il-lee-untitled-2 © Art Projects International; Courtesy of artist and Art Projects International, New York


This is the keynote talk I gave at the 2017 Karlsruhe Dialogues on ‘The Pluralistic Society and its Enemies’ on 4 March 2017. It was entitled entitled ‘Can Diversity Embrace Democracy? Can Democracy Acknowledge Diversity?’

If there are two issues that define contemporary political debate, they are those of diversity and democracy. From the migration crisis to radical Islam to multiculturalism, fears about the consequences of diversity have become deeply rooted in Western societies. Such fears have been a major factor in the growth of populist parties, and in the electoral success of figures such as Donald Trump last year and possibly of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen this year. This has led many to fear for democracy itself, which they believe is being unravelled by the success of populism. It has led others to suggest that Western societies have become too democratic and that the democratic process needs to be constrained to keep out unwanted views and leaders.

To unpick the threads of this discussion, I want to do three things: First, to look at what we mean by diversity and question the idea that diverse societies are new; Second, to show how political changes in recent decades have helped unstitch democracy and diversity; and third to explore how we should relate democracy and diversity.

One of the most persistent contemporary myths is that European societies used to homogenous, but have been made diverse by immigration. Both those hostile to immigration and those supportive of diversity accept this claim. They do so only because of historical amnesia, and because we have come to adopt a highly selective standard for defining what it is to be diverse.

When we talk of European societies as historically homogenous, what we mean is that they used to be ethnically, or perhaps culturally, homogenous. But the world is diverse in many ways, cut through by differences, not only of ethnicity, but also of class, gender, faith, politics, and much else.

Many worry today of the clash between Islam and the West, and fear that Islamic values are incompatible with Western values. We assume that such classes and such fears new, the product of a Europe made diverse through mass immigration. But religious conflict was the norm in the old so-called homogenous Europe. And, though it may be hard to imagine now, until relatively recently but Catholics were seen by many much as Muslims are now – as fifth columnists whose allegiance was, as English philosopher John Locke put it, ‘to a foreign prince’, the Pope, whose values were incompatible with those of liberal democracies, and who posed a threat to the security and stability of the nation.

Jews were seen even more of a threat to European identity, values and ways of being, so much so that they became victims of the world’s greatest genocide. But the treatment of Jews as the ‘Other’ was not confined to Germany. It was a central theme in most European nations, from the Dreyfus affair in France to Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, designed principally to stem the flow into the country of European Jews.

Europe was rent not just by religious and cultural but by political conflict too. From the English civil war to the Spanish civil war, from the German Peasants’ rebellion to the Paris commune, European societies were deeply divided. Conflicts between communists and conservatives, liberals and socialists, monarchists and liberals became the hallmark of European societies. Of course, we don’t think of these conflicts as expressions of a diverse society. Why not? Only because we have a restricted view of what diversity entails.

(c) Grace Gardner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

But even within that restricted notion of diversity, our historical picture of European societies is mistaken. We look back upon European societies and imagine that they were racially and ethnically homogenous. But that is not how Europeans of the time looked upon their societies. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the working class and the rural poor were seen by many as racial distinct.

‘Every social order’, wrote the French aristocratic anti-egalitarian Arthur de Gobineau, in his Essays on the Inequality of Races, ‘each of which represents a racial variety’. The French historian Augustin Thierry thought there were only two classes, but like Gobineau insisted that ‘We imagine that we are one nation, but we are two nations on the same land’, each a distinctive race with ‘perpetually contradictory spirits’. The Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez, giving a talk to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, wondered how it could happen that ‘within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.’ The races that he was talking of were not, of course, from Africa or Asia, but the working class and the rural poor.

In October 1865, a local rebellion by peasantry in Jamaica was ferociously suppressed by the island’s governor, Edward John Eyre. His actions generated considerable debate in Britain. Those defending his viciousness did so on the grounds not that Jamaicans were black, but that they were no different from English workers. ‘The negro’, observed Edwin Hood, ‘is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very likely often nearly a savage with the mind of a child.’ When a group of (white) British workers protested about Eyre’s actions, the Daily Telegraph tellingly described them as ‘negroes… who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe.’

An article on working-class life in East London in The Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, explained that the poor were ‘a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact.’ ‘Distinctions and separations, like those of English classes’, the article concluded, ‘which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship… offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.’

What is different today is not that European societies are more diverse but that we see diversity in a different, and much narrower, way. The centrality of ‘class’ has eroded in European politics, both as a political category and as a marker of social identity. At the same time ‘culture’ has become increasingly important as the medium through which people perceive social differences.

lowry our town

The shift from ‘class’ to ‘culture’ is part of a much wider set of changes. The old distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has become less meaningful. The working class has lost much of its economic and political power. The weakening of labour organizations, the decline of collectivist ideologies, the expansion of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, the erosion of civil society, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the Church, that traditionally helped socialize individuals – all have helped create a more socially, fragmented society.

