What do I think of the New Generation Network manifesto published on Cif? It is intellectually flawed and politically unproductive.
The document has generated a string of articles by its signatories. But it failed to move beyond the parameters of dominant discourse on religion and ethnicity and thus brought nothing new. For the ideas that formed its core, all one would have had to do is refer to Ruth Kelly’s recent statements on the subject saving us much noise and a great deal of ink. The document exhibited the same official disregard for structural inequalities, the same stress on the divisiveness of multiculturalism, the same fondness for such abstract concepts as equal citizenship, and the same dislike for such self-appointed community representatives as the MCB, the government’s new baddie.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, one of its signatories wrote, “We believed in universal standards and rights which are enshrined in the UN human rights charter. Citizens were autonomous individuals not creatures owned and controlled by rigid traditions”. So far, so good. But is this universal autonomous free subject to be found anywhere on the ground? This obsession with an absolute notion of citizenship is precisely the manifesto’s chief intellectual weakness. Outside the realms of legal doctrine and philosophical theory, the notion simply has no existence. The concept of citizenship, like other political concepts, does not exist outside space and time. It has flesh and bones, and is necessarily embedded in a historical condition and a socio-political context. In theory, we are all equal citizens. The white middle-class Protestant in middle England is equal to the recently naturalised Somali living in the slums of Brick Lane, or the Bengali imported to these shores as cheap labour and cast aside in the forgotten recesses of our sad industrial cities. In practice, abstract citizenship is mere fantasy and wishful thinking.
Instead of confronting the structural inequalities that cripple vast sectors of our population, the document chose to elope to the comforting world of lofty ideals. The truth substantiated by a string of reports and studies is that race and religion have become a determining factor of social stratification. The new underclass growing daily in the margins of London, or Birmingham, Paris, or Lyon is made up of religio-ethnic minorities and new migrants. These find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder the moment they step on the soil of these lands. The trouble with this manifesto is that it lacks any historical sense, or socio-political awareness. Its motto seems to be “Down with reality, long live theory”. In it one finds no analysis of the conditions of the minorities, the circumstances of their emergence, or the socio-political structures within which they are made to operate.
If the principles of equal citizenship and human rights determined one’s social lot, France which makes more noise about these abstract notions than any other country on earth in the name of “les valeurs de la République”, would have been God’s promised land for immigrants and their offspring. If you have any illusion about that, a quick tour of Barbès, or Couronnes is enough to dispel it – unless your idea of heaven is dirty crowded streets walked by the brown-skinned, hollow-eyed, shabbily clad wandering jobless.
Although he was a conservative and even a racist, Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolutionaries and their discourse is particularly relevant here. Their vision, he argued, was founded on abstract notions that purported to be rational but in fact ignored the complexities of socio-political reality. A political doctrine founded on abstract notions about “equality” and the “rights of man”, Burke maintained, is meaningless and could easily be used by those in power to justify tyrannical measures.
The same criticism could apply to this manifesto, which reserves a small paragraph to what it describes as “challenges”, and spills much ink on elaborating “our principles”. The writers jump to what ought to be, without making any real effort to diagnose what is. Of course, the notion of citizenship is fundamentally important. But its meaningfulness is premised on a) an accurate diagnosis of existing structural conditions; and b) A socio-political struggle on the ground to bridge the gap between what is and what should be.
It took the horrors of the Holocaust for Europe to recognise its Jews as equal citizens and to stretch its existing notions of tolerance to encompass them. And it was only with the civil rights movement that the black minority could come a few steps closer to the still distant value of citizenship and equality. Theoretical recognition is not enough. It is actual concrete recognition that matters. Blacks and Asians are often spoken of in the context of citizenship and Britishness, but open the most widely read papers in the land and you’ll still find them referred to as “migrants”, “asylum seekers”, “foreigners”, and “terrorists”.
The missing link in this document is the diagnosis of reality. Where it tries to fill this huge vacuum, the text offers the wrong diagnosis, eventuating into the wrong remedies. Reading the tens of lines it devotes to “self-imposed” representatives and “gate keepers”, you would think that these are at the root of Britain’s religio-ethnic minorities’ misfortunes. The implication is that if these were dispensed with, their communities’ problems would disappear in one stroke. These weak organisations struggling to offer some form of representation to impoverished minorities underrepresented in central, regional and local government and in many areas of the public and private sectors, are made to sound like the powerful lobbies and interest groups feared by the government and exerting great influence on its decisions.
It is no secret that the Blair government is currently targeting several of these organisations for refusing to bow down to its wishes and clear the mess it had created in Iraq. Consciously or otherwise, the writers line themselves behind Blair and his ministers, fighting their battles and firing their guns at their targets. There is nothing brave or praiseworthy in falling in line behind those in power. Whatever its faults, an organisation like the MCB with its 400 affiliates is a great deal more representative of mainstream Muslim opinion in the UK then the super-imposed sectarian entity.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 24 November 2006