Month: September 2016

Zach Beauchamp’s article

(These are pretty vague, not necessarily coherent first thoughts. Which I’ll come back to. All criticism welcome)

I’m in a strange position having read Zack Beauchamp’s article on the rise of the right, in that I generally give identity more causal weight than seems to be the norm, and believe (as per his article) that ‘clashes of values’ are going to become the most important political division over the next few decades. So I buy a lot of what he’s saying, but some bits seem off to me.

To be more specific. Much like Beauchamp’s  mental model for ethnic conflict seems to be built around US racial politics, my base case would be the conflict in Northern Ireland, which (to my mind) is better understood as a conflict of clashing identities rather than the various other explanations that are generally offered (criminality, psychopathy, atavism, economic injustice, or even political inequality, although I think this last point was also important). In Northern Ireland, particularly at the height of the Troubles, there was a tendency to pathologise these identities, to imagine that they were almost primordial and atavistic rather than (relatively) contingent but sticky. That they were not cultural legacies that changed and hardened in differing contexts in the hands of different political actors, but something approaching a set of cultural rules, handed down unchanged from the past.

So Beauchamp’s claims:

But the truth is sometimes uncomfortable. Cultural attitudes aren’t always “caused” by anything else in some immediate or obvious sense. To explain how people “got” to believe in racist and xenophobic status hierarchies is to explain hundreds of years of Western history and the complicated story of how race and national identity were made in the West.

As a result of this history, many people value their culture and identity as much as they value economic security. When their vision of the way the world should work is threatened, they see it as a personal threat. They’re racist because race and hierarchy and group identity have come to play integral roles in how humans understand the world.


Seems mostly right to me, but also, in a lot of ways, trivial.

Irish Nationalism and Loyalism/Unionism had deep historical and social roots that were built along various lines of hierarchy, symbolism and policing of who was in group and out group. This is also true, clearly, of European ethno-nationalism, nativism and fascism, or US white nationalism. But hierarchy and bigotry is obviously not all there is to these identities. There are moments (most of the time, in fact) when the more regressive aspects of the identity are less relevant and less politically salient. So you still have to explain why it becomes relevant at one time and not another.

Beauchamp’s argument seems to me to be that it is a result of ‘status decline’, white privilege is losing its place in society and what we are seeing is the reaction to this. This sounds at least plausible, but I don’t see how he makes his case, and his argument depends almost entirely on it. The evidence he offers for ‘status decline’ in the US is the election of Obama (not in 2008, where he notes racial resentment doesn’t rise, but in 2012). In Europe it is something vaguely called the rise of ‘real multiculturalism.’ But what exactly is this and how is it distinguished from past phases of multiculturalism which didn’t lead to such a strong reaction? To my eyes Beauchamp is working backwards from his conclusion (based, it seems, mostly around Roger Petersen’s book, which I haven’t read) and doesn’t offer a convincing argument for his central point.

My second complaint is that his argument seems almost built to make his case. For example, he seems to be talking generally about politics in ‘The West’ and trying to generalise some general rules to explain the growth of the political right. But he doesn’t account for places that don’t fit his model. He mentions Canada (which he seems to cram in at the end to make a policy point) but not Ireland and Scotland, or Spain and Portugal (which, afaik, have been less troubled by nativist politics). I don’t know enough about European politics to be sure with any certainty, but it seems Sweden and Norway, also haven’t seen the same level of increase in support of nativist politics. So what do the countries that had populist left responses to the crisis tell us about those who didn’t? It might be primarily a matter of demographics (whiter, less foreign) it might be the downgrading of ethno nationalism after years of conflict (in Ireland’s case) or authoritarianism (in Spain/Portugal) or greater societal trust (in Sweden). But it would seem they can be used to test Beauchamp’s claims about status decline.

One of the positive parts played by liberals over the past nearly two decades of the ‘war on terror’ is that they have tried to contextualise the violence committed by Islamist Terrorists (not always convincingly, admittedly), and the reactionary value systems held in various European Muslim communities. While some Western conservatives were declaring Islam to have an ‘essence’ while poring over 8th century religious scripture for enlightenment, liberals were trying to understand the political and sociological causes that were giving rise to it. So, equal to the question ‘how do you make an Islamist’ you have to ask how do you make a fascist. And there seems some similarities(1) they need a political ideology to radicalise into to give meaning to their political life (2) they probably have a grievance, whether we see it as legitimate or not (3)  there is usually some broader crisis that politicise identities and divides politics.

Going back to the importance of identity in Northern Ireland. Yes, Ireland’s ‘competing nationalisms’ had deep historical and social roots in Ireland, but it still needed a crisis to give it space to breed. In Ireland (in my opinion anyway) this was provided by the breakdown in security in the late 60s and early 70s. They also needed political movements to channel these frustrations, which Beauchamp provides (semi convincing, to my eyes, but I don’t know the history of continental fascism well enough to say anything sensible on his story), a culturally relevant ideology to buy into (also provided) and a meaningful societal division to polarise society (ditto). So we have (1) in this case, people will argue over (2), but what’s (3) ?

It seems to me that (3) is the development of competing identity politics, namely the rise of radical Islam, a war footing for the past 15 years, increases in domestic political violence and a breakdown in order in the Middle East and North Africa. If you gave Beuchamp’s ‘values surveys’ to any number of Muslim communities in the west, you would get even more politically reactionary views than he finds among the far right. So we have somewhat legitimate questions on integration and clashing cultures. We have a deteriorating (inflated but real) security situation, and the rise of political movements, on both sides, whose main purpose is to divide society and sectarianise identities. This is the context he’s missing.

Going back to Northern Ireland, we have a possible example of Beuchamp’s thesis. A rising Catholic minority who had been politically and economically excluded start to challenge a sectarian political establishment. This establishment is split between reformers and reactionaries. A sectarian political movement develops (in both communities, but arguably initially among loyalists) The security situation worsens. Ethnic entrepeneurs fill the void. Politics splits, and violence erupts. But there was another side to this story, which accepts loyalist grievances as both real and legitimate. Their identity (if at times, at least, sectarian and seemingly atavistic) was also not reducible to its worst parts. Their fears, a southern Catholic state that showed no love for them and an irredentist national movement with aspirations to push them into it, were real. And the other side, the irredentist nationalists, were purposely and explicitly splitting politics to push their political ideology.

This is my problem with Beuchamp’s story of ethnic division. If he wants to see this as ethnic conflict then he’s missing the other side.