Partly as a result of such social atomization, people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms, but rather in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’.

The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’. It is against this background that Europeans have come to view their nations as particularly, even impossibly, diverse.

The narrowing of politics, and the fragmentation of society, has also shaped perceptions of democracy. Democracy is about allowing a collective of people to make decisions where there is more than one viewpoint. Democracy, in other words, pre-supposes a diversity of views. If everyone thought the same, there would be no need for a democratic process.

This is why those who see in the rise of populism the failure democracy are wrong. Democracy does not require that the ‘right’ result be delivered every time. Indeed, were the ‘right’ always to delivered, it would indicate not the success, but a failure of democracy. The whole point of the democratic process is that it is unpredictable. The reason we need democracy is that the question of what are ‘right’ policies or who is the ‘right’ candidate is often fiercely contested. Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen may be reactionary, and their policies may help unpick the threads of liberal democracy. But their success reveals a problem not with democracy but with politics.

But while democracy requires, and necessarily engages with, a diversity of views, the mode in which differences are expressed is important. The shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity, from a largely political to a primarily cultural view of social relations, has transformed the texture of democracy.

Political struggles divide society across ideological lines, but they unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural and ethnic struggles inevitably fragment. Political differences are often negotiable; cultural and ethnic ones often aren’t. What matters in political struggles is not who you are, but what you believe; the reverse is true in cultural or ethnic struggles. Political conflicts are often useful because they repose social problems in a way that asks: ‘How can we change society to overcome that problem?’ We might disagree on the answer, but the debate itself is a useful one. Another way of putting this is that political conflicts are the kinds of conflicts necessary for social transformation.

Cultural or ethnic struggles are less about transforming society than about defending or strengthening particular groups or identities, often by deprecating those who belong to other groups or belong to other identities.

riley debut

In the past, minority groups would have fought for equal rights and treatment, now demand recognition for one’s particular identity, public affirmation of one’s cultural difference and respect and tolerance for one’s cultural and faith beliefs. The very meaning of equality has transformed. Once it meant the right to be treated equally despite differences of race, ethnicity, culture or faith. Today it means the right to be treated differently because of them.

Public policy towards minority communities in many countries has only helped exacerbate this trend. Politicians and policy-makers have often treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogenous, whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. Of course, no community is like this. Every minority community, like society itself, is deeply divided. But rather than appealing to individuals from minority communities, particularly Muslim communities, as British or as German citizens, they are often seen primarily as members of those groups.

The authorities relate to such communities primarily through the medium of so-called community leaders. Such leaders rarely possess a democratic mandate, indeed rarely possess any mandate at all. Rather their power comes primarily from their relationship with the state – a deeply undemocratic process. It is a process through which, in the name of diversity, the authorities ignore the actual diversity within minority communities. The way that many European nations manage diversity ensures that diversity has become a means not of embracing but of disabling democracy.

If minority communities have come to stress their identities and difference, so too have many sections of majority communities. They, too, insist on defending their communities, their culture, their history.

The reasons lie largely in the transformation of politics over recent decades. The shift of social democratic parties away from their traditional constituencies, the erosion of the power of labour movement organizations, the dissolution of bonds of solidarity, have left many sections of the working class feeling politically voiceless at the very time their lives have become more precarious, as jobs have declined, public services savaged, and austerity imposed. But far from helping create new mechanisms through which the working class could challenge economic marginalization and political voicelessness, many liberals, and many on the left, have come to see the working class as part of the problem. Especially In the wake of the Brexit vote and of the election of Trump, many have dismissed the working class as too uneducated and bigoted, part of the old world now being left behind.

David Rothkopf, professor of international relations, CEO of Foreign Policy magazine, and a member of Bill Clinton’s administration, recently described Trump supporters as people who ‘are threatened by what they don’t understand, and what they don’t understand is almost everything’:

They don’t dig for truth; they skim the media for anything that makes them feel better about themselves. To many of them, knowledge is not a useful tool but a cunning barrier elites have created to keep power from the average man and woman. The same is true for experience, skills, and know-how. These things require time and work and study and often challenge our systems of belief. Truth is hard; shallowness is easy.

Such contempt was visible in many descriptions of the ‘ignorant’ Brexit voters, too.


Having lost their traditional means through which to vent disaffection, and finding them despised by liberals and the left, many working class voters have themselves turned to the language of identity politics. Not the identity politics of the left, but that of the right, the politics of nationalism and xenophobia, the identity politics that provides the fuel for many populist movements.

A century ago the working class was, in the eyes of many, an expression of unacceptable diversity. Today, the breakdown of working class culture and solidarity is seen, in the eyes of many, as the consequence of unacceptable diversity.

In recent decades ‘identity politics’ has been associated with the left, and with struggles against racism and women’s oppression and homophobia. But its roots are long and reactionary, stretching back to the counter-Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century. These early critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities – nationalism and racism in particular. Today, the populist and the far right is reclaiming that heritage, refashioning the original reactionary politics of identity for a new age.

