Reading Empire’s Endgame

Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State by Gargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliot-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nisancioglu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebrial, Nadine El-Enany and Luke DeNoronha  (Pluto Press, 2021)


The short review – it is great, you should buy and read it


I have just finished reading the recently published Empire’s Endgame. There is much to admire in this book; it is well written, accessible, and convincing in its arguments. It is also a fine example of collaborative scholarship. So here is a brief review and some thoughts it has provoked about neoliberalism and the nature of the welfare state and how this impacts on the challenge of moving forward towards a better world.  

Empire’s Endgame is not an edited collection, the eight authors have worked together on writing the whole book, an approach which must have been immensely rewarding and for the reader provides a coherence so often lacking in edited collections. Hopefully this approach of collaborative working across disciplinary boundaries will catch on. It will not only be a more human way of working but also dramatically improve the quality of our scholarship. 

Empire’s Endgame

The book has four substantive parts, each broken into three short chapters. The first part Racialising the Crisis is clearly influenced by the late 1970s and early 1980s work of scholars based at Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and in particular Policing the Crisis (in my opinion one of the two best Notcriminology[1] books ever published) and The Empire Strikes Back. Looking at the Windrush scandal, knife crime, and gangs it persuasively argues that, as with ‘mugging’ in the 1970s, authoritarian responses to the repeating crises generated by Britain’s decline are legitimised by a penal politics of racialised blame. 

The second section focuses on the influence of nationalism. As it highlights, Britain as a nation has no history of existing without colonies.[2] Empire is coded into Britain’s DNA. The attempts from the left to wrestle patriotism away from the right are therefore not only doomed to fail, but are ultimately dangerous. British nationalism is not an empty vessel available for progressive patriots to fill, it is inherently ‘racial and racist’. The book correctly highlights the importance of Powell’s ‘River of Blood’ speech and how Powellite nativist narratives have shaped political debate and policy around ‘race’ and immigration. This has contributed to an intensification of the institutional racism that permeates the British state and British society. What is needed is radical structural change and the book correctly points out the limitations of an anti-racism which is ‘little more than representation, inclusion and diversity’. The critique of Twitter virtue signalling is spot on. The revolution will not be tweeted.

The third section, focusing on the ‘State Patriarch’, I really enjoyed. It embedded an excellent analysis of gender into the book. The state is portrayed as a ‘Daddy’ figure – ‘neglectful, inefficient and abusive’ on the one hand, but also, allegedly, ‘good in a fight’. This accounts for the ways in which the state has discarded (or at least downsized) its caring roles whilst enhancing its more authoritarian and violent functions.  The intersection of gender and race is central to the way media and political discourse has attempted to racialise child sexual abuse through the trope of the ‘Pakistani Grooming Gang’. This moral panic allows the state to divert attention from their marginalisation and neglect of the vulnerable victims whilst simultaneously expanding their authoritarian powers. It also deflects attention from the reality that it is the nuclear family which is the principal site of sexual violence. This section finishes with a short chapter on the phenomenon of the elite buffoon – Trump, Johnson, Modi, et al. – and the ways in which they contribute to growing authoritarianism. 

 The fourth section’s three chapters look at the recent strengthening of popular authoritanism. The glorification of ‘our boys’ in uniform is linked with an increasing deployment of the military within the metropole. Combining an illusion of being outside politics with an embodiment of state violence, the army is increasingly seen as the answer to Britain’s problems, be they covid, Brexit food shortages, street crime or street protests. These have clear links to the British army’s colonial policing role; with the book highlighting how ‘State violence was designed not to detect or prevent crime but to maintain order.’ The final chapter of this section, ‘Zero-sum Game’, highlights an increasing tendency in political discourse to see issues in terms of finite resources. One person’s gain must be another’s loss, a perspective that links together a ‘network of interconnected moral panics’. Inevitably, this promotes a competitive rather than collective response to social problems. 

The final section looks firstly at the current covid-19 crisis and then concludes with a chapter sketching out some potential strategies moving forward. It correctly highlights how covid has exposed the weaknesses of the ‘welfare’ state in terms of public health whilst simultaneously allowing the ‘authoritarian’ state to extend its power through emergency regulations. Throughout the book the authors return to analysing this transformation of the British state, a task they set themselves in their introduction when they ask, ‘what kind of state do we have now, and how is its programme of cruelty, neglect and expulsion justified ideologically?’ This is a vital question. It is crucial for the abolitionist left to develop a far more nuanced critiques of the state. This inspired me to write the sections below on neoliberalism and the welfare state as a contribution to this debate. Hopefully these link into the book’s concluding chapter.

Neoliberalism

The word ‘neoliberalism’ is widely used, rarely with a precise definition and often as an insult. Previously I understood it as a return to the red-blooded doctrines of early nineteenth-century liberal economic thinking.  However, I was wrong, and neoliberalism has a number of key characteristics that make it a distinct ideology that needs understanding on its own terms. Although its origins can be traced back to early in the twentieth century – is it surprising that its early texts drew heavily on Fascist theorists? – it was in the 1970s that it established itself as the dominant force in the governance of the UK and USA. In understanding both where we are and how we move forward it is vital we sharpen our understanding of the ways in which neoliberalism is different from previous brands of liberalism.

