Eric Kaufmann is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of many books including the essential reading ‘Whiteshift’, a profoundly important study of migration’s growing impact on national and ethnic identity, and at the ballot box – not least in generating a schism between those who want to speed up this process of change and those who want to slow it down. He is now working on a similarly well-evidenced book about woke and what he calls its ‘cultural socialism’. Here he speaks with SDPTalks about his thoughts on the future of immigration, multi-culturalism and the trials of academia.
SDPTALK: Perhaps you could start Eric by outlining the gist of ‘Whiteshift’.
EK: Basically the argument is that essentially the decline of ethnic majorities in western countries is what underlies the populist vote rise ultimately. The ethnic change of the majority becoming the minority is going to be reached roughly mid-century in the US, New Zealand and by the end of the century in western European countries and that will frame the politics [such that] the old economic left/right will be reduced in its importance for partisanship and political competition. And then the question of where we see the ethnic majorities going and that involves assimilation and increasingly mixed, poly-genetic populations that I argue will gravitate to the myths, symbols and narratives of the existing majority groups. That’s the very broad argument.
SDPTALK: How does this discussion deal with the inevitable charge of racism, which tends to come up whatever the topic of immigration is raised?
EK: Ultimately this is about a country’s ethnic composition and not wanting that to shift as quickly [as it might], and the left and even some liberals disingenuously will try to call that racism. But there’s an important distinction between an attachment to and a dislike of backed very clearly by the psychological literature – that if a white person feels warmly towards white people it doesn’t mean they feel cooler to black people, for example. The left will elide that attachment to and dislike of though it’s clear that’s not the case. And this is about attachment to in the most part. To talk about racism is appropriate if you’re talking about race purity or an ethno-state or second-class citizenship and so on and then the charge would be fair. But this is about saying there are people who want things to be conserved and not change quickly. Again the left frames that as ‘if you want this, then you’re racist’. The other thing is that there’s an important distinction between the way you treat your citizens inside your country and who you select for membership. If the Catholic Church only accepts Catholics does that make it bigoted? Philosophically the the principle of free association – and the right to disaffiliate – is accepted. So in terms of immigrant selection that’s not the same thing as treating citizens within your country differently on the basis of some characteristic. Again, saying that you want to maintain what I call the ethno-traditional [the ethnic majority’s historic culture etc] – which a lot of minorities support because it’s what they know and have grown up with – is different to saying you have to be white to be British, which again I think would fall under the definition of racism. But these are subtle things that are hard to have a conversation about without someone shrieking at you.
SDPTALK: The immigration debate often throws up concerns about its impact on jobs, services and so on. Is this a smokescreen that stops us saying what the real issue is?
EK: Yes there’s this deflection towards these economic dimensions that aren’t properly correlated. Obviously logically if the problem is pressure on public services the part accounted for by immigrants is going to be a smaller problem than the total pressure. We develop our views on immigration for cultural or psychological reasons and then interpret that as a problem – the pressure on public services – through that lens. But that pressure isn’t the real driver of restrictionist sentiment. All the literature suggests that whether you’ve just lost your job, rich or poor, whatever your class, none of this really shapes your views on immigration. The deeper psychological reasons are vastly more important.
SDPTALK: The recent Home Office decision to offshore illegal immigrants for processing in Rwanda has not been without controversy. In ‘Whiteshift’ you outline your own proposal for effective refugee centres.
EK: The idea is that there needs to be a clear distinction between refuge and safety on the one hand and permanent settlement on the other. Right now the two are sandwiched together such that if you want to take a refugee you have them for life. And there’s no real capacity for people to go home if a conflict ends, for example. And all this given there’s no real way to adjudicate on whether someone is a genuine or fake refugee. Of course the legal apparatus has been skewed by activism more or less towards not deporting anybody too. I think that leads to countries rejecting genuine refugees. My preferred option is to have more or less enclosed detention centres within western and other countries closer to the conflict, where people are free to come and go as they want, and there’s a system of revenue sharing to fund the camps. And if people feel it’s safe to go back [home] that’s their decision. It’s not up to some judicial office. So you’re offering safety, health, education and so on, but not the prospect of permanent settlement. Offshoring the issue as we have it now is effectively doing the same thing but in ways more problematic, handled as it is by countries that don’t have the best records. I understand people coming [to western countries] for more opportunistic reasons but I believe in incentivisation and if it’s possible to get in just by getting a toe on shore you’re only going to get more and more people until, as in Australia, it blows up into a political situation.
