Kenan Malik’s book, The Meaning of Race (1996), left quite an impression on me when it came out. I was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee studying the intersections of class, race, and punishment, and my professor Asafa Jalata assigned the book, hot off the press, in his seminar on the political economy of racism. Upon my initial reading of The Meaning of Race, enveloped in the postmodern culture of the late-1990s university, and laboring under the spell of critical race theory, yet still viewing myself as a humanist and a Marxist, I was simultaneously suspicious of and intrigued by Malik’s universalist and individualist assumptions, which one could easily see informed his analysis. Returning to the book after leaving graduate school, I realized what had so intrigued me: Malik was calling on readers to shift their suspicion from the rightness of reason to a recognition of postmodernism as an anti-humanist assault on modernity, a reaction to the Enlightenment. I came to see identity politics as the atavistic product of the postmodernist call to seek refuge in faith-belief, to recultivate the relativistic and antagonistic sensibilities of religious-style cognition and division – to, in other words, embrace group-based truths (fictions/antagonisms) at the expense of materialism and human rights.
Malik has a more recent book, Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, published in 2008. I was unaware of this book before only yesterday as I had not explored the body of Malik’s work, having felt that the value of The Meaning of Race was made sufficiently obvious to me in the context of my new-found antitheism in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
However, trying to understand the recent controversy over transgenderism led me down a string of YouTube videos to an interview Malik did in 2008 with Kerry Howley, then editor at Reason magazine. The interview was published on April 5, 2018, by Bloggingheads (it is posted at the end of this essay) and its relationship to the initial interest is (over quite a temporal and relational distance) is thanks to libertarian Marxist thinking that informs intellectuals associated with the British publication Spiked, which grew out of Living Marxism, which has in back of it the long shadow of the Revolutionary Communist Party and the personality of Frank Furedi (whom I will blog about in the near future). I digress.
Malik’s frame in Strange Fruit is, as with his The Meaning of Race, pro-Enlightenment: universalist, individualist, pro-free speech, and secularist. He usefully distinguishes for Howley and listeners the mainstream enlightenment (Kant, Locke, Hume) from the radical enlightenment (Leibnitz, Condorcet), while at the same time emphasizing that liberalism and Marxist have in common a universalist outlook and a commitment to equality (albeit, I should add, differently articulated in history and thought). Against these commitments, conservatism, which is anti-universalist, and seeking a return to faith, stands as the counter-enlightenment, an antithesis expressed as the romantic.
But things have become inverted, Malik argues. At the start, the left was universalist and materialist, celebrating the emancipation of the individual from the parochial, while the right was particularist and collectivistic, obsessed with the transcendent. Today’s left has abandoned universalism for ethnic particularism and multiculturalism, while the right has embraced a distorted universalism expressed in faith of the free market, manifest in doctrine of neoclassical economics. This is not exactly correct. As I have blogged about, the left has embraced this distorted universalism, as well. Multiculturalism is an expression of the neoliberal logic of global capitalism, where the culture industry divides and subdivides the population and celebrates diversity for the purposes of niche market creation and atomizing the population while manufacturing a commitment to equality. But Malik is right that the consciousness expressed by the modern left is very much a religious-like consciousness, where Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities are assumed to be the reality in which individuals are necessarily disappeared. And, overall, Malik’s understanding of racism and race is the state-of-the-art, recognizing human variation and its association with ancestry without reifying the social construct of race as a biological reality.
In her interview of Malik, Howley (currently professor at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program), asks a fine question about the history of nation-states, about how, before the great wars, the empires were polyglots, but then, after the wars, broke up into ethnonationalist units that constructed their own histories (various national myths) to justify their political-juridical integrity. Malik responds that nationalism is about overcoming the parochial aspects of any territory by instilling the universalist impulse. Malik contrasts this with the problem of the imposition of one particularism on other particularisms. However, he doesn’t formulate this argument very well, and pivots off of a cliché. I have blogged about this extensively (you can read for example here: Secularism, Nationalism, and Nativism). My argument about the modern nation-states emancipating the individual from religion and tribal identity operates with a firm distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism. But Malik buys into Howley’s frame (and I suspect I know from where it came, which I will discuss in a moment) and turns to third world nationalist movements for a contrast, explaining that many of these were progressive. This assumption is a holdover from the sentiment that resistance to western imperialism was generally progressive (Malik is a former Trotskyist), a claim disproved by evidence, which is not to say that imperialism was desirable, just that third world nationalists movements weren’t, either.
What Malik appears to be doing here is pitching a cultural-historical political movement that contrasts with European nationalism. I am not impressed with this argument, either, and it is probably the reason why his views on immigration – he is a supporter of open borders or free migration – clash with his argument against multiculturalism. Presumably he is not open borders in the same way that economic libertarians are. The paradox tripping him up, I think, is that balkanization is occurring amid globalization and cosmopolitanism, something Jalata pointed out in his seminar, while the interstate system in the interregnum between mass migration periods was far more universalist in outlook – and the incubator for socialist transformation. This is the Marxist outlook and, although Malik remains something of a Marxist, I don’t believe he has considered deeply enough the arguments Marx makes in “On the Jewish Question” and (with Engels) The Communist Manifesto. Thus anti-imperialist nationalist movements are excused for their ethnic commitments, while the civil nationalism of Europe is conflated with the ethnonationalist tendency Malik rightly abhors. This rather simplistic view of the nation-states, however, does help us understand Malik’s support for open borders.
