The following is the video and written transcript of an online interview and Zoom seminar with Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Political Science at Birkbeck College of London. Prof. Kaufmann is an internationally distinguished demographer and researcher and a gentle critic of the excesses of Critical Race Theory. The following session took place on Sept.28, 2021 and was moderated by Prof. Carl Raschke, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver and Executive Editor of The New Polis.
Whiteshift argues that ethno-demographic change is reconfiguring western politics from left-right economic questions to ‘nationalist-globalist’ cultural divisions, leading to the rise of national populism. Immigration is a central battleground. Rising diversity also tends to be accompanied by the voluntary segregation of majority populations, geographically and socially.
Carl Raschke: Hello everyone, welcome to session 11 of critical conversations and we’re delighted to have as our guest for this particular session Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College of London, who is going to be talking with us today the book, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities. Some of you know, that have worked with me, that populism is particular interest of mine and, of course, many people in our kind of a research consortium here. So, we’re at we’re absolutely delighted.
Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck college, the author of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future White Majorities, which was published by Penguin first and then published by Abrams Press. He has also published Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America in 2004 on Harvard University Press, The Orange Order: A Contemporary Northern Irish History on Oxford University Press in 2007, Unionism and Orangeism in Northern Ireland Since 1945: The Decline of the Loyal Family, as a coeditor among others, through Oxford University press in 2012 and Whither the Child: Causes and Consequences of Low Fertility and editor of Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities with Routledge in 2004.
He’s the editor of the journal Nations and Nationalism and he’s written published op-eds in the New York Times, The Times of London, Financial Times, Newsweek, Newsweek International, Foreign Policy, and Prospect Magazine. So, we’re absolutely delighted to have him here. I’m going to let him say his spiel and then I’ve got lots of questions myself and others are welcome to ask questions as well.
Eric Kaufmann: Right. Well thanks very much Carl. Thanks for having me on. I’m mainly going to just let you guys sort of ask away, but I’ll say something about the book. Which is that it’s sort of a mix of historical, but mainly survey based research and the argument is really that, it’s in the context of the demographic decline of white majorities as a share of their national populations that we have to understand the upsurge in populism in Western countries, in Europe and to some extent North America, that if you actually look at what predicts somebody voting for a populist right party, in Europe for example, by far and away the strongest predictor is attitudes to immigration and also how highly people rank immigration as an issue compared to say healthcare and the economy, and so on.
And, in a way, immigration is kind of the lightning rod because of these cultural concerns, and if you look at how people arrive at their immigration attitudes, the cultural considerations and the psychological considerations are much more highly correlated than anything economic. So, that’s sort of the first part of the book and I look very much at the demographic trends. So, for example, the decline of white majorities in the US and then also, Canada and New Zealand dropping around below about 50% of the population around 2050 with all the caveats, of course, which I get into later in the book around boundary expansion of the meaning of the term white.
So, that’s largely setting the stage. In part I, I look across Europe and the US, mainly looking at election studies, public opinion data, demographic trends. So, that’s what a Whiteshift 1.0. And then the second part of the book, which is the Whiteshift 2.0, which is somewhat more speculative but based on demographic patterns of interracial marriage and sort of suggesting that if we look ahead, by the time we get into next century we’re going to see the emergence of mixed race majorities.
So, the argument, there was that they will tend to trace their ancestry and cultural roots back to the existing white majorities in most cases. That’s a pattern we’ve seen through history. Many groups such as the Turks and Hungarians have absorbed large numbers of other groups, they’ve become melting pots and then, yet you get an integration of these groups into the dominant storyline.
So, that’s sort of the Whiteshift 2.0, if you like, the emergence of a kind of multi-racial whiteness that is going to come in, in the second the next century, but in our lifetimes, that’s not going to be in evidence so much. It’s going to be much more the story, I think, of populist responses to these quite significant ethno-demographic shifts and symbolized around this sort of battleground with immigration.
And I think the conditions that have led to that are not abating, so I think, yes, we’ve had COVID and that’s dampened down some of these forces, but I think they’re going to be coming back once the plane start flying in earnest again. So, that’s it for me and I’ll let just open it up to you guys for questions, and I can go into further details as needed.
Carl Raschke: Okay, great. So, we’ll just have a kind of free ranging conversation. I want to quote what you say in your opening paragraph. Chapter one says, “we need to talk about white identity. Not as a fabrication designed to maintain power, but as a set of myths and symbols to which people are attached: an ethnic identity like any other. The big question of our time is less ‘What does it mean to be an American’ than ‘What does it mean to be a white American’ in an age of ethnic change. The progressive storyline for white majorities is a morality tale celebrating the demise, and, as I hope to show, much of today’s populist reaction stems directly or indirectly from this trope” (1).
Now this is very provocative, and it resonates a lot with my own thinking. You talk about this is a trope—and one of the things we’ve been doing in our research team is we’ve been looking at actual history—which as a historian, not officially, but someone who takes history much more seriously than most people on the theoretical side—like myself—do, I’ve been emphasizing how so much of these countervailing narratives, and what are sometimes popularly called the culture wars and the discourse that goes along with them, are totally ignorant of history.
And I think one of the things that’s most unsettling, I say that in a good way, about your book, Eric, you actually have history and data to back up what you’re saying, and you don’t really fit in with a particular narrative which it seems everybody wants their preferred narrative without critically examining what’s going on here.
You know, in America, I don’t think it’s taken root so much in Europe, especially since the protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and all the political upheaval that caused, the narrative has been that we have this dominant regime in America that has been around really since 1492 and it’s getting stronger and it’s becoming kind of hegemon.
And whiteness becomes the kind of touchstone that everybody and everything sort of gets measured by. And what you really try to show is that that is a trope. I’m wondering if you could make some comments here in terms of the data that you’ve come up with? It’s hard, I think, for the average person to assimilate Whiteshift because it’s so full of data, and you make points is, like this is what the data shows, this is what actually happened in history.
And you also challenge, some of the kind of academic narratives that have winded their way into the popular discourse. So, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the trope and kind of the Odyssey of this trope in contemporary popular thinking, especially the discussions about race? We need to come to terms with this in terms of how we talk about this issue in the academic world, as well as in the media, or at the dinner table.
Eric Kaufmann: Well, yeah, I think that’s right. I think the key to all this is this idea of whiteness as power structure, which is something I’m quite critical of. It’s, not to say there isn’t a power dimension, but essentially anyone who researches this topic tends to use the term whiteness as a political term, ignoring, for example, whether or not there’s a sociological ethnic group there that has attachment to myths, symbols, memories, and culture.
So, these are different perspectives in ethnic studies, anyway, where some see ethnic groups as merely political constructions, designed to further the interests of elite groups, others see ethnic groups, as the fact that people are attached to particular myths, symbols, and memories. And that that is really what is behind ethnicity. I’m not discounting that power can come into it, and elites have some impact, but I’m more on the side of seeing these things as deeply rooted, affective attachments in populations that are reproduced over time.
So, from that perspective, if you take a group like white Americans now, of course, this was more narrowly restricted to Protestants in the past and then, through assimilation, by the time we get into the 1970s and 80s it includes Catholics and Jews. A lot of the sort of critical race theory writers—some of them are quite interesting but it’s a theory and I don’t think it holds up that well—one of their arguments, is that the white group expanded it boundaries instrumentally, to try and maintain power and domination in some way.
Richard Alba, the sociologist has an interesting book out, Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America, where he sort of says well how can it be the case in the 60s, when whites, the wasps, if you like, were demographically so dominant they had no need whatsoever to expand their boundaries to include Catholics and Jews. This makes no sense and if you actually look at it, what was happening was you had upward mobility of Catholics and Jews in the Labor force and increasing geographic mobility.
