13 May 2019

In defence of Claire Fox

Claire Fox is one of my heroes; one of my favourite people in public life. And she still is.

To see her name being dragged through the mud since she committed to become a Brexit Party candidate for the forthcoming European Parliament elections has been difficult to watch and to bear.

David Aaronovitch started it off with a vituperative column attacking the ‘shadowy past’ of Fox and her colleagues in the old Revolutionary Communist Party who are now involved in the Academy of Ideas and the Spiked online magazine.

Nick Cohen (an old lefty hero of mine) picked up the thread, denouncing her as “one of the most immoral people in public life”.  Sunder Katwala of the ‘independent, non-partisan thinktank’ British Future has been running some huge Twitter threads attacking her and her candidacy. Fellow tweeter Otto English has also been running a relentless Twitter campaign against her. Newspapers and broadcasters have picked up and reported it.

The main and seemingly most substantive accusation being made against her is her support for the IRA.

I'm not altogether clear about this, but the circumstantial evidence is strong.

If it is true, I find it incomprehensible, particularly following the Good Friday Agreement and when set against her admirable belief in and defence of democracy following the Brexit vote. I find it dreadful, awful.

As with Jeremy Corbyn and others in their sympathies for the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah, I have no sympathy with any views like that.

However I would still strongly defend Claire as a person - and as a public figure who deserves our respect.


Some might call it hypocrisy given my condemnation of Islamist sympathisers for example, but I still defend Corbyn and McDonnell’s right to stand and be judged by the electorate (millions of whom are still happy to vote Labour). They are standing to run the country, which is a whole different kettle of fish to these largely symbolic European elections.

More than that, I know that Claire and her colleagues make an important – and overwhelmingly positive – contribution to our public life. They offer cogent, powerful critiques against prevailing orthodoxies which continue to make them enemies, but they stick at it and keep on coming back for more. This is rare - and valuable.

Their commitment to free speech and democracy is crucial in offering alternative views in our dreadfully conformist public sphere, hitting back against the authoritarianism and even totalitarianism of our times. They run the frankly awesome Battle of Ideas in London every year – a huge event where all manner of contentious issues get debated seriously between people of all sorts of viewpoints.

There is a personal angle too. I have skin in this game. It is unlikely that my book The Tribe would ever have been published without Claire taking an interest and supporting me. I will leave readers to judge whether this was a wider service to society, but I think I can safely say that without her my voice would not have been heard even in the limited way it is now. The rest of the left especially had turned a cold shoulder.

My views in the book and elsewhere – on immigration, the environment, climate change, Progress and development – are in many ways the polar opposite to hers. But she has still supported me, as no one else has.

I know there are countless similar stories of her generosity towards others. I have heard many, from people of all sorts of political backgrounds. Few people are more liked and admired by people who know her than Claire – and deservedly so in my view.

Some accuse her Academy of Ideas and Spiked of being cultish.

Having presented my book at the Battle and attended other events of theirs and their affiliates (and now being invited to address this year’s Academy), I’ve never heard a word from anyone telling me what to say or what to think. In fact I’ve found a broad range of views, discussed openly in a way that is unthinkable in most political environments. I’ve never found any of the principals less than polite, intelligent and good company.

With their many events – not just the Battle and the Academy, but smaller debating events in schools and prisons – they do proper work and in doing so make a huge contribution to our public life.

Claire is director of the Academy of Ideas and oversees the lot of it.

For me, when confronted by these running attacks on her, my reaction is this: I disagree vehemently with her on some of the things accused. But this is life. Despite their faults and when you disagree strongly with them, you stand by those who are worth standing by, who deserve your loyalty.

Claire’s denunciators may pose as neutral arbiters overseeing the health of our public sphere. But they have skin in the game too. Sunder and his organisation have done a lot of admirable work, but his political sympathies are obvious from his Twitter feed. British Future is funded by and does work with all sorts of groups who have political commitments, including the European Commission.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I’ve never seen anything like the campaign Sunder has waged against Claire, from him or anyone else.

This is politics though. It’s a harsh and brutal world.

It’s also an imperfect world, of imperfect, flawed people who get things wrong.

For me, as imperfect people go, Claire Fox is one of the best.

Certainly, if I had a fraction of her courage, commitment and generosity, to people and to worthwhile causes, I’d be a better person than I am. We should be grateful to have her around.

3 March 2019

A Q&A on the trans-feminist war and wider identity politics for the French magazine L'Incorrect

Here I have pasted in a lengthy series of questions and answers I conducted with the journalist Sylvie Perez for an article that has appeared in the March issue of the French magazine L'Incorrect

The article discusses the transgender-feminist war that is raging away now in Britain. My comments put this in the context of what I call 'the system of diversity' in my book The Tribe. Obviously, only a few of those comments can appear in the article and I thought they were worth pasting in full on here.

Questions and Answers

1/ What does the conflict opposing feminists to transgender activists tell us about the escalation in the victimhood status and overall about the leap forwards of identity politics ?

