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29 August 2023

The left has an England problem

A nation steeped in culture cannot be reduced to statistics and pop psychology.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Here is the problem for the left. It has lost touch with the working classes and large parts of England. The economy might dominate attitudes toward government, but it is conflicts and changes in culture that are reshaping the future of politics.

Identity, tradition, custom, community, have all been thrown into doubt by globalisation and the free movement of capital and people. Who am I, who are we, where do we fit and who are our friends and kin are the questions that have disrupted European politics and shifted its axis rightward. Economic deprivation has intensified these existential questions of belonging.

The left has lost the means to describe and understand this relationship of culture to politics and economy. The great explanatory frameworks of political economy and sociology inherited from the industrial society of the nineteenth century leave too much unexplained. The scholarly communities and institutions of knowledge that once were a constitutive part of the left either no longer exist or are reduced to utilitarian policymaking.

The intellectual vacuum has been filled by psychology and the psephology of polling and focus groups. Politics has become over-reliant on the psychometric testing of individuals to identify “personality types”. Nowhere was this more evident than in the aftermath of Brexit when the relationship between the governing classes and the country broke down. A war of position over defining Brexit was prosecuted and a story was established on the progressive left that Brexit was a consequence of the authoritarian personalities of Leave voters who were unable to cope with change.

Brexitland (2020) by the political scientists Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford forms part of this narrative. It claims that ethnocentrism, structured around “in-groups” and “out-groups”, provides an “intuitive framework for understanding many of Britain’s recent political upheavals”.

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On one side are “identity conservatives”, who are white voters with lower levels of formal education. Their outlook on life places their own group at “the centre of everything”, making them threatened by “out-groups” such as “migrants and minorities”. On the other side are two growing, but not yet dominant, “identity liberal” groups. These are university graduates and ethnic minorities, who both reject ethnocentrism.

The authors describe ethnocentrism as a “stable personality orientation” that leads some people to be chronically prone to seeing social life in terms of attachments to in-groups and hostility to out-groups. But why are some people more prone than others? They do not provide an answer. And what exactly is ethnocentrism?

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They speculate that it may be an aspect of the “authoritarian personality – a tendency to value and insist upon conformity, order and authority”. It may be a disposition employed by people with a “closed” personality, who find a complex and unstable social world harder to deal with than those with a more “open” disposition. Or they might feel the privileges of their group are under threat from another. Alternatively, it might be a, “pre-programmed tendency written into our genetic code by natural selection”.

They note the concept’s origins in the work of the American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). They don’t say that Sumner was influenced by social Darwinism, nor that he failed to acknowledge that he took his idea of ethnocentrism from the Polish sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909), another believer in social Darwinism. Gumplowicz advocated a permanent struggle of states, races and social groups in what he called “a competition for life”.  For both men ethnocentrism meant reducing culture to a biological and racial hierarchy of the fittest.

[See also: Freddie deBoer: elite identity politics is destroying the left]

Despite their vagueness about its meaning the authors of Brexitland are clear that their own group, university-educated “identity liberals”, is free of ethnocentrism. They cite evidence that university graduates’ attachments to social group identities are weaker and more flexible, and the groups they attach themselves to are typically broader and more inclusive. They are also most likely to question traditional gender roles and family structures. Despite these claims, there is no clear evidence that a university education causes changes in attitudes.

The authors’ social liberal analysis treats identity as an individual psychological disposition. Culture is reduced to ethnocentric in-groups and out-groups. Their analysis excludes their own class and cultural position – the problem is “out there”. The result is a reductive analysis that reproduces the polarisation of Remain and Leave voters established in the wake of Brexit.

How might the left avoid this cultural polarisation and develop an understanding of individuals forming a society? One that addresses questions of class power and social status as well as ethnic difference? The sociologist Norbert Elias argues in The Society of Individuals (1987) that one must begin with the structure of relations between individuals to understand their psychology. These include conflicts and differences of class, race and social status. What binds an individual into a society is “his dependence on others and the dependence of others on him”. Change has its origin not in the psychological nature of individuals but in the communal life of many.

Culture is essential to a meaningful human life because it provides a familiar and reliable construction of reality and the continuity of its meaning. When individuals are faced with unintelligible events or when their familiar habits of feeling and emotional attachments are threatened their response is to defend their cultural inheritance, for without it they would be helpless. As the sociologist Peter Marris writes in Loss and Change (1974), individuals do not just assimilate change because it makes good sense. Change brings loss and in its wake a person’s understanding of their world has to be restored and in its new form tested against its old meaning. The practice of democratic politics is to articulate this process of loss and renewal by recognising conflict, giving it voice and negotiating common ground between estranged interests.

The governing liberal consensus of the last two decades suppressed democratic politics to neutralise conflicts. The consequence was the eruption of national populism, and the growth of an illiberal liberal politics in reaction. In this polarised political culture, what has meaning and value to one side is treated with contempt by the other, implying that the lives of the others do not matter, except as they reflects one’s own.

Marris argues that for those who have lost their sense of belonging there is a strong appeal in this kind of irreconcilable opposition of races and classes. Negotiating differences is rejected in favour of a permanent radicalism. This kind of antagonistic politics has not been confined to those who voted Leave. It is found also in younger educated generations who must begin making lives in a culture of capitalism that offers no purposeful meaning.

The biggest social divide in society is between those with a degree who have a good chance of having a career in a well-paid profession, and those who do not and who are likely to be in low-wage, low-skill jobs with few prospects. Appeals to economic justice alone will not be enough to overcome division. The path to a fairer, more integrated society lies through our disoriented and conflicted culture. Everyone needs to belong. There is nothing wrong with roots. They are the social foundation on which difference is negotiated and a shared common culture created.

[See also: The world ended in 1973]