone’s GLC is prepared to give them, we should not hesitate to use them.

Today local politics, community organisations, supplementary schools, police monitoring projects, women’s groups and refuges, can all get the tools, if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is prepared to give them. It is in the offices, classrooms, hostels and centres of community-run, independent organisations where much of the social change under a Corbyn government will likely take place. It barely warrants repeating that the magic wand of policy can often do little to effect change in institutions premised on racialised oppression. Indeed, ‘how can we expect cadets trained in racism to be accountable to local black communities?’. While Livingstone’s leftist administration wasn’t without fault, it fought hard against the assault of Thatcherism. If Corbyn’s Labour do form the next government, they will have to contend with the nostalgic xeno-racism of Brexit. It is in the abandonment of the centre ground where the opportunities and threats of the Thatcher vs Livingstone era played out. This can inform the coming divisions between Britain’s concomitant popular surges: the internationalism offered by Corbyn and the looming isolationism threatened by Brexit.

While Sivanandan’s speech challenges us to influence educational and media institutions, to incorporate black perspectives and experiences into mainstream teaching and reporting; his final focus is an appeal for alliances. It is here that we see that the beauty of some of Sivanandan’s assertions, is in their simplicity:

the struggle against racism, without the struggle against class, remains cultural[ly] nationalist. But class struggle without race struggle, without the struggles of women, of gays, of the Irish, remains economistic.

Here, Sivanandan calls for alliances across Britain’s working classes, building solidarity that cuts across race, gender and sexuality. Trade union racism in the 1980s engendered a reticence among black organisations to work directly with them. Today, we see even the biggest unions struggle to find the resources to organise with some of the most exploited workers: the undocumented, precarious and racialised workers, who occupy service positions in offices, apartments and the night-time economy which have proliferated in post-industrial London. Should Labour form the next government, we must be prepared for a re-invigorated union infrastructure equipped with invaluable resources for the anti-racist movements Sivanandan championed.

For me, Sivanandan’s interventions provided a British context for a world of black politics dominated by the African American freedom struggle, and its heroes. While I had to look elsewhere for the detailed histories or concepts which enabled me to better understand race and empire, his energy and style provided intellectual fuel which remains both vitalising and inspiring. There are few anti-racist scholars who embolden the reader to not simply learn and understand, but to act, struggle and fight. Sivanandan may be most fondly remembered for his impact on activists, organisers and the otherwise disheartened.

Adam Elliott-Cooper is a research associate at King's College London. His research interests including urban displacement, anti-racism and post-colonialism. He also sits on the board of The Monitoring Group.

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