UN HUMAN rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s call for capitalist powers to pay reparations for slavery combines questions of symbolic and practical change.
The protests that have erupted across the world since the US police killing of George Floyd on May 25 have won victories on both fronts.
The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, like that of Confederate monuments in the United States, marked a symbolic victory over racism, but one which forced the role of the slave trade in creating modern capitalism into the spotlight, preparing the way for further-reaching changes in the way the British empire is presented in schools and media.
Murder charges for Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, and for Garrett Rolfe, who killed black man Rayshard Brooks last Friday, as well as bans on chokeholds and legal changes to make it easier for citizens to hold police to account, represent direct practical advances that should save lives.
Judicial wins like today’s US Supreme Court ruling that Donald Trump cannot abolish the so-called “Dreamer” programme allowing people who were brought to the US as children to gain citizenship are likewise victories for the anti-racist struggle – for all the supposed independence of the judiciary in Western countries, courts are as political as parliaments.
The Dreamer ruling is superficially about migration rather than racism, but the relationship between the two is deep and intricate and opens up questions about global disparities in power and wealth – many of the same ones raised by Bachelet’s proposal regarding slavery reparations.
Slavery is usually depicted as a historical phenomenon, an admitted injustice but one vanquished long ago.
Modern slavery is of course real and widespread, and directly linked to war and the refugee crisis. The slave-markets for black Africans established in civil-war-torn Libya after Nato overthrew the Gadaffi regime hit Western headlines, though briefly. The refusal of governments including Britain’s to offer a safe haven to unaccompanied child refugees condemned countless children to a similarly awful fate: Europol reported as long ago as 2016 that 10,000 such children had disappeared and that it suspected many had been targeted by trafficking gangs for sale into the sex trade.
But the economic relationships established by historic slavery endure too. Though most formal colonial empires are gone – not because magnanimous Western governments “granted independence” but because of long and bitter struggles to throw them off – the global economy policed by the IMF, World Bank and numerous international treaties that establish corporate rights to enter and exploit markets, maintains the economic subjugation of the third world.
Much Western “aid” to poorer countries actually entrenches these relationships: Global Justice Now has documented the role that British aid money has played in promoting the privatisation of everything from electricity to schools in many African countries, with lucrative “aid” contracts being snapped up by for-profit operators like Adam Smith International.
Changes to the definition of aid accompanying the current government’s dissolving of the Department for Internatonal Development into the Foreign Office intensify the trend, promoting a model in which “targeted aid boosts British trade.”
The struggle against the legacy of slavery must take the practical form of a struggle against the modern-day structures of “globalisation” that subordinate democratic rights to transnational corporate ones. And that struggle is also a fight for social justice here.
The loyalist thugs who threatened an asylum-seekers’ demo over poor housing conditions in Glasgow on Wednesday claimed to be rallying in defence of British monuments – demonstrating that those most hostile to refugees are often the most supportive of the imperialist world order that creates them.
And the fact that immigrant-bashing Twitter loudmouth Katie Hopkins led attacks on Marcus Rashford for winning an extension to the free-school-meals progamme over the summer underlines the reality that indifference to foreign kids drowning in the Mediterranean dovetails neatly with indifference to British kids starving at home.
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