Fear and Loathing on the Left
- From: "GWhyte" <gwhyte3003@xxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 03:39:30 -0400
RACE AND CULTURE: Fear and loathing on the Left
When I launched Prospect, the current affairs monthly, exactly 10 years ago,
I sometimes used to wonder what George Orwell would have thought of it. I
flattered myself that he would have approved of our ambition to revive the
essay form but I also suspected that he would have found the overall effect
rather tepid: no world wars, no clashing totalitarianisms of Left and Right,
not much at stake in our debates.
By contrast, Orwell would have felt at home in the thunderous controversy
which divided British intellectuals when it was discovered, in 1967, that
Encounter magazine, one of our monthly predecessors, had been receiving an
annual grant from a body funded by the CIA. Many of Encounter's left-wing
writers refused to contribute to the magazine ever again.
Such Cold War passions seemed passé 28 years later. Prospect was never
intended as a 'cause' magazine, like Encounter or the political monthly of
the Left Marxism Today (both now defunct), but rather as a general source of
enlightenment and intellectual stimulation. Yet I also assumed that in time
we would find our own particular niche, and so we have in the dilemmas and
unintended consequences of contemporary centre-Left politics.
This being 2005 rather than 1967 many of these dilemmas arise from the
culture wars rather than the Cold War. And it was by drawing attention to
one particular modern cultural dilemma that Prospect had its own 'CIA'
moment about 18 months ago.
I wrote a 7,000-word essay called 'Too Diverse?' for the February 2004 issue
of Prospect which tentatively explored the 'progressive dilemma' - the
potential conflict between social cohesion and the many kinds of diversity,
including ethnic diversity, that have flourished in recent decades. The
essay was then reprinted in full in the Guardian under the heading 'Why too
much diversity could tear us apart'.
All hell broke loose. I was accused of 'nice racism' by Trevor Phillips,
'ignorant scapegoating' by Sukhvinder Stubbs and people even rang my wife to
ask what it was like living with the new Enoch Powell.
The response was divided, in part, along ethnic lines. Most white readers
and a good many non-white readers, while not agreeing with every point I
made, accepted it as a legitimate argument - part of the growing consensus
on the centre-Left expressed by David Blunkett, Trevor Phillips (facing both
ways at once) and others that we must reinforce a common culture.
There was another group of non-white readers who felt personally affronted.
They could not engage with the argument in abstract terms but saw only some
atavistic nationalist trying to exclude them.
My basic argument is that lifestyle diversity and sustained mass immigration
bring cultural and economic dynamism, but without a compensating
reinforcement of the 'we' of common citizenship and values they can also
erode feelings of mutual obligation. This in turn may reduce willingness to
pay for a generous welfare state - diverse and individualistic America has a
thin welfare state, homogeneous Sweden has a fat one.
I also talked about the acute sensitivity of people on lower incomes to
welfare 'free-riding' and that while policy in this field should not pander
to tabloid myth, it should seek to reassure people that Britain's
citizenship entitlements are not a free-for-all and that we are in control
of who becomes a fellow citizen. This led to angry but misplaced claims that
I was accusing immigrants of taking out more than they put in and ignoring
the disproportionate contribution of immigrant Britons to the NHS.
Perhaps I was clumsy in a few of my formulations and these are, unavoidably,
emotional issues, but some of the responses just seemed knee-jerk - as if I
was attacking a religious faith, which is perhaps what diversity has become
to some people.
The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, whom I had once counted as a
friend, was the most distraught and irrational. She refused to look at the
essay when I asked her for comments before publishing it and then attacked
me personally with barely a glance at the argument in several of her
newspaper columns. She refuses to give up. This year at the Edinburgh book
festival she told 300 people that I had once said to her at a Christmas
party, 'Don't you think there are too many people like you here?' This is
What lies behind this paranoia? At the time I thought it was the historic
connection, especially for people on the Left, between anti-racism and
support for the widest possible open door for migrants into Britain.
