Posts Tagged ‘ urban life ’

Urban erasure, multiculturalism and the politics of naming

It has come to my attention that the CLR James Library in Dalston is getting a big make-over and, concerningly, a new name. I’ve never used it, but I have heard of it and, of course, CLR James. James was the pen name of a prolific Trinidadian socialist writer. As well as a very eloquent anti-colonialist, journalist and cricket writer (!), he was most famous among left circles as a founder member of the Johnson-Forrest Tendency, a group of former Trotskyists who became disillusioned with the treatment of the barbaric USSR as a “degenerated” workers’ state. He also described himself as a Leninist, even though he explicitly rejected vanguard politics.

Anyway, if you want to read more about James, there are plenty of resources online, as well as his books such as his famous magnus opus, The Black Jacobins.

The thing I find concerning about the erasure of the CLR James library is not necessarily the fact that the state once again is threatening to stamp its authority on a public space by potentially removing all historical connection between James and London’s diverse radical past (though of course I do find it very much concerning!). I’m most concerned, for the purposes of this blog anyway, about the politics of renaming the library in the specific context of CLR James.

The problem leads into the murky backwaters of multicultural policy frameworks and government departments such as Communities and Local Government. They think multiculturalism is great (and so do I, in case you’re worrying!). Crucially, for government and business, multiculturalism is an infinitely marketable commodity. It makes places more marketable not only in terms of gentrification by ‘edgy’ creative types who have got bored of Shoreditch and Hoxton, but also in terms of attracting funding from bodies such as the European Union and European Social Fund, which often specifically target multicultural areas for “urban renaissance” and “culture-led regeneration” initiatives.

But let’s look a little deeper. We have a situation in places like Dalston, where there has been massive disinvestment for decades, property prices have dropped, unemployment has risen, and the areas have become more ethnically diverse as low income non-white populations have grown in the area. This, then, further depreciates the value of land in the area and that’s that for a long time. In Clapton, next door to Dalston and economically very similar, there’s a range of North African, Afro-Caribbean and white communities present, and Clapton has likewise seen decades of disinvestment from local or national government. It’s a pretty standard dynamic in large urban areas, and is the opposite end of the gentrification that we have seen in places like Notting Hill.

At the same time, the government’s priorities lie in maintaining a fine balance between embracing the economic benefits of deregulated global markets (of capital, goods, etc) and ameliorating the down-sides of this deregulation (forced economic migration putting pressure on local economies and populations). So, on the one hand, national government is “cracking down on immigrants”, and on the other, local government is “embracing cultural diversity”. This contradictory approach to migration policy creates a peculiar situation that seems to encompass the worst excesses of both conservatism (kick em out) and liberalism (let’s just be friends). In the meanwhile, immigrant populations are ghettoed, impoverished and scapegoated and the poorest end of the ‘native’ populations are neglected and disenfranchised. The government seems to think that people really are that stupid as to be bought off either by naive protectionism (for the poor ‘natives’) or superficial cultural spectacles (for the poor immigrants). It’s a lose-lose situation for the most vulnerable, essentially.

So we have large working class populations in particular areas, with few facilities, few jobs, few opportunities to leave and often a range of different ethnicities present. Of course, the right love this. It just “proves” that immigration is the huge evil monster they always predicted it would be. They parasitically feed off divisions sown by government policy and sometimes garner a decent amount of support.

And this is set against a background of government policy that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism as a means of a) capital accumulation and b) painting over the worst effects of global migration flows for both ‘immigrant’ and ‘native populations.

The problem with CLR James, though, is that he was a socialist. A proper, old school revolutionary socialist. He taught people to understand the dynamics of migration as one that is intimately embroiled in the dynamics of capital accumulation and imperialism. He taught people to understand their position in society as closely connected to their class, ethnicity and nationality. Essentially, his politics were a powerful rebuttal of both liberal and right-wing efforts to weaken and divide working class people in precisely the way that contemporary government policy is doing right now in places like Dalston and elsewhere in Hackney.

By erasing CLR James from the landscape of somewhere like Dalston, Hackney Council is inadvertently bringing to life the hidden politics of ‘race’ and migration in a global city like London. It is stamping the issue on our foreheads with all the subtlety of a brick (and without any awareness of irony, it seems). For here, in the powerful symbolism brought to light through this minor erasure in the arse-end of nowhere, might perhaps be where we find a little silver lining of the whole debacle?