This essay, on Eric Kaufmann’s book Whitehift, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Turkish repression). It was published in the Observer, 21 October 2018, under the headline ‘White identity is meaningless. Real dignity is found in shared hopes’.
‘It’s dignity, stupid.’ Where once economic wellbeing was seen as key to winning electoral support, there is now recognition that more intangible qualities matter too – the ability to be heard, to live in meaningful communities, to possess self-worth.
The acceptance that values and social connectedness matter is welcome. The danger, though, is that concern with dignity is becoming as rigid as was that with economic security. In this age of identity politics, dignity is all too often reduced to the public affirmation of ethnic or cultural identity.
In Whiteshift, Kaufmann argues that western politics is being remade through demographic changes and ‘the tug of war between white ethno-traditionalism and anti-racist moralism’. White identity is under threat from non-white immigration, creating a sense of resentment that is fuelling rightwing populism. White people, Kaufmann argues, should be able to assert their own ‘racial self-interest’ like any ethnic group. Dignity lies in the ability to control demographic change.
Whiteshift is a hefty work crammed with data and graphs. The trouble with viewing the world primarily in demographic terms, though, is that, for all the facts and figures, it is easy to be blind to the social context.
Consider Kaufmann’s discussion of nineteenth-century Irish immigration into Britain. The influx, Kaufmann writes, created a ‘cultural demography’ that was ‘fertile soil for the growth of anti-Catholicism’. What this misses is that anti-Catholicism was well established long before Irish immigration. Its roots lie in seventeenth-century power struggles. Anti-Catholic bigotry was institutionalised in a series of laws enacted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which denied Catholics jobs, votes and rights. It was shaped, too, by Britain’s annexation of Ireland. It’s not just demography but that history of bigotry and occupation that helps make sense of the response to Irish immigration.
Context is equally important in understanding contemporary responses. The ‘basis of politics’, Kaufmann observes, has shifted ‘from class to ethnicity’. True. But why? For Kaufmann, the answer is simply ‘migration-led ethnic change’. There is, he believes, something primordial in ethnic identities. A product of our evolved psychology, the desire to assert one’s ethnic identity cannot be denied, so much so that anti-racism constitutes a ‘repression of ethnic instincts’. And the repressed always returns.
As with Irish immigration of old, today, too, demography is a blunt tool through which to make sense of social hostility. Key in understanding the shift from class to ethnicity are perceptions of change, not just of ethnicity but also of class.
Social organisations that once gave working-class lives identity, solidarity and dignity have been sapped of vitality. Economic, social and political developments, from the imposition of austerity and the rise of the gig economy to the erosion of trade union power and the Labour Party’s move away from its traditional constituencies, have coalesced to make working-class lives more precarious.
The language of class has become deprecated, while that of culture and identity has taken centre stage. As a result, many in the working class have come to see their economic and political marginalisation as a cultural loss. Many have redefined their interests in ethnic rather than in class terms. Immigration, seen as the key reason for the cultural transformation of the nation, has come to bear responsibility for the loss of their place in society. Demography, again, tells only part of the story.
Kaufmann wants to normalise attachment to ‘white identity’. Historically, such identity has been the means through which to promote racism. Today, many on the far right use it as a way of rebranding their bigotry.
The real problem, however, is not that the notion of white identity is racist but that it is meaningless. There is no singular set of interests shared by all whites. Those responsible for the marginalisation of the working class are also largely white – politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, company bosses. Kaufmann’s argument is, ironically, the mirror image of that of leftwing identitarians; both see whiteness as a homogenising label, one for a repository of privilege, the other for common interests.
The idea of ‘white interests’ obscures the real problems facing the working class. It transforms solidarity from a sense of commonality with those sharing my values and aspirations, though not necessarily my skin colour or culture, to an identity with those who do not share my political hopes, and may undermine my interests, but whose skin colour or cultural background is similar. There’s little dignity in that.
The image is ‘White on white’ by Kazimir Malevich.