And that really is what drives the whole process, not some cynical desire to keep nonwhite people out of the power structure. So, this whole conspiratorial neo-Marxist view—which is fine, I mean that’s a way of analyzing the world through elite interested in conspiracy and instrumental action—I think is not well borne out in the history. So, instead, what we have are sociological entities and it’s really about subjective belief in common descent and myths and memories and cultural difference that really is the sort of guts of ethnicity, if you like.
And, this is an ethnic group, like any other—it has its interests, like any other. My view is that, essentially, it should be analyzed as a group, like any other. What we of course have is also a situation where we have what is called asymmetrical multiculturalism, where ethnic groups that are minorities are essentially treated more accurately, I think, in the sense of groups that are attached to their culture and memories and have a living breathing identity, but on the other hand the ethnic majority is not treated that way. It’s treated as a pathological power-seeking entity.
I think that’s just not a consistent approach, I think these groups are largely motivated very similarly. So, that would be my critique, I guess, of the critical race approach. It’s also not necessarily easily falsifiable in terms of measuring power. How do we measure it? How can we falsify an argument that says it’s all about cynical power manipulation? I mean, there’s no real measures that are offered that we might refute.
So, I go through, in the book, quite a bit of evidence that would suggest, for example, that if you take white Americans who were very attached to being Italian or Irish or German or whatever are way more attached to being white than white Americans who are not attached to those ancestral identities. It’s the same pattern amongst Latinos, if you’re very attached to being Cuban or Mexican you’re very attached to being Hispanic and so on.
So, this is sort of a very similar pattern amongst all groups and it’s got very little to do with whether you’re Republican or Democrat—that matters a little bit, but it doesn’t matter that much. It’s not primarily political. I think it has primarily to do with a similar motivation of being attached to an extended family, it’s sort of really about a sociological attachment, rather than a desire for power. And all the analyses of phenomena like Trump voting and so on will always emphasize that it’s about whites wanting to hold on to power and dominance.
And I’m not going to discount that as a as a motive amongst some, but I think the decline of the familiar, the loss of familiar attachments is the much larger force and that’s in common with what we see in Europe. It’s simply that loss of that sense of solidarity and attachment of what people knew. That is ultimately behind this, rather than that desire for domination, which is typically what is put out as the explanation.
Carl Raschke: In your book you talk about the conflict between white traditionalism and left modernism or you use different terms like ethno-traditionalism and so forth, but I take it you’re referring to the Trump phenomena and QAnon and on that kind of thing in America, but also some of the white, or racially tinge, ethnonationalist movements in in Europe and so forth. This term, left modernism, is something that I think we’re all aware of right here.
In my book, that I published two years ago, I used a term of Nancy Fraser’s progressive neoliberalism. Could you talk a little bit about more about that distinction between the two groups and what they really mean and how they’re coming to the fore? Is this just an American phenomenon, or is it a mirror European phenomenon, or say Anglo-European or is it something that’s kind of representative of trends that we have globally?
Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, I think that it’s representative of a Western trend. The first thing I just want to clarify on ethno-traditionalism is that I draw a distinction between ethnonationalism, which may be in Hungary where you have this idea that only somebody who is white and Christian can be an equal member of the nation. So, it’s about who’s in and who’s out. And then ethno-traditional nationalism is something that I think is much more common in European countries where there is a recognition that somebody who’s not white and Christian is an equal member of the nation.
But it’s more question of maintaining a kind of majority/minority matrix of whatever the historical, ethnic composition was, not wanting that to change to greatly. So, that’s a difference. Ethno-traditional nationalism does except minorities as equal members, at least potentially, but doesn’t want to see the balance change too quickly within the ethnic balance within a country.
But I think with left modernism, you mentioned progressive neoliberalism, and I think the way I envisioned left modernism it could be progressive neoliberalism, or it could be progressive socialism—you could graft it onto either a capitalist or us Marxist economic philosophy. But it is essentially what I see as the sort of hegemonic ideology and elite institutions in many Western societies.
It is that of essentially taking liberal categories such as gender, race, sexuality—so all of the battles that were fought for equal rights for minority groups by liberals, equal treatment under the law—and then repurposing them or slotting them into a Marxist mode of analysis, which has to do with oppressor versus oppressed, radical transformation through activism, and then moving forth into a new millennium.
So, that kind of eschatology is really applied to the liberal categories and that’s how you get left modernism. Now what I argue, is that this goes back in a way to the 1910s with the Young Intellectuals in Greenwich village New York. And you have sort of a Bohemian lyrical left that emphasizes cultural radicalism, and this is kind of more the roots of our current left modernist philosophy.
It is modernist in the sense of rejecting tradition, rejecting religious, national, ethnic tradition of majorities in favor of diversity and cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and then the left side is more to do with redistribution amongst different identity groups of various goods, including economic resources, but also psychological self-esteem—that’s more recent.
So, I think this is really what we’re looking at, the fusion of these two strands one which is more of a liberal strand, which concerns the identity categories, rather than class and the other is the Marxist mode of analysis of the victim/oppressor mode of analysis. And so, that’s sort of where left modernism comes from, it spreads greatly with the rise of the university system and TV media in the 60s.
I don’t think a lot of the ideas are new today. I think they’re really more or less continuations of the 60s left modernist spin off, which is really emphasizing race at the top and then gender and sexuality coming second or third as the totemic categories, with a sort of victim/oppressor world view, as it applies to discourse around, for example, policy areas like crime or immigration or education. So, if we take immigration that would tend to mean that the discussion of immigration levels, particularly reduction, is seen as offensive to one of the totemic categories and therefore it should be taken off the table of democratic discussion because of the fact it is potentially offensive to members of historically marginalized groups.
So, the thinking there is that it is legitimate to infringe upon free speech and democratic discussion, if this has a psychologically detrimental effect or a perceived psychologically detrimental effect on historically marginalized groups. So, what this, of course, means is then the mainstream parties and institutions cannot have a discussion about the level of immigration that’s desired in the population and that opens space for populist entrepreneurs to exploit that untapped demand.
And what explains the emergence of populists on the right, is that you get, like in Sweden, the mainstream parties couldn’t really have a discussion about immigration levels. One of the interior ministers tried to do this and was more or less attacked as a racist in the press. The next year the Sweden Democrats came in on short of 13% of the vote and eventually reached 25% in the polls, and only then, did the mainstream parties then shift and start to talk about what the appropriate migration level should be in Sweden
So, it’s kind of like a department store only selling one pair of pants in the Soviet Union and a black marketeer is going to pop up to service the demand that’s not being catered to by the mainstream outlets. That’s really what the populist is, a kind of political black marketeer that pops up.
Carl Raschke: Talking about ethnic change, and you say it’s really about ethic change not diversity, again I’ll read from the book: “according to Karen Stenner, a social psychologist, rising diversity triggers two responses: conservatism and authoritarianism. Conservatism involves maintaining continuity with the past and resisting change. If the West was diverse and became more homogeneous—as occurred in Poland or Vienna after 1939—the conservative instinct would be to wax nostalgic about past diversity. Ethnic change is the irritant not the levels of diversity, which is why a meta-analysis of the academic literature [you] helped conduct shows ethnic change nearly always predicts increased anti-immigration sentiment” an increased kind of response or political turmoil and so forth.
So, I’m wondering if you could kind of unpack that a little bit and elaborate further about why it’s not really about diversity but ethnic change and perhaps what’s implied here is the pace of ethnic change? I think one of the problems in talking about this kind of conflict is that you have largely an American audience and America always looks not only at its own history, which a lot of us don’t really have any nuanced understanding of, we tend to buy into one narrative of either the idealistic American exceptionalism or, you might say, the anti-exceptionalism which increasingly is called by conservatives anti-American.