Anybody, especially a white person, who expresses concern at some of the
costs of mass immigration - as I did in one part of the essay - is seen as
in some way questioning the status of existing ethnic minority citizens. But
if we are to have a sensible debate, we must decouple these two arguments,
as most Britons in practice do. It is possible to be passionately
anti-racist and yet favour a hard-headed debate about large-scale
But the cultural confusions of the liberal-Left go deeper than this. Part of
the punishment for writing my essay was to spend many hours, over the
subsequent months, attending conferences on race, immigration and social
cohesion. It was at these meetings that I became aware of a series of myths
or half-truths which undermine clear thinking on the security and identity
issues that increasingly dominate politics.
First is the belief that human beings are rational individualists with a
propensity to treat all other humans with equal regard. Humans are in fact
group-based primates. In economics and sociology the Left embraces such
group-based thinking, but when it comes to questions of culture or national
sentiment the Left tends to become hyper-individualistic, seeing society as
no more than a random collection of individuals with no special ties or
affinities beyond close family. This blank-slate individualism creates
unrealistic expectations about the ease with which outsiders can be absorbed
into communities. Of course the 'them' usually become part of the 'us' but
it takes time and can involve overcoming initial suspicion or even
Second is the fallacy that nationalism and national feeling are necessarily
a belligerent and negative force (at least for dominant nations). National
feeling has always been a Janus-faced phenomenon. Alongside the hatred and
aggression it has generated it is also responsible for many of the most
positive aspects of modern societies - the readiness to share with and make
sacrifices for stranger-citizens, the strong feelings of belonging and
membership beyond one's own kin group that it generates.
It was sentiments of national solidarity as much as class solidarity, a
feeling that 'we are all in this together', that helped to build and sustain
the welfare state. It is the core belief of the Left, against the
individualism of free-market liberals, that there is such a thing as
society - but in the modern world that always, everywhere, means a specific
national society. The Left is often in the odd position of liking the idea
of society in the abstract but disliking the reality of specific national
societies with their exclusive national interests and 'irrational' national
The third fallacy, following on from the second, is the belief that Western
countries, especially those like Britain which have a colonial past, are
responsible for most of the ills of developing countries and can best make
amends by placing as few obstacles as possible in the way of people from
those countries coming to live in the West. In the case of many former
colonial countries (with the exception of some in Africa) this exaggerates
the negative impact of colonialism. It is, in any case, only a dubious
advantage to most developing countries to lose their best educated and most
energetic people to the West.
However there is no denying that behind much of Europe's debate about
immigration, asylum and identity lies a largely unspoken imperial guilt on
the part of some of the grandchildren of the colonisers and a festering,
low-level resentment on the part of some of the grandchildren of the
colonised. We often forget how far we have progressed since the time, less
than 60 years ago, when Western domination was still expressed in largely
racial and moral terms. Today, not only is racism the most reviled sentiment
in political life but much of the political agenda is dominated by debates
about 'fair trade' and attempts to speed up the development process for
We do have obligations towards humanity as a whole, and especially towards
the citizens of former colonial countries whose lands we once exploited. But
those obligations do not require us to sacrifice the coherence and stability
of our own societies.
The uncomfortable truth to many progressives - and something which the
universalism of the Human Rights Act sometimes blurs - is that the modern
nation state is based not on a universalist liberalism but on a contractual
idea of club membership. This is neither arbitrary nor capricious. If we did
not exclude most of the rest of humanity from those national rights and
duties, they would very quickly become worthless, especially those welfare
rights with a financial cost attached to them that people on the Left value
How is solidarity to be re-imagined in societies with much greater moral,
religious and ethnic diversity than in the past? Can common values replace
ethnicity as a social glue? Do we still need the idea of a dominant culture
if we are to avoid fragmentation and anomie? These are deep waters but a
magazine of ideas like Prospect must feel free to swim in them - even,
Yasmin, at the cost of causing some offence.
Thinking Allowed: The Best of Prospect 1995-2005 is published by Atlantic
Books. To buy it at the special price of £14.99 (plus p&p) please call 01903
828503 and quote 'Prospect 01'.
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