Flawed analysis of illiberal culture

d’Ancona is guilty of the same kind of arrogance and bad faith he identifies in other liberals

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

World politics is broken. Trust in institutions has collapsed, social and cultural polarisation has deepened, and we seem generally less competent as a species. We are less well equipped to deal with the monumental challenges that face us, from climate change and the inequities of globalisation to fundamentalist terror and the problems posed by human longevity and the digital revolution. That, at least, is how Matthew d’Ancona sees it in his latest book, Identity, Ignorance, Innovation: Why the Old Politics is Useless and What to do About it.

Identity, Ignorance, Innovation: Why the Old Politics is Useless and What to do About it Matthew d’Ancona, Hodder & Stoughton, £20.00

According to d’Ancona, one of the surest signs of our collective dysfunction is the recent growth in opposition to immigration in Western democracies and the corresponding political ascendancy there of the populist right. The purpose of d’Ancona’s interesting, if not always convincing, book is to shift attention away from one “I” — immigration — to the three “I”s of his title.

At bottom, d’Ancona’s book is an attempt to rehabilitate a liberalism which, he perceives, is failing. The first section is turned over to the topic of identity politics. D’Ancona is critical of the disdain shown by many contemporary liberals for a politics based around group identity as opposed to shared values and a conception of the common good. Identity politics, with its long historical pedigree, has emerged so forcefully of late, d’Ancona argues, precisely because it was “necessary” — because we live in societies where racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination still exist.

While d’Ancona chastises liberals such as Mark Lilla and Francis Fukuyama for opposing the new political movements representing discrete identity groups, d’Ancona himself is a highly critical ally. So much so, that it is possible to read Identity, Ignorance, Innovation as an exercise in esoteric writing. Reading between the lines, d’Ancona is perhaps more disapproving of identity politics than he lets on.

Certainly, he finds the erosion of the primacy of free speech in our political culture, encouraged by thin-skinned identitarians, profoundly concerning. He considers the equation of speech and violence “intellectually shoddy” and practically indefensible — “a blank cheque for pre-emptive acts of assault and aggression” — like the claim that feelings should determine what can and cannot be said. Cancel culture, he holds, is deeply misconceived. And he regards the idea of “lanes” — to have permission to speak and write only about your “lived experience” — as destructive of what it means to be a citizen, taking “an interest in that which does not directly affect oneself”.

D’Ancona does not, in other words, call for liberals to accept identity politics as it is. Rather, he calls for a “truce and then an alliance”. What d’Ancona effectively does in the second section of the book is prompt us to think about the forces that sustain this new and often illiberal political culture. Address the issues he raises, his argument implicitly runs, and identity politics as we now know it will soon disappear.

D’Ancona is consistently diplomatic. Throughout, he sweetens the pills he prescribes. Thus generation Z are described as “brilliant but ignorant”. Yet it is the ignorance that does all the work in this analysis.

Blaming not the students but the architects of a school system bought in with Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act of 1988, d’Ancona complains that “the standardisation of schooling has become a rust on initiative, creativity and intellectual risk-taking”. Subject to “a structure that rewards terrified rote learning and crushes imagination”, d’Ancona documents how young people read less and know less. Indeed, digital media is transforming us all, reducing our attention spans and capacity to recall and restore information.

Reading between the lines, d’Ancona is perhaps more disapproving of identity politics than he lets on

In the light, then, of this constricting view of education driven by metrics rather than personal growth, “teaching to the test” and conforming as opposed to thinking for oneself, we should not be surprised to find the increasing elision of complexity in historical understanding — and life itself — among many young people. The vilification of multi-layered and contradictory figures like Winston Churchill is an upshot of our “factory-style schooling”. Moreover, technology is making us stupid too: stupid, and ever more narcissistic, eager for the dopamine hit with which we are rewarded for joining sides, positing our simplistic Manichean views on social media.

D’Ancona’s tactful and circuitous approach will not be to everyone’s taste. But what cannot be denied is that as a measured critique of identity politics, Identity, Ignorance, Innovation works very well, even if we do have to join up the author’s dots for him.

As a positive political tract, however, the book is defective. The author is so wedded to the notion of progress that he cannot conceive of putting the brakes on technological change. Automation is simply something we have to learn to live with, adapting ourselves to satisfy the needs of the machines we create rather than vice versa. If at times d’Ancona sounds like a radical Millian liberal, championing individuality, localism and casting a critical eye on both the efficacy and the very notion of meritocracy, he has not yet heard of the stationary state, Mill’s repudiation of the notion of perpetual economic growth.

The author deals with few philosophical ideas in any depth. He is inattentive to context, lumping different national experiences together, and then drawing conclusions. Data is rarely examined with the precision required to fully support his claims.

The book’s chief failing, however, is its treatment of class and immigration. Referring to “rednecks” and mischaracterising almost all opposition to immigration as “ugly nativism”, d’Ancona is guilty of the same kind of arrogance and bad faith he identifies in other liberals critical of identity politics, signally failing to consider how principles of trust and obligation can conflict with diversity without signifying malign intentions, or a desire to “scapegoat”, among those against the free flow of people.

Woefully weak on climate change, d’Ancona’s confidence that Covid-19 was an “unambiguous rejoinder” to the idea of autarchy or “introspective nationalism” appears incredibly naive, as if the origin of the virus was not in part a product of globalisation.

For the most part, Identity, Ignorance, Innovation is an interesting and compelling read. However, if one tires quickly of ill-informed class prejudice, patience is required.

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