But again, history doesn’t fit into any particular narratives. You would think that since Jean-François Lyotard announced the end of grand narratives with his book The Postmodern Condition in the 1980s they wouldn’t be back. But we really have this kind of struggle which I think you addressed a little a few minutes ago, when you were talking about left modernism versus white ethno-traditional nationalism. We really have this kind of war of grand narratives going on, but there are also other narratives that are emerging elsewhere.
An example of which I’m very familiar with, because I have a colleague who’s very much steeped in this fight, is over Hindutva in India, which is not about whiteness per se, it’s about Hinduism and Indian nationalism, and so forth. So, I was wondering if you could you could talk a little about this question of change as what’s really going on, as opposed to the question of identity and the dominance of white populations?
You make a point elsewhere in the book that, if you look at the “Anglo-European spheres” that, in fact, they are still dominated by whites and, even though we’re going to see a kind of beigeing, or a turning Beige of populations, it’s still for the most part, in terms of what people perceive, which is what it really comes down to about whiteness. But talk about the pace of change.
Eric Kaufmann: So, this was a meta-analysis I did with another writer called Matt Goodwin, another academic, where we took the literature, I think from the mid 90s to about 2016, where people had done quantitative work on trying to predict immigration attitudes and support for populist right parties. And what you could find is that there was a very consistent relationship where the rate of ethnic change locally, this is at some sort of geographic unit like a county or city or whatever, you could see that that whenever you have rapid ethnic change you almost always had some sort of an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment or support for the populist right within an individual.
So, it seemed like a fairly consistent pattern where change seemed to predict some kind of a backlash. However, when it came to the level of diversity, or the stock of diversity, the percentage of Muslims or African Americans or non-whites, etc., in a given unit, the relationship was more complicated, and it wasn’t as straightforward a backlash effect. So, there is a process by which people can habituate to different levels of diversity, over time. So, you get a less consistent effect.
what I would say is that diversity in a larger unit like a state or a county or a metro area tends to produce more of a backlash than diversity in a small unit like your neighborhood. Diversity in your neighborhood tends to be associated with, actually, somewhat more tolerant attitudes to immigration, whereas diversity in your county or metropolitan area has the reverse effect—not a large effect either way.
But the other thing I would say is, going back to Stenner’s writing on authoritarianism, she distinguishes these two concepts of status quo: conservatism, wanting the present to be like the past, and authoritarianism, which is really about disliking difference in diversity. And they are both essentially half heritable. You can see in people who have a messy desk or who don’t think there should be a dress code for tennis tournaments—these sorts of questions that don’t have anything to do with migration and diversity, but yet are correlated with views on these issues.
So, people who prefer that more disorderly environment are actually more accepting of diversity or immigration, and those who prefer the more orderly environment. Jonathan Haidt has done work on this too, with preferences for patterns of dots on screens and this psychological difference. Some people see changes loss, so if we talk about status quo conservatism, you know change, not as exciting, but as a loss. Others see it as exciting.
Similarly, with difference in diversity, some see that as disorder and others as stimulation and the different psychological responses to this have a high heritable component to them and it’s not a matter simply of education. Stenner makes that point. If you think you can educate this out of people, you’re actually going to get more of a reaction.
you’ve actually got to figure out ways to frame migration in such a way that it doesn’t trigger people who prefer that more ordered society. So, for example, talking about immigrants assimilating and leaving the society relatively unchanged, is one way of actually reaching those people. So, what’s happened is, with the rise diversity and with ethnic change you’re getting very different responses, depending upon people’s psychological makeup. That was what Stenner point out and some other papers have shown us—you really get polarization coming out of this process.
There was a paper, looking at the US, looking at support for deportation versus a path to citizenship and how much that correlated with partisanship. In the Northern US up by the Canadian border, where there’s much less diversity, there was very little correlation between whether you were Republican or Democrat and your views on deportation versus path to citizenship, but down by the Mexican border, it was an enormous correlation and I think that’s just one illustration of the impact.
As you get a more diverse environment with ethnic changes you start to split the electorate more along the psychological lines which then reconfigures voting patterns as well, and that’s what we’ve also seen. The old class-based voting patterns have largely disintegrated, increasingly it’s these identity-based voting patterns, which—leaving aside non-white minority groups who have a different pattern—correlate very highly with voting for populists.
A question like, “were things in America were better in the past is?” an enormous predictor of support for Republicans or for Trump in a way that. Resentment of the elites, feeling that the system doesn’t work for you, none of that actually has a very strong predictive power compared to these questions around whether things were better in the past. That is a very powerful predictive.
Carl Raschke: We had a discussion last week, in a different context, with some people about race in the United States, and I think this is a great opportunity for some people to ask Professor Kaufmann how he views the American situations. I was wondering if you could just kind of zero in on American politics as you see it, and where you see this is going in terms of the issue of race?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, I think you’ve got two strands. One is the ethnic change, which has more to do with Latin American and other immigration, which is not as connected to the black/white historic issue. So, I think there are two separate issues there, the historic black/white issue and the ethnic change issue, which is more linked to non-black groups, and I think the Trump phenomenon is much more an outcome of the latter issue of ethnic change attended on the rise of the Hispanic population and—questions around the border.
In fact, with a lot of those Obama to Trump people, who voted for Obama switch to Trump, you can see that hostility to levels of immigration and illegal immigration was the strongest factor predicting and Trump vote. But then you also have this historic black/white issue which has become important since the George Floyd case.
Now, it is true that over time, what happened with Obama’s election, by bringing an African American into office, according to some of the political science, it does show that white voters who had this racial resentment of African Americans who voted democrat did shift over but that’s been a process that has been occurring, election after election since the 1980s. So, I don’t think that is really that is exceptional.
Obama was elected twice and a lot of the trump voters—not a lot, but an important group of them—had been Obama voters that switched over to Trump. I don’t think that can easily be explained, using the old black/white racial resentment argument. But now, what’s happening, of course, in the U.S. is that since George Floyd, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and Defund the Police, you’ve seen an incredible partisan polarization within the white population.
Among white Republicans it’s 85-86% are opposed to Black Lives Matter and only a few percent in support like four or five percent. Among white Democrats it’s the reverse, it’s like 85% to four percent. So, it’s sort of the degree of polarization is just this is the best question you’ve been asked its support for black lives matter if you want to pick out party identity.
So that’s interesting. So, where does this go? There is a battle over a number of things. One is the American past—to what extent is the U.S. is a systemically Racist Society built on stolen land and all the rest of it. You see, in the surveys about 50 point divided, amongst white Americans, on this. So, I think there is a battle over statues and symbols and the past. Whether 1619 is the founding moment and it’s a fallen society that is deeply imbued with racism in its DNA, and that’s the overriding reality of American life.
Or, on the other hand, whether it is essentially a country that has done a lot of good as a lot to be proud of, but that has flaws which it’s worked to overcome, and which have largely been overcome. And I think that’s also where the debate is over the question of how strong the effects of racism in the present day are. So, that is a secondary discussion.
Certainly, the critical race approach, which maybe half of the supporters of the democrats would endorse elements of critical race theory, such as that systemic racism is endemic in U.S. society and so on. But that’s very influential in the elite institutions, and so I think there’s a battle now over exactly how racist the society is. Is it still racist?
Is this something we want to be teaching in schools, and making this the central plank of American identity? It’s worth saying, by the way, that actually someone who says that the U.S. is a deeply racist society—I can’t remember which American congresswoman said that at the UN—can be interpreted actually as expressing a form of American identity. So, if your American identity is about the U.S. as a moralistic project of perfectionism, then the fact you are breast-beating about the sins that you’ve committed and continue to commit almost suggests that you are a society that is more moral than others, because you are more willing to beat yourself up about past and present sins.
