From Grunwick to BLMUK, some reflections

Amrit Wilson speaking at Trafalgar Square demo on reproductive rights 1979 © Photo Michael Ann Mullen

 

“We see the entry of COVID-19 wreaking havoc on capitalism itself –
a result of the very nature of neoliberal economies.” Amrit Wilson

 

Montréal Serai recently had the opportunity to interview Amrit Wilson online. Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist on issues of race and gender in Britain and South Asian politics. She is a member of South Asia Solidarity Group and the Freedom Without Fear Platform, and a former chair of Imkaan, a Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women’s organization dedicated to combating violence against women in Britain. Her 1978 book, Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, was republished in 2018 with a new chapter by younger South Asian women.

 

AW: My greetings to Montréal Serai from London, and thank you for inviting me to this online discussion around the theme of COVID-19 and globalization. As your theme description puts it: “COVID-19 has laid bare the past forty years of globalization spawned by the Thatcher-Reagan years of de-regulation, union busting, dismantling of the welfare state and assault on traditional liberal capitalism.”

 

MS: Do you think that this is a turning point or a turning away from the notion of de-regulation, globalization and so-called free trade? Will the state return or be forced to steer itself to an economy where public needs and essential deliverables from the state to the people – like a minimum income (whether you have a job or not), guaranteed health care and pharmacare for all, guaranteed pensions, regulated elderly care, guaranteed housing, free education and free public transport, among other things – become a permanent aspect of the state, whether it is ruled by conservatives or liberals?

AW: When we talk about turning away from de-regulation, it is important to remember that we are not simply talking about neoliberalism, but about the shaping of hyper-neoliberalism into fascism. This is certainly the case in India, Brazil, and Hungary where we now see full-fledged fascism, but also in the US and increasingly in the UK. This was the situation even before the pandemic, and it was being resisted strongly by mass movements.  Against this background we see the entry of COVID-19 wreaking havoc on capitalism itself – a result of the very nature of neoliberal economies and the failings of right-wing governments, with their (mis)managed lockdowns and poorly funded or non-existent health care systems. Seeing it this way it is not surprising that India, the US, Brazil and the UK are among the countries worst hit by the pandemic.

Some of these governments have responded to the chaos that their policies have caused, by ramping up repression through a variety of measures including brutal lockdowns, arrests and incarceration of activists in COVID-infested prisons, heightened surveillance systems, and increased support for state-sponsored ultra-right forces. Despite the extreme difficulties involved, people are fighting back, resisting in whatever way they can!

In some places this resistance may at first glance seem reformist rather than revolutionary – I am talking now about the abolitionist movements (against incarceration and imprisonment) springing up across the world. But in my opinion, this is a false dichotomy. Defunding (if not dismantling) the police, rethinking and restructuring welfare in revolutionary feminist ways will not mean people will sink into a state of torpor. On the contrary, it will engage the masses in further revolutionary change, which will be required to challenge corporate power.

 

MS:  Incidentally, we are stunned by how billions of dollars have suddenly appeared (at least in Canada) out of nowhere (Canada does not print money like the US) to provide COVID relief at various levels. And of course, there are various benefits being extended to corporate interests as well. Why is there such desperation? Is it purely to save lives or to save the image of capitalism?

AW: The money was always available. It was invested in policing surveillance, wars, and perhaps most strikingly of all, in financial wealth. As Keval Bharadia has explained brilliantly, financial wealth is used to buy assets “for a passive income: more houses, shares, land, business and political influence, widening inequality.”

In the UK, the main expenditure by the government to assuage the pain of the pandemic is on various ‘furlough’ schemes, supposedly to pay workers a proportion of their wages if they could not go in to work. This scheme ran for a limited period and has now been terminated, and much of this, as was recently revealed, has found its way into the pockets of the Tory government’s corporate friends.

This is also happening on a global scale through aid money. For example, British aid was supposedly to help garment workers and other vulnerable workers affected by the pandemic, but as The Guardian newspaper recently reported, most of it went into the pockets of wealthy companies. Of course, these schemes and the way they are projected in the tabloid press also serve to create an image of government benevolence – so there is also an aspect of social control involved here, an attempt to manage working-class rage.

 

MS: Could we descend into a barbaric form of capitalism (essentially neo-fascism), which could be easily engineered through a new “Cold War” with China? There is clear evidence of that, now.

AW: The point you make about China is a very important one. This may well go beyond a “Cold War.” Two blocks have now emerged clearly, with the US under Trump and his coterie of loyal followers like Modi, Bolsonaro and others. Also, Israel, Saudi Arabia and now the Gulf states are ranged against China, Iran, Pakistan and a number of other countries, with the European Union sitting on the fence. If Trump is defeated, Biden is likely to pull the EU into the US block. So, yes, there is a very real possibility of war.

