Timothy Stacey (@godsandsods) is a Lecturer in the Leiden Institute for Area Studies
The tantalising slogan, ‘take back control’ will probably be remembered as the maxim of this political moment. It has already been widely credited with winning the Brexit vote. A sense of losing control is one of the strongest predictors of voting for populist leaders across the globe. And the battle for control is not only being fought in elections; it’s also being waged in the arena of ideas. Jordan Peterson shot to fame demanding that men take back control of their lives from aggressive women. Now, in his already widely read Whiteshift, Eric Kaufman asks us to go a step further: to take bake control of our racial heritage.
Now Kaufman is never so explicit as to make his argument about race. Instead he prefers the term “ethno-traditional nationalism”. But having scoured his near 600-page tome for anything that might make ethnicity distinct from race, I come up short. In brief, Kaufman’s argument can be summarized as follows: a bunch of people in all societies are irredeemably racist. In order to stop those people being violently racist, it is best that we allow for a mildly racist mainstream politics.
I had the pleasure of speaking alongside Kaufman at a recent event at Leiden University, the Netherlands. I suggest that in part he avoids earnestness because he is an affable man and, like me, is almost as disturbed by the turn to taking offence as he is by any particular ideology. Aware of the controversy of his argument, Kaufman ends the book by advising ‘politicians should maintain what Kissinger called a “constructive ambiguity” about the content of nationhood’ (533). Yet while this may serve as good Machiavellian advice for politicians, the duty of a social scientist, particularly when discussing such a controversial subject, is to be unambiguous.
Shift over geo-economic determinists
Kaufman opens by explaining that a massive demographic shift is taking place such that within decades, whites as we know them will no longer be the majorities in their historic homelands. Instead, the majority will be racially mixed or “beige”. To accommodate this shift, we will have to do extensive cultural work in making white myths and symbols make sense to the beige reality. Unfortunately, the implications of this argument are for the most part left to one side.
The question of Whiteshift is what to do in the meantime. Whereas the majority of scholars, journalists and mainstream politicians currently attribute populism to the revolt of the “left behind”, Kaufman regards this as brushing reality under the carpet. When we pay attention to the individual-level data, Kaufman explains, poverty just isn’t an accurate predictor of populism. Instead, resistance to immigration is the best predictor of support for right-wing populist politicians, parties and causes. And this resistance is rooted in a perceived threat to white culture. So: let people openly discuss the importance of white culture and how it can be maintained and you will end populism. Let’s pretend for the moment that we haven’t just said that the way to fend of racist populism is to simply have a racist populist politics and explore how we got here.
For Kaufman, the demographic shift is only part of the story. The more complex tale is of how “left modernists”, more popularly known as “wishy-washy liberals” or “snowflakes” have systematically deconstructed white majoritarian culture and indeed the notion of collective identity per se in favour of individualized identity. Old forms of belonging found in faith, flag, family, class – even language – are dead or dying. What’s more the left modernists kick us while we’re down – aggressively labelling as racist anyone who wants to stand up for white interests.
Whiteness has been fundamental to the identity of Western nations both from their inception and in the development of their most major projects, such as the New Deal in America and the welfare state in Europe. Attempts to build a sense of collective identity that cuts across differences of race, religion, sexuality and gender have all failed. For a time these “civic nationalist” experiments seemed to work. But ultimately they were dependent on the enemy without and within – first the communists and more recently the Muslims. To try to build a thick identity around liberal principles just doesn’t work. With liberalism now spread across the globe, what’s really unique about calling yourself a liberal?
In addition to this, insists Kaufman, given that there is no solid evidence for structural racism, white people are justified in finding it unfair that while other races can stand up for their interests, for whites to do so is considered, well, racist.
What about Whiteshift?
I want to leave arguments regarding how best to predict support for right-wing populism aside because there are, in my view, more crucial points to make about the research Kaufman has neglected in developing his narrative. Briefly, however, it is worth noting the research of Brian Burgoon[i]et al. at the University of Amsterdam, which stresses that while deprivation may not be a great indicator of support for right-wing populism, relative deprivation over time is. Simply, support for right-wing populism is more likely to occur when people at a given point in the income distribution are outpaced by the poorest tenth of the population.
But arguments regarding data aside, there are a number of holes in this story. First, as Beauchamp has pointed out, there just is plenty of research demonstrating structural racism.[ii]
Second, although Kaufman suggests colour-based identity has a strong evolutionary basis (which of course we can’t really prove), he also provides numerous instances of its systematic cultivation in Western nations. Moreover, he explicitly states that ‘right-wing media and political elites have some sway in framing what their supporters should be conservative or authoritarian about’ (121). Couldn’t we therefore equally argue that this source of identity could be replaced? And wouldn’t this involve exactly the kind of questioning, challenging and in some cases removing of markers of exclusively white identity that Kaufman seems so concerned about? The positive discrimination and #rhodesmustfall movements come to mind.
Third, Kaufman relies on the common leftist critique of identity politics; namely, that capitulation to capitalism forced the left to claim the right to equality in principle rather than in practice. But again, if this shift was so causally significant in the rise of white populism, then wouldn’t reviving a class-based agenda that cuts across racial, religious and value-based differences ultimately restore a sense of identity and harmony?