So, a certain version of American national identity is just a sort of left modernist moralistic version of American exceptionalism. And oddly enough, there’s a certain pride attached to being so self-critical. So, isn’t this is a kind of competing version of American identity to the one that would take pride in the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln and all the contributions of American life, which was the more standard, and still is the dominant American identity. So, I think there’s a competition between these competing versions of American identity.
Carl Raschke: Yeah, and could you call them, maybe, competing moralisms? I mean, it’s not a revelation, this goes back to the political thought of Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, America is very moralistic, and it’s got this moralistic breeding. We know, of course, what happened after World War One, with Woodrow Wilson and the kind of disasters that led to the Weimar Republic, and then World War Two and so forth, and the League of Nations and the failure of the League of Nations.
So, the idea is that America is moralistic, but what I hear you saying here is that we now have kind of competing moralistic grand narratives that are fighting with each other, but which are still uniquely American. Would that be a fair kind of summation?
Eric Kaufmann: I think they are fighting with each other. I’m not sure they’re so uniquely American. Here in Canada, for example, the version of that left modernist narrative of Canadian identity centers around the idea that we were really awful to the indigenous and we have to atone, and so our flags are at half-mast, and all this. Trudeau has very much leaned into that. And there is opposition from the conservatives on that.
In Britain, it would be colonialism and slavery, and so it would all be about knocking down statues or renaming buildings or reteach teaching history. So, I think it’s all a version of the same sort of conflict in each country. Now, you’re right the Us had that very universalistic moralistic strain—more so in New England, I would say, than in the southern states—and that has, of course, become very influential, or has been very influential in the American exceptionalism narrative.
What I would say, though, is that, even though you had that American exceptionalist narrative of progress and kind of whiggish nationalism, it always shared space with an implicit more ethno-cultural form of national identity around American particularity, and I think that persists. So, I argue in the book that it’s not simply the American creed of liberal democracy and capitalism, but you also had this idea of the landscape, the sports, the everyday aspects of what it means to be American—consumer items, things which might seem trivial, but when you put them together are actually quite important.
I think popular culture and also ethnic composition would be part of that, religious composition would be part of it. So, even though in the U.S. you wouldn’t necessarily get people saying that America is it Protestant Anglo country, yet you could certainly see plenty of evidence from the founding fathers and the historians of the 19th century, that this was operating implicitly.
So, you know the critical race theorists aren’t entirely wrong that there was an aspect of ascriptive Americanism that existed. So, you have perhaps these three narratives the more descriptive and the more exceptionalist, and then the critical that existed in various forms, over time. I think those exist in other countries, too. It’s just a difference in percentages, really—different proportions.
Carl Raschke: Okay, that leads into a somewhat provocative question. I wanted to ask you about this in your book, the statement in the section on white guilt. You say that what you’re calling white guilt, which have been around for a long time, but referring to the way in which white settlers of you know everything from the Canadian treatment of indigenous peoples and, of course, the horrible ways in which indigenous people were treated by a European settlers, but of course we know it’s not just simply about bad guys good guys.
There’s a lot of war for going on, among indigenous peoples which were exploited, also by European settlers, so there is a kind of historical dynamic there. But just the way we look back at the past right now, in terms of mea culpa, look at all the horrible things we did as Europeans as settler colonialists, to use that particular term. You call this a form of narcissism. Can you explain that a little better? What do you mean by that exactly?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, I think that what you have is a very selective curation of history. So, as you say, this focus on these sins, which are real and absolutely should be talked about, and should be taught, but without putting those into the context of either prearrival relations amongst indigenous groups and the way those societies operated—including slavery and genocide and all these conquest—or in the colonial situation or looking at other empires, looking at what was happening in Latin America with slavery, what was happening in the Muslim world.
And, also what about the interactions between the indigenous and the Europeans, fusion, hybridities? So, the kind of nuances and complexities are really airbrushed out of the story, to make it a morality tale that is simple and that is sort of insular. So, it doesn’t look in world historical terms, it looks only at a very tiny slice of time and space and tries to draw conclusions that there was an exceptional degree of cruelty let’s say with American slavery or with Canadian treatment of the aboriginals.
Well, any sort of fair-minded view of world history would quickly disabuse that and you’d realize that behind almost every UNESCO world heritage site is going to be something pretty awful if you look at how the sausage was made. So, just that sort of more contextualized approach doesn’t seem to be there. It just seems to be a very sort of singular asymmetrical multiculturalism—certain groups are romanticized.
For example, the way in which native populations interacted. We don’t hear about the West Coast Salish slave system, we don’t hear about very much about the sacrifices, the burying alive of individuals in pre-colonial African society. And it’s not because those societies were awful, all societies through history have done all kinds of things, but that sort of double standard, if you like, of the application of a very different set of moral standards to one set of ancestors compared to another.
I think this is motivated really by a sort of left modern a search for a usable past. And if it’s not there you almost have to invent it. In Canada, we had the recent discovery of what we’re supposedly mass graves of native children in these residential schools, but of course there’s no actual evidence that these were connected, not only to a genocide, but it’s not even clear who was buried there. Was it only indigenous? Was it also some white kids there? How did they die? Are these simply graveyards whose wooden crosses have decayed over time?
There was no real interest in the nuance of what was discovered with this ground penetrating radar, but rather there was a rush to judgment with no critical push back in the media on almost any of this. Because, in a way, this is seen as a sacred event, and the desire to sacralize the victims of oppression and to prop up a story of white supremacy. That just overrode any sort of rational discussion of the nuances.
Carl Raschke: But, to go back to the question of narcissism, this is why I’m interested in this. My book that came out in 2019 called, Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, but the whole book is about what we call neoliberalism, and the attempt to unpack that, not just an economic philosophy, but as a kind of value system that is essentially inherent in the development of the new knowledge classes, the new cosmopolitan classes—again I’m using Fraser’s terminology of progressive neoliberals—who are, in many respects, transnational and so forth. I quote a French philosopher, Maurizio Lazzarato, who talks about the university as being the kind of center of the new knowledge elite hegemony in the same way as was the factory in the industrial revolution.
So, this is a way in which racial groups are used, not really in terms of developing policy to make their life better, or to create these aims of equity, but in a sense to justify the power of the dominant white educated elites against the uneducated white lower classes, in an effort to not deal with the real question, which you do talk about this book, of economic inequality.
Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, I think you’re right that it’s a lot more comfortable for a Jeff Bezos or a wealthy individual to talk about identity politics and to talk about cultural forms of power and power inequalities, perhaps than to talk about economic redistribution, which is more threatening to economic interest. Now, what I would say is that I tend to see left modernism and cancel culture and a lot of the things that have flowed from the what I call cultural socialism or recently this idea of wanting to redistribute self-esteem amongst groups. I still believe it is more a kind of bottom up, religion.
It is more like COVID-19, like a virus, a mental virus that spreads peer to peer and spreads from the ground up, than it is about an elite conspiracy. It’s not to say that it isn’t useful for elites, but I guess I do see it more …
Carl Raschke: Let me interject there, conspiracies always a loaded word, and that’s going to lead into my next question. Which is that you talk about the difference between racial interest and racism, okay. And, of course, there’d be a difference between elite interest and elitism and neither of those are called conspiracy. Conspiracy implies a kind of self-conscious effort to try to achieve certain kind of goals. A lot of this is just part of history, it’s part of demographics, it’s part of political behavior, so to speak.
So that’s more what I’m getting at, that it is the interest of certain white and, you use the term, cosmopolitan. That can be a somewhat misleading term because it’s used in other ways, but you talk about cosmopolitan elites, that’s not my term that’s a term that’s very common there, when you’re talking about the global society, people that are not just jetsetters they don’t have to be millionaires, but they, essentially, see themselves as global citizens as opposed to one particular country.
