15 June 2018

My book: what's it all about?

My book, The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity, is being published on 1st of July, so not long to go now.

Last week a courier dropped off my copies - showing this thing that has been dominating my life for the past few years in physical form for the first time.

THE BOOK: it exists
I have already posted the backcover blurb and some of the theoretical background.

But what is it about, really? How would I sum it up?

At the most basic level, The Tribe is an attempt to explain what  on earth is going on with the politics of identity and diversity. How has it come to dominate our public sphere? And what is the role of the progressive liberal-left in this? It obviously has a major role, but how does this work? Why is this combination so powerful? And what are the consequences of it, not least on our public life?

It is not a history book. It does not attempt to find 'root causes' for what it going on or to track back in time to find a few individuals and say, 'These guys are to blame', 'They started all this'. Such a project would be very interesting no doubt, but I think would detract from what is going on in the here and now, which is what I wanted to address.

The Tribe: Contents page
Instead, The Tribe seeks to describe and explain how the politics of diversity and identity works: how it fits in with our lives and especially our public life; how it pulls us into adopting its ways, or at least not resisting them. The book also seeks to explore the limits to that success. This has a lot to do with the problems that follow from it, in the taboos that arise from identity group favouritism and the institutionalisation of these taboos - and their sometimes disastrous effects, as found in some cases of mass child sexual exploitation.

Nowadays, there seem to be several media storms bubbling away every day with these forms of identity politics at their heart - from attempts to stop Brexit to the politicisation of the Grenfell Tower disaster as a racist act and the attempts of the trans lobby to control how people speak about them.

The sheer political power on display is remarkable. If anything I think I have underplayed this power in the The Tribe. However, hopefully it will help readers to understand what is going on: how this politics works - and especially how and why it has become so powerful in our world.

The Tribe is available now for pre-order via the publisher Imprint Academic's website here. Enter 'TRIBE' to get a nice discount on the RRP. It is also available via Amazon here.

26 May 2018

The power of identity politics

“The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.”
                                                              Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

One of the core themes of my forthcoming book The Tribe is the remarkable power that certain kinds of identity politics have attained in our public life.

The knowledge base of this politics is the universal victimhood of its favoured identity groups.

As the United Nations’ ‘Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ Tendayi Achiume put it in her report on how awful and racist Britain is, “The harsh reality is that race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability status and related categories all continue to determine the life chances and well-being of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable and in many cases unlawful.”

For this interpretation, which is appearing in our public life daily and prominently, the life chances and well-being of non-white-skinned people, women, the ethnically non-British, Muslims and disabled people are determined by those identity markers, so that they appear as universal victims of society and of the identity groups which dominate it. This is direct causation she is talking about – that identity leads to either success or failure. She makes no qualification on it and makes an unequivocal judgement on the situation as unacceptable and also sometimes unlawful – so assuming a kind of absolute authority over it.

Achiume, who The Times described as a ‘Zambian-born, US-based academic’ and ‘a UN expert’ on its front page, added, “Austerity measures have been disproportionately detrimental to racial and ethnic minority communities. Unsurprisingly, austerity has had especially pronounced intersectional consequences, making women of colour the worst affected.”

Here we see the logic of this form of knowledge, attributing victimhood along the lines of identity categories – so, combining women and people ‘of colour’ as victims, we arrive at a maximum victimhood of ‘women of colour’. This type of knowledge, of ‘intersectionality’, will be familiar to anyone accustomed to the theories coming out of the social sciences (and wider humanities) departments of Western universities.

However the ability to make assertion in the public sphere – and to have it leading the news with the one making the assertion described as a ‘UN expert’ as in this case – is an indication of political power. The domination of academic discourse by this sort of universalising theory is a sign of political power. That someone propounding this theory gets appointed by the body that brings the world together to go and inspect countries and tell them what to do is a sign of political power.