Victimhood is the base of knowledge which all claims to identity group favouritism rely on. The transgender activists seem to have realised this, learning their lessons from other identity activists that maximising how victimised they appear will pay back if they shout loud enough and pressure the right people. There are jobs and funding for activists in doing this, just as there are for being a mainstream feminist or a non-white race activist or Islamist. However the demands of transgender activists for all the particular rights and privileges of women intrudes on the protected authority of mainstream feminists over women and what it means to be a woman. One of the early controversies in Britain was about self-identifying women being cleared to be selected on the Labour Party’s All Women’s Shortlists for Parliamentary Selections. This was previously a privilege that appeared to be for women as women, so understandably some feminists resented giving some of that space reserved for them to people they considered to be men. This is an example of an area which is cordoned off for control by identity group representatives, and transgender activists wanted a part of it for themselves.

2/ Which side (feminists or transgender) do you predict, will win that unprecedented war?

I tend to avoid predictions. Also I am not a specialist in this specific area. However I think there are a few useful things I can say. For a start, the number of actual transgender activists is very small in relative terms, so they have a natural disadvantage when it comes to a straight numbers name. Also, there has been some major feminist mobilisation against them, drawing support from major media organisations like The Times and even the staunchly liberal-left Guardian. However many leading feminists in politics have avoided coming out against self-identification and have sought to cool the war of words. In the ‘system of diversity’ I talk about, this would be because transgender counts as a favoured identity: to refuse favour creates conflict within the system and undermines the power and credibility of everyone within it. I can see a further cooling taking place, with the most extreme demands being quietly dropped. If the transgender activists won, I couldn’t see their victory lasting in any case – since the backlash would come increasingly from ordinary women and undermine the credibility of associated institutions significantly. But the activists won’t go away. They have established themselves on the political scene and will need to be mollified with different favours.

3/ The transgender group appears in your “favoured/unfavoured identity groups” table, in The Tribe. Do you know when this group was targeted as a “favoured group” by the Left? (You seem to think it’s rather recently?)

My book isn’t a history of these forms of politics, but rather seeks to describe what is going on at the moment, how it works. So this is something I am relatively ignorant about. However I don’t really see the transgender group as a separate group that was targeted by the left for favour; rather that the activists finally made enough noise to be appear in the right way as a victim group in need of favour, which they now receive. In Britain, the New Labour governments of 1997-2010 gave a push to all these forms of identity politics favoured by the liberal-left – not least by training activists in the mechanisms of political power – of how to influence policy-makers and raise funds among other things. The ability of transgender activists to raise significant amounts of money for campaigning, even from the National Lottery, is remarkable.

4/ Are transgender people the latest group added? Who came first (female, non-white, muslim etc) ? Can we establish a chronology? And who will come next? What is the next group to enter the “diversity system”?

Again, this isn’t something I have looked at specifically. I have simply looked at this point in time and sought to explain what on earth is going on. As for what groups might bust their way in, I think the hall is full now, though I may be wrong. Jewish identity politics employs the same community leader model, the same language and attempts to maximise victimhood. However the main sources of Jewish victimhood come from within the system – from Islamists and left-wing opponents of Israel. Also Jewish activism can’t point to empirical disadvantage in society like other racial or religious groups do. They rather appear as part of the white majority, so as natural oppressors. I can’t see that changing.

Some good-natured folk also want to bring working class people into the system, but the practicalities of doing this are very difficult, not least since ‘working class’ is now largely just a cultural, existential category with no distinguishing physical identifiers and virtually no political organisation to grab hold of except that which appears to be ‘far right’ movements. The cultural distance between progressives and working class people is now vast and I see little reason why that should change.

5/ The Transgender Action Plan was conceived in December 2011 and signed by Theresa May (then Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities). And the reform of the Gender Recognition Act was launched last autumn by the conservative Theresa May PM in the midst of the Brexit turmoil! Still would you say that the Left is responsible for giving such importance to such a small group of people ? Aren’t we dealing with a wider progressist ideology ?

[NB: I would say ‘progressivist’] I agree to a large extent that progressive ideology is now the default position for anyone now participating in public life and administration – from all political parties and none. However I don’t think the Conservative Party in Parliament, and certainly not the activists in the shires, have converted to the cause of transgender rights and activism. G. K. Chesterton had a great line that, "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” They are naive about these forms of politics. They want to appear nice and modern and ‘inclusive’ and win praise from someone, anyone, so those who are paying attention are keen to please the lobbyists, just as they do with business. Theresa May is particularly prone to this. There is an emptiness to her and to the Conservative Party at the moment. They are called ‘conservative’, but they like calling themselves progressive, which ties into their faith in free markets. They tend to see the expansion of free markets into all areas of life like the identity activists see the expansion of the diversity ideology: as absolute progress in history and of mankind.

6/ Can you explain how the conflict of interests between women’s rights and transgender rights is a challenge to the integrity of the “diversity system”?

By intruding upon the protected rights and privileges of women, the transgender activists are making a challenge to the authority of feminists: a demand for them to give way and to grant these rights and privileges to biological men. Many mainstream feminists are not too bothered by this, being accustomed to outsource authority [over] other favoured group business to representatives of that group. But in this case that business intrudes not just upon their authority but upon the very category of women and the protections that follow from that category like female-only toilets and prisons. I call it a sort of ‘breakdown’ in the system of diversity, in which representatives of one favoured group interfere with the business of another – moving on to their territory and threatening their favoured status. We see this sometimes between Islamists and feminists or LGBT activists, but remarkably rarely given how their fundamental beliefs oppose each other. In my view this is because to do so would undermine the system of politics which outsources authority and power to you in the first place. If you put at risk other sources of support for the system, you risk no longer benefitting from the favour and patronage on offer.

