David Goodhart and useful idiocy

Last week I was a guest at the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education, which featured David Goodhart expounding on the themes from his book ‘The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics’ (a text that host Sir Anthony Seldon called something like ‘the most important work of political thinking this decade’). I’d not seen Goodhart talk in person before, but his thesis — that immigration and multiculturalism lies behind the collapse in social trust, community identity and faith in institutions — was no more convincing than it is in print. In no particular order, a couple of observations:

1) There’s an incredible appetite for this kind of label-ready, zeitgeist parsing, social psychology. If something has even the glimmer of rendering the chaos around us intelligible, people will offer it a hearing, almost irrespective of its implications. In this case this meant the spectacle of an audience of educators and academics adopting and playing with the categories Goodhart offered them like children presented with a new toy. Categories that happen to be deeply chilling— dividing people into ‘somewheres’ and ‘nowheres’ (not even ‘people from nowhere’, but ‘nowheres’) or workers into the weirdly Platonic ‘heads’, ‘hearts’ and ‘hands’. A good rule of thumb I am learning far too slowly, is that any bulwark you suppose there is to prevent the spread of far right ideas is illusory. The likes of Goodhart thrive in an environment with presumptions of decency, sincerity, and the belief that the free exchange of ideas will expose evil. None of these are useful norms any more — in part because this iteration of the far right has cut its teeth in the bearpit of online discource, and in part because things are never the same the second time around. A more contemporary and more useful rule of thumb is this. Does this person, or their ideas, make it easier for the state to lock children in cages? If the answer to this is yes, then they do not deserve the benefit of your doubt.

2) There’s an incredibly jarring clash between the class-defender branding that the likes of Goodhart cultivate, and the analysis they proffer. There’s a calculated effort to use the language (and social markers) of class, but this exists alongside a completely economically evacuated account of both the causes and nature of the problems with which Goodhart claims to be concerned. In essence, the shtick runs like this — pointing to the broadly true observation that there has been a collapse in measurements of social trust, community, belonging and faith in institutions in developed nations over the last 30 years. And then also pointing to the changes in immigration, and ethnic/demographic makeup that (most) of these countries have undergone in this period, before gesturing towards some sort of connection via dogwhistles such as ‘homogeneity’. There is a lot to take issue with here, but put that aside for a moment and ask only this: How would such ethnic/demographic changes compare to the economic changes we’ve seen in the same countries over the past 30 years? Put another way, how is it possible to ask questions about social trust, community, and faith in institutions without referencing any of the following:

a. The deliberate dismantling of a range of industries central to community life and identity

b. The deliberate dismantling of literal institutions of social solidarity, most obviously labour unions

c. The deliberate flexiblisation of labour markets to replace secure, settled jobs with temporary, part time, geographically variable work

d. The deliberate reduction in social security rendering ‘traditional’, single income households unsustainable

e. The deliberate evacuation and enclosure of public spaces, and the withdrawal of funding for community groups and projects

f. The deliberate propagation of an economic and social model which recodes citizens as competitors, resources and self-interested maximisers from education upwards.

g. The deliberate adoption of an economic model which ensures that the benefits of economic growth flow almost entirely to holders of capital, and which severs the link between household contribution and economic reward.

The question for the likes of Goodhart, is if their privileging of immigration and multiculturalism in the decline narrative is not simply a tactical (or sincerely felt) xenophobia — as Goodhart claims it is not — then what reason is there to have a conversation about these demographic trends, without a primary focus on the world historical economic forces that have preceded, dominated and arguably structured the very kinds of changes that concern him. Aside from any of the nuances of their analysis, what value is there in even starting a discussion that is so truncated from the off?

There’s an incredibly banal structural explanation for both the existence and success of Goodhart’s ‘Blue Labour’ genre of writing. It relocates the causes of real social hardship and pain away from sites of major social and economic power (business, classes, neoliberal institutions) and onto those that are both more readily visible, and more lacking in the ability to defend themselves (immigrant and ethnically diverse communities). The bigger point is this. If Goodhart did not exist, it would be necessary for structures of economic power to invent him. Whether or not he believes he is correct, this should bother him. It does not seem to.