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Identity Mania

· 7 min read
Identity Mania
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A review of The Identity Myth by David Swift. Constable, 320 pages (June 2022).

In recent decades, anxieties afflicting Western democracies have arisen from new beliefs and conflicts about how citizens relate to each other—their relative status in society, notions of mutual respect, and the patterns that the past has imposed upon their thoughts and actions. What had seemed to be settled is now unsettled as citizens search for a new identity or try to adjust the identity they believe they have. Quarrels over race, gender, class, and equality have produced a social crisis and a fraying of common values, in which activities and opinions formerly accepted as part of collective existence have become bitterly contested. As a result, identity coated with resentment is now among the most potent of political forces.

In his forthcoming book, The Identity Myth, David Swift writes with good intentions rather than flair. His argument can be repetitious, and at times Swift is too keen to protect his leftist positions, unnecessarily weakening criticisms of political allies with apologetic caveats. Nevertheless, he has a sharp eye for the white guilt and self-abasement that has flourished during the identitarian era, and instances a tweet by Rosanna Arquette by way of illustration: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged,” cried the Hollywood actor in August 2019. “It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” Never knowingly over-shamed, the British writer Laurie Penny responded to Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 by declaring:

This kind of self-flagellation, Swift points out, is chiefly performative and does nothing to advance progressives’ ostensible goals or benefit the interests of the constituencies they claim to represent, except, perhaps, to give them a cynical laugh. Even so, many middle-class whites are evidently mortified by their comfortable lives and the educational and professional advantages they have been fortunate enough to enjoy. So, they have sought to present themselves as un-privileged in some way. Some have adopted exotic and supposedly “marginalised” new identities (in 2015, Penny announced that she is “genderqueer” and “pansexual”), while others have fictionalised a past of deprivation and struggle, like Mr Bounderby in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Some have even assumed false racial identities.

Never has an under-privileged background been so eagerly coveted. The middle classes no longer seek to distinguish themselves in property, taste, and manners from the lower social orders. Instead, they exalt the less fortunate while socially abasing themselves. This trend began before the new identity mania struck, but for many, especially the young, it has now been wholly inverted, and an interesting political realignment has emerged. The more the British Left has alienated working- and lower-middle-class members and representatives by refocussing its attention on matters of race and gender, the more the white working class has been accorded a sainted space in the speeches and declarations of the Right.

Swift is alive to the contingency of class labels and the assumptions those labels carry in the minds of those who once took working-class support for granted:

People are aware of attempts by academics, journalists, politicians and others to pigeonhole them, and they don’t like it. In October 1968, one of the Wallsend shipyard workers, Ronnie Morris, told researchers that he was on to them—“You’re trying to put us all together and look at us as one group, aren’t you? But we’ve got different opinions. There’s nothing in common with us at all” … Bob, from Darlington, said something similar: “Being working class isn’t a prison. It doesn’t define me or how I think.”

Those who can justifiably claim working-class status have not just abandoned membership of the leftist parties, they have withheld electoral support for them as well. This trend is even more apparent in countries like the US, France, and Italy than it is in the UK. Working-class support for the British Labour Party has not (yet) been reduced to single figures as it has for the French Socialists. But as the demolition of the Red Wall by the Blue Tories at the last General Election showed, such support can be brittle.

Some of those on the Left who wish to fill an emptying space where the industrial working class used to be have taken to insisting that today’s university students are the new proletariat. It is true that today’s students, especially in the humanities, often pursue degrees that offer little hope of securing a job in that discipline. But, as Swift points out, they are nothing like a proletariat, since the credentials they acquire leave them “best placed to benefit from the likely economy of the 21st century.” He spends too long drumming this obvious point home, but it’s a reasonable one even so, especially when we consider that students are disproportionately drawn from the middle class, and can depend on their parents for indoor relief.

The problem is that, for an increasingly bourgeoisified Left, authentic working-class identity has become a source of discomfort. This includes Swift, who seems to blame working-class bigotry on the desertion of left-wing positions. His queasiness is palpable as he tries to exculpate them and also hold them responsible for their own views and voting record. This leads to a tortured paragraph in which working class voters are described as “kind, selfless and generous” while also held to be guilty of a “sort of common sense bigotry.” And while “we should not condemn these people any more than we would the mediaeval gawpers at ritual burnings or executions,” it is “intellectually dishonest and counterproductive to pro-immigration arguments to play down the extent of working class racism.” (Swift does, however, acknowledge that Brexit had little to do with atavistic “neo-imperial fantasies.”)