7/ Is the “diversity system” getting more or less powerful?

I think it’s both. It’s getting more powerful because identity and diversity activists are continuing to expand their reach, extending the favouring of favoured groups into all areas of institutional and even personal lives. The more institutions implement formal positive discrimination measures and boast about how much they believe in diversity, the more reason there is for the rest of us to align with this way of relating to the world: in order to win favour ourselves, including employment. Also continuing mass immigration means that the amount of people for whom identity group representatives can speak is increasing rapidly – and as much as they go in to the lower levels of the employment market, they can be employed as victims to justify increasing ‘representation’ by more positive discrimination. I think that side of the system is only going to get stronger.

However, the rising power of these forms of politics has now mobilised significant opposition on the fringes of mainstream politics and outside. The identity wars appearing daily in the media are making ordinary people sit up and take notice and look for ways to express themselves politically which mainstream politics doesn’t currently offer. Articles and books are appearing like my own which seek to explain what is going on and what we might do about it. Some prominent people are expressing their opposition in public and absorbing the personal attacks which follow. On social media the backlash is now quite strong and well established. People are expressing themselves openly, and have the language and arguments to hand. So there’s a lot of activity. But it’s early days and not very organised. The system is organised and embedded in our society and its major institutions: that’s why I call it a system: it’s a bit like capitalism in that way.

8/ It seems that the main fuel to identity politics is the fantasy of equality. Which leads to a paradox: in order to maintain equality as an incentive, one needs to emphasize and theorize diversity. Can this paradox can hold any longer?

Yes, there are definite incentives in the system to maximise inequality in order to increase the push for equality and maximise the favour passed to group leaders who represent the victim groups. These leaders depend on the disadvantage and victimhood of the groups they are supposed to represent. Among non-white ethnic minority groups in Britain, the more successful have been drawing away from this view of themselves and of their place in society and also pulling away from the Labour Party which promotes it. Women have never been particularly keen on it as a group.

However the forces which promote this view of the world have got much stronger in recent years. As Britain’s most important media organisation by a long way, the BBC now makes dedicated effort to produce daily stories to represent the system’s favoured groups by promoting their victimhood in the public sphere. There is an interesting backlash going on to this way of seeing the world among some non-white, female writers and politicians, but it is negligible compared to the system’s ability to generate its messages in the public sphere. Politics doesn’t mind a paradox if it aligns with political power.

9/ Those disputes opposing different “favoured groups” are being silenced. The feminist philosopher Kathleen Stock underlined the fact that philosophers ignore the threat of trans ideology upon women’s condition. They don’t dare writing about the vanishing of the concept (let alone the word) “woman”. Equally, we don’t hear much the gay community’s opposition to islamist disgust of homosexuality. Where does this power to silence people lie ?

The power of silencing lies in the system itself: in the relations which need to be maintained for the different levels of the system to benefit. As I have written it in The Tribe, there are three levels to the system: 1) the progressive liberal-left as an overseeing class, presiding over the system and outsourcing favour to favoured groups via group representatives; 2) the representatives of favoured groups, who seek favour for themselves on the basis of their groups being victims of a society dominated by unfavoured groups; and 3) the members of the favoured groups whose role is to appear as victims. If people fail to conform to one of these roles, they appear outside the system and will likely not benefit from the power it generates. So when the gay activist Peter Tatchell criticises Islamist institutions for indulging hostile attitudes to gay people, he places into question the idea that they should be favoured and protected within the system. Yet the overseeing administration depends on Muslim support for its campaigns and at election time so doesn’t want to put at risk that relation. As a result, there is a strong incentive for such outbreaks to be minimised: to stop people from talking about Islamist attitudes to homosexuality for example. One way of doing this is to fail to identify them as Islamists and to highlight them as victims instead, which aligns to the Islamist view of themselves and their place in relation to the West.

10/ Is diversity an extension of multiculturalist ideology, in order to add new minority groups within the same culture and endlessly segment the population ?

I see the system of diversity as an extension of the system of multiculturalism, yes: bringing identity groups including women, gay and transgender folk, and Muslims into the same system of relations on the same basis: as favoured and due special protection and representation. I’m thinking that the purpose is two-fold: firstly that it appears convenient, both for the identity group activists who want to promote themselves and their groups, and for the overseeing politicians, for whom it is convenient to segment voters by identity group. Secondly, there is the progressive, historical aspect, in that the defeat of discrimination and prejudice towards these groups appears as an historical mission, demonstrating Progress in its most tangible form. Beyond these aspects, I don’t think many of the people promoting diversity have thought through the consequences much. Once they are committed and integrated into this system of relations they tend to avert their eyes from any evidence suggesting negative consequences.

11/ It seems transgender organisations like Stonewall, Press For Change or Gendered Intelligence are quite powerfull. Where do they get the money and the power ?

