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Supervising the culture wars: a survival guide for the liberal establishment

  • 4 August 2022
  • By Edward Venning

This book review was contributed by Edward Venning, a consultant on social risk in education and the creative industries. Edward formerly worked at UAL as Director of Communication & External Affairs and held roles at Southbank Centre and in Whitehall.

The Establishment is having a rough old time in the culture wars, especially universities. When we’re not being sued or politically savaged, we’re given a kicking from within. Those hoping to sit it all out as neutrals or hoping it will go away are missing the point. But those expecting to win the big arguments are equally deluded and probably culpable, according to Matthew d’Ancona’s polemic, Identity, Ignorance & Innovation.

To understand why – and what to do about it — d’Ancona sets out a rationale for identity politics as a fundamental shift in politics. In ‘Identity’, the powerful essay which makes up the first half of the book, d’Ancona mocks the ‘establishment reprimands’ of those who proclaim peak woke, most recently exemplified by Toby Young. In d’Ancona’s reading (and this is a hyper-literate book), the culture wars are a stage in the emergence of a new and welcome force in politics that draws on deep wells of structural disadvantage. Our failure to deliver a just society has generated group identities that will counter and bypass the economic consensus through social activism. As Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton noted a generation ago, ‘before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks’. We should increasingly expect these groups to sway elections, turbo-charged by the generational injustices of climate change. 

For d’Ancona, these injustices belong to the progressive liberal establishment and its obsession with meritocracy which ‘not only by definition, but by design – leaves people behind’. Identity politics has ‘surged forth from the gap’ between what was promised to the disadvantaged and what they received. He is caustic on the hypocrisy of contemporary liberalism and the fatal blindness of classical economics to questions of group membership. 

d’Ancona foresees a fundamental crisis if progressives remain intent on cancelling each other, rather than absorbing identity groups into a wider project to turn back the tide of populism and nativism. He rightly points out that this is enormously gratifying to the Populist Right. The champions of identity politics also come under fire for their ‘obsession with the control of speech’, which risks jeopardising everything they have achieved. It is worth noting populism draws on similar forces and obsessions. Nationalism and nativism are equally founded in a ‘“deep story” of disenfranchisement’. Populist activism deploys similar tactics and is equally capable of strategising over protracted periods, as seen with Roe v. Wade.

Universities occupy a paradoxical place in the culture wars. d’Ancona and Douglas Murray (whom he cites) point out that key identity concepts were incubated at university. And yet universities have also come under persistent fire from both identity groups and populists. We have been repeatedly taken by surprise, notably by Brexit and Black Lives Matter. Our response has relied too heavily on staff policies and appropriating third-party thinking. And where academics have led the field, they have generally emerged from disciplines at the fringes of mainstream academic strategy, as happened with the concepts of privilege and decolonisation. 

It would therefore be hard to argue that we are setting the agenda or are resilient to social risk. Indeed, d’Ancona paints a picture of institutional weakness, including failure to renew our convictions, our structures, even the way we teach. He invites liberal institutions to see ourselves as managers supervising a dodgem rink of group rights, where collision is inevitable, and our duty is to ensure that nobody sustains injury. This is an onerous duty, spelled out in reviews and legal cases against universities and other professions. In late July, an employment tribunal decided on the discrimation case brought by Allison Bailey against Garden Court Chambers and Stonewall. The closure of the controversial Tavistock Clinic was announced the same week, following the Cass review.

Is this duty a direct affront to the doctrine that institutions should not engage in activism and politics, as established by the 1967 Kalven Report? Not quite. But it does show the need for a change in tack. 

There are three players in social activism – the individual, the group, and the institution. If higher education institutions are to succeed, it must be on our own ground and through our own expertise, not on the terms set by other players. In The New Power University, Professor Jonathan Grant argued that universities should assert themselves as a significant political force in order to address the new activist environment. This will no doubt be warranted for specific issues. As a general approach, it would lead to immediate confrontation with politicians, who already chafe at higher education interventions in social issues and are generally better at politics. Most practically, this approach overlooks the urgency of Kalven’s central recommendation. This was the need for an effective institutional framework that enables individual academics to mount a continuous challenge to social values. This framework would inform operational decisions of the type identified in the Garden Court Chambers decision and in Akua Reindorf’s review of no-platforming at Essex University.

There are some missteps in the book. d’Ancona overstates the change in power relations between major institutions and social networks created by technology change. Institutions must indeed learn to operate at the pace and cadence of social activism. But activists and politicians on the Left and Right remain intent on filling key posts in institutions, revisiting Gramsci’s War of Position. More seriously, the later essays on education (its title, ‘Ignorance’, gives the game away) and on innovation lack the force and detail of his major theme, and are short on recommendations. 

Overall, however, d’Ancona makes a persuasive case for root-and-branch renewal of institutional structures, particularly in education, and of the social contract that underpins them. Higher education faces an uncomfortable ride if we outsource the creation of our institutional frameworks to manage social risk to the courts, politicians, activists, and civil society organisations. We will be equally discomfited if we fail to place relevant academic disciplines at the heart of how we work with identity and populism. 

Identity, Ignorance, Innovation: Why the Old Politics Is Useless — And What to Do About It by Matthew d’Ancona, Hodder & Stoughton, RRP: £10.99, 279 pages.

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