SDPTALK: There’s one particular line in ‘Whiteshift’ that stood out to me and that’s “expressing racism is more acceptable than expressing racial self-interest”. Could you expand on that?
EK: Yeah, so the point there is that because people aren’t more or less allowed to say they’re discomforted by the pace of change affecting the race they’re attached to, to the mix of groups that they knew, instead of being able to express that as a legitimate ethnic attachment, these ethno-traditional concerns have to be sublimated into other forms of expression – [perhaps] one stance is to become very concerned about rights and therefore be anti-Muslim ‘because Muslims are bad for toleration’. A much healthier conversation I think is not to stigmatise an out group but to be able to express being attached to our own group. To some degree the stigmatisation comes from not being able to have that conversation.
SDPTALK: Is that why, in seems, it’s not considered OK for white majorities to laud their own culture while minorities are encouraged to do so?
EK: That’s what I call asymmetric multi-culturalism and dates to the 1910s even, and the cultural left being in revolt against their own culture and therefore valuing minority cultures – not wanting them to assimilate but simultaneously wanting their own culture to be superseded by cosmopolitanism. The [early modernist] critique made was that the majority culture was boring and not very expressive while the minority culture was exotic, and later, from the 60s on, the leftist critique was that it was about oppression. So expressing a majority or white identity came to be seen as racist or taboo. Of course because the relative homogeneity of most countries prior to the 60s explicit ethnic majority identity wasn’t necessary in some ways. If you said you were, say, French or British the ethic and the civic aspect of identity were so integrated you didn’t know you were expressing ethnicity. That changed with the identification of minorities.
SDPTALK: Is the idea of multiculturalism over now?
EK: It may have gone in terms of electoral winnability but it’s still pretty much a dominant paradigm in academia. That hasn’t receded [with its failures] so much as academics moving the goal-posts and saying ‘ah well ,that’s not real multi-culturalism..’. But I think we’ve seen that if [a way of thinking like multi-culturalism] isn’t seen as a vote-winner, parties quickly move away from it, as Labour did [with multi-culturalism]. And now I think some of the woke stuff may quickly become toxic for Labour and the Democrats in the US. The Republicans are much more courageous taking this on and will force the Democrats on the defensive, whereas the Tories are chicken and so the issues will be kept off the agenda and the left will continue to get away with these things and Labour won’t have to address them and so won’t pay a penalty for backing [some of these ideas]. But Democrats have already had to find some realism and back away from the likes of ‘defund the police’. Yet none of this is to say that academia will change. It’s going to take repeated drubbing, repeated Trump-like victories, to bring change that might percolate down into intellectual culture.
SDPTALK: Do you ever feel marginalised in academia for your work on these often touchy topics?
EK: Oh yeah I’ve been an absolute pariah amongst 50% of the social sciences people who are aware of what I’ve written. It’s not a tolerant environment. That said, there are more shades of opinion in academia than might be apparent from the outside and the liberal tradition is aware that there’s a problem with campus culture and don’t really like it – they are a bit embarrassed by the cancellations and other stuff that’s happening – though it’s more oriented towards the right wing as the main threat. But certainly anything around the validity of white identity, they’d all be signed up to the taboo on those things. On the moderate stuff they’re more free speechy, but much less attracted to defending things like the idea of Britain not being racist. There’s not much collegiality [in my place of work] – and that’s a good thing. But there’s still that awkwardness that people know that other people are after you, cancel campaigns, internal investigations and so on, so there’s definitely pressure and attempts to censor. It’s all part and parcel of being an academic that takes the kind of stance that I do.