Ben Cobley’s book “The Tribe – The Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity” is a must read for anyone who is trying to make sense of the issues and fault lines in UK politics today. Cobley outlines clearly how the ideology and system of diversity fixated on identity has come to be prized above both the goals of equality and the right to democratic citizenship.
As someone who counted myself on the left for most of my life, I was initially thrown by the extent to which victimhood and identity had become not only enmeshed but elevated. I’ve felt for a while I must have missed out on some shift while living and working abroad during the early years of New Labour. Indeed, it seems I have.
Cobley draws out clearly how earlier movements for equality and rights for BAME, LGBT and women morphed into a system of patronage under New Labour which he calls the system of diversity. New Labour’s three terms in power enabled not only for this to develop into an ideological stance but to become accepted among the social and political elites. Thus, Corbyn and Momentum seem less like aberrations from the far left; they clearly want to retain, embed and extend the system of patronage to favoured groups (including women, non-white skinned BAME, immigrants and Muslims). Ever more exaggerated claims of victimhood are understandable when access to power involves flaunting of victimhood in exchange for favours. This is seen as the acceptable mode of relations on the liberal-left which (in terms of race relations) Cobley astutely compares to the way Britain ran its colonies (an observation I made here but which I didn’t fully understand at the time).
Where Cobley is particularly insightful is how the system works. The liberal-left outsources authority and power to self-appointed leaders and organisations (such as the Fawcett Society and the Muslim Council of Britain) who claim to represent their favoured groups. This is done in several ways including through funding for grants, being appointed to committees and presenting their views in the mainstream media. As they have access to power, these leaders and organisations can claim authority over the members of the favoured groups, pushing through their own agendas. The extent to which those claiming to represent the groups actually do is not called into question or examined. This leads to a situation when diversity of thought and opinion within these groups is suppressed, dismissed or simply ignored. The gap is particularly glaring between the elitist agenda of modern feminists and the concerns of the typical woman, especially those who are poorer.
While some benefits accrue to members of the favoured groups, it is important to understand that there is no incentive for these leaders or organisations to solve the problems in society they highlight. Without victim status these leaders and organisations would find their power diminished. This explains their propensity for dishonesty, especially when it comes to redefining terms such as racism and sexism, but also for avoiding or twisting the truth so that victim status can be maintained.
Of course, the biggest lie is that representation is required based on identity at all. As Cobley points out, this is little more than the social equivalent of the economic trickle-down theory. There is evidence from other sources, namely Thomas Sowell, to show that increased representation based on identity does not lead to improvements for the group as a whole. Sacred cows such as these (another one being that immigration is a cure-all for social and economic ills) are part of the ideology of diversity that underpins the system. Adherence to such ideas is mandatory for both those in the favoured groups to gain patronage and deemed the only way for those in the unfavoured groups to be acceptable. It is only by understanding the need for such adherence that one can explain seemingly bizarre phenomena such as feminists defending the perpetrators of the Cologne New Years Eve attacks above the victims. However, if one sees this for what it is, feminists defending the system of diversity through which they gain patronage (and in which they could become an unfavoured group if they attack one of the other favoured groups) then it makes more sense. Even among the favoured groups there is a pecking order, which helps to explain why BAME are excused the existence of homophobia in their communities while racism in the LGBT community isn’t.
The ideology and system both rely on fear of being accused by those in unfavoured groups, suppressing differences of opinions within the favoured groups and unquestioning acceptance of assumptions within public institutions.
Cobley rightly identifies both the need and difficulty of challenging this orthodoxy. The most pressing need is to end the sidelining of the white working class in economically and socially disadvantaged areas. While Cobley thinks a wider working-class movement is possible though not without its challenges, this is an area where we would disagree. It may seem counterintuitive but more identity politics isn’t the answer because the administrators of the system of diversity are adept at finding someone to represent any given identity group who agrees with them, thus claiming authority over what the group should think. Any response needs to be based on the system we want, not working with a system we don’t. To this end, Cobley rightly calls on the challenge to be made through bringing together of like-minded people from different sections of society. Brexit shows this is possible but also the inability of existing political parties and institutions to do anything other than double down to shore up the clientist, technocratic governance of groups that they favour.
The only omission I think Cobley makes is the potential for challenge via critiques on social media and youtubers such as Sargon of Akkad (aka Carl Benjamin). The mainstream media and institutions may well label all opposition as alt-right, but it is clear to followers that many of those painted as beyond the pale are anything but. It is here, not in the mainstream media, that we are most likely to hear those who are genuinely grappling with the big questions affecting western societies, including the UK.
Cobley does not fit neatly into this kind of challenge though. Ultimately, he is committed to reform of the left from within, ensuring that the positive aspects of social liberalism are retained while avoiding falling into a bureaucratic system of governance and social relations at the expense of individual freedoms.