This essay, on how politics and social activism have too often become exercises in rebranding not material change, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 31 October 2021, under the headline “You can’t escape your past by changing your name, as Mark Zuckerberg will discover”.
It’s easy to mock the Corporation Formerly Known As Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook would henceforth be Meta, and his attempt to swerve the intensifying assault on his company’s sordid activities with a nifty bit of rebranding, is worthy of all the ridicule that’s been heaped on it.
And yet, when the laughter has faded, we might also reflect on the fact that the Zuckerberg manoeuvre is a feature not of a particular company but of our age. Rebranding has become the norm, not just in business but in politics and social activism too. And, as with Facebook (or Meta), we live in a world in which form is often seen as more important than content and the symbolic is elevated over the material.
In 1995, the political philosopher Nancy Fraser warned that too often “cultural recognition displaces socio-economic redistribution as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle”. Quarter of a century on and struggles for equality and social justice have become even more centred around the cultural and the symbolic, whether tussles over identities or controversies over statues, rather than on wages, housing or material deprivation.
The symbolic, of course, matters. It is important that the social presence of different groups is recognised, that people can find dignity in their lives and don’t feel disrespected or shunned. But today, both politicians and activists often worry more about cultural domination – think of the constant spew of controversies over “cultural appropriation” or offensive speech – than exploitation; the struggles for the material changes necessary to improve our lives have too often become subsumed by demands for symbolic gestures. Not only has politics become Zucked, but the stress on the cultural and the symbolic distorts our understanding of both the present and the past.
A few days before the renaming of Facebook, London’s Imperial College published a report from its History Group on the renaming of its buildings. The Group had been commissioned “to examine the history of the College through its links to the British Empire, and to report on the current understanding and reception of the College’s legacy and heritage in the context of its present-day mission”. The report’s most important, and controversial, recommendation is to rename the Huxley Building, named in honour of the Victorian naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, and to remove his bust from public view.
Huxley was a naturalist, whose fierce defence of the theory of evolution earned him the moniker of “Darwin’s bulldog”, and was a leading liberal of his age. His 1865 essay Emancipation – Black and White, which the History Group cites as reason for his removal, was written as a polemic against slavery and for women’s education. It also took for granted, as most works by Victorian liberals did, the racial superiority of white people and the inferiority of black people.
Huxley, like most historical figures, was a complex personality, with traits and beliefs to admire and to deplore. He played a major role in developing and popularising evolutionary theory, in promoting education, in opposing polygenism (the idea that different races were different species) and in challenging hardline racism while accepting the idea of a racial hierarchy of inferiority and superiority. To view him primarily as a racist, and to suggest that erasing his racism is significant for creating a more equal and diverse society today, is to warp both the past and the present. After all, in what way would removing Huxley’s bust and renaming the hall improve the lives of minority students at Imperial College?
The Huxley renaming kerfuffle is a minor issue in a London college. It reflects, though, a wider confusion in the way in which we think about historical figures and contemporary bigotry. It’s the latest in a series of controversies about the renaming of buildings that celebrate figures such as Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, 19th-century prime minister William Gladstone or the taking down of statues commemorating people such as Bristol slaver Edward Colston or Winston Churchill. It’s an international phenomenon. New York City council voted recently to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from City Hall.
It used to be the cliché that, in novelist LP Hartley’s words, “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Now, though, we seem loth to view the past as a different country and want to imagine, and judge it, almost as if it were the same as the present. Huxley’s social views, the report tells us, “fall far short of Imperial’s modern values”. Is that surprising?
The demand that we should rethink our history, take more seriously the shameful aspects often ignored, and reimagine our public spaces and that which they celebrate, is a response to traditional accounts that have often downplayed the historical record of racism and bigotry. It is, as Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb put it in their introduction to What Is History, Now?, a new collection of essays rethinking our relationship to the past, “about refusing to accept a censored version of history that glorifies certain people and erases others” and “encouraging us” to pay attention to those who have been marginalised or ignored.
Acknowledging this does not mean, however, replacing it with an equally cartoonish view of history or, guided by contemporary needs, ignoring its complexities. Huxley is a major figure who helped progress both scientific and social views. Colston was a merchant and slaver, whose life and wealth were built on the oppression of others. Damning both equally as racists who do not deserve commemoration is to abandon historical evaluation for a crude mode of moral judgment.
It is difficult to know what the renaming of Huxley Hall would add to our understanding of the man, of his age or of racism. It is equally difficult to know how it would take away anything of the actual racism that black people face today. What we end up with is a Zuckerberg version of history in which symbolic gestures come to replace material change and in which rebranding becomes an all-purpose tool to avoid serious discussion.
History is akin to a continuous conversation with the past, a conversation that inevitably changes over time as values and beliefs change, and that inevitably reflects contemporary preoccupations, but cannot simply reflect contemporary preoccupations. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in rebranding, not in enriching our understanding of the past or in helping ameliorate the present.