The chained fist of the statue celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the US. Photo: Getty
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Much of Britain's wealth is built on slavery. So why shouldn't it pay reparations?

The benefits of slavery have accrued down the generations, so why are we so nervous about the responsibility for the slave trade doing the same?

“Should we be responsible for the sins of our fathers?” Any discussion about the deeply polarising topic of reparations for slavery, if it happens at all, takes place in these quasi-religious terms.  Unfortunately, the language of the confessional immediately constrains, indeed skews, the debate. Turning a matter of material justice into one of proxy atonement does the question of our demanding relationship to history a profound disservice. It implies, wrongly, that historical events of such vast reach as slavery have no discernible material impact on our present, as though what happened to or was done by our ancestors doesn’t filter down and impact our present.  This is a curious belief in a society which believes so passionately in inheritance. How is possible, at one and the same time, to believe deeply in the right to inherit wealth and property acquired by progenitors while insisting that we in the present cannot, in any way, be responsible for the mechanisms of wealth-making in the past?  It’s convenient enough: my grandfather’s house is my house but how he came to own is none of my business.

“Say NO to paying for something that happened 100s of years ago,” screamed one meme that was doing the rounds on social media around the time tabloids began to claim that Caribbean nations were “suing” for reparations. They aren’t, strictly speaking, and nor can something which ended only in 1838 be compared, as it often is, with the Viking invasions or Roman conquest.  The CARICOM group of nations, led by Barbados , is really calling for a wider dialogue about historical justice.  Why should Britain – or any other former slave-trading nation – shy away from it?

After all, in almost any other sphere, historical continuities are acknowledged, even venerated – aren’t we told ad nauseum that the monarchy is important because it represents continuity?  Even something like the “Commonwealth” – whose Games will be held in Glasgow this summer – celebrates the international “links” forged by Britain’s Empire and its apparent historical achievements. Britons are constantly reminded by politicians and some historians to take pride in having “given” former colonies those two old chestnuts, the railways and the English language. Seems a bit odd, if not thoroughly hypocritical, to then swiftly put distance between our “proud” present and the Empire’s rather less flattering legacies, which include gargantuan impoverishment and dislocation across swathes of the globe.  How is it possible to keep up the endless national self-congratulation for the abolition of the slave trade while insisting that no one today has any connection to slavery itself?  The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams once noted wryly that it was almost as though Britain had set up the slave trade for the sole purpose of abolishing it.

But in truth, Britain gained rather more out of slavery than the retrospective joy of abolishing the trade in slaves, celebrations of which obscure the role rebellious slaves themselves played in their emancipation. The Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without the wealth generated by slave labour. Britain’s major ports, cities and canals were built on invested slave money. Several banks can trace their origins to the financing of the slave trade. Apart from the Barclays Brothers, who were slave traders, we also know of Barings and HSBC which can be traced back to Thomas Leyland’s banking house. The Bank of England also had close connections to the trade. Hundreds of Britain’s great houses were built with the wealth of slavery (pdf) and the Church of England also acknowledges its pecuniary gains from slavery. As an excellent project at University College London is showing, not only many contemporary millionaires and politicians but also perfectly ordinary middle-class people come from families which were compensated for the loss of slaves. The freed slaves, of course, never received such compensation and their families inherited, instead, the poverty and landlessness which blights them to this day. Capitalism itself, along with cheap beach holidays, would have been impossible without slavery.

The Foreign Office responded to the invitation to discuss reparations with the patronising suggestion that we concentrate on “identifying ways forward”. That’s great if you benefited, however little, from slavery. How exactly does “moving forward” work if the slave past holds you and your society back in poverty? It’s a mistake, however, to think of the question of slavery as something that only pertains to its direct victims, past and present. Sensationalised tabloid reports about paying out to foreign countries have stoked an understandable, if false, resentment among the less well-off in Britain who don’t  themselves feel particularly advantaged by the legacies of slavery.

A more honest debate would engage with slavery’s crucial role in helping to set up capitalism itself, the system under which all of today live and labour, inextricably connecting us not only to its enslaving foundations but its controlling mechanisms and values, especially that of under-valuing labour and repressing serious challenge.  “Do you ever try to understand,” thunders the Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid, “why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget?” As a descendant of someone whose ancestors were in themselves “capital”, she notes that the denial of the extent to which “got-for-nothing” labour underlies capitalism only adds to the injury, “for not only did we have to suffer the unspeakableness of slavery, but the satisfaction to be had from ‘We made you bastards rich’ is taken away too.”

“They took our boots, no less our straps,” anti-racist African-American campaigner “Queen Mother” Audley Moore once memorably put it, challenging the capitalist cherished myth that all achievement is solely due  to individual effort rather than at least a degree of inherited privilege. This is surely an insight that will resonate with the millions today who are at the receiving end of capitalism’s profiteering viciousness?  They include the low-waged, the unemployed, the disabled, the undervalued, the over-worked, the ill-treated, the indignant, the resistant, the ill-adjusted, the trafficked and the needlessly criminalised – indeed, the vast majority of us, to different degrees.

Plantation slavery may no longer be with us in the same form but its founding principle has never really gone away – take as much as you can from the labour of the many and concentrate land and wealth among the few. A debate about reparations – and redressing historical injustice – can help us ask the question more starkly: for all the pious talk about “addressing inequality”, can capitalism really move so far from its beginnings as to be inherently fair? How can a system which won’t acknowledge its origins become “responsible” capitalism? Rather than feel “we” have to unfairly pay to help “them” – any reparations money should clearly come from banks, large corporations and multi-millionaires, in any case – perhaps we should talk about the possibility of economic justice under capitalism itself?

Maybe this is why there is such resistance at governmental and corporate levels to opening up the question of reparations.  It might lead us to ask why large corporations, like slave owners, receive bailouts or compensation for losses incurred, as did slave owners, but people who inherit landlessness and poverty, whether descendants of slaves or not, are repeatedly to told not to expect help or benefits, to look to themselves. The “sins of the fathers” notion, separating past from present, allows the question to conveniently be turned into one of private faith and individual responsibility (that beloved capitalist buzzphrase) rather than how some inherit privilege and many inherit disadvantage within a stratified social order.  That’s a move which ultimately benefits not you and me, but the wealthy and the privileged in whose favour the global order is disastrously skewed.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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