My book explores how this power works through relationships which have built up between what I am calling ‘the liberal-left’ (the ‘tribe’ of the title) and these favoured groups via those who appear as their representatives – so feminists, Islamists and ethnic group activists for example. These relationships make up what I am calling ‘the system of diversity’ – a form of society grounded in these relationships of favouring and representing, linked to assumptions of identity group victimhood.

As I am seeing it, many of our major institutions, including major media organisations like the BBC, Sky News, The Times and especially The Guardian and Channel 4 are constantly being drawn towards the system of diversity and its ways of relating to the world – seeing fixed and ‘quasi-fixed’ identity as primary to what is going on in the world and primary to how they should address it.

Achiume’s statements drew fierce criticism as soon as they appeared. However, the way similar statements and reports keep on appearing – for example just recently with accusations that Oxbridge admissions are biased against black people (when they are not) and attacks on the Canadian psychiatrist and identity politics critic Jordan Peterson, tells us something significant about where power lies in our society.

The critics are constantly mobilising just to respond to the tide of assertion and accusation and demands for favourable treatment for the favoured groups. They are not setting the agenda. They are barely holding back the tide.

For the rest of us, this agenda is increasingly working its way into our daily lives as rules and orders and social norms – to implement positive discrimination in the workplace, to attend training to correct our ‘unconscious bias’ and to report assertions that are not favourable to favoured group members to the police as ‘hate crime’.

The natural response in this situation is to give way, which is after all, fundamentally, a giving-way to power. We evade, we protect ourselves, while the winners go on producing their reports and setting the agenda and setting the rules that govern our lives.

The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity, will be published on 1st July by Imprint Academic (for order details, click here). For more on the theoretical background to the book, click here.

3 May 2018

The end of Britain/the end of democracy?

In 1999, the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens published a book called 'The Abolition of Britain' that described the constitutional changes taking place under Tony Blair's first government as a 'slow motion coup d'├ętat'. 

I haven't read the book myself, but the theme and title come to mind now that it seems clear that Brexit will only happen in name only, if at all. The Establishment forces have been organising for two years now, and they have just about made it. When the Irish government and the EU in concert work to exercise a veto over British constitutional arrangements and the British Establishment shrugs its shoulders or eggs them on as they have been, the game would seem to be up. 

The idea that a 'hard border' on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit will somehow 'cause' violence to break out is a political device invented by politicians and spin doctors. It is an assertion which serves a crucial political purpose (as well as stamping all over any serious notions of causality and agency). 

Sinn Fein is certainly using the issue to stir up trouble, with Leo Varadkar's government a happy accomplice, but from what I have seen and heard there is no desire from the ex-IRA to go back to shooting and bombing people. Rather, the EU together with the Irish government and anti-Brexit campaigners have been using the IRA as a silent threat to influence public - and political - opinion in Britain. You might say they have been employing the IRA as their armed wing - in the name of peace.

(We might even call this the first instance of an EU Army being used, even if it is an old terrorist army that doesn't officially exist anymore.)

I don't see much point in getting too angry about this. This is political power in operation. Everything about the anti-Brexit movement, from their concerted and successful efforts to dominate the airwaves to their work in Parliament and Whitehall - has screamed political power. The winners get to describe what is happening and what happened and what will happen, and that is the case now. It only goes to show how much they want to keep Britain in the EU and unable to control its own destiny as a sovereign democracy.

The question is: what next? Things will never be the same again, that is for sure. I certainly have no crystal ball, but a few thoughts have been leaping to mind (with the emphasis on 'leaping'), including the following:

  1. This is the end of British democracy; 
  2. This is the end of the United Kingdom as a notionally independent state; and
  3. This will give a big push to renewed independence efforts, c.f. what has happened with the SNP in Scotland.

I wouldn't say any of those things with any certainty, but I think they are worth reflecting on.