But this ascription of racism to the working class is simple-minded. Racism persists, in mild and virulent forms, in every social class, but the extent and character of that racism is not properly examined. Nor will he acknowledge that most of the immigrants who arrived in the UK during the large waves of the 1980s and ’90s sought working-class jobs, thereby increasing competition for work, wages, and use of public services. This was when living standards for the lower paid were just starting to fall or stagnate, and inequalities of income were growing between secure middle-class employment and jobs in the service, construction, and manufacturing sectors.

The putative “racism” of British workers in the past decade or two has most often been directed at other whites—Central Europeans, especially Poles. With considerable efficiency, these migrants established UK companies, particularly in construction and domestic repairs, which nearly always use East European labour and undercut native wages. For the most part, the intention is to save enough money so they can return home and live in greater comfort than they enjoyed when they left it. They are therefore not especially interested in integrating into British society, unlike earlier immigrants of colour and their descendants, who have now been British citizens for several generations. There is no “blame” due to men and women who wish to better themselves by legally living and working in the UK. But the way in which they relate to British society is not always conducive to easy social relations.

Thus, in cities where deindustrialisation has been brutal in the past three decades, people tend to cling more aggressively to their working-class or regional identities as a kind of angry protection against cultural displacement. That can, in turn, lead to a balkanisation of different “tribes,” unable or unwilling to mix. Swift has grasped the hypocrisies of present identitarianism, strongest on parts of the Left. He is not, however, so lucid on the cultural and economic gulf that has opened up between the majority on low or getting-by incomes, and those doing well, or obscenely better. Still, for the most part, mass immigration has not remained a large cause of social disruption. Compared to other European countries, Britain is welcoming to immigrants and taboos against mixed marriages remain only in pockets.

The problem is worse in America, where the topic of racism is considerably more toxic. In her 2018 book, Political Tribes, legal scholar Amy Chua argues that the embattled working class now feels assailed by a Left which considers them, in the words of Hilary Clinton’s unguarded remark, to be “deplorables.” “It is indisputable,” Chua writes, “that whites, specifically white male Protestants, dominated America for most of its history, and that this legacy persists.” But even as white domination became less oppressive, “the Left has upped the ante. … [F]or much of the Left today, anyone who speaks of group blindness (that is, that all Americans, whatever their ethnicity, are equal) is on the other side, indifferent to or even guilty of oppression.”

The idea at the heart of the anti-racist strategies proposed by the activist Left since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 is a terrible one. Stripped down, it is that whites are racist, and that white men are most racist of all. Whites’ history, especially their trade and exploitation of black Africans, bears past witness to this racism. Their continuing ascendancy in societies where black citizens remain disadvantaged confirms its present malignity. The methods for confronting this apparent blight, recommended in popular books by activists like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, insist on the “systemic” nature of racism. Whites, we are told, cannot in good faith claim to be anti-racist unless they are actively and constantly concerned with their own and others’ racism, and accept that this requires persistent “relative self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

This Anglo-American self-humiliation, Swift notes, is most evident in the lamentations of how dreadful we were to the world when empire was at its height, and how much we want to demonstrate our remorse and atonement. He quotes the mercurial Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s description of this impulse as a “politically correct process of self-blame which is the inverted form of clinging to one’s superiority: the idea that natural disasters and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes.”

This can go to extraordinary lengths, especially among the highly educated. Swift quotes an Oxford academic, Emily Cousens, who fretted: “If my university is the first to develop the [COVID-19] vaccine, I’m worried that it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.” Of all the bizarre anxieties for an Oxford scholar to confess, this takes some beating. The British can be world-class masochists, and, while Swift’s book is uneven, it makes an important contribution to bursting the bubbles of our own self-serving despair.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd was the FT’s Moscow correspondent from 1991–95. He is co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and his forthcoming book is about the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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