That’s the kind of class interest that very often, according to some arguments, leverages what it claims to be, you know, “woke.” I don’t like the term woke, particularly, because it’s actually a good term and its origins. It means being conscious of race. But it’s now tended to sort of imply a kind of superiority complex, because I have knowledge you don’t—almost like I’m gnostic, so to speak. So, I wonder if you could just talk about how those dynamics are working in terms of racial interest.
How race is being codifying and defined and configured, in terms of the discourse, because of these other kinds of interests. Because everything’s now racist in ways it wasn’t, even five years ago and we keep extending the meaning of the term.
Eric Kaufmann: Yes, so the way I conceive of it is that certain sacred values get elevated. So, I defined woke as a conceptual term that is testable and falsify but it essentially means the sacralization of historically marginalized race, gender and sexual identity groups. That’s the one sentence definition. And once that becomes, essentially, elevated as a sacred value, a whole other set of actors fall into line because it then becomes the prestige value which you want to signal, whether you are an elite individual or whether you’re a corporation.
You want to name check that so that you get the prestige that comes along with having these, what are seen as enlightened and the highest moral values. And, of course, that then distinguishes you from the unwashed who maybe aren’t as au fait with these values. So, there is a certain status demarcation that comes along with that which, I think, speaks to your point around wanting to differentiate yourself from the lower orders.
I guess it just depends, how much we see that as deliberate or not. But I do, definitely, think it has seeped into the status system and the status order. What I think this means is that, like in my New York Times piece, I was essentially arguing that it’s not as though you have racial division so much in America, but what you have is it division in racial attitudes, largely, within the white population.
And the polarization is, in some way, reflecting that. So, you have one group who thinks that it’s very enlightened to have white guilt and to talk about white supremacy, and then you have another group that asks why we can’t just treat all groups with respect equally and not demonize one part of the population, and who don’t particularly feel guilty for their ancestors, are proud of what they did while acknowledging that there were some bad things too, who like other groups, as well, and blah blah blah.
I think that is really a major division that’s opened up, and it does correspond to some degree with class. Although, I would say that, first of all, education level is going to be a stronger indicator. Thomas Piketty, when he talks about the brahman left, that’s his point, income is not a great predictor of whether you voted for trump or voted for Biden compared to education level.
But even education level—something like half, or not quite half of white Americans with a college degree voted for Trump, and even advanced education, I think it was 35%, or so, voting for trump, master’s and above. So, education level is not as clean, and this is where I think that only gets us so far. So, I think the elite mass dynamics are feeding into this, but I don’t think they tell most of the story.
I think most of the story is really psychological and ideological, which amongst the university educated that divide would be sharp. So, you’ve got the university educated population who vote for Trump versus those who vote for Biden. Amongst white Americans there’s a really sharp divide there. In some ways it’s even sharper there than would be in the working class.
That is fundamentally about beliefs and psychology and ideology. So, that is, I think, primary but the status system kicks in and then that’s one of the reasons why I think 85% of Yale students are democrats and only about 6% were Republicans. So, in certain environments it’s extreme but generally, I think this is about genuine belief and then, once you have those divisions, the status system just magnifies all of that.
Carl Raschke: We have a question now from Gabe Parker.
Gabriel Parker: So, I started just saying that I love the book and I agree that there can be like that modern leftists, if not centrist leftist, overreaching and condemning conservatives as racist rather quickly. And I think, in your book, there was that discussion around cosmopolitanism and potentially a more specific or particular lifestyle, and there was a suggestion there that there is more than one way to live a good life and neither way is necessarily superior to the other.
I think that some of the disagreements that we see between these two views can lead to the current discourse in America, where we run into the issue of quick labeled racist or closed mindedness on one side or the other, especially with topics like critical race theory that are kind of hot words right now.
So, I wanted to ask if it’s fair to say that your stance on structural racism in America is still that the unconvinced, from your interview with Ezra Klein. Which I listened to and you talked about redlining as one example, and that there were more individual acts of racism, rather than the structural, and that there tended to be a lack of empirical evidence for that structural racism, and that your stance is that you are still open to being convinced, one way or the other.
Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, my stance on structural racism is that, like any theory, it needs to be measurable and at least potentially falsifiable. That is Popperian science. So, if you have a theory which isn’t falsifiable, and I think many versions of critical race theory are not falsifiable really, that essentially what they say is that if there is a disparity in a desired social good like CEOs or income, or something, that that is ipso facto evidence of systemic racism. And that is essentially a circular argument using an outcome to argue for a cause.
I do, however, say that there could be structural racism if we talk about structural racism as the idea of racism without individual racist. So, could we imagine such a thing occurring? My answer is, well yes, we could. One example is if you have let’s say nine whites for every black person in an organization and everybody is equally prejudiced against the other the black applicants are going to be hugely disadvantage, because there will be nine people prejudiced against them versus only one person prejudiced against the white applicant.
So, you have a structural effect there, and that to me would be evidence that the structural effect of this is going to hit the black applicant much harder than the white applicant, and I would accept a claim of structural racism there. Another example could be where, if you did a survey in a police department and people said well, I’m not racist, but I feel pressure to say racist things around my colleagues.
That would be also evidence of structural racism, where individuals aren’t racist, but they feel structural pressure to perform racism in front of their colleagues. So, there are ways in which you could prove this, and they just don’t do that. It’s all metatheory and it’s always referencing back to pre-civil rights history, to slavery and Jim Crow, and redlining and there is still inequality today and therefore there is structural racism.
Well, I mean, another way you could do it would be if, for example, here were certain areas that we’re paying more for their insurance and that couldn’t be explained by the property values or the income levels, but only by the racial composition of an area, and that was still the case today and it was the case during redlining, then that would be evidence of structural racism as well. But it’s those careful kinds of empirical investigations, taking care to deal with counter arguments, to refute the null hypothesis, that’s what I’m looking for before I’m going to accept any theory—including structural racism—and that’s what I find to be to be lacking.
Occasionally you’ll see evidence that’s presented as structural racism such a CV studies, but CV studies, of course, would be evidence of individual racism, and I accept that there is some individual racism and I don’t think anyone’s denying that. But I think if you’re making a claim of structural racism, you need to take into account the aggregate level of facts. So, that’s sort of what I would be looking for. I think there is some evidence, I think it was Roland Fryer who is she showed that black suspects were treated more roughly and more harshly.
But what you want is an open discussion where people are allowed to contest with new evidence and say, well, they’re treated more roughly maybe because of the way they address officers, and we can discuss whether officers should just deal with the different ways of being addressed. It would contribute to a richer discussion over exactly what’s behind some of these phenomena.
But, yeah, I guess my I am currently skeptical and certainly skeptical of the size of the issue. That is my current position, but I could well be convinced, and I have been convinced by some studies, the one on by Roland fryer on roughing up suspects, there was one on the administration of pain medication. So, there are certain studies that I think are convincing and I would accept that there are spheres of life, where there does appear to be a structural effect. But it is very domain specific and I think coming up with a sweeping argument about white supremacy or structural racism, in my view, is more ideology than actual science.
Carl Raschke: Okay, Gabe. Did that answer your question, or do you want to follow up?
Gabriel Parker: Yeah. I guess the example that I was thinking of was the war on drugs and then moving into the prison industrial complex where you have that huge proportion of the black population compared to other populations in prison. And that all started a little bit after the civil rights movement and continued through the 80s and 90s, and so forth. I don’t know if that’s too much of a leap, but do you feel like that is an example of structural racism? Or a combination of individual acts from policing unions or reforms and things like that? Or what are your thoughts there?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, I think that it’s not enough to show a disparate impact. So, I’m opposed to this idea that just because there’s a disparate impact that it is systemic racism. Would we say that a tax increase is anti-Semitic because Jews pay are going to be hit harder by a tax increase? I think we need to kind of distinguish between disparate impacts of a policy and the intent behind the policy. I would always sort of look to the intent.