The Times revealed recently that Stonewall (which is a general LGBT+ advocacy group) has been awarded £494,000 to "empower trans leaders and organisations" to carry out “media and influencing” – in other words to carry out political campaigning. Previously the Sunday Times revealed how the lottery had awarded £500,000 to the trans advocacy group Mermaids, which campaigns for children to be allowed prohibited sex-change hormones. Other than that I have not seen anything about funding. But it’s an indication of how embedded favouring the system’s favoured groups has become [in] our society that these committees see these forms of politics as worth large amounts of public money they have control over. Meanwhile many of the Lottery’s causes, like grassroots sport, remain badly deprived of funding.

12/ Through which channels do transgender campaigners make their way into public life and society (schools and universities, NHS, public services in general and, last but not least, law). For example, I was amazed to find out about the V&A LGBT working group. What is the most striking evidence you’ve noticed of the power of trans campaigners?

I think you are more knowledgeable on this than me. I would simply repeat what you have said so will not say any more.

13/ A Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK was signed by prominent health organisations in October 2017 and tends to condemn psychotherapists trying to dissuade their patients to transition. How would you explain that so many organisations signed it? Just to avoid being called transphobic? Some mention a climate of fear. Do you agree with that?

I am only speculating, but it looks like a classic example of where intensive lobbying has taken place both from within and outside the organisations concerned and they are afraid of what might follow if they didn’t sign. There would likely be public denunciations of course, with the ubiquitous accusations of ‘transphobia’, but also the representatives of these organisations might be afraid of how a failure to sign would align with their own Equalities and Inclusion policies. To sign and find strength in the pack is much easier than to reflect and take a stand on principle – and therefore risk heavy opposition within your institution and possibly losing your (very highly-paid) job and never getting another one.

14/ Identity politics corrupt the campuses. The state of free speech in universities seems to worsen. Would you say it’s a lost cause?

I wouldn’t say it is a lost cause. However it is true that certain forms of identity politics are now embedded within universities and academic life. Identity politics is established and powerful and organised. Opposing voices are mostly individuals. Many choose to remain anonymous when expressing their opposition. Those that don’t open themselves up to fierce attacks and attempts to get them fired if they have said a single thing that opposes the prevailing ideology. There is an opportunity I think for individual universities to set themselves up against this and build their reputations anew, but do I think this will actually happen? In America – yes. But here? No. Not for the moment anyway.

'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' is available at a discount via imprint.co.uk/tribe for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE. It is also available via online retailers. For Amazon reviews, see here.

15 February 2019

Two articles at Unherd - on Vaughan Williams and NIMBYs

In the past month and a bit I have had two articles published by the website Unherd.

The first is on the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who I have written about here before. The article is entitled 'Vaughan Williams: not simply a nostalgic nationalist' and looks at how he doesn't conform to many of the stereotypes given to him, particularly by progressives and anti-Brexit types.

The second is 'In Praise of NIMBYs', which was published today and seeks to redress some of the bile that these committed members of the community [Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ers] receive from our political elites.

I hope they are worth a read. Feel free to put any comments up here or to me on Twitter since there is no comment facility on the Unherd site.

Here's a bit more VW anyway: perhaps the greatest piece he ever wrote.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

24 January 2019

The remarkable identity politics of the People's Vote

In my book I wrote quite a bit on how efforts to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union have mobilised what I call 'the system of diversity', by aligning to a view of the world in which certain identity groups like women, gay and non-white-skinned people appear as victims of unfavoured groups like men, white-skinned people and the ethnic English.

Seemingly every day brings more remarkable evidence of this.

Via Twitter, James Mendelsohn has kindly sent one of the best, most concise examples I have seen so far - a video by a campaign group called Our People, Our Choice which calls itself, 'A group of young people campaigning for a #PeoplesVote on the Brexit deal!'

In its two minutes, the video evades any discussion about the EU, the Four Freedoms and the relative merits of national democracy against this legalistic rules-based pan-national regime. Instead it concentrates on how the 'we' of young people are against "this fucking mess" of Brexit because their futures are being put at risk by it, how it is apparently going to increase inequality and also reduce social mobility. Quite how this is going to happen we are not told. Rather we must trust the authority of the writer Antonia Cundy and those who dictate this 'poem' (more a series of slogans) to us.

It also associates their anti-Brexit cause explicitly with favoured identity groups, as victims of unfavoured groups. Towards the end we read and hear the lines:

“We stood outside for Grenfell,
We stood outside cos Black Lives Matter,
We chanted for Me Too
We chanted for gay pride”

Grenfell no doubt appears because of the explicit politicisation of the Grenfell Tower disaster as one in which a predominantly poor, non-white, immigrant population died and suffered as a result of the neglect of a predominantly male, white, non-immigrant governing class. The Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns respectively show off black-skinned people and women as victims of white-skinned people and men (both originated in the United States, with its identity wars on a much higher pitch than over here, albeit we're clearly catching up). To round it off, we have a tick-box nod towards LGBT politics.

Quite what it all has to do with Brexit is not explained. But it all appears as a continuity - as part of the same messaging, presenting a younger generation that is apparently immersed in these forms of identity group favouritism and victimhood and associates them explicitly with Brexit.

There is an historicist, authoritarian element to it too, for the video ends with a slogan, ‘Be on the right side of history. Join the movement for a People’s Vote.'