On the first question, there is no such thing as a perfect democracy, and the United Kingdom has never been that. What the anti-Brexit efforts have shown is that our elites are alive and well and aren't willing to let democracy prevail if it doesn't match their own wishes and interests. On one level you could say, 'fair enough' to them - though it'd be nice if they didn't disguise their own will and preference behind ideas of absolute, rational good for everyone. 

When I was thinking about this the other day, it brought to mind an essay by a Bulgarian political scientist called Ivan Krastev. In this essay, written well before Brexit, Krastev wrote "Elites approach elections as opportunities for manipulating the people rather than listening to them (Big Data makes voting marginal as a source of feedback)."

But with the EU referendum vote, they struggled to do that. The question asked, Leave or Remain, went beyond our normal 'managed democracy' into the realm of existentials, asking us a fundamental question about who we are and where we see our destiny. The likes of David Cameron, George Osborne, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg did their best to manage us, but we got away from them, just.

Not for long though. It looks as though will have to get back in our box again. But how long until we pop out again? What organisations will appear looking to renew this democratic revolution of sorts?

We will have to wait and see (and get busy).

30 March 2018

A few thoughts on human 'rights'

When we hear activists talk about how we or they or some particular people have 'a right' to something, it can sound a little perplexing.

On one hand, it sounds nice that people have a right to the good things of life, like security, freedom, material reward and the rest. But on the other the word, 'right', serves rather like a hammer, nailing down something, making it secure, which means taking away elements of doubt, of contest - of politics in other words.

After all, a right is an entitlement. It moves the situation from one where the good things of life are up for grabs based on such things as hard work, ethical behaviour, greed, ambition and political power - and secures those goods from such contingencies. Political power is entrenched in a right. Any hard work can be considered done, ethical behaviour is put to one side and the human, all too human qualities of greed and ambition no longer need to be considered.

In other words a human right accords a legal basis to the allocation of rewards. A right might be encoded in statute law, but it remains a form of legality even without that. Failure to accord someone their right means breaking a law. The idea serves in a similar way to that of 'social justice', in bringing an account of justice to cover political life. Failure to do what social justice activists demand means breaking a law, which is to say committing a crime, a political crime - and this deserves punishment in the court of political life.

One of the most interesting aspects to this - and something that I have seen David Goodhart refer to a few times in talking about 'judicial activism' - is the relationship of rights to democracy. A right secures the allocation of resources (including existential resources like protection from criticism), and puts it beyond contest, which means putting it beyond democratic contest.

With a right, the matter has already been decided and no amount of democratic decision-making can change the decision.

If you start to look carefully, you might see that this way of approaching politics is all around us. It is a powerful way of removing political opposition. It is therefore a clear and present danger to democratic political life.

This is not to say that the things that come to us through our 'rights' are bad things. On the contrary. such things as 'rights at work' and 'the right to vote' are obviously good things. Our problem is how the language of rights is reaching out and extending its dominion, so closing off more and more political space.

27 March 2018

Corbyn and anti-Semitism: the whole of Labour is to blame, including 'moderates'

I must say I have found it a little strange seeing so many 'moderate' Labour MPs and activists getting angry about anti-Semitism in the party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

Where was this anger and upset during two leadership elections which re-elected Corbyn in 2015 and 2016?

This sort of stuff is not new. It was well known and covered widely on blogs such as Harry's Place and Rob Marchant's Centre-Left blog in 2015. I also wrote about it on this blog. The right-wing press covered it extensively. Even the Guardian published a piece by James Bloodworth setting out the charge sheet against Corbyn and his many known associations with anti-Semites.

But in both elections, as I recall, none of the leadership candidates dared to raise it as a reason not to elect Corbyn as leader. Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham in 2015 and Owen Smith in 2016 instead fought dull, dry campaigns trying to tell the membership what they wanted to hear while talking intermittently about their high principles and 'values', of which anti-racism is always right up there.