I mean of course it’s, also the case that if people realize it’s having a disparate impact that should probably influenced their thinking a little bit on whether this is a great idea. The problem with the incarceration is that it was heavily supported by a lot of black politicians, because their neighborhoods were being hit very hard by the drug violence. I guess, I would need to see evidence of were sentencing decisions or legislation were motivated by some kind of racial animus before I would see that as structural racism.
It’s also tricky because to assess the effects. I think that mass incarceration is a bad idea. I’m not a fan of mass incarceration but at the same time, obviously, you need to have safe streets and the African American communities would be one of the beneficiaries of having less violence and disorder in their neighborhoods and perhaps in the schools. So, it’s important to look at all of the dimensions of the problem.
So, we’re now moving to a situation of experimenting with, perhaps, less incarceration and we don’t know what the effects are going to be on Black neighborhoods and populations. Is it going to be the case that this is, perhaps, going to introduce more disorder into these neighborhoods and schools and therefore impact on their ability to rise out of poverty? Maybe. And we should be open to all of these possibilities, as well as to the possibility that mass incarceration went too far.
But the question, I guess, I would have is, was it the case that black politicians were complaining and saying this was horrible for our community and that this was negative but it was pushed by white politicians with some agenda to dominate? I don’t know. I guess, I think it’s a complex problem and I think it’s as simple as saying that it’s structural racism.
It may have, in hindsight, not been the right policy or it may have turned out to be too far and we need to move the dial back—I think we do—but I’m not ready to just say that because it had a disparate impact on a certain group in terms of incarceration that it was structural racism. I mean, it might have had a beneficial impact in terms of some Black neighborhoods and people being able to rise out of poverty or have a more ordered environment that allowed them to improve themselves. I don’t know. That is an empirical question.
But again, the leaping to judgment is not one that I would want to make without seeing some sort of intent based evidence behind some of the proponents of the policy or the voters for the policy to really call that racism. And it’s really tricky when you had a lot of black support for it. So, I guess that’s my take on it.
Gabriel Parker: Okay.
Carl Raschke: Can I raise a question there that’s actually not really talked about in your book, though you did sort of allude to it as a responds to an earlier question? That is, the talk about social science, and you are an empirical social scientist, it’s clear. You have data for everything you say, and you cite data to make statements and so forth, which is what we call an empirical approach.
My own view is that theoretical and the empirical aren’t necessarily in conflict with each other, but there is this tendency, that goes back in the history of sociology, called grand theory that sometimes pops up, or rears its head in a lot of these conversations. I don’t want to try to unpack that, but you are a social scientist and very often, on these Critical Conversations, we don’t always have social scientists. And social scientists can sometimes be very disconcerting for humanities professors, because they actually say that this is what the data shows, as opposed to what we know, is the case
We have this moral intuition and therefore it must be the case. But it may not, because history is ambiguous, and people’s behavior is ambiguous. But the term, I want to get to is structural racism. Now, I remember when I was a graduate student in the University of California Berkeley back in the late 60s—yes, I’ve been around that long—I remember when that term emerged and it emerged primarily among graduate students who were radical activists, particularly connected with the Black Power movement that had its genesis during that period.
In fact, I remember attending some of the first Black Power rallies, some of which got the law unruly with the cops coming in and breaking them up. I got caught in the melee. But it was a controversial term then. But I think historically, genealogically a lot of the critical race theorists took their calling card from those kinds of discussions, i.e., the Black Power movement.
And they had their ascendancy through the discussion of how the law, civil rights legislation, what we call the sort of moral and juridical order of liberal democracy isn’t working, it’s being distorted, it’s being misused, it’s being misapplied. So, power rules. And, of course, along comes Michel Foucault fifteen or twenty years later. His theories gradually saturate, at least the humanity side of things, and he talks about power and knowledge.
Most scholars focused on the power, without understanding how knowledge works—that’s something separate. But the question is, this term structural racism had kind of vanished and it’s only now that it’s come back and it’s become like a meme among people who don’t examine critical race theory.
How do, for example, eighth graders understand the theoretical writings of Charles Mills, who was the one to kind of reform Marxism and talk about it in terms of race, and so forth? They don’t. We just use these terms as memes. So, I’m wondering, to make a long story short, can you say something about the term? Is it meaningful in any way? If it is, to what degree? If it’s not meaningful, to what degree isn’t it?
Well, I think there is such a thing as an emergent property—so structural forces, I think, are real. But I think they are measurable, so I think the metatheorizing, the neo-Marxist metatheorizing, critical race theory metatheorizing tends to assume these shadowy, sweeping power structures, almost like objects barreling through society—these big structures.
But very rarely do we get a clear definition—again, this is the social scientist’s critique—and an operationalization that would allow us to refute counter arguments. Power is not often well defined, and it’s not defined in a way that it can be measured. Now you might say, it could be defined as the number of people, you can get to do things against their will. In which case we could measure it, but that’s not what they do, it’s all shadowy.
And that’s fine. There’s a place for Meta theory but at some point, you want to try and test that in a good faith way that allows for people who say that there’s nothing there. Now, as I said, with structural racism, you know you could have a situation where one group of numbers, the other heavily. There’s the same level of individual level prejudice but the structural impact, because of the disparity of numbers, simply hits one group much harder than the other.
That, to my mind, is a structural form of racism, yes. So, it’s something that I certainly think is possible but, in the sort of shadowy meta away that it’s used in these neo-Marxist theories I just think it’s completely flabby and lacks empirical verification and substance. Similarly, with the definition of racism that says prejudice plus power, to my mind that’s nonsensical, from a scientific point of view.
Because if you did a survey of people what should happen, if you have a concept, is that someone who scores high in power should score high in prejudice and vice versa, in order to lump those two things into one concept. Otherwise, you should have two concepts, one which is called dominant group prejudice and the other one which is called a subaltern group prejudice. But that’s not the way they’ve decided to go.
So, really the definition of prejudice plus power is a political definition and is completely a violation of construct validity and internal validity norms within science. So, I think it’s largely a sweeping metatheory that lacks a scientific foundation, is the way I would put it. But it’s not impossible to prove, so if they did the work then and they could convince me but that’s not there yet.
Okay, to get to this whole question of whiteness and what it means, you say, “are whiter Latin American countries more unequal?” (336). Then you show a chart and say, “Figure 7.9 again shows no relationship. Racial inequality is at rock-bottom in the mostly non-white Dominican Republic, but it is also bad in pale-skinned Uruguay. Diverse Panama and whiter Chile or Costa Rica both score well.”
So, I mean there’s a case where you’re saying that the data doesn’t show that inequality and whiteness, or the dominance or lack of dominance of white skins, or the perception of white skin really has much to do with inequality. Which, of course, is one of the big claims of structural racist theories. That is that dominant white populations tend to lead to dominant economic inequality. So, I was wonder if you could talk, maybe a little bit about that data, the two that you cite in the chart?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, yeah, that’s right, and that go amongst US states as well, by the way. So, you have some US states which are very white which have high black/white inequality and some very white states which have low black/white inequality. So, there’s no relationship and if you look at the theory of the of whiteness of the critical race people it is essentially that whites are trying to maintain a demographic dominance and then that allows them to maintain economic dominance.
So, what we should see is places where whites are larger share and more dominant, therefore there should be higher racial inequality and we don’t find that. There’s no relationship which really suggests it isn’t utterly orthogonal and irrelevant—or fairly irrelevant—to the distribution of income. And I think the narrative also suggests that once whites are no longer in in power, no longer in a majority we’re going to have racial equality and this data would say that actually it’s going to make no difference whatsoever to the income levels between white and black.
