Fifty years ago, British politician Enoch Powell set the template for a racist neoliberal populism that has reached its apotheosis today.
On April 20, 1968, British member of parliament Enoch Powell addressed a small meeting of conservative activists in a Birmingham hotel and called for the “re-emigration” of the million or so people of color then living in the United Kingdom. “In this country in fifteen or twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” he quoted a “quite ordinary” constituent as saying. “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding,” he added, “like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”
His words, infamously dubbed the “rivers of blood” speech, shattered the postwar consensus on race relations. The liberal establishment reacted with revulsion at both his language and his open appeal to racial prejudice. Powell was sacked from his post as Shadow Defense Secretary and never again held ministerial office in the Conservative Party. Yet his speech offered a template for a new form of anti-immigrant, populist politics that is today found across Europe and the United States.
Powell was also the first mainstream politician in Britain to advocate for neoliberalism, planting the seeds for what would later become Thatcherism. That the nation’s first racial populist was also its first prominent neoliberal reveals much about the relationship between racism and neoliberalism. As the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders in the United States has shown, popular dissatisfaction with neoliberalism continues to grow. But it is essential that we simultaneously develop a critique of the racial politics that are inherent to it.
Powell reinvented popular racism for a new era in which European colonialism in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean had been largely defeated. His was not the old racist language of imperial hierarchy founded on assumed natural differences. Whereas the British Empire had consolidated its rule of peoples around the world under a single political system governed from London, Powell rejected the idea that people of different races and ethnicities could co-exist under one regime. “Color is the uniform,” he said, that signals “a separate and strange population.”
Powell was the first mainstream politician in Europe to claim that an out-of-touch, weak-willed liberal establishment had wrought upon the (white) working class the calamities of immigration and multiculturalism, and that only decisive, urgent action could save the nation from this crisis before it was too late. He did not use the phrase “political correctness,” but he popularized the idea behind it. “Brainwashing by repetition of manifest absurdities is a sinister and deadly weapon,” he said, that has become “obligatory for academics, journalists, politicians and parties, to accept and mouth, upon pain of verbal denunciation and physical duress.” He added that only a willingness to loudly assert “plain truth and commonsense” will ensure “victory over those who hate Britain and wish to destroy it.” Today’s deeply familiar right-wing tactic of denouncing a liberal elite for denying the inconvenient truths that decent, ordinary folk instinctively understand can be traced back to Powell.
The influence of Powellism rested on a populist media infrastructure of letter-writing and opinion polls—in effect, the social media of half a century ago. Powell was repeatedly elected “Man of the Year” by BBC audiences and received over 110,000 letters of support in response to his April 1968 speech. Quoting from these letters in his speeches, he posed as the people’s tribune, in touch with the real feelings of the “decent, ordinary fellow Englishman.” As with today’s right-wing populists, this was an elaborate performance: he was, after all, a Cambridge-educated former professor of Ancient Greek, whose support came largely from the middle and upper-middle classes. Nevertheless, he managed to convey an image of the silent majority finding its voice.
Journalists were mesmerized. In the 1970 general election, the Times devoted 20 percent of its election coverage to reporting what Powell was saying and doing, even though he was only a backbench member of parliament. Even a decade later, his speeches stole headlines across the news media. Time and again, he was able to set the terms of political debate. Each time race and immigration were discussed on television, his racist views were accorded a respectful deference. This month the BBC decided to broadcast a reading of the complete speech to mark its fiftieth anniversary. The speech was appropriately condemned in the BBC’s coverage but there was a failure to reckon with how profoundly its underlying agenda has shaped today’s Britain.
Like the racist populists of our own period, Powell was disavowed by establishment politicians even as they accepted much of his agenda. Before Powell’s speech, the Labour government had already introduced legislation to restrict non-white immigration but it downplayed the racial underpinnings of its policy. Edward Heath, the leader of the Conservative Party, had initially disowned Powell but a year later said Britain was in a state of emergency due to the immigration of people of color. The surprise victory of the Conservative Party in the 1970 election was generally credited to Powell’s popularity. The Heath government went on to pass the 1971 Immigration Act, which effectively enshrined a whites-only immigration policy and racially segregated the Commonwealth bloc of Britain and its former colonies. The Act granted persons from the Commonwealth the right to settle in Britain if they could trace their ancestry back to Britain in the two preceding generations. It was no secret that the purpose of the Act was to enable the free movement of whites from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand while barring the Asians, Africans, and Caribbeans who had earlier been made British subjects under colonialism. The Act has never been repealed and, in fact, has been drawn upon even recently to pursue African and Caribbean elders for deportation.