History here appears as something that we need to be on the right side of, like a kind of entity which judges and whose judgements are unquestionable and absolute - so like a God in other words. In this way the People's Vote campaign appears as a movement that has privileged knowledge of these judgements of history, being able to see into the future and relay history's judgements back to the rest of us.

This is not entirely remarkable given that the People's Vote organisation is dominated by progressives of various stripes, and notably New Labour types, for whom this authoritarian historicism is a staple part of their politics. The video gives this sort of a messaging an assertive, radical, youth-driven edge, but it's basically the same old thing.

People's Vote has a record with this sort of thing.

Launching Women for a People's Vote in September, the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez laid down a similar authoritarian message, saying, “Women no longer want to leave the European Union. The failure to listen to their voices is a national scandal and it stops now.” The LGBT for a People's Vote group's strapline is that “Brexit is a threat to the LGBT+ community”.

Last week I spoke on this subject at a well-attended event at the Spread Eagle pub in Camden, North London. As I said then, identity politics has been a core part of Remain campaigning - and it is certainly not going away.

Thanks for James Heartfield for the photographs, taken at the Spread Eagle on 17th January 2019.

'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' is available at a discount via imprint.co.uk/tribe for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE. It is also available via online retailers. For Amazon reviews, see here.

30 October 2018

Kenan Malik’s critique of identity politics – a critique

This article follows a long Twitter discussion initiated by Sandy Starr, relating Kenan Malik’s review of Eric Kaufmann’s fascinating new book Whiteshift to the debate we had on my book at the Battle of Ideas in London on 13th October.

In this thread, Kenan linked to another article of his, entitled ‘Not all Politics is Identity Politics’ a beautifully-written piece in which he presents his critique of identity politics and through which I could see some avenues to explore the differences with mine.

Firstly, it’s probably worth explaining where we agree.

Kenan is a critic of identity politics, and from the left. As he says, “Most of us who criticize identity politics do so from the perspective of having challenged oppression and injustice for most of our adult lives.” He also strongly criticises the ‘community’ or ‘group’ leader model as I do:

“In practice, contemporary identity politics does little to challenge the roots of oppression. What it does do is empower certain people within those putative identities to police the borders of ‘their’ communities or peoples by establishing themselves as gatekeepers.”

A lot of what he says I strongly agree with or at least sympathise with.

But there are some significant differences, so let’s get into those.

I think a good place to start would be in the title of Kenan’s article. I would certainly agree that ‘Not All Politics is Identity Politics’, but only in the sense that identity politics is normally understood nowadays, referring to certain identifiers or properties of people like their sex/gender, skin colour, religion or nationality. Obviously, there is a lot more to politics than those things.

But identity means a lot more than these things too.

Kenan himself recognises a broader meaning in saying, “Identities are, of course, of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others.”

However, he draws a distinction between identity and the politics of identity in saying that,

“politics is a means, or should be a means, of taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity . . .”

I start to draw apart here, with this idea that the purpose of politics is to transcend identity rather than to reflect it: that identity and politics should be separate from one other. From this, it would be logical to say that identity does not belong in this higher sphere of politics: that politics that gather around identity have no authority in this higher sphere, even that they are illegitimate.

But, for me, this misunderstands the nature of politics – and the nature of identity.

Like Kenan says in one of the passages above, identity gives us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others. However, for me, these things – most obviously our relationships – are fundamentally political in character. Indeed, they are significant precisely because they are political. If they were isolated in the individual they would have no significance.

I can also see some contradictions in Kenan’s argument.

For, as he quite rightly points out,

“In the 1960s, identity politics provided a means of challenging oppression, and the blindness of much of the left to such oppression, and was linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the old social movements and radical struggles lost influence, so the recognition of identity became an end in itself.”

I wholly agree with this, but I don’t see how you can recognise the necessary role of identity politics in fighting good causes like black emancipation or anti-colonialism while also maintaining that identity politics is fundamentally bad and wrong, full stop.

When a group is being oppressed, gathering together as a group to defend group members and their interests is often not just important, but necessary – and I don’t see any reason to believe we’ve reached an End of History at which such gathering can no longer be justified.

Clearly this is difficult terrain to navigate and make judgements on once you start admitting broader exceptions like I am prepared to though. Kenan seems to resist any more allowances, especially when it comes to the current reaction against progressive-led identity politics. He has no time for any forms of politics that seek to defend cultural forms related to what we might call ‘white’ or ethnic British, English or European interests from the pressures of globalisation, mass immigration and attacks from progressives. He dismisses seemingly anything and anyone that does so as ‘regressive’, racist, ‘anti-immigrant’ and ‘anti-Muslim’, so 1) as going against the forces of history and 2) being fundamentally aggressive in character rather than defensive, being grounded in old-style racism and negative judgements of what we might call ‘the Other’.

For me, this is much too sweeping a generalisation and fails to recognise the existential, pre-judgemental realm in which identities can be threatened and the quite natural reaction we all have when this happens to us. This comes back to the nature of identity as fundamentally relational (or social) in character. When the relations that make up our identities are replaced with other relations in the world of our concern – leaving us without possibilities that we previously had – we are necessarily unsettled in existential terms.