So, it’s just to say that it’s not really about power because these theories are mesmerized by power as the overriding explanation for everything. When actually, it may be that in many cases power has almost nothing to do with the explanation and maybe it has to do with a lot of other factors, historical, cultural, economic policies. There may be a whole other set of reasons why you see disparities and those disparities change over time.
The Irish used to be poorer than the British in England and then that’s no longer the case. White ethnics in America used to be poorer than WASPs and that stopped around 1980. So, these things change over time and power is not really, I don’t think, a good explanation for why these things change over time. Yet that is almost taken for granted and never challenged in a lot of the sociology and writing around this.
It’s just assumed that somehow demographic larger demographic share is about power, that this is what drives the system of unfairness. And I guess I just don’t think that’s been adequately challenged and tested and defended from criticism. Partly because very difficult to mount criticisms of these theories, without being branded, in some way, a racist or ostracized if you challenge these narratives. So, there’s not really viewpoint, diversity and open inquiry in these fields, I’m afraid.
Carl Raschke: Let me ask you a personal question, if I can. So, have you been have you been branded that? Have you been accused of being a kind of crypto racist or enabling racists, by these, not so standard, orthodox left modernist arguments?
Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, routinely. And, of course, even being half Jewish and part Chinese and part Latino doesn’t insulate you from that. So, they’ll go after you, no matter what. but yeah, the people who are strong believers in this ideology, are quite ruthless—not all of them, sorry. I should say, a small minority of them are very ruthless and they will try to smear you, they will put pressure on your institution, lodge formal complaints, open letters, they will try to infiltrate ethics committees—you name it—to try to stop your research, smear your reputation, get you in trouble, try to get you fired.
Yeah that’s happened multiple times. What I would say, in Britain we have a quite a supportive press and government, right now. The Conservative Government have a very comfortable majority and are unlikely to be unseated for some time. And something I’ve been involved in with the government is this academic freedom bill which puts in place a very robust set of protections against, certainly, job loss.
And the press is very quick to hold universities to account when they try on some of these tactics. So, I think it’s a better environment than in the US, or in much of the US—although I gather at state level things might be improving in some places. But I think, at least legally, there is that backup. But that doesn’t mean it’s not very unsettling, of course, when people are trying to get at your students and get at you’re at colleagues.
And they can put a lot of pressure on you, and they know that. So, they’ll try and do that. Essentially, they are reasonably successful in getting people to eventually leave a position due to that kind of pressure. So, that’s a reality, I think, for anyone who’s descents on this front. They are going to get a lot of this and it’s just a question of whether they’re willing to put up with it, or not.
Carl Raschke: Are you willing to put up with it?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, for now.
Carl Raschke: Okay, somebody was starting to ask a question here.
Joshua Ramos: That was me. I just want to jump in real quick. Yeah, Dr. Kaufmann, I love what you said with the power thing. You know, Foucault has dominated the social sciences since his arrival. He’s the most quoted author within social sciences, from what I’ve heard. So, this is what I appreciate, number one, I’ve been a fan since Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth. I had the opportunity to work with the most brilliant demographer Vegard Skirbekk, and that was a wonderful time.
At any rate, what was so great about that work and with what I appreciate in the continuity with Whiteshifts here—which is another excellent work—is your take on cultural theory. And I see what you’re trying to do, they’re trying to bring it all down to power, but you’re shifting analysis to culture. Which is what you did in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, you talked about values and culture, and you linked the data to that.
And I love this engagement with Daniel Bell. I’m a huge Daniel Bell fan, Glazer, the New York Intellectuals and I don’t know why we’re not talking more about their work. We really need to recover their work. I know you had an opportunity to spend time with Daniel Bell. You said he was still sharp as nails at the at the end of his tenure there.
I just wanted to get, basically your perspective on your methodology, because, I’d say, I aligned myself with your critique and I think the culture is important. I also had the opportunity to study with Olivier Roy at the EUI, and his take on holy ignorance—I read your review of Holy Ignorance—and he had this position about religion and culture parting ways. It was a very unique take and I had a lot of fun working with that theory.
But I know you had some criticisms about that and, I guess, I just want to hear more about your methodology, your theory on culture, since this is, after all, linked to JCRT—The Journal of Culture and Religious Theory. I’m just very intrigued by it, because that’s what I found so novel and intellectually stimulating about your work. So, could you just tell us more about this whole approach to cultural theory, in the line of Daniel bell, which is this whole talk about the media and how that how that translates into popular culture?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, thanks for the kind words, Joshua. Yeah, Bell is one of my heroes, and his writing on modernist culture, really, this idea that that we’ve changed to a culture of anti-traditionalism and that that permeates the arts and it permeates universities and it’s one of the powerful forces in modern life. I think that my view is that because a lot of academics and intellectuals almost take it for granted that this culture exists without having to explain it, they therefore miss how powerful it is in continuing to drive a lot of the changes in society.
So, my view on culture is that it is clearly a set of external practices, but also the subjectivity, the attachment to symbol and myth and memory. And that, I think, has a lot of independent causal force in society, apart from economic self-interest and/or institutional power dynamics. So, I’ve kind of always thought that thought of culture as being an independent variable that is extremely important and neglected.
Of course, there is Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris on culture shift, which I think is great work, even if I don’t 100% agree with everything. There are some writers, who take culture seriously, but somehow in terms of the social theories that are popular it’s generally about power or maybe it’s about the older Marxist material drivers or rational choice or something. Of course, my doctoral supervisor was Anthony D Smith, who is a theorist of nationalism, who came up with the ethno-symbolic theory of nationalism.
He’s a very important writer as well and his argument is always that people try and explain nationalism as just the instrumental interests of elites and/or the functional needs of modern states, but that this, in fact, doesn’t correspond with a lot of the evidence we have on the ground, that people feel passionately and that it’s these cultural attachments and motivations which are often very important in explaining these phenomena. People aren’t just blank slates that can be written on by elites.
You can’t just change Americans into Frenchman in an afternoon by telling them they’re French. So, that sort of idea that the culture has this rootedness in in certain societal institutions and myth/symbol complexes that don’t change necessarily that rapidly over time. So, it’s a sort of Durkheimian social fact analysis. So, that’s my view and I think it’s often underplayed in explaining these elements. Then, also, these cultures have a kind of logic that unfold.
So, it might have been that you were about culturally equality mixed with anti-traditionalism, so you favored a cosmopolitan, open borders Americanism back in 1916 or 1917, but then that philosophy will expand and unfold. So, maybe we haven’t thought about gays or trans or other things, those will somehow become logical extensions of the theory which then has to keep innovating to stay fresh. So, a lot of the kind of new developments I would see as the sort of unfolding of these logics—cultural logics rather than it just being because of, say, social media.
But, of course, university expansion and social media are going to play a big role. So, it’s not to say those things don’t matter or that capitalism doesn’t matter, but it is to say that these ideas have a certain internal logic that unfolds over time.
Joshua Ramos: Yeah, right. Which showed well over how it plays into fertility rates, with the religious carrying over these cultural values for higher fertility rates versus secular values. Okay, that’s great. What’s your take on extending the media thesis of Daniel Bell? You just mentioned social media. I just get the sense that when Daniel Bell wrote that what we had was television and movie theaters but now we have iPhone 24/7.
Do you think this would be, to use the word acceleration, some sort of acceleration of Daniel Bell’s thesis to hyper speed of cultural influence? Because this is just kind of unthinkable, what we have now, from when Daniel Bell wrote his works. What do you think the future looks like in this trickling down of values and playing divide between the populist and the cosmopolitans?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, I don’t think that the rise of the Internet explains the development of left modernism. Left modernism I think would have developed, was already developing, many of the features we see today before the Internet age. You can go back to what Carl was mentioning, Berkeley in the 60s. If you look at black studies. They basically occupy buildings and strike until they get their demands, which include hiring 50 black professors and black studies courses.