Since the 1971 Act, every leader of the three main parties has sought to reassure the public of their support for strong controls on (implicitly non-white) immigration. Though the Brexit vote was motivated by opposition to migration from eastern Europe, the fear of migrants from outside the EU was even more deeply felt. The late bump in the polls for the Leave campaign was the result of a renewed focus not on Polish migrants but on Syrians, Iraqis, and Turks, whose arrival in Britain, it was claimed, the EU would enable. This was a message promoted by Defense Minister Penny Mordaunt, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, and a scaremongering online video released by the Leave campaign.
In the aftermath of Powell’s 1968 speech, thousands of London dockworkers and meat porters marched on parliament to demand that his racist expulsion policy be implemented. In the absence of parliamentary approval, gangs took it upon themselves to enforce the policy through intimidation: racist attacks on the streets surged in number and remained a regular feature of British life, at least until the 1990s. The shame of expressing racial prejudice was gone. As a teenager in London in the 1980s, I often walked past walls graffitied with the words “Enoch was Right.” Everyone knew what the slogan meant: kick out the “wogs” and “Pakis.” Of equal significance was the impetus Powell’s speech provided for a new phase of black activism. In its aftermath, Caribbean, Indian, and Pakistani labor groups came together to form the first large-scale Black Power organization in Britain, the Black People’s Alliance.* It organized a march of about 5,000 with the trolling slogan “Disembowel Enoch Powell.”
* * *
Powell was not only the first significant politician of Britain’s populist right; throughout the 1960s, he was also the country’s most prominent advocate of neoliberalism, an aspect of his politics that has since been forgotten. In 1958, Powell resigned as Financial Secretary over the government’s refusal to end increases in social spending. This was the opening salvo in the campaign waged by neoliberal think-tank activists such as Ralph Harris, Arthur Seldon, Diana Spearman, and John Wood against the Keynesian social and economic policies constituting the postwar consensus. Under their influence, Powell began to make speeches criticizing public ownership, economic planning, and social security, and espousing floating exchange rates and legal restrictions on trade unions—what he called the “doctrine of the market.”
At the time, these were outlandish positions to take, even in the Conservative Party. Trade unions were generally respected as pillars of social stability in the postwar British political system; Powell, on the contrary, described them as pursuing “fascism” through “mob rule.” He attended meetings of the Mont Pelerin Society, the famous international network of neoliberal thinkers, and was close to the Institute of Economic Affairs, the prototypical neoliberal think tank that was founded in 1955 at the suggestion of Friedrich Hayek himself. The 1959 Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Oxford noted that Powell’s speeches were one of the signs that neoliberal ideas were gaining support in the United Kingdom.
In the 1960s, Powell could only lay the foundations of the neoliberal counterrevolution. Its full realization would come with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Her neoliberalism, like Powell’s, was racial. British historian Camilla Schofield records in Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (2013) that Thatcher studied Powell’s speeches in preparing her 1978 statement warning of a Britain “swamped by people with a different culture.” Thatcher’s sense that the neoliberal project was a kind of military campaign also came from Powell: they both used the phrase “the enemy within” to describe their opponents on the left.
What can we learn from Powell’s example? After the Brexit vote and Trump’s election in 2016, most commentators described a conflict between populist insurgents and a neoliberal establishment. In this view, the white working class left behind by globalization is seen as rising up against liberal elites in a battle over whether Europe and the United States will be “open” or “closed” societies. But right-wing populism is not an antagonist of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is not caught between left-wing and right-wing populisms attacking it on either flank; it is more accurate to think of neoliberalism and right-wing populism as closely bound together. Historically and conceptually, neoliberal politics and right-wing populism have shared origins, as the example of Enoch Powell illustrates. Since the 2008 financial crisis, neoliberals have turned to populism once again to shore up the legitimacy of their project. Trump and Brexit do not represent the end of neoliberalism but its strengthening. Powell’s heirs are British politicians like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove. They campaigned for Brexit and see in the economic chaos it will cause an opportunity to pursue free-market fundamentalism to new levels of brutality, for example with their aspiration to abolish the National Health Service (NHS).
It is hard for us to see this connection between right-wing populism and neoliberalism, in part, because we tend to have a narrow idea of neoliberalism as a strategy of the capitalist class to increase profitability by contracting the welfare state and weakening the labor movement. These seem like economic goals that do not have any inherent racial content. David Harvey’s influential account adopts this approach, for example. He rightly views neoliberalism as a project of the upper classes “to protect themselves from political and economic annihilation.” He adds that the economic dimension “deserves specific attention” because it is the “crisis of capital accumulation in the 1970s,” in which asset values “plunged precipitously,” that pushed the upper classes to act decisively. To the extent that a political dimension is acknowledged, it is to do with a fear that socialist parties were gaining ground in the West. Race is only mentioned in passing as a basis for employers to manage labor pools through an unspoken policy of “divide and rule.”