At the time of the release of Strange Fruit, John Gray, political philosopher and former School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science, went after Malik in an essay simply titled “Strange Fruit, by Kenan Malik,” published in The Independent. The essay appears roughly four months before Malik’s discussion with Howley and it appears to provide the inspiration for her question (she had prepared her interview well). Gray begins his review by noting novelist Joseph Roth’s lament in one of his stories of the spread of nationalism across the European continent, a movement Roth sees as a degradation of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Never mind that multinational presupposes the nation in the ethnic sense that horrifies Roth and that the genocide of the Armenian people – Christians exterminated at the hands of Muslims – occurs in the context of the Ottoman Empire. Or that it was that particular genocide that formed the basis of Raphael Lemkin’s definition.) “If the ramshackle Habsburg monarchy collapsed,” writes Gray, Roth “feared the result would be xenophobia and ethnic mass murder.” Gray notes that, by the time Roth’s story appeared in the mid-1930s, this had happened and it was only to get worse. Gray then wonders: “Was this just a detour in the onward march to a brave new world where everyone will be treated equally? Or did it – as Roth suspected – reveal a darker side of modernity?” Gray then turns to Malik, describing him as a “pious disciple of the Enlightenment” who “cannot tolerate the thought that some of the last century’s worst atrocities were by-products of modern Enlightenment thinking.”
Gray notes, as do I, that “[n]ationalism is a modern doctrine linked with liberal ideas of self-government.” However, Gray uses this association to argue that liberalism is responsible for the horrors of ethnonationalism in Europe during World War II. Despite its counter-Enlightenment sensibilities and mobilization of Christian anti-Semitism, Gray argues, Nazism “was able to make use of a tradition of ‘scientific racism’ that belongs squarely within the Enlightenment.” Gray must be careful here since he knows that counter-Enlightenment work and Christian anti-Semitism suggest a deviation from the the liberalism that Malik defends. But he wants to make Hitler’s racial theories appear as a result of the Enlightenment (this is Malik’s focus in The Meaning of Race), thus conflating liberalism and illiberalism. The argument aligns with Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, a work financed by The Discovery Institute and supplemented with the webpage, DarwinToHitler.com. What is missing in Gray’s argument is that racial science was a perversion of evolutionary science by reactionaries who sought to use naturalistic arguments to rationalize and justify political ideology, something that Gray himself does in his indictment of humanity as inherently limited by its own nature (more on that in a moment).
Gray defends his thesis by noting that “belief in science and progress is part of the Enlightenment creed.” Indeed. “So why does Malik resist the conclusion that these racists were, despite the ersatz character of their so-called science, Enlightenment thinkers?” he wonders. Doesn’t the use of the adjective “ersatz” answer Gray’s own question? Scientific racism is neither scientific nor progressive (although it is part of progressivism, which isn’t very progressive). Gray’s own answer – “Malik is not greatly interested in the history of ideas” – is not a very good or useful one (it doesn’t help that it’s incorrect). Nor does noting Malik’s “overriding concern . . . with current controversies about multiculturalism and relativism” help. To be sure, “Malik is horrified by the way liberal opinion has embraced cultural difference.” And Gray agrees: “He has a point. Multiculturalism – the notion that society and public policies should be organized around cultural groups with different histories and identities – was a thoroughly silly idea.” Moreover, Gray notes but does not take on Malik’s contention “that liberal anti-racists are as guilty of elevating race into the center of politics as reactionary racial scientists.” To quote Malik: “Out of the withered seeds of racial science have flowered the politics of identity.” Gray gives Malik half-credit for this observation before asserting: “Racism and the political assertion of cultural differences are features of the modern era.” True, but that doesn’t establish the validity of Gray argument. Gray is an obscurantist in the style of David Berlinski.
I did not want this entry to be about Gray primarily, but his pessimism provides a nice contrast to Malik’s optimism. It also demonstrates how important it is to take a historical view of things. So let’s continue. “In earlier times wars were fought over religion and resources, as they are today,” Gray writes. “With the rise of doctrines of national self-determination, they began to be fought on culture and identity.” But from where then do doctrines of national self-determination come?
I have written quite a bit on this and I have an essay under construction that explores the matter even further, but it will suffice to say here that, for a philosopher interested in the history of ideas, Gray is surprisingly ignorant of the origins of liberalism (yes, I know that in 1986 he wrote a book called Liberalism). Here’s my take: Liberalism is a view that emerges from the context generated by capitalism, a dynamic system that creates a secular space for its own operation that displaces religion by commoditizing that space. The outlines of capitalism are emergent around 800 years ago (see the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and Janet Abu-Lugod, among others). By the long century (1450-1620) the system had consolidated in Europe sparking by a string of bourgeois revolutions out of which emerged the modern nation-state (which became the norm worldwide in the post-war period).
