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Courageous investigation of working-class racism

Angry White People: Coming Face-to-face With The British Far Right
by Hsiao-Hung Pai
(Zed Books, £12.99)

HSIAO-HUNG PAI is gaining a well-deserved reputation for in-depth investigations into the lives of those most affected by the growing inequalities inherent in monopoly finance capitalism.

She has thrown a harsh light on the treatment of groups such as undocumented Chinese labourers and, through working undercover in a brothel, the mistreatment and exploitation of sex workers.

In Angry White People, Pai turns her attention to a group that many would consider less as victims and more as perpetrators of hate and discrimination.

Yet, in an almost ethnographic level of detail, she shows the dislocation and desperation that drives many working-class Britons, even for a short time, onto the streets and into the EDL.

She follows the life stories and experiences of a number of EDL volunteers in locations as diverse as Bradford, Eastleigh and Luton, demonstrating that many joined to fill an economic and social vacuum in the guise of “patriotic” outrage at demonstrations by some Muslim groups against British troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

She tracks the trajectory of the movement as it became more overtly fascist and increasingly violent, providing a platform for its media-hungry and manipulative leadership.

Without exonerating the likes of those miniature Mussolinis, Stephen Lennon and Kevin Carroll, Pai allows us to understand the conditions — unemployment, poor housing and the democratic deficit that marginalises working-class voices — that lead some to misdirect their justifiable anger against their equally marginalised neighbours.

The author challenges us not to dismiss right-wing street movements as merely a bunch of thugs out for a fight but rather as an inevitable consequence of the deliberate structural inequalities in our society and the voluble manipulation of the capitalist media. The EDL may be in decline but the conditions and the language that encourage such a reaction are still very dominant.

The positive impact of counter-demonstrations in demoralising and defeating far-right movements is highlighted with Darren, one of the book’s more thoughtful protagonists, recalling his shocked bewilderment when Salma Yaqoob warning that the “NF was coming” during an EDL demonstration in Birmingham.

“I fought the NF,” he says. “I fought the British Movement. I was shocked I was called one of them. It was terrifying, I shrunk within myself at that demo.”

The book is not without weaknesses, though. While correctly identifying the deliberate manufacture of anti-Muslim sentiment by the capitalist class and its agents, it offers nothing by way of solutions. But Pai would probably argue that this is beyond the scope of the ethnographic approach.

And the book’s structure is topsy-turvy and fragmented. The last chapter, an overview of recent mutations in the extreme right, would sit better as a scene-setting opener and because some of the personal dialogues are split over a number of chapters, the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the experiences of the protagonists is disrupted.

Yet, overall, this is a hugely insightful account by one of the bravest contemporary journalists in the business.

Review by Paul Simon


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