Working-class unity

Working-class unity

Ben Rogaly

Nathan Murdoch’s ‘unity’ mural was tweeted around the world, by US rappers Ice T and Chuck D, days after the brutal racist murder of George Floyd by a police officer on 25th May 2020. The mural is part of a series commissioned in 2019 by Diaspora Arts and Education Against Racism, a small charity set up in the city of Peterborough in England to counter the emergence of far right racist graffiti there, including an image of Hitler, swastikas and the slogan ‘bring slavery back’.

The mural adorns an underpass in this relatively small city, a place often ignored or treated with disdain by mainstream media. The city’s artistic creations are not generally expected to make waves. Yet I came across a photograph of the mural in a tweet by Peterborough-based photographer Chris Porsz, whose own book Reunions blasted through the UK’s metro-centric arts glass ceiling in 2016.

Porsz also tweeted pictures of the large Black Lives Matter protest in central Peterborough on June 7th 2020. The politics of the latter event might have surprised people unfamiliar with the city. If Peterborough gained attention in the years following the UK’s in/out referendum on EU membership in 2016, it was as a place where the majority had voted Leave and where, three years later, the Brexit Party had come close to defeating Labour in a parliamentary by-election.

In responding to the murder of George Floyd, Gary Younge has argued for the need to convince large numbers of working people across mainly white societies about the history and effects of structural racisms. Younge emphasises the importance of communicating beyond any particular social media bubble. This is exactly what both Murdoch’s and Porsz’s art does – and it is also one of the aims of my new book, based on eight years of research in Peterborough, Stories from a Migrant City: Living and Working Together in the Shadow of Brexit.

The book confronts head on the widely propagated equation between cosmopolitanism and elites. It contests the idea that being at ease with racialized difference is characteristic of a so-called ‘cosmopolitan elite’, out of touch with ‘ordinary’ (often a euphemism for ‘white’) working-class life. On the contrary I argue that, not only that there is an economic and political elite which uses its power to reinforce axes of racialized difference (for example through promoting negative images of Muslims in the print media and online) but, that in certain spaces, and at particular times, non-elite people of all backgrounds show themselves to be at ease with such difference.

The ‘cosmopolitan elite’ vs ‘indigenous white working class’ argument is dangerous because it reproduces and perpetuates a racialized hierarchy. The logic followed is that being both ‘white’ and working-class automatically qualifies a person as native and entitled to national belonging. By implication, racialised minorities are excluded from working-class identity, and thus, in an environment characterised by racisms, remain doubly-marginalised.

There is a geography to this framing too – a cosmopolitan orientation is portrayed as metropolitan – more likely to be found in residents of big cities than those who live in small cities, towns or rural areas. Further, because of the association of ‘cosmopolitan’ with ‘elite’, responsibility for the rampant growth in inequality of wealth and income, falling real wages, and the crisis in housing (especially in the south-east of England) that makes both renting and buying feel unaffordable to a generation of young adults, is displaced from purveyors of neoliberalism and austerity and becomes racialized.

Rather than making visible the causes of contemporary economic injustices, the promoters of the idea of a ‘cosmopolitan elite’ obscure them by pointing the finger at ‘immigrants’, a term which, as we have seen, is taken-for-granted by many to include British black and Asian people and other racialized minorities. This also plays to a politics that reproduces, and draws down upon, imperial nostalgia.

As Stuart Hall famously put it, ‘few strategies are so successful at winning consent as those which root themselves in the contradictory elements of common-sense, popular life and consciousness… “Market forces” is good for restoring the power of capital and destroying the re-distributionist illusion. But in moments of difficulty, one can trust “the Empire” to strike back.’

Stories from a migrant city is inspired by two questions posed by the late geographer Doreen Massey, ‘What does this place stand for? and ‘To whom does this place belong?’ It is thus concerned with conflicts over the meanings and materiality of place at multiple scales, from the territory of the UK nation state to streets and neighbourhoods in the city. The book locates itself in the Brexit era which it connects explicitly both to the UK’s history as a colonizer and the legacy of British colonialism in the present.

Building on the work of John Clarke the book holds in tension this longer historical arc of colonial history with the effects of over four decades of deindustrialisation and neoliberalism, the deliberate crushing of British trade unions in the 1980s, and more than a decade of savage public spending cuts that followed the bank bailout of 2008.