As I have already noted, it is in the context of the nation-state that the individual is emancipated from the parochial, moving from subject (under absolutism) to citizen (in the republic). The modern concept of individualism, which liberalism philosophically captures, is thus a result of an emergent universalist outlook over against particularism, which does owe something to rational Protestantism, but also to the Enlightenment, and to science, which challenges faith-belief. However, Protestantism is itself a result of capitalist progress, as Catholicism proved to be fetters on the system’s further development, as well as a barrier to secularism. And science adjusts consciousness to the reality of the material world in which it emerges, all the more clearly when dialectical. The nation-state enables this by protecting secular spaces, even while maintaining a state church, and this is thanks to the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie. Michael Tigar 1978 Law and the Rise of Capitalism explores an interesting detail in this development. At first, the bourgeoisie attempted to renovate the law in order to include themselves among the privileged classes (the nobility), but, as the feudal juridical-legal structure proved to be fetters on further development of the system, the bourgeoisie became a revolutionary force. The law began to express the notion of the individual as it was adapted to enable the commodity market, a mentality that progressively colonized the spaces of human experience.
In light of this history, Gray conclusion to his review seems faulty: “When Roth mourned the demise of the Habsburgs, communists and liberals ridiculed his attachment to a pre-modern imperial structure. Yet it was Roth, not the progressive thinkers of the day, who foresaw the horrors that would come from its collapse. There is a lesson here, but it is not one that Malik – for whom progress and modernity are articles of secular faith – can be expected to learn.” Then what does explain the twentieth century? The crisis of world capitalism and the failure of socialism in the West, but that is a subject for another essay.
To understand why Gray thinks these things, it is useful to understand what Gray thinks about things generally. Unlike Malik, who has been consistent in his arguments since the start, Gray’s political journey took him from the Labour left in the 1960s-70s to the New Right in the latter 1970s to New Labour by the 1990s. Today, he is a deep green, anti-humanist, and a professional pessimist. He blames capitalist globalization on the Enlightenment (see his 1998 False Dawn), dismisses humanism and morality as so much religious illusion, and depicts humanity as a plague (see his 2007 Straw Dogs). He is particularly harsh on the meliorist tendency of liberal thought, condemning the liberal notion that humans are unlimited by nature (a straw man) and can improve their situation through the application of science and technology (which they do continually). Gray dismisses the ethic of progress as a secular teleology derived from (a project or sublimation of, if you will) Christian eschatology and the Christian view of human beings as autonomous and separate from the natural world. The liberal impulse is more than utopian, in Gray’s estimation; it is destructive. Gray work is in some respects similar, albeit in a much less sophisticated form, to Zygmunt Bauman’s thesis that genocidal racism – not just the technological ability to carry out large-scale genocide – is the result of tendencies that inhere in modernity (Bauman’s work is derived from Theodor Adorno’s administered society concept and Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil argument, both of which are indebted to Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). Here scientific racism emerges from the rationalist operation of bureaucratic classification.
Let me conclude this entry by bringing it back to the immigration question, since that matter is raised in Malik’s interview with Howley and the tension between immigration and multiculturalism is its stickiest point. Malik claims he is an assimilationist, but assimilate to what? He is not clear at all on this point. Malik says he is a supporter of the French republican assimilationist tradition, but this doesn’t address the question. And in any case, it would seem that this tradition has proven woefully inadequate in protecting French society from the degradation of Islam, which Malik, as a secularist, must also abhor (you would think). He juxtaposes the fear of culture change among the British, American, and French for their resistance to open borders – which assumes a desire for an unchanging culture – to the change immigrants bring as part of the normal way cultures evolve. He reveals his disregard for the integrity of cultural tradition by failing to lament, much to Howley’s distress, the loss of languages. You can see why some have accused the RCP crowd of smuggling rightwing libertarian notions into leftwing discourse. I think the charge is a bit overblown, but there is something there that doesn’t quite sit right with me. I suppose that’s why I am drawn a bit more to the arguments of Douglas Murray and Bruce Bauer on this matter.
We don’t want any part of assimilating Islam to the West. Rather we would like to assimilate individuals to western secularism. But how do you resist the Islamization of societies with governments promoting multiculturalism without controlling immigration? Ideologies come in the bodies of people, some of whom don’t want to assimilate but wish live their lives apart from the decadent relations of their hosts. If liberty means allowing people to hold ideologies destructive to liberal secular societies, which in principle it must, then those whose ideologies are openly antagonistic to liberty should be allowed in only at a pace conducive to assimilation and the progressive elimination of those ideas. Kenan Malik, if his arguments are to be consistent with his stated commitment to modernity, should reconsider his commitment to free migration. He should ponder the cultural and institutional framework for the preservation of the liberal and secular way of life. That means appreciating modernity as the ideational and practical expression of European civilization.
Here is the video of the Howley-Malik conversation: