The authors of Empire’s Endgame report on what is going on behind the findings of the now infamous government report on racism in the UK.
What could more aptly signal empire’s endgame than the events of the past week? The government-appointed Race and Disparity Unit published a high-profile report on racism in Britain, making the unsurprising – and yet still unsettling – assertion that there is no institutional racism, that racism itself is largely a figment of the victim mentality of black and brown people, that the calls to address racism and its historical determinants are the product of misplaced youthful idealism, serving only to occlude the needs of a white working class neglected by a conspiracy of elite multiculturalists. The already infamous ‘Sewell Report’ (referring to commission chair, Tony Sewell) brought together some longer running themes in the Tory project to discredit anti-racism, including:
- Arguing that schooling cannot be institutionally racist because some racially minoritised groups ‘succeed’ in schooling
- That histories of colonialism and slavery should focus less on cruelty and profit, and more on the manner in which the subjugated created new (and implicitly, ‘better’ or ‘modern’) cultures as a result of their colonisation
- That the noteworthy drivers of disparity in Britain are geography and ‘social class’ – and therefore not race
- Britain is a beacon of tolerance and fairness and any disparities in the life experiences and outcomes of racially minoritised groups are better understood as a result of personal weaknesses arising from deficient families, cultures and networks
Grudgingly, an observer might recognise the chutzpah of the move. After the carnage of Covid-19, with Britain reeling from a world-leading death toll that has thrown the divisions of race and class into sharp relief, it takes some brass neck to corral state resources to create a public report filled with outright racism denial. It is, however, a level of gobsmacking audacity anticipated in our book, Empire’s Endgame.
The endgame of an empire in decline? The disorientating state of racism today
We started this book in a very different moment, coming together with a shared sense of unease about events and, at the same time, uncertain about how to decipher what was happening. We were writing in a Britain where the EU referendum had amplified anti-migrant hysteria and unleashed a new/old jingoism. We could see machineries of state violence smashing up the lives and hopes of so many: black, brown, Muslim, migrant, disabled, queer, the precarious working class, the young. What we could not yet quite see was how such a machinery worked. The book is our collective attempt to solve this puzzle. What we are witnessing, in our view, is one version of what can happen when a nation in crisis (political, economic, psychic) returns to state racism as the first and last response to every challenge.
The proto-fascist / nationalist wave
Many of us felt the chaotic charge towards self-destruction, in a desperate attempt to claw back a semblance of an historic power and global prestige, was the start of ‘empire’s endgame’. Electing a hard-right buffoon to the White House and Downing Street were just two elements of a wave of nationalist and proto-fascist electoral victories which had also spread across the Global South in the last decade. Seeking to rid late capitalism of what remained of its social liberalism – principally, a degree of tolerance for minoritised people and the final vestiges of welfarism – the proposed path to national glory was reborn. The slogans ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control’ in the US and Britain respectively, spoke to a perceived decline of white supremacy and nostalgia for imperial influence. These desperate clamours of nationalism, as Sivamohan Valluvan puts it, throw scandal, absurdity, violence and the renewed resistance from the left, back into a chaotic political arena.
The claims of the Sewell Report might be understood as a continuation of this trend, speaking primarily to those anxious and unsettled by the apparent loss of imperial/white status. Indeed, the report had two separate messages tailored to two different audiences. To the newly won over segments of the white and propertied voting base, the message was: do not worry about the scenes of civil unrest you see on your television, we have got your back. To the young, precarious black and brown led movements burgeoning in the streets (also taking into account the Policing and Crime Bill) say: this path you are starting down will not have a pretty end, so stop now while you still can. In this framing, responding to hugely disproportionate Covid-19 deaths, unemployment, poverty and experiences of ongoing state violence among black and brown communities with ‘Racism? What racism?’ starts to make a kind of sense.
As others have pointed out, it is a dramatic move designed to abandon all pretence of polite political debate. Instead, this is a move straight out of the rapidly assembled and brutally deployed playbook of the global right. Assert the outlandish, make your opponents come onto the terrain of your silliness, refuting your evidence-free assertions and in the process give air to your non-argument. Be willfully extreme and don’t listen, because that guarantees the public conversation will be heated and divisive. As a tactic, this whole endeavour gives a dubious illusion of addressing racism in order to present any attempt to challenge it as a zero-sum game. Any gain against racism is reframed as a loss for others. And not a loss for racists, who we’re told don’t really exist anymore, but for ‘the ordinary people’ coded here as ‘the white working class’.
As a move it is shameless and yet almost masterful. In a moment when the young are overwhelmingly critical of the violence of state racism, increasingly (self)schooled in the horrors of empire, with far less to anchor their precarious disjointed lives into the always fragile fictions of national pride, in this moment the state throws a lifeline to (older) doubters.