Also, I can see that the understandable imbalance with which Kenan addresses different forms of identity politics – admiring one for what it achieved in the past while using the harshest of language on the other – is itself a form of identity politics of the sort based around race and ethnicity etc. It makes some space for the one, quite rightly in my view, while condemning the other in absolute terms, treating it as immoral and illegitimate in all shapes and forms – and seeing it all as an outgrowth of counter-Enlightenment racism and nationalism.

In this way I see Kenan merging partly into the politics of what I call ‘the liberal-left’ or ‘progressive liberal-left’ – treating some of the same identity groups as unfavoured groups that should not be allowed to express themselves as groups in public life, while not using the same absolute language on favoured groups.

Nevertheless, I agree with Kenan that transcending the identities ascribed to us according to skin colour and gender and other things is a good thing for the most part. But I wouldn't condemn anyone for that alone. I don’t see why someone shouldn’t see their gender/sex, nationality, religion and sexuality – and even their ethnicity and skin colour – as significant to who they are and important to their politics.

In particular I think that not relating ourselves to these things is virtually impossible at this point in time, when they are being constantly politicised in public space. We may like it or not, but if people are being attacked for being white or black or English or Muslim it is understandable that they gather around those identities with a positive spin on them. I only have a real problem with it when these identities become aggressive and when they start telling untruths, which invariably puts up walls and stops others from seeing what's inside (where they might find something attractive to them).

In any case, by attempting to transcend such things, I think that we create new groups and new identities that need to be promoted and defended in their turn in order to survive. People who want to transcend identity are merely creating another identity: of people who transcend what they consider to be identity.

This is how politics changes and reproduces over time. We can never wholly get away from groups, and therefore from group identity and the politics of identity in a wider sense. As I say in Chapter 1 of my book, inspired by Chantal Mouffe and beyond that Carl Schmitt, in a sense identity is politics – as the formation and maintenance of groups which relate to the world in particular ways, ways that necessarily conflict with those of other groups. This is how political life is constituted.

In that passage I quoted before in which he said that identities “give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others,” I think Kenan is close to that point. He can see that identities are fundamentally relational but he does not make the small leap to recognise that this means they are also fundamentally political.

I think this is their very nature.

And this brings me on to a deeper philosophical disagreement I have with Kenan. He has found his political-philosophical home in the Enlightenment tradition of universal human rights. He quotes Joseph de Maistre as an ‘arch-reactionary’ railing against the Rights of Man by saying, “There is no such thing as Man ... I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.” Kenan uses this example to contrast the noble Enlightenment universal rights tradition with a counter-Enlightenment reactionary particularism: “Where reactionaries adopted a particularist outlook, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights.”

De Maistre’s point here, in the way it appears here, is nonsense. Denying the reality of Man or humanity is absurd. But that doesn’t mean that national groupings he upholds have no interest or meaning. I see no reason why we should uphold Man as a universal authority just as I see no reason to uphold any particular national grouping as one. Man is itself a particularity, contrasted with the rest of nature and the Universe. Universalism is a form of particularism.

But this is a characteristic of Enlightenment philosophy and of progressive politics in general to this day. There is a yearning there to transcend conflict and a faith that its techniques can do that, just as long as everyone does what we say and see things the way we do.

In practice, Enlightenment techniques and philosophies have been appropriated widely by totalitarian regimes and what Kenan would call ‘reactionaries’, perhaps the most egregious example being the Nazi appropriation of biological science to justify its racism and its employment of the medical profession to administer death in order to promote apparently superior forms of life. Marxist Communism is a clear outgrowth of progressive Enlightenment philosophies which used the authority of claimed knowledge (in its case primarily of history – and of the clash of different identity groups within it) to justify totalitarian politics.

The authority of historical knowledge plays a major part in Kenan’s account too. As he puts it, “To understand the characteristics of contemporary identity politics, we need first to go back to the origins of modern politics, at the end of the eighteenth-century.” His attempt to explain identity politics by claiming to understand the origins of it in intellectual discourse/history contrasts sharply to my approach in The Tribe, where I attempt to explain identity politics now by describing how it works now.

For me, there is nothing wrong with Kenan’s approach, just as long as you get it right – and getting something as complex as how our politics got from the 18th Century to the present day isn’t easy. For me, identity politics (in terms of different groups competing with each other) obviously goes back way further than this and is something innate that the animal and even plant worlds share with us.

I also don’t see human rights as a solution to the problem of identity politics in the way that Kenan does. I wouldn’t say rights are inherently bad or wrong. They help us to circumscribe the rules by which any society must function. But it depends on what they are, what they circumscribe and who controls them.

After all, every right confers a corresponding obligation. What is a right for me to not be interfered with or to have something good is an obligation for you not to interfere with me or to make sure I have that good thing.

Rights are therefore not just freedoms; they are also constraints on action – even necessities. Not interfering with something or someone means not acting in the world; not being present; not participating; not exercising agency; withdrawing from involvement – which inevitably lets other powers appear in the space let open.

In the world we now inhabit, human rights are wielded as political tools conferring absolute authority on those who wield them to stop others from acting. Any attempts to assign absolute authority to certain rights are attempts to put them beyond the sphere of political contest. They are instruments of power – and inherently authoritarian.