Fourth, and this is where my work is situated, Kaufman is far too dismissive of civic nationalism, and far too quick to associate it with the “religion” of left modernism. What Kaufman calls civic nationalism might be considered a subset of a broader civil religion tradition. Most critics of liberalism, such as myself, see it as neglecting civil religion, rather than typifying it as Kaufman does. At one point Kaufman suggests that by the beginning of this decade, it was clear civic nationalism had failed (198). Hence only white majoritarian culture will create a sense of identity strong enough to withstand social fragmentation. Putting aside whether or not his particular subset of civic nationalism has failed, which I consider debatable, Kaufman does not cite any of the extensive literature in the civil religion tradition. My own Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division gathers much of this literature together.[iii] I explicitly citicise the absence of a civil religion tradition in contemporary liberal societies and I stress the need to develop such a tradition. If I am too far to the right or too small-time to serve as an exemplar, the whole point of a book like Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (published in 2010) was that we never really tried to cultivate a thick liberal identity.[iv] In my own work, I urge that this identity would have to be rooted in shared myths, rituals and traditions. Why does Kaufman give so little time to these features?
My own position is far from an endorsement of left modernism or even milder forms of liberalism. It requires deliberately constructing social policies geared towards the inclusive construction of myths, rituals and traditions. As such, it serves as a rejection, or at least a radical adaptation, of the liberal tradition that says we can only cultivate public culture based on value-free, reason-based consensus. This point notwithstanding, however, and perhaps contra my earlier research, I do now think there is strong evidence that anti-racist liberal culture has strong myths, rituals and traditions which rupture to the surface in moments of crisis. The picture with which I opened this piece is of an anti-racist action, thrown together in just a few days in response to a far-right rally. In almost ten years of research into how to construct solidarity across differences of religion, race and values, I have found that, after climate change, it is actions such as these that inspire the most passion and support.
Finally, and most strikingly for me, Kaufman’s conclusion doesn’t seem too far from these points. He talks of the need for cultural work to adapt white myths of origin to suit the new diverse reality (513). He talks of not limiting migration by numbers but creating a points-based system based on the likelihood of assimilating to national culture. But by refusing to discuss the extensive civil religion tradition, by never fully fleshing out the cultural criteria that make ethno-traditional nationalism distinct from race, he forces me to conclude that he really means nothing other than race. This point was finally confirmed for me on page 520 when Kaufman explains, regarding the white ethnicity, that “only those with some European background can be members”.
Ultimately, it is my feeling that Kaufman, in nearly 600 pages, has shifted from a solid piece of social scientific research regarding the relationship between resistance to immigration and support for right-wing populist parties, to a largely speculative and under-researched conclusion about the need to restore white identity to the centre of public culture. In responding to these points, Kaufman might lean towards the cultural elements on which we may find agreement. Great: I’d love to see more work on this area. But then why insist on calling it white culture rather than, say, Western culture? Why not actually take the time to critically deconstruct those aspects of culture that are important to people and explore ways in which these can change and become more inclusive over time? Why go so far towards apologising for racism only to at the end say we can replace ethnic identity with “ethnic” identity?
One image that kept recurring in my head as I read Whiteshiftwas that of Sisyphus eternally pushing the boulder up the hill, only for it to roll back to the bottom upon completion. I don’t think there are many people out there that would dispute that liberalism is difficult; that it is a challenge to, with each generation, extend our sympathy to yet another group or place. But perhaps this task is what makes us fundamentally human. Perhaps the real threat to human identity is not the act of pushing but the very idea of giving up.
Epilogue: The resurgence of solidarity in unlikely places
For many the aspect of Kaufman’s work that will be most appealing is his critique of left modernism as an acid to collective identity. At least since Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, thinkers in the civil religion tradition have been concerned about the implications of value-liberalisation for community and solidarity.[v] More recently, scholars are countering that cultural liberals are no less concerned about solidarity than their conservative compatriots. I suggest a via media. The last sixty years has seen the slow erosion of the old order. As the oppressive structures of that order crumble, many of our myths and symbols have been lost with it. We are currently in a period of interregnum in which policymakers and individuals are slowly becoming aware of this loss. But just as quickly they are also seeking replacements. As my next book will demonstrate based on ethnographic observations in Vancouver, Canada, liberally minded people are just now slowly working out how to navigate between the freedoms they cherish and the sense of solidarity they yearn for. So I’ll end on an appeal. Before we revert to racial identity, can we please give this next generation a try?
[i]Brian Burgoon et al., “Positional Deprivation and Support for Radical Right and Radical Left Parties,” Economic Policy34, no. 97 (January 1, 2019): 49–93, https://doi.org/10.1093/epolic/eiy017.
[ii]Zack Beauchamp, “The New Reactionaries,” Vox, February 26, 2019, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/2/26/18196429/trump-news-white-nationalism-hazony-kaufmann.
[iii]Timothy Stacey, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division(New York and London: Routledge, 2018).
[iv]Martha C. Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Reprint edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts London: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2015).
[v]Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, First Edition, With a New Preface edition (Berkeley, Calif. Los Angeles, Calif. London: University of California Press, 2007).