NORMALLY THE centre-left monthly magazine Prospect is as good a cure for insomnia as I know. Relentlessly middle-brow and mid-Atlantic, its contributors agonise over how to maintain the global domination of market capitalism and of the United States without being excessively cruel to the poor or suppressing too many civil liberties.
But last week Prospect was wrenched from its well deserved obscurity. The Guardian devoted two pages to an article by the monthly’s editor, David Goodhart, on the threat posed by diversity to the welfare state, and another two pages to responses. Goodhart’s piece-like so many in Prospect and the Guardian alike-takes the form of well intentioned liberal worrying.
But its content is much cruder and nastier. Goodhart has set himself up as the thinking man’s David Blunkett. Not that there’s that much thinking on display in the article. Goodhart announces what he calls the ‘progressive dilemma’-there is apparently a contradiction between two values that the left holds dear: solidarity and diversity.
Goodhart credits Tory frontbencher David Willetts with discovering this ‘dilemma’: ‘The basis on which you can extract large sums of money and pay it out in benefits is that most people think that the recipients are people like themselves. ‘If values become more diverse, if lifestyles become more differentiated, then it becomes more difficult to sustain the legitimacy of a universal risk-pooling welfare state.’
There are, in other words, limits to solidarity. To support this claim Goodhart invokes evolutionary and social psychology, according to which ‘humans are social, group-based primates, with constraints, however imprecise, on their willingness to share’.
Have no doubts-this is about race and immigration. The examples people give are very telling. Goodhart refers to ‘ordinary Britons with their acute sensitivity to free riding’.
In other words, when the tabloids mount one of their repellent campaigns about asylum seekers scrounging from the welfare state or immigrant health tourists, we shouldn’t attack this as vile racist lies. Instead we should recognise that we are confronting here the limits set to solidarity by human nature.
Goodhart espouses a ‘third way on identity’. This ‘can be distinguished from the coercive assimilationism of the nationalist right, which rejects any element of foreign culture, and from multiculturalism, which rejects a common culture’. Consequently he endorses Blunkett’s imposition of classes in citizenship. ‘Too many children leave school with no sense of the broad sweep of their national history,’ Goodhart complains.
He comforts himself with the thought that ‘helpfully, Britain’s story includes, through empire, the story of many of our immigrant groups-empire soldiers, for example, fought in many of the wars that created modern Britain.’ In other words, members of ethnic minorities should forget about minor details of history like the slave trade or the numerous famines that afflicted India under British rule.
They should instead take comfort in the fact that African askaris and Indian sepoys fought as mercenaries in the armies of the British Empire. The Guardian published some splendid rebuttals of this tripe. Significantly Goodhart’s chief supporters are reactionary newspaper columnists like Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips, and the odious ‘communitarian’ theorist Amitai Etzioni.
The latter writes, ‘To the European majorities, we say, ‘We feel your pain.’ Many immigrants treat women and children, the law, and much else in ways we find troubling. Their conduct is not just different, it is wrong.’
What these bigots ignore is that the real lesson history teaches us about human nature is our enormous flexibility. After living for most of our existence as a species in small, tight-knit hunter-gatherer societies we have moved in a mere 10,000 years to a capitalist world system where many of us inhabit multicultural mega-cities.
Accompanying these gigantic social changes has been a constant widening in the boundaries of human solidarity. To identify with a nation rather than one’s own village or kindred was a huge imaginative leap. But the revolutionary movements of the past two centuries have pushed the boundaries much wider.
From the French Revolution onwards these movements have encouraged us to identify not with some ‘in-group’, but with humankind itself. This reaching beyond the limits set by nation and supposed race is alive today in the worldwide struggles against racism, corporate globalisation and war. Goodhart invokes the great opponent of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, in support of the assertion that ‘most of us prefer our own kind’.
In doing so he places himself where he belongs-among the reactionary enemies of all progress for the past 200 years.
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