But neoliberalism has political as well as economic aims, which are about race as well as class. What most troubled the founding neoliberals, and the politicians they influenced, like Enoch Powell, was not just the declining profits of capitalists but the way that various kinds of collective social struggle could make demands on the state for the redistribution of resources. “The unlimited role of the state,” Powell said, “provides unlimited fuel for dissatisfaction.” He meant that collectively made demands produce an ever larger welfare state that ends in the totalitarianism of communism or fascism. For him, as for Hayek, there is a direct line from the NHS to the SS. The only way to avoid that slippery slope, according to neoliberals, is by using markets to determine the allocation of resources. Once our relationships to each other are mediated through the market, collective action to redistribute wealth becomes impossible. This is what Thatcher meant when she told the Sunday Times in 1981: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
Labor movements were one kind of collective political action that neoliberals wanted to neuter; another kind was the Third World radicalism that Powell feared among Asians, Africans, and Caribbeans. He had been a passionate imperialist and a colonial administrator in India. But, by 1960, Powell understood that Britain could no longer trade, literally and metaphorically, on its Empire. The predominant elite view was that the Commonwealth would enable the global trade relationships forged through colonialism to be preserved into the postcolonial future. Powell thought otherwise. In a series of speeches and articles in the mid-1960s, he argued that the liberal multilateralism of the New Commonwealth was a delusion that would lead to demands that Britain redistribute its resources from the former colonizer to the formerly colonized of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. This could have happened through either reparations or the nationalization of British assets in former colonies. Britain was in danger, he thought, of becoming a welfare state to half the world. Powell thought of the Commonwealth in much the same way that Steve Bannon thinks of NAFTA and the WTO—institutions that once underpinned U.S. imperialism but now tie the country up in burdensome global obligations.
Because neoliberalism sets itself against collective struggles for the redistribution of wealth, it is inevitably opposed to the aspirations of formerly colonized peoples. The devastating legacy of structural adjustment programs in the global South, imposed by the neoliberals of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, is one expression of this. But there is a second way in which neoliberalism acts on a racial dimension. The key debate among Western neoliberals is whether their goals can be achieved by markets liberating the individual or whether markets themselves need to be embedded in the social glue of racial or national belonging. Populist neoliberals, like Enoch Powell, belong to this latter camp. Their views tend to predominate in the neoliberal movement in times of crisis and conflict, because they offer a fuller account of how to win over the working class.
Powell believed that for neoliberalism to succeed in Britain, the working class would have to be more loyal to the nation-state than it was to its own interests. As Powell’s friend and admirer Peregrine Worsthorne wrote in 1970, if a Conservative government was going to “re-activate the class war” by attempting to implement neoliberal policies, it would need a populist figure like Enoch Powell to secure a “patriotic hold over working-class votes.” Race was the means by which class was to be bound to the nation; the more that workers rallied around whiteness rather than class interests, the weaker they would be. A patriotic appeal to white identity could not, of course, persuade black and brown workers to acquiesce to neoliberalism; that, indeed, was the real source of the “racial” threat they represented. A populist appeal to white identity politics and a neoliberal belief in supposedly color-blind markets might appear contradictory—but the example of Powell shows how they usually reinforce each other.
Too often, the left imagines racism as distinct from the neoliberal project. For example, the left-wing sociologist Wolfgang Streeck writes that the “morality of marketization entails a categoric delegitimization of distinctions”—meaning, markets, in the absence of external factors, erase racial difference. Similarly, critical theorist Wendy Brown denies any innate relationship between racism and neoliberalism: “while neoliberalism tilled the soil for racist anti-democratic authoritarian populism, it is not neoliberalism’s natural telos. Neoliberalism was not inherently ethnonationalist, authoritarian, or plutocratic.” When British left-wing journalist Paul Mason writes that to criticize the racial motivations behind the Brexit vote would be to succumb to the “die-hard Blairite right,” we see a tendency to think of the struggle against neoliberalism as having no racial dimensions that need addressing.
We on the left are then caught in a bind: we see neoliberalism as reproducing the problem of class inequality but fail to see the ways in which it simultaneously engenders racial inequality. This represents a failure to challenge the neoliberal myth of the “color-blind market.” It therefore weakens the fight against racism, and ultimately, the fight against neoliberalism itself. The only capitalism that has ever existed in the United States and the United Kingdom is racial capitalism, which differentiates as much as it homogenizes, in simultaneously racial and class terms. In such formations, as Stuart Hall wrote in Policing the Crisis (1978), “Race is the modality in which class is lived.” There is no class experience that is not also a racialized (and gendered) class experience. Neoliberalism secured its hegemony because it acted along these multiple dimensions in order to defeat black and Third World collectivism as much as the solidarities of white labor movements. Racial populism and neoliberalism were born together and unite in times of crisis. Only by fighting the two together can either one of them be defeated.
* This essay is dedicated to A. Sivanandan, a key activist and thinker of the Black Power movement in the United Kingdom, who died in January 2018.
This essay was first published in Dissent magazine.