When it came down to it, none of them had the spine to make a stand when it really mattered. And the rest of the Labour Party, except for a few honourable exceptions, just let it pass, allowing Corbyn supporters to dismiss it all as a right-wing conspiracy and letting him get elected, twice, without serious contest.

They are all to blame for this. Virtually the whole party is to blame. I see Liz Kendall was at the protest yesterday, as was Chuka Umunna, another leadership candidate in 2015, for a brief time before he bowed out. Stella Creasy was also there. She was a candidate for deputy leader in 2015. Did she speak up then? I certainly don't remember it.

Part of the problem for the liberal-left on anti-Semitism is that its favoured identity groups in what I am calling 'the system of diversity' do not include Jews. Favoured groups include women, gay people, non-white people and, associated with the latter group, Muslims. Jews do not qualify. Claims of structural disadvantage do not stick so easily to them (though some Jewish groups have been making strenuous efforts for Jews to be accepted on the same basis as a favoured group).

Instead, Jews generally appear in the white-skinned group, so as part of an unfavoured identity group. Partly as a result, anti-Semitism doesn't fit comfortably into the forms of discrimination and prejudice that the left fights against on a daily basis. This has opened up a space for anti-Semitism to gain a foothold among some groups, notably on the farther reaches of the left that have affiliated most readily with anti-Israeli and Islamist movements. This is something I look at in my upcoming book, 'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' - now available for pre-order via Amazon (sorry, no alternative retailers).

22 March 2018

The Tribe: some more details, including blurb and cover design

Imprint Academic has made available some details of my book, The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity, on its website here.

[Update: it is now available for pre-order via Amazon here and on the Imprint website here]

The Tribe: book cover

The blurb reads:

From Islamist terror to feminist equal pay campaigns and the apparent Brexit hate crime epidemic, identity politics seems to be everywhere nowadays. This is not entirely an accident. The progressive liberal-left, which dominates our public life, has taken on the politics of race, gender, religion and sexuality as a key part of its own group identity – and has used its dominance to embed them into our state and society.
In The Tribe, Ben Cobley guides us around the 'system of diversity' which has resulted, exploring the consequences of offering favour and protection to some people but not others based on things like skin colour and gender. He looks at how this system has almost totally captured the Labour Party and continues to capture other major institutions. He also looks at how it is capturing our language, appropriating key terms like ‘equality’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’, while denying a voice to its outsiders.
The system of diversity makes a challenge to us all: submit, or risk exclusion from society itself.

The website page states that publication date will be 1st July this year, but my understanding has been that it will not be available until later than that. I will update will any further details.

Update: the publication date should be 1st July as listed. 

I wrote a few more words about the argument here.

18 March 2018

Why the accusation ‘irrational’ is generally bogus

There is often a sort of dishonesty to the accusation that someone or something is ‘irrational’. It presupposes that the person making the accusation knows how the other person or group of people should act in order to be rational. It means taking the place of others and claiming authority over what they should be doing, on grounds of knowledge.

I’ve put ‘knows’ and ‘act’ in italics above because the idea of rationality combines these two generally different notions. Knowing something is a passive condition. It generally means knowing facts, so something that has already happened. Action is a different condition. By definition it is active, affecting the world and projecting into the future.

The idea of rationality connects the two, projecting knowledge into the future, going beyond the sphere of facts and connecting to ideas of causation: that when I do this something else follows. In football if I kick the ball in the direction of the goal I am more likely to score a goal than if I aim at the corner flag. This is rational, logical thinking. You may base it on evidence of an experiment in which players variously aimed at the goal and at the corner flag, so it has some basis in knowledge and fact, but it is still projecting into the future. When the time comes around when I kick the ball, there may be other factors intervening that your calculation didn’t take into consideration – like my foot turning inwards or a very strong wind blowing.

In this way, your rational instruction to aim at the goal isn’t completely secure. But it is still reasonable – and rational – for me to aim at the goal if I want to score a goal. You would be well justified in calling me ‘irrational’ for aiming at the corner flag.