 

MS: What type of resistance, what sorts of coalitions, what type of thinking can prevent a return to the old “normal?” What kind of actions and strategies do you think women need to amp up?  How can the current grassroots uprisings against systemic racism have optimal staying power and impact? What is the role of workers in all this?

AW: I have already talked about the abolitionist movement envisioned by Angela Davis. I think this is crucially important in confronting fascism and ultimately corporate power. And yes, coalitions against fascism are essential, uniting workers’ organizations, community organizations, Black and anti-racist organizations. At the same time, international solidarity is now more important than ever before. This is why we in the South Asia Solidarity Group are doing everything we can to stand with those fighting fascism in India. We are very much aware that the Hindutva forces are spreading their tentacles deep into the diaspora and building a global Hindutva lobby. We also know that we are up against a British government, two of whose key figures, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak, are staunch admirers of Modi.

 

Protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London in July 2016, after the death of teenager Mzee Mohammed in police custody in Liverpool (Amrit in sunglasses on the left) © Photo Sanaz Raji

 

MS:  In Britain, you are considered a stalwart of the struggles against racism and for the rights of South Asian women, fighting especially for workers, as well as refugees. You have been at the forefront of anti-racist struggles. Can you reflect a bit on how you started out and how things have changed since then? What are some moments that you consider electric and inspiring?

AW: My memories of the struggles I have been honoured to have been a part of are full of electrifying and inspiring moments, from back in the late seventies till today. In the first national demonstration against police brutality, which we in Awaz, a small group of mainly young South Asian women, organized with support from our sisters in Brixton Black Women’s Group, also a small organization, I can never forget how hundreds of South Asian workers began to pour in holding their banners high, led by the Indian Workers Association GB. Or how a sea of miners, led by National Union of Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, came to support the Grunwick strike – an iconic strike by South Asian women workers. Or much more recently, how we marched in our thousands on the eve of Republic Day 2020, in a mass demonstration against Narendra Modi’s exclusionary and Islamophobic citizenship laws and processes. There have been many more such occasions.

But this is not a simple continuum. There are, of course, extremely important changes through this long period of four decades. When we confronted the racist immigration laws and procedures back in the seventies and early eighties, we did win some victories. The horrific treatment of women in Britain’s first immigration detention centres at Harmondsworth near Heathrow – their sexual abuse in the guise of “virginity tests,” for example – was stopped. But despite our efforts, the immigration detention centres and brutal immigration laws remained and increased in severity. Through the last decade, detention centres have proliferated. Whereas in the seventies and eighties, the immigration detention centres were run by the state, today they are run by corporates like G4S, a company that profits from the torture of Palestinians and was implicated in Britain in the murder of Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga, during a forced deportation. This provides an inkling of the harsh reality of today compared to earlier times.

 

MS: And from our issue’s theme statement: “How would diversity, our gains in the fight against racism and marginalization, and all the achievements of the past decades of resistance be preserved? And can that resistance achieve some institutional and systemic relevance and authority?”

AW: In Britain, we have a long-established struggle against racism, which the state has consistently tried to weaken and destroy through divide and rule, co-optation and draconian laws. It is through an awareness of these strategies that we can move forward and not lose what we have achieved over the years.

 

MS: And, of course the inevitable question: Why are South Asians (in general) so dismissive and racist about Black Lives Matter? Why do they not consider themselves “Black?” Is “Brown” a refuge?

AW: In Britain there are enormous class differences among South Asians. Some have done extremely well and are hedge-fund managers and corporate bosses. Others, a much larger proportion, are impoverished, often long-term unemployed or in precarious work. People have also come to Britain in different phases. A very large proportion came in the 50s, 60s and 70s to work in low-paid, unpleasant jobs and rebuild Britain after the destruction of WWII. A significant proportion of this group is today very badly off. They are the ones worst hit by the pandemic. This group includes Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and many Indians.  In addition to this group, we have those who came in the 70s as refugees from East Africa where, as an intermediate class between the British colonizers and Africans, they looked down upon Black people. They brought their racism with them when they migrated. Plus, we have the most recent immigrants who work in tech companies. So you can see how difficult it is to generalize about South Asians in Britain.

In the seventies and eighties and early nineties, the term Brown was unheard of to describe a human being’s identity. South Asians in Britain were part of the Black movement. Black identity was a political identity. Today, identity in Britain is being shaped by what we hear from the US, where South Asians were never part of the working class in the same way, except in California. At the same time, Indians are influenced by the virulent anti-Black hatred and casteism of Hindutva. Another important factor is that in the absence of the broad and powerful Black movement of the past, identity is centred not on collective struggle but on individual experience.

Having said that, it is important to remember that while there are South Asians who criticize BLM (usually middle-class Hindutva-supporting Indians who are also the most caste-ist), there are many others who are part of Black Lives Matter or actively support it.