Drafted in to placate the imagined Tory heartland, the Sewell Report says ‘See, it is OK to dislike talk of anti-racism and historical injustice’. More than OK, because in this zero-sum game any narrow space allowed to talk of racism is a squeeze on the very existence of you and yours. If you feel that there is not enough, that life is harder, perhaps that pandemic has made the struggle to stay alive all but impossible, well perhaps it is all this racism talk that has been stealing resources and attention from your legitimate needs. Yes, it is true that the world seems to be falling apart, perhaps that your world is falling apart, but don’t you feel this talk about racism is getting out of hand? Could this new, demanding race talk be at the heart of it?
We anticipated this strange non-argument mode of politics in the book, but since its completion we have been endlessly amazed at how far this deployment of illogicality has extended. The point, of course, is not to convince. It is to allow the ridiculous to be given voice and to be defended as a legitimate view. It is to allow the pretence that bile against anti-racism represents a concern for class disadvantage. Indeed, this is one of many attempted maneuvers by this government to claim that undue focus on race has detracted from the real and honest markers of disparity in Britain – ‘social class’ and geography, as if the stories of class, geography and race have ever been separable in the history of modern Britain.
Not only does this kick up the dust of confusion into the eyes of those who wish to struggle against injustice, but it deliberately obfuscates how race works. To come to the conclusion that race is not a primary marker of disparity (despite its own data demonstrating otherwise), the report sets a particular benchmark for identifying racism as the driver of any particular disparity; in order to be considered ‘racial’, said disparity must be traced back to a decision or set of decisions made by a white person who holds bias against black and brown people. Hence, racial disparity can be considered to be on the decline if a survey can demonstrate ‘dwindling white prejudice’.
This is evidently a farcical understanding of how the ‘racial’ operates as a technique through which groups of people are constituted as both differentially exploitable and expendable – tools that are essential to maintaining the class society the report professes to be so invested in changing. Pitting the claims of anti-racism against the structural violence of class plants the poisonously seductive suggestion that those who complain of racism must be doing so from a position of class privilege. Most of all, it reframes political space in a way that leaves the neglectful state nowhere to be seen.
In the book, we propose the figure of the buffoon as a lens through which to understand the apparently willful ineptitude of political elites. Obviously, we looked to the highly staged performances of some key players of this moment – Trump, Johnson, Orbán, Modi, Bolsanaro and Erdoğan – but the figure of the buffoon is not tied to any particular personality. In fact, it is a misunderstanding to see political buffoonery as solely in the realm of political theatre. Buffoonery is also embedded in the practices of the neglectful state. It is there in the construction and operation of state practices designed to be ineffective, most of all in the distribution of resources or in the administration of protection. The buffoon is the embodiment of a state that no longer even pretends responsibility for the population. The buffoon’s message is ‘stop trying to capture the state, because what can the state do anyway?’
Few could have predicted that after the failures of the Bernie and Corbyn projects, one of the largest left protest movements in a generation, possibly ever, would sweep both the US and Britain. And while tackling the racial violence of police, prisons and borders was considered secondary to the left’s attempts at electoral power, they were centerstage in the movements which mobilised under the banner of Black Lives Matter in 2020. In response, Johnson’s Tory government, aided by mainstream media, has sought to concoct a fresh folk devil – the ‘aggravated activist’ – framed to whip up fear towards the younger activists leading street protests against state violence and climate crisis.
The timing of the Sewell report is therefore telling, an attempt to obscure racialised state violence at a moment where the Government is legislating its very expansion: the Asylum Bill, the Sovereignty Bill, and the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill all wait in the wings. The protests sparked by the latter mark the ongoing crisis of state legitimacy, now increasingly visible in the weekly spectacles of police violence that have met protests across the country.
But the mobilisations of today also mark a continuation – perhaps escalation – of the summer 2020 movement. The concrete possibilities of multi-ethnic solidarity that we see on KillTheBill protests further expose the limits of the individualist and culturalist understandings of race and racism that are foregrounded in the Sewell report. Many laughed at the Commission’s seemingly random attack on the term ‘BAME’ – a term hardly coined by radicals in the throes of struggle. However, what is interesting here is not the term itself, but the reasoning given by the report for rejecting it; ‘the term ‘BAME community’ feels like a group that is held together by no more than what it is not.’ The mandate here is to discredit solidarity even under the rubric of the most anaemic terminology of state multiculturalism: you have nothing in common, so why fight each other’s fights? Yet, the coalitions repeatedly coming out to fight state violence destablise the representational and discursive forms of liberal antiracism that sought to contain the summer movements. This reminds us that, beyond any institutional statement or blog article condemning the Sewell report, the resistance to state racism is made in our unexpected connections to each other, in solidarity across the suffocating strictures of identities. In the flow of the crowd marching, laughing, running, hiding, where new alliances are made. Once again, in the streets.
The authors of Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State include Gargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nisancioglu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebrial, Nadine El-Enany and Luke de Noronha.