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justin katko



20 February 2017

Iklectik, London

For most of you here, what I have to say will not teach you something you do not already know, and it could probably be said in just about three sentences or less. But it is my aim to spell this out, to make it perfectly clear, as much for myself as for those who need to learn it.


In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech to the civil rights group Christian Action of London that remained lost until 2015, when the only known recording was discovered in the archives of Pacifica Radio in California and broadcast by Democracy Now. Among other topics, the hour-long speech addresses the fight against South African apartheid:


“If the United Kingdom and the United States decided tomorrow morning not to buy South African goods, not to buy South African gold, to put an embargo on oil, if our investors and capitalists would withdraw their support for that racial tyranny that we find there, then apartheid would be brought to an end. Then the majority of South Africans of all races could at last build the shared society they desire.”[1]


I first heard this speech when it was rebroadcast by Democracy Now on MLK Day, 16 January 2017. So I was shocked when I heard King’s use of the phrase “the shared society”, because it is these very words which have announced Theresa May’s hallucination of Christian charity for 2017. In the speech where she debuted her forgery, given to the annual meeting of the Charity Commission on 9 January 2017, the vicar’s daughter distinguished between two kinds of injustices. One kind she calls obvious, and the other kind she calls everyday. “[T]he obvious injustices receive a lot of attention—with the language of social justice and social mobility a staple of most politicians today—the everyday injustices are too often overlooked.[2]


The overlooked subjects of everyday injustices are those who the Prime Minister defines as ordinary: “if you’re from an ordinary working class family [. . .] The injustice you feel may be less obvious, but it burns inside you just the same.” A few days earlier, in her New Year’s broadcast, May invoked the same ordinary people:


Of course, the referendum laid bare some further divisions in our country: between those who are prospering, and those who aren’t; those who can easily buy their own homes, send their families to a great school, find a secure job, and those who cannot. In short, those for whom our country works well, and those for whom it does not. This is the year we need to pull down these barriers that hold people back, securing a better deal at home for ordinary working people. The result will be a truly united Britain, in which we are all united in our citizenship of this great nation, united in the opportunities that are open to all our people, and united by the principle that it is only your talent and hard work that should determine your future.[3]


What is clear here, especially through the Prime Minister’s attempt to turn the word citizenship into a verb, is that the government’s idea of a shared society is one where special protections will be granted to those people considered to be the ordinary subjects of everyday injustices. The distinction between ordinary working people and the victims of obvious injustices is therefore, and only at the very least, a nationalist distinction between citizens and foreigners.[4]


The imitation shared society is one where we are asked to admit the immense tragedy of physical, mental, and civic death taking place outside of the borders of the State, and outside the legal protections of full citizenship. But in the same instance that we make this passing admission of the immensity of human suffering at our doorstep, it is demanded that we impose a lead-cast image in front of that admission, cowardly obstructing our meditation upon it, so as to give way to a counter-meditation on an everyday image of those who suffer a domination which, however unfortunate, is largely free from the obvious miseries of the refugee. Twice during her speech to the Charity Commission, May invoked every corner of our country to refer to the whereabouts of her beloved ordinary people. And the former Home Secretary proposes that what her cornered citizens should share is the active burden of repression: where “the border is no longer just the point of arrival in the country, but has been brought deep into workplaces, colleges, banks, hospitals, and marriage registries[5], where the role of the over-zealous border guard is pushed onto educators, doctors, council employees, landlords, charities, trusts.


The cadence of a shared society under Conservative rule resolves to warming over the exclusive category of ordinary people to a xenophobic cruelty. What is called nurturing the responsibilities of citizenship is better described as a fascist generosity.


After his revolutionary use of the phrase co-opted by the Prime Minister, Dr. King went on in his address to Christian Action:


"And may I say to you that the problem of racial injustice is not limited to any one nation. We know now that this is a problem spreading all over the globe. And right here in London and right here in England, you know so well that thousands and thousands of colored people are migrating here from many, many lands—from the West Indies, from Pakistan, from India, from Africa. And they have the just right to come to this great land, and they have the just right to expect justice and democracy in this land."


It is hard to imagine a greater indictment of the governments that rule the places in which we have no choice but to ceaselessly struggle for the preservation of human life.








[4] Donald Trump similarly made implicit racist distinctions between us and them in his inauguration speech (“their pain is our pain”), where he equated his electoral victory to the supremacy of the apparently “forgotten”, the racist logic leading to a nationalist conclusion: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.


[5] Frances Webber, Borderline Justice: The Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights (London: Pluto Press, 2012), Introduction, p. 1.

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