From the November 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
The ruling class must look on racial tension in exactly the same way as lawyers look on law-breaking. There is a famous story of an Old Bailey barrister who said he wanted crime reduced, but not abolished entirely. The capitalists’ opinion of ill-feeling between the various colour groups in our cities, white and brown and black, is precisely the same: a little is good, too much is bad. Too much would cause trouble. People fighting in the streets overnight would not make good workers the next day, and so on. But in some respects a little of it can do nothing but good to the ruling class. If white workers blame their poor housing and working conditions on people with darker skins, while Asian and West Indian workers blame their troubles on prejudice and discrimination among people with lighter complexions, then workers of all colours will be kept from thinking about the real cause of their poverty — their class position in capitalist society. Hence the pious exhortations by politicians, church-leaders, and media spokesmen generally, telling the workers to love their neighbours and backing it up with threats to have the police and courts deal severely with anyone who does not love his neighbour enough, while at the same time both major parties deliberately keep the racialist pot boiling — Mr Callaghan by passing an Act to exclude British passport holders on the sole ground, in effect, that their skin is not pinky-grey and Mrs Thatcher by public forebodings that if coloured immigrants ever grew to as much as seven per cent of the population, the other ninety-three per cent might feel “rather swamped” by them.
Tapping a new reservoir
The capitalist class and its state brought in the coloured immigrants. When capitalism was having one of its periodic booms, there were fears of workers being in short supply. That might have led, the ruling class thought, to an upward pressure on wages. So other workers were deliberately brought in, from areas where the standard of living was even lower than the lowest normal standards in this country, to make sure that the native-born British proletariat did not take advantage of the situation. David Wood, the main political correspondent of The Times, recalled (in an article on 6.3.78) that he felt uneasy about the influx in the 1950s. He asked “a senior Conservative” what was happening, and the naive young journalist got a straight answer, in which current capitalist tactics were frankly explained to him. “In conditions of full employment and without an incomes policy, how could any economic minister or any industrialist keep down wage rates without tapping a new reservoir of cheap labour? Were scarce nurses underpaid? Then let the Ministry of Health recruit in the Caribbean”. (Which they were doing, incidentally, when Enoch Powell was Minister of Health).
So coloured immigration took place in order to supply British industrialists and the British state with “cheap labour”.
The limits of brainwashing
The growth of racialism, and the strong support obtained by the National Front in some areas, is itself a testimony to the excellence of the propaganda machine which serves capitalism. So far it has succeeded in preventing most of the workers — the large majority of the population, dirty-handed or white-collared — from discovering the real reasons for their discontent. With a sustained barrage deafening every one of us from the cradle to the grave, in the schools, on radio, TV, and films, in the press and in the pulpit, the message has ben hammered home that the present capitalist system is unchangeable and will inevitably continue to the end of time, that it is the best system ever devised by the wit of man, and that no worker can ever have any fundamental grievances. Yet as soon as the worker — thus unendingly brainwashed to accept the system under which he suffers — finds another group in his vicinity whom he can, however implausibly, blame for his condition, how fiercely does he immediately begin to blame them! The worker is told repeatedly that his living and working conditions are as good as they could possibly be, and moreover that they are getting better all the time — and yet, as soon as the slightest apparent opportunity occurs, how much bile pours out forthwith! The pressure that exists, tightly restrained, in a boiler, can best be seen when a small valve is opened and a scalding jet of steam immediately escapes.
Having it both ways
So long as racialism is kept to mere dislike among different groups, providing each race with a scapegoat to blame and averting any approach to the real problem, the ruling class can enjoy the benefits of working-class disunity without running the risks of open conflict among the workforce. They can reflect, too, on the achievements of their educational system. To the capitalist state, education is always a difficult problem. It must educate the workers to run the factories, mines, farms, transport systems and so on, providing both the rank-and-file labourers and the foremen and managers; yet at the same time it must avoid encouraging people’s intellects to develop to the point where they will begin to think for themselves (at which point they would introduce a system run for their benefit and not for the benefit of their present rulers). The various irrational propositions widely accepted in the arguments over immigration show how successful the educational system has been in preventing such a development. For example, we are told that immigration must be stopped, because Britain cannot take in any more people; this in a country where emigration exceeds immigration, and has done each year since 1964. If all migration was stopped, therefore, we are likely to have not fewer, but more, inhabitants. Again, it is alleged that a small minority will swamp the vast majority: a new departure in the history of swamping. The British have claimed for centuries the right to travel and settle anywhere in the world — America, Australia, Africa, Asia, everywhere; there is scarcely a corner of the globe that has not seen its British immigrants, usually as rulers telling the natives what to do, moreover. But now, as soon as a few non-Britons — a mere handful in proportion to the British exodus — decide to come the other way, the air is suddenly full of British voices explaining how obviously right it is that everyone should stay at home. Again, we are informed that all these immigrants are coming here and “stealing our jobs”: and in the same breath, it appears, they are coming here and refusing to steal our jobs, and are living on social security. The immigrants, the cry goes up, are taking over all the best council houses, and are living the life of Reilly; and at the same time, they are existing with whole families crammed into single rooms, and are threatening public health standards.
There cannot be much wrong with education from a ruling-class point of view, while it produces millions prepared to accept unthinkingly such propositions as these.