The UK’s catastrophic failure to prepare for and confront the COVID-19 pandemic is directly related to these cuts. Moreover, in the UK, COVID-19 has been especially deadly for racialised minorities, who have been hospitalized and have died in numbers vastly disproportionate to their share of the population. The structural racisms that led to this have gained far greater profile since the Black Lives Matter uprisings of June 2020.

The uprisings have shown how the legacies of British colonialism in the present, including racial inequalities in employment, housing and education, racist policing and immigration laws, have never been critically confronted. Instead, ignorance and selective amnesia about the past have been nurtured through the cultivation of a nostalgic view of empire and the continuing suppression of full information regarding the violence through which colonial rule was enforced.

When Ice T tweeted a photograph of the Peterborough mural he wrote, ‘UNITY’! That scares the shit out of ‘em!’ The possibility of unity among working class people has indeed posed a threat to capitalist accumulation at different points in time. Marcus Rediker argues for the contemporary relevance of the idea of the ‘motley crew’ which he used in studies of multi-ethnic working-class histories and of the revolutionary potential in places ‘where workers of all nations congregated’.

Reflecting on an early instance of capitalist work – in the tobacco fields of colonial Virginia in the seventeenth century – Satnam Virdee shows that, in a harshly exploitative environment, the workforce, made up of indentured labourers from England and African slaves, plotted their escape together, seeking support on occasion from Algonquin people whose land had been expropriated.

The potential for unity across racialized divides, was noticed by Phil Piratin, a Jew and a future Communist Party Member of Parliament, in London’s East End in the 1930s. In his book, Our Flag Stays Red, Piratin describes being transformed by his attendance, incognito, at a meeting and subsequent march by Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, in 1935. He noticed that behind the ranks of uniformed fascists came ‘people. About 1,500 men women (some with babies in arms), and youngsters… I knew some of these people, some of the men wore trade-union badges… There were certain latent anti-Semitic prejudices it is true, but above all these people, like most in East London, were living miserable, squalid lives. Their homes were slums, many were unemployed. Those at work were often in low-paid jobs’ (p18).

He resolved that his party ‘should help the people to improve their conditions of life, in the course of which we could show them who was really responsible for their conditions, and get them organised to fight against their real exploiters.’ On the barricades that prevented the British Union of Fascists marching down Cable Street on 4th October 1936 Piratin observed that ‘[n]ever was there such unity of all sections of the working class… People whose lives were poles apart, though living within a few hundred yards of each other; bearded Orthodox Jews and rough-and-ready Irish Catholic dockers… The struggle… against the fascists had brought them together against their common enemies and their lackeys’ (pp23-4).

While the current pandemic has brought a dramatic shift in Conservative government policy towards a willingness to borrow large sums of money to provide temporary support to people’s livelihoods, many have fallen through the cracks and pre-existing inequalities have been further exacerbated. England thus faces twin challenges simultaneously: it is necessary to fight back against the ill effects of the neoliberal policies and practices that have created and perpetuated a vast gulf of inequality in how people live their lives within the country.

The second is to confront, critically, the legacies of colonialism and slavery, and how these play out in different ways in anti-migrant xenophobia and anti-Black, anti-Muslim and other racisms. In a podcast recorded the day the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, UK, Professor of Humanities Paul Gilroy referred to ‘what this COVID crisis is telling us about the nature of our connectedness and our shared being in the world’ and to the possibilities that the current moment holds in terms of ‘a common vulnerability, a common sense of humanity.’

This resonates with the final sentence of Stories from a Migrant City regarding the effect of the many biographical oral history interviews I recorded in Peterborough and of books like Porsz’s Reunions. ‘Collectively, through their portrayal of universal human experiences of loss, absence and death, they provide a vision of common humanity and thus make their own contribution, however small, to preparing the ground for future struggles against all forms of racism, class and gender inequalities, workplace exploitation and climate injustice.’


Ben Rogaly teaches at the University of Sussex. Stories from a Migrant City was published in March 2020 and is available from Manchester University Press at a fifty per cent discount using promotional code Stories50. Ben would like in particular to acknowledge Kaveri Qureshi for the work they did together in Peterborough, and Khem Rogaly for some very helpful discussions in relation to this piece.

Image credit: Diaspora Arts and Education