So, you have that sort of cultural radicalism going on in the 60s. you had the cancellation of people who were talking about the role of genes in the 70s, Steven Pinker talks about that. You had all kinds of episodes, and there’s one here in the university in British Columbia, where the political science department in 1995 was shut down and there were some outside investigator called into investigate claims of racism and sexism.
But there were no individuals that were accused, it was just the department in general. The whole thing was a performative exercise. It was very similar to what we see now. So, I don’t think the ideas are that different. There are a few innovations like trans and jazz hands and a few other microaggressions. There are some innovations.
So, what does the advent of clickbait journalism and social media do? Well, I do think it does accelerate, yes. And it does mean that more of these, what Cass Sunstein would call outrage entrepreneurs or norm entrepreneurs, are able to flourish and get their message out and feed off each other. So, that does then create more flash mobbing. Cancel culture existed already but it simply speeds it up and allows for scaling up.
So, I think it’s a quantitative expansion, not a qualitative change that occurs with social media. Now, the other thing, too, is that it empowers the anti-woke IDW side which probably would have had a tougher time we’re not for the Internet. So, it’s not that it’s just singular. You have multiple effects. But it is also the case that there’s no doubt that if you look at the so-called “great awokening,” as Matthew Yglesias describes it and as Zach Goldberg writes about, in the data you definitely see from 2014-16 this huge shift to the left in cultural attitudes amongst white Americans who are liberal, especially very liberal.
The timing of the chronology of that is very much in line with the expansion of Twitter and clickbait journalism. So, I think you can definitely say that the fact that New York Times is using those terms, racism and white supremacy—or the Washington Post or all of these outlets—those sort of spikes around 2014, 2015, 2016, there’s no question that Twitter is influencing that and that the new kind of outrage journalism is influencing that. So, yes. My answer is, I think it’s mainly a scale/quantitative effect, rather than really affecting the ideas too much.
Carl Raschke: Thank you. We’ve got a few more minutes but does anybody else have any questions—now’s your time—comments, push backs?
Suhayb Yunus: I had a question. So, first of all, you’re one of the few people out there, that I think if you come to so many of the same conclusions I have and you’re actually out there publishing. So, thanks a lot for doing all of that. So, I heard once in an interview you were doing a podcast, maybe, that you thought that one of the solutions, or a potential solution, or maybe the solution to this kind of cultural resistance to challenging orthodoxy is more government intervention in the Academy.
These are things that that I talk about. I am more interested in issues of gender and questions of the falsifiability of things like patriarchy and then you know even like on cultural levels, like the demand to interpret the Venus of Willendorf as a fertility icon that shows that it was preferred to have obese women when there’s no evidence of any of that at all.
And then the startling—well, I guess it wasn’t that frightening because it’s already in that world—fact that all of these huge names in all the related fields are getting censored and side barred and canceled, one of them being, at least arguably, the most cited scientists in history, Nobel laureates, biophysicist, scientists extraordinaire, having posts removed from social media, lectureships canceled, things like that. A lot of this was not without government acceptance. So, I’m wondering, if government becomes complicit in cancel culture, do you still think that government intervention is the way to go?
Eric Kaufmann: Right. Very good questions and thanks for your comments. I guess I really do, and this is why. I see society as a sort of three level structure, with government, institutions, and citizens. So, the threat to liberty and reason can come from government. If we’re talking about Turkey or China, historically that’s often been the case. But it can also come from those elite institutions, and I think that’s the situation we find ourselves in in the West.
It’s large corporations and universities and publishing houses and various other elite institutions that are engaging in suppression of free expression. So, the question then is how, do you change that? Now, of course—yes—long term, we have to change the culture and move back to what Greg Lukianoff would call free speech culture that supports a set of laws and institutions that are open to dissent.
But the long run, could be very long, and I think that, in a democracy, the government, which is based on a process of election and scrutiny, is much more open and transparent and open to criticism than institutions are, who operate behind closed doors. And that, in a situation where you have illiberalism coming out of the middle layer you do need the government to actually step in, to actually reform to regulate.
So, what I should say is, regulate in accordance with the law, so that they are upholding law as it has been developed through precedent and through common law. And so, for example, if universities are violating academic’s rights to freedom of expression, which they do all the time, then, to my mind, it is absolutely right that governments have a role to step in and prevent them from doing that now. This is for state run publicly funded universities.
Private universities are different. If they’re not in receipt of government funds, then they can do what they like, and they can be religious, they can be woke, they can be whatever they want. But, I think for the state funded sector there’s absolutely a role for government to essentially regulate universities to ensure that they uphold the law on academic freedom. And essentially the universities have been interpreting the law, the way they see fit, to prioritize other goals such as racial equality, group equality, such as the university’s reputation, over the rights of academics, to have their freedom and justifying that.
Usually don’t even have to justify it legally, they just get away with it, because nobody challenges them. You can’t have people suing, though, because it is so costly and time consuming. If you rely on a reactive methodology like lawsuits, I don’t think it’s ever going to work because the silencing engine and the chilling effects, which is the heart of the problem here, will continue. Only if you have proactive governments enforcing that law will some of that chilling lift and that’s one of the reasons I’m in favor of that.
With regard to tech, I should say that the reason I’m in favor of regulation on the tech side is because these are natural monopolies and common carriers and therefore should fall, in my view, under anti-trust regulations. I think it’s justifiable to regulate them and what I would like to see is, simply, the algorithms made public, and, if there is political bias or other kinds of bias going on in those algorithms, that that’s sort of where you would regulate.
I’m also in favor of adding political creed to protected characteristics, because, I think, if you essentially allow political discrimination in firing and hiring and so on, I think this is also something I’m opposed to. I think it’s a legitimate, in a civil rights framework, to have that. Now, of course, you could get a government that is all in on speech suppression, but I think that’s going to be open, people are going to see that in the press, and they can vote on that.
They can’t vote on universities’ policies and tech companies’ policies. And, I also think that this authoritarianism is emergent out of institutions. Governments don’t have to do anything. Let us say, a left modernist government doesn’t actually have to do anything, they just allow their shock troops in the institutions to carry these policies forward. So, even if they simply stand aside—that’s all they need to do. It’s almost all upside for those who would want to regulate these institutions, and, in my view, there is almost no downside now of course.
If we get very intrusive hate speech laws, where you’re throwing people in jail, I mean that’s a problem. But then, that problem would arise anyway, and I think that’s where the electorate will be apprised of it, and they can say no, we don’t want this policy and we’re going to vote against you, because you’re going to bring in these new kinds of policies.
Suhayb Yunus: What if the electorate wants those policies, because I think that might be kind of something that we’re seeing?
Eric Kaufmann: Well, what I talk about with the government regulation is that it is with the grain of existing constitutional law, if you like, the precedents of common law, that have developed over decades and decades. Really, what I’m in favor of is proactive application of the law as it has developed. So, now, if you had a government that violated people’s individual rights. Which I think is going to happen in Canada, by the way—well, may happen.
So, the government pushes in these very nebulous hate speech laws—same in Scotland, by the way—then they should be challenged in the courts and the courts should look at, in the Canadian case the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and say that this is inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedom. So, I do think that body of classical liberal precedent, that’s built up over time in liberal societies, can be a bulwark.
But, of course—yes—a determine government, who managed to get their activist judges in, who may decide that saying trans women aren’t women is hate speech, and that that’s justified. If you get those people into the judiciary, they can render those rulings. But, of course, they’ll then be out of step with counterparts in other countries. The hope is that the judicial would be the bulwark against the state if it really went overboard. Whether that’s doable, I don’t know.