Anyway, I think that is more than enough to be going on with. Kenan and I have different perspectives. However he clearly makes a valuable and highly articulate contribution to debates on identity politics that are raging today and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

His core intention to transcend the narrow confines of what I call ‘fixed’ or ‘quasi-fixed’ identity is a noble one.

I just don’t see it as realistic in the short-to-medium term, especially within the context of a progressive politics that sees the past of this place and the people within it as inherently regressive. This standpoint has coalesced with progressive politics of identity (against ‘white-’ and ‘male-dominated’ history and culture) to produce a backlash that is now difficult to detach from racial and ethnic and other forms of identity. In trying to defeat the past you inevitably end up trying to defeat (and indeed eliminate, in existential terms) those who are still connected to it.

That’s a shame, but that’s where we are.

18 October 2018

Questioning Diversity – speech for session on my book at The Battle of Ideas

This is the text of the speech I gave at the session about my book, 'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' at the Barbican, London on Saturday 13th October 2018. It differed a little in delivery. Further details of the session and the participants are here.

Hello Everyone. Thank you all for coming.

Also a special thank you to Jon [Holbrook] and the Academy of Ideas for arranging this session.

And another special thank you to Christine [Louis-Dit-Sully], James [Panton] and Helen [Dale] for agreeing to participate and for wading through this book of mine.

I hope we can have an interesting and lively discussion about it and the issues it raises.

So, let’s get into it. What is this book all about?

I’ve been reflecting on this and I think I could give a lot of answers.

Of course, on the surface it’s about the politics of identity and the politics of diversity. I started off writing it in order to highlight some of the problems that are arising from them.

I also started off with what I call ‘the liberal-left’ or ‘progressive liberal-left’ at the forefront of my mind. I had become increasingly interested in its role in promoting these forms of politics based around such things as gender, skin colour and sexual orientation – and came to think that this is what defines it as a sort of identity group in its own right.

So there is another theme there about what has happened to liberal and left-wing politics as it has embraced these forms of identity politics while virtually abandoning that based around class.

But I could also say it’s about our modern world and the technocratic forms of power that are dominant in it. By this I mean those who govern us treating government as a technical exercise: to maximise things like GDP and diversity for the greater good: stuff that can easily be measured.

Another important theme is the relationship between the individual and the group – whether that’s a racial or gender group or a social/political group like the liberal-left.

For me, the nature of the self is as much ‘out there’ in the group as ‘in here’ in the individual, but we do have that special little window of freedom.

However, that little window is vulnerable – and so is our relationship to the truth.

Sometimes it’s convenient not to tell the truth – and our group commitments play a big role in leading us away from it. 

Not necessarily by lying.

But by sidestepping the truth. Avoiding it. Turning to other forms of truth that are more convenient – for ourselves and our groups.

To a large extent I see this as being just part of the human condition.

I say right at the beginning of the book,

‘Collective life has its own justification – to be together and through that to survive and prosper now and into the future.’ 

We can’t do without groups. And to exist they must have some sort of definition – i.e. some form of identity.

Joining a group or being part of a group is inherently political. Indeed I think it is the essence of politics. But what we normally call ‘identity politics’ is different to this.

It’s simultaneously a sub-category but also much bigger.

It’s a sub-category because it focuses on only certain kinds of identity relation – like skin colour, gender and religion. (By identity relation I mean something that we link to or that others do, thereby tying people to their skin colour and other such things.) 

These forms of identity politics are integrated into a totalising view of the world, which claims that certain identity groups – notably men and white-skinned people – are dominating society and oppressing other groups. 

This is a form of universal knowledge, and it justifies a politics which favours those victim groups like women, non-white-skinned people and Muslims while seeking to suppress the oppressing groups.

In theoretical terms, the simplicity of this account may be a weakness. But politically it’s a strength.

It’s so easy.

Some groups are victims and others oppressors. The righteous way to go is therefore to favour the victims and disfavour the oppressors.

That’s all you need to know. 


And so we arrive the identity politics we all know and love, in which the world appears as an antagonistic conflict between identity groups – and which we set up an antagonistic conflict between identity groups to counter.

Or something like that.

Thankfully, the reality isn’t quite as clear-cut. In practice, we know that a lot of the time people from these oppressor and victim categories get on pretty well.

Men and women sometimes quite like each other.

There are now many more than a million mixed-race Britons which shows how white-skinned and non-white skinned people sometimes get on OK too. 

Yet despite many of the activists’ claims falling down when scrutinised, they seem to go from strength to strength – picking up awards, receiving government grants and forcing big organisations to do what they say and give them money. 

Again, we can see a political strength.

And this is one reason why I talk about diversity as a ‘system’ in my book: because favouring people according to things like skin colour and gender has become a model for how our major institutions should go about their business – and this helps make it a model for the rest of us too.

We favour the favoured groups and the organisations which represent them, as long as they represent themselves and their groups as victims.

This model comes out of liberal and left-wing politics, especially the Labour Party in this country.

Labour now has an extensive infrastructure of identity group favouritism integrated into its rulebook and structure – including All-Women’s Shortlists for MP selection and the powerful role of Keith Vaz as BME representative on the party’s governing body. 