The idea of rationality makes good sense in this situation precisely because it is a limited situation, because there is a specific goal in mind – to score a goal – and actors involved in action trying to achieve that goal. It is an isolated, strictly bounded situation with relatively few variables involved. The aim is clear and not contested.

Applied to politics, this idea of rationality starts to fall apart. After all, in politics our aims are often contested. The situation is not isolated and bounded like on a football field or in an experimental laboratory. Rather it opens out to the whole world. For Britain in June 1940, was the intention to achieve peace or to defeat the Nazis? Many chose the former and followed a perfectly rational course in wanting to come to an accommodation with Hitler. They had a clear goal in mind. But what about others, like Churchill? Were they being ‘irrational’?

The accusation could certainly be made, but would be unfair because Churchill was not aiming for peace at any cost. He had other things in mind, like defeating tyranny, maintaining Britain’s standing and independence in the world, and also personal glory. No doubt, some rationalists at the time claimed that these goals were themselves irrational, but was peace at any cost rational? Here we find the sphere of action, of causation and of different considerations widen out so far that rationality loses its moorings. Once we start trying to examine goals according to rationality, we enter an infinite regression, like the child endlessly asking ‘But why, Daddy’ until Daddy gives up and says, ‘Just because I say so’ or ‘Because it’s the right thing to do.’

Rationalists in politics tend to avoid asking these questions, of why they are trying to achieve what they are. It has already been decided (which is different to that they have decided) and they have work to do. They accuse others of being ‘irrational’ when these others have different intentions to theirs, as if other forms of activity and justifications are illegitimate. They are a bit like a football coach who breaks the bounds of the football field to demand rugby players stop playing rugby because playing rugby is a poor way of putting the ball in the back of the net.

Like this, rationality in politics relentlessly narrows down the possibilities of politics by only admitting certain forms of ‘in-order-to’ justifications. It implies a strict limitation of the ends that can legitimately be sought. Any alternatives appear as ‘irrational’ because they are not directed to the correct ends and are therefore unlikely to be effective at achieving them. But the rationalist is generally not self-aware enough to see this, so continues in all seriousness.

The dishonesty – and political power – in this approach relates to how the accusation is expressed, for accusers do not generally draw boundaries and narrow down to a particular situation of trying to achieve a set goal. The accusation that someone is being ‘irrational’ invariably stands alone, as absolute and universal, covering the whole of politics and of life. It claims the authority of knowledge, of causation, not bounded by the equivalent of the football field, but taking everything into account.

It is bogus, but it feeds into a sort of religious yearning we all have for certainty, for security – and for faith.

In this way, rationalism in politics is inherently irrational, which is a philosophical weakness, but a political strength, for it allows assertions to be made readily. It puts up a constant challenge to opponents to respond, which they may not be in a position to do. Claims of rationality often require intellectual challenge. This takes time, attention to detail, the right language to engage politically and access to public life.

At present, our political life is pretty dreadful at doing this challenging and facilitating it. For the most part, in the immediate situations of politics, assertions of rationality and accusations of irrationality pass by unchallenged, their authority unquestioned. I think we need to do better, and we could do worse than start with these three basic questions:

  • Whose rationality?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What are they implicitly ruling out in the process?

Brexit is of course posed as the ultimate irrational act by many people at the moment. But who are they? What are their motives? What self-interest do they have in stopping it? On the level of their arguments, what do they think politics should be trying to achieve, and why does national self-government rule this out? What is it about national democracy that they would like to exclude from political life, and why?

Once these things start to emerge, then we can start having a more honest political debate.

There is a lot more to be said on this, but that is more than enough for now. Some of these thoughts were jogged into being by listening to the philosopher John Gray’s Desert Island Disks the other day. It’s well worth forty-five minutes of your time, both for the reflections and the music.