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"Divide and rule"? Diane Abbott was right, says Laurie Penny

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power.

Racism, as the British National Party and its neo-fascist street imitators have been arguing for years, cuts both ways. On 4 January, a black British woman MP hammered out a comment on Twitter which could, taken entirely out of context, be interpreted as a a generalisation about white people. Diane Abbott MP is now Britain's best-known racist -- in a week when the nation's top story has been the prosecution of the murder of a black teenager by a gang of white youths and the subsequent "institutional racism" that was unearthed in the handling of the case by the Metropolitan police.

But hang on, what was it that Abbott actually said? Let's have a little look at the generalisation over which the Hackney MP got a public dressing-down from her own party. Abbott said that "white people" like to play the game of "divide and rule". That's rude, isn't it? Clearly she thinks that ordinary white people like me spend the waking hours between tooth-brushing and the office dividing and ruling. It couldn't possibly be a comment on the structural imposition of power along lines of race and class, particularly not from a veteran anti-racist campaigner, and especially not in a week where institutional racism is in the news. That would just be silly.

Dorian Lynskey's comments on the matter are worth quoting at length. He points out that Abbott, who has a track record of saying the right thing in just the wrong way -- "she should have said 'white people in power' or 'certain white people'" -- was essentially on the money.

[Abbott] clarified that she was referring to 19th century colonialism when, to take just one example, the Belgians colonising modern-day Rwanda strategically favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus and sowed the seeds of attempted genocide a century later. But you don't need to go back that far. The US government's efforts to disrupt the civil rights and Black Power movements are a textbook example of divide-and-rule. It is what dominant powers do. To read her tweet as an indictment of every single white person in the world requires either paranoia or malice. Most of all it means denying that power matters.

The British right has always been allergic to any structural understanding of racial politics, and all week, the commentariat has been coming out in hives. A day before Abbottgate, a Telegraph leader wrung its hands over the profound impact of the Lawrence trial on racial awareness in British public life, complaining that "people" have "found themselves denounced for harmless, if inappropriate, remarks". Elsewhere, former Prospect editor David Goodhart wrote that:

If the Stephen Lawrence case may help to diminish a black grievance culture, it is likely to increase a white working class one . . . this is part of a broader story of how parts of white working class London, especially in the east and the south, felt that they had to accommodate the changes required by post-war immigration...and then had to endure lectures about racism from middle class liberals whose lives had not been changed at all.

The argument that the "white working class" has had anti-racist politics forced on it by "middle class liberals" is an insult to those white working-class people who have spent years, sometimes lifetimes, fighting racism in their communities. In Barking and Dagenham in 2010, thousands of the borough's residents mobilised to stop the British National Party gaining a foothold in Westminster. Goodhart's lazy generalisations play right into the language of the modern far-right: that anti-racism is itself racist, and that any gains for black people must produce equal and opposite losses for white people, in a world in which privilege and prejudice can never be fought, only redistributed.

There's a term for that tactic. The term is "divide and rule".

It's a tactic, as Abbott herself put it, "as old as colonialism" - and it's also a tactic as modern as Twitter. When those with an ideological or personal stake in defending the interests of privilege feel themselves under threat, their first line of defence is often to persuade the underprivileged that it is they who are under attack.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney defend tax-breaks for the super-rich by telling blue-collar Americans that Democrats and union workers want to cut their paycheques: divide and rule. David Cameron denounces industrial action by encouraging low-paid private sector workers to complain that the pensions public sector workers are striking to protect are higher than theirs: divide and rule. David Willetts tells unemployed men that it's all these selfish women in the workplace who have taken their jobs: divide and rule. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne, not to mention Ian Duncan Smith, defend the dismantling of the welfare state by persuading the working class that those in receipt of housing benefit are scroungers scamming the system. Divide, dismiss -- and rule.

Everywhere, the right fights public awareness of structural injustice by re-phrasing it as a personal attack by one vulnerable demographic on another. Structural injustice itself cannot be wedged into the story of neoliberalism, which reduces everything to a cloying moral syrup of personal responsibility lectures -- except where the banking sector is involved, of course.

What's missing from the story -- what's always missing -- is power. Defenders of privilege and hierarchy will do anything at all to distract attention from power, and to re-phrase attacks on power as attacks on the powerless. The chorus of faux-outrage over Abbott's tweet isn't just cynical; in a week when structural racism is in the news, it's a classic game of divide and rule.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The NS Podcast #215: Election Special

The New Statesman podcast.

Join us for the New Statesman on-tour election special! As the polling day approaches, our team of politics writers regale Stephen Bush with news of their travels around the country. From Dover to Derby North, and from St Ives to Sheffield Hallam, via Birmingham, Belfast and Vauxhall - listen in for the interviews and insights near you.

 

Quotes of the Week:

Anoosh Chakelian on Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam: "Alot of people I spoke to were saying, 'Well, he went into coalition and he broke some promises, but he's been punished enough.'"

 

Caroline Crampton on Dover: "I found a lot of people who are not voting at all, or are voting for UKIP, or have voted for UKIP and are now going to vote Conservative."

 

Jonn Elledge on monkeying around in Hartlepool: "My understanding is that [the monkey mascot] never expected to win. I think he ran as a novelty candidate and then found himself mayor and ran Hartlepool for ten years."

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