The party also, almost automatically, takes the side of favoured group representatives when they have a grievance – such as when Islamist organisations complain about the Prevent anti-terrorism strategy or feminist groups demand higher pay for top female journalists at the BBC.

This is a model of outsourcing authority to people who appear as representatives of these groups as victim groups.

And we can see it appearing all over our society now.

We can see it in organisations paying activists to come in and instruct their employees on how to talk about their identity groups. We can see it in the police throwing resources to combat hate speech while neglecting conventional crime like theft. We can also see it in big media organisations like the BBC and Channel 4 producing more content led by people who present themselves as representatives of favoured identity groups and who are often overtly political in asserting that role. 

We can now see there are possibilities available for playing these roles: for representing these favoured groups as victim groups and for outsourcing authority to them.

In other words, this system of diversity is working.

It’s a working system of how we can relate to each other.

And that is a very compressed version of what The Tribe is all about. 

It’s about how a certain way of relating to the world, favouring people based on their identities, has become integrated into our society. 

Anyway, now it’s time for me to shut up, so we can hear what Christine and Helen thought about it, then we can open out to you lot [the audience].

Jon Holbrook and Helen Dale have both reviewed The Tribe - for Spiked and Quillette respectively. Also at the time of writing there are 14 reviews up on the Amazon UK website with an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5.

4 October 2018

Postmodernism isn't to blame for our identity wars

I have been seeing a lot of people lately blaming postmodernism and ‘post-modernists’ for our current malaise with identity politics. But I think this neglects the knowledge base of identity-based ideologies, without which they would fall apart.

These ideas and claims seem to have reached a crescendo with the 'Grievance Studies’ hoax exposing how some identity-focused academic journals are happy to publish weapon-grade nonsense if it aligns to their own political, ideological objectives. (Anyone who is familiar with these ‘disciplines’ and not indoctrinated into them knew that anyway, but big credit to James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian for demonstrating it for the rest of the world in such an entertaining manner)

In this Quillette article, five academics respond to the hoax. One of them, Nathan Cofnas says, “Today, postmodernism isn’t a fashion—it’s our culture. . . It has taken over most of the humanities and some of the social sciences, and is even making inroads in STEM fields. It threatens to melt all of our intellectual traditions into the same oozing mush of political slogans and empty verbiage.”

Neema Parvini adds, “It has been the explicit goal of post-modernity to reject reason and evidence: they want a “new paradigm” of knowledge.”

Quillette has quickly become an invaluable source of alternative, intelligent opinion in the Anglosphere – and has been leading the charge against postmodernism in defence of the Enlightenment, science and objectivity. Following the hoax, its founder Claire Lehmann neatly called in evidence the Dutch professor – and incidentally specialist in ‘extremism and populism’ – Cas Mudde defending the disciplines targeted by hoaxers while also saying, “I deny “objectivity” and argue that the whole idea that science should be “neutral” and “objective” is in itself an ideological position.”

This is a nice dig and demonstrates how postmodernist and similar ideas are certainly used by academics who engage in current leftist identity politics. But this is my point, that they are used. It doesn’t mean they are the source or root cause of identity-based ideologies – which have probably been around in one form or another since man started using words; certainly well before anyone had heard of postmodernism. 

Marxism for example has a large identity-based element about the proletariat and bourgeoisie, but Marx and his historicist theory were both very much in the modernist tradition.

Post-modernist denials of objectivity and knowledge serve as a tool, just like other forms of argument serve as tools: to defend ourselves against opponents by undermining their authority, thereby helping to defend our own authority and power. The purpose is primarily political rather than philosophical. Just because someone uses a theoretical argument in a certain political context, it doesn’t mean their whole political standpoint is consistent with that standpoint nor aligns with the whole standpoint of those who came up with it.

For, far from discarding ideas of objectivity and universal knowledge, the left's current politics of identity are grounded in a specific, universalistic account of knowledge: that its favoured groups are victims of a society dominated by unfavoured groups. This is a simple view of the world that is easy to ‘roll out’ in different circumstances (which is a crucial part of its appeal and power).

As I see it, techniques like deconstruction can be used just as effectively against these ideas and the authority of those who propagate them as by them. Indeed, though I'm not familiar with Derrida's specific version of it, sometimes I think of my own book on identity politics (here reviewed on Quillette) as an exercise in deconstruction, in the sense that I was deconstructing or taking apart an edifice in order to analyse it and hopefully show it for what it is.

There are certainly plenty of problems with postmodernist theory, not least the way it has encouraged people to write incomprehensible nonsense rather than seek to understand and explain what’s going on (which is a pretty big objection to be fair). Also we can see clear evidence of identity activists and ideologues using postmodernist arguments to attack opponents and protect themselves from criticism.

But that doesn’t mean that postmodernism or deconstruction or post-structuralism or whatever is ‘the root cause’ for all our troubles in this area.

Rather, these techniques seem to serve as just more tools in the toolbox: as something available to take out when the need arises; as ways to project power into the world.

If you are looking to attack the theories of identity-based ideologues, I think you are better off starting with their claims to universal knowledge, not their denial of it.

My book 'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' is available at a discount via imprint.co.uk/tribe for £12 (RRP £14.95) with free postage to UK addresses. Use coupon TRIBE. It is also available via online retailers. For Amazon reviews, see here.