One key difference is around the significance of markets and their relationship with state.  Classical liberalism’s focus was on removing ‘unnatural’ state restrictions. The state should do the minimum necessary to allow for the natural development of markets.  Neoliberalism, on the other hand, has a quasi-religious belief in markets that requires their creation even where they do not exist. Markets represent the means to achieve not only the most economically beneficial outcomes but also the most just, moral and ethical ways of living. It is therefore necessary, by state action, to create markets where they do not naturally occur. The neoliberal state organisation (hospital, school, prison, etc.) must therefore not only operate within a market but must also internally organise itself as a marketplace.  

By seeing neoliberalism as a “faith” based philosophy, impervious to evidence of its failure, we can begin to understand its consequences. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea transfer the management of Grenfell Tower to an Arm’s Length Management Organisation (ALMO) removing democratic control and replacing it with the discipline of the market, the ALMO contracting out its refurbishment, with the contractors then sub-contracting out again, as the process – quality and price – is determined by the market. As all key decisions are determined by the market, the clearly articulated concerns of the tenants – and in particular their knowledge of the possibility of the fire and deaths that did occur – had no market value and could be ignored. Similarly, in responding to Covid-19 public health expertise and infrastructure has been largely bypassed in favour of pseudo-market responses such as the costly SERCO Test and Trace,  which despite largely failing in public health terms proved highly profitable for the select corporate participants.  

Whereas classical liberals believed in a minimalist state, kept small to stop it impeding the ‘natural’ growth of the market, neoliberalism believes in a strong state with the powers and resources to impose markets on all areas of human activity. The neoliberal project has never threatened the state, but sought to control it and utilize it to impose markets across the whole of society. In particular by adopting a market-based understanding of freedom, the neoliberals are more concerned about the freedoms of corporations than of individuals. After over a decade of austerity it is important to acknowledge that the state has not contracted; whilst government spending on welfare may have reduced significantly, overall government spending has, as the graph below shows, remained, in real terms, largely unchanged. The state has not got smaller, it has just redirected its spending from social welfare to bailouts for the banks etc.  

Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/298465/government-spending-uk/

The welfare state

In Reading Empire I sensed an ambivalence towards the welfare state as constituted historically with at the end of the book a call for an ‘abolition politics’ that offers ‘something other than the familiar longing for post war welfarism’. It is clear that a politics of looking to the state to provide has proved highly problematic. Indeed, the welfare state’s great weakness is that it is structured in such a way as to allow neoliberalism to remake it in its own image.

The welfare state in general and the NHS in particular are often seen as the high-water mark of social progress. However, even in its early days this was a contested view.  Writing in the journal Anarchy in 1961 Colin Ward identified the previous mixed economy of welfare that had developed during the nineteenth century:

‘When we compare the Victorian antecedents of our public institutions with the organs of working-class mutual aid in the same period, the very names speak volumes. On the one side the Workhouse, the Poor Law Infirmary, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church; and on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Co-Operative Society, the Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directly from above.’

Both the philanthropic bourgeoise and the self-help working class welfare institutions he describes were incorporated into the new welfare state. But whilst the quality of welfare (and health care in particular) improved significantly – in part thanks to the wealth generated from empire and the skilled labour imported from its colonies – the institutions were controlled from above, by the state. The control working class people had had on their previous institutions was lost. Consequently, those dependent on the services effectively became consumers, ill equipped to resist the marketization that followed the emergence of neoliberal governance. The state is not an empty vessel, it has a history and was developed to sustain an unequal social order. It can appear to change, but in reality it is merely changing tactics to best protect those classes, individual and corporate, that it exists to defend.

As Empire’s Endgame concludes abolition offers a framework for a hopeful future. We must dismantle oppressive and authoritarian institutions that function to maintain an unjust social order. But we must also build new ways of living based around care and love. To do this we must understand who and what we are struggling against and be committed to building a new social economy. But it must be one based around mutuality and cooperation and not be delegated to a state. 

This book made me think – about neoliberalism and the welfare state, and much more – but most of all, it inspires and gives hope. 


[1] I have always been reluctant to attribute Policing the Crisis to criminology despite its subject matter. Criminology tends to seek to absorb competing discourses (often without reading or understanding them!), so inspired by Percival Everett’s brilliant novel I am Notsidney Poitier I have adopted the category of Notcriminology to describe books/concept/ideas/contributions, who despite being about ‘crime’, criminalisation, punishment, policing, etc., are not criminology.  

[2] For example, England became the colonial power over Jamaica in 1658, 52 years before Britain was created by the 1707 Act of Union. If Indy2 goes to plan and Scotland separates from England later this year the political union will have lasted for only 7 more years than English/British dominion over Jamaica.  

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