Malevich White on White

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.

Witness a new book by Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift, that is likely to stir debate. Kaufmann is professor of politics at London’s Birkbeck College and a key influence on many ‘postliberal’ thinkers.

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.


  1. yandoodan

    Dead on. Racial arguments by people like Kaufmann are meant to hide the dirty little secret of illegal immigration: it benefits business owners by significantly lowering the cost of labor. Note that this lowers the cost of all labor, creating a new labor pool that includes, not just the immigrants, but everyone who wants to get a job. Then the upper class — the 10% — tell the displaced workers that immigration is good for the economy by lowering the cost of goods and services, and take active measures to increase the supply of poor laborers.

    My main point: Workers’ opposition to illegal immigration is not a jingoistic reflex to racial differences. It is a completely rational reaction to economic changes that have left them in the dust. The racial differences are a side show.

  2. damon

    “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”.

    I’m on holiday in Romania and reading that line made me pause for thought.
    I imagined how it would sound if you changed the word “whites” for “Romanians” and applied that idea here in Bucharest. Apart from the marginalised Roma community, this country seems pretty together and at ease with itself.
    And I can’t help thinking that it’s something to do with it not having had waves of new migration in recent times.
    There’s something quite nice about it I have to admit. London where I live feels far more polarised and disparate.

    I’ve found it to be the same in many countries I’ve visited where they have had stable populations for generations.
    People seem more at ease with each other and there is more social unity. Because they don’t have alienated people in the same way we do. With high rates for racial minorities not liking the police for example. And all the problems of racism and accusations of institutional racism etc. You tend to find that more in Western countries that have a lot of racial diversity. Plus you get all the intersectionalist and antagonist politics that arises from this societal situation.

  3. I’m white. Part of my ancestry is Polish Jew, escaping pogroms to East London and Glasgow long before the bite of Nazism. The rest is rural West Country low church and Glaswegian Presbyterian. My parents rejected it all. So I am white, blank, no religious or cultural heritage, except a deep spiritual Socialism, internationalism, rationalism, multiculturalism, scientific sceptiscm. I live in one of the most mixed regions of the country and love the cultural diversity around me.
    I chance to teach occasionally about the biology of skin cancer, and genetically, patterns of pigmentation are a big risk factor. So I look further into this and I learn there just is not much evidence for the concept of race at all, and surely no such thing, biologically, as a white race. Whites are diverse. Pigmentation is dynamic, and dark skin comes and goes in populations with migrations away from or toward the sun. People with recent Northern European ancestry have pale skins and a bit of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes from interbreeding with the non-sapiens human residents we replaced. Recent African emigres are rather more pure Homo sapiens, if that matters. Neanderthals also had pale skin, but we didn’t inherit ours from them, we re-evolved that trait independently.
    The point of this ramble is that the idea of white culture or white race is nonsense. What defines whiteness in the UK is our very recent heritage from catholicism, empire, colonialism, trade, emigration, commonwealth, rationalism, revolution, capitalism, theft, greed and blindness. As a result, not universally, but at this point in history, whiteness has soaked up the world’s cultures like a sponge. Whiteness, now, here, is distinguished by cultural diversity, and even railing against it and searching for some mythical pure white culture is just part of our multiculturalism. Diversity is what defines us and is who we are.

  4. damon

    “The past is a foreign country” goes the saying – and when you see old London you can really believe it.
    I can just about remember it like this. Down in Bermondsey which as now changed greatly and become diverse like everywhere else. Even the accent has largely disappeared.
    So I wouldn’t talk of white identity, but more of cultural identity. And some of these cultural identities aren’t that robust and can be wiped out and replaced. They only survive if they are passed on to the next generation and are based in some continuous locality. Diversity and modern mobility have done away with old cultures like this one.

    • All this is true, but I doubt it’s ethnic diversity which challenged south London identity and culture (I grew up there and lived there a while when my own family was young). Class and geographical mobility are really what have changed old working class areas.

  5. Cable Strada

    “White identity” is not meaningless as a locus for hate to coalesce around. Trump? Salvini? Orban? BREXIT? Fortress Europe? All of these people / phenomena have leveraged “whiteness” as a core driver of Euro-supremacist tropes and policies. That is why open borders are so important and must be supported by all progressives. Every extra member of a BAME community in Europe and the US almost always means another voice and vote for progressive values. Without BAME / LGBTQ votes, Jeremy Corbyn would have absolutely no chance of becoming the next prime minister of the UK. Sad but true.

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