The so-called ‘identitatrian movement’ – far-right groups openly espousing the politics of identity – now has roots in many European nations. Their equivalent on the other side of the Atlantic is the ‘alt-right’ which, in the words of its leading figure Richard Spencer, ‘is all about identity’. The Trump campaign, according to Spencer, ‘was the first time in my lifetime that an identity politics for white people was on the scene’.

One of the key arguments against diversity, and in defence of a more homogenous nationalist identity, is that too much diversity and immigration undermines a sense of community and belongingness. It is an argument made most forcefully by far-right opponents of immigration, but has become increasingly voiced by liberals, too.

It is true that humans are social beings whose individuality emerges only through the bonds they create with each other. It is true, too, that a sense of shared ownership of, and obligation to, the public space is crucial to a properly functioning democracy. Without such a sense of community and belongingness, democracy becomes hollow. We have no real sense of obligation or duty to each other, but exist as isolated individuals with few social bonds tying us together.

There is, however, more than one way of imagining the community or collective, and of thinking about the relationship between the individual and society. Critics of immigration and diversity adopt primarily what one might call a Burkean view of belongingness, a notion of community that derives to a large degree from Edmund Burke, the late eighteenth-century founder of modern conservatism. A Burkean imagines a community as constituted through history and bound primarily by its past, ‘an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space’, as Burke himself put it.

Values, in the Burkean tradition, are defined as much by place and tradition as by reason and necessity. The Burkean argument for community is a species of what we now call ‘identity politics’ – stressing common attachment to a particular given identity, in this case, an identity given by place, history and tradition.


We can, however, think about communities in a different way, drawing people into a collective not because of a given identity but in order to further a political or social goal; a collective defined not so by the question ‘Who are we?’ but by ‘What kind of society do we want?’; movements for social transformation defined less by a sense of a shared past (though most draw upon historical traditions) than by hopes of a common future; the embodiment of the politics of solidarity rather than of identity.

These two ways of thinking of communities and collectives usually co-exist and are often in tension with each other. The idea of a community or of a nation inevitably draws upon a past that has shaped its present. But the existence of movements for social change transforms the meaning of the past, and of the ways in which one thinks of national identity.

The political and social changes of the past few decades have, however, made it more difficult to view collectives in terms of social transformation, and led many to retreat to Burkean notions of nation and community. It is a retreat that is corrosive of democracy. Once values become defined by history, tradition and place, as much as by politics and reason, they become less contested, more simply given, and it becomes easier to exclude those not deemed not to belong to that history, tradition and place. One only has to look at current debates about Muslims to recognize that.

When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the raw material of political and cultural engagement. The importance of diversity is that it allows us to expand our horizons, bringing different values, beliefs and lifestyles face-to-face , and forcing is to think about those differences. Only this can create the political dialogue and debate necessary, paradoxically, to help forge a more universal language of citizenship.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what many fear. That fear can take two forms. On the one hand there is the nativist sentiment that immigration undermines social cohesion and erodes our sense of national identity. And on the other there is the multicultural argument, that respect for others requires us to accept their ways of being, and not criticize or challenge their values or practices, but instead to police the boundaries between groups to minimize clashes and conflicts. The one approach encourages fear, the other indifference. And both are corrosive of democracy.

What neither begins to address is the question of engagement. Engagement requires us neither to shun certain people as the Other, with values and practices inevitably inimical to ours, nor to be indifferent to such values and practices in the name of ‘respect’, but rather to recognize that respect requires us to challenge that values and beliefs of others. It requires us to have an robust, open public debate about the values, to which we aspire, accepting that such a debate will be difficult, and often confrontational, but also that such difficult confrontational debate is a necessity in any society that seeks to be open and liberal. And democratic.

For diversity to embrace democracy, we must see diversity not as a means of managing differences, but as the raw material for dialogue, debate and challenge. For democracy to embrace diversity, we must see democracy not as a guarantee of arriving at the ‘right’ answer, but as a collective process of evaluating those differences, however unpredictable the outcome, and that the only way of arriving at the right answer is by persuading others that it is right. Whether either is possible at a time when the tendency is more to hunker down than to open up is the key question that we have answer.


The paintings are, from top down:  Il Lee, ‘Untitled’; ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart’ by Grace Gardner; LS Lowry, ‘Our Town’; ‘Nataraja’ by Bridget Riley; ‘The Potter’ by Sid Kirkham; ‘May Day 2010’ by Oona Hassim.


  1. steve roberts

    Brilliant, as usual, answers so many questions and poses so many more, exceptional reference article. Thank you.

  2. As usual I tend to find that your socio-cultural critique seems to go around in circles in an attempt to somehow negate social conservatism as a legitimate democratic choice.

    I can obviously see why people who similarly wish to narrow the diversity of politico-cultural perspectives to ones that are solely based on perspectives that are not based on a politics of belonging or settled community networks will find your critique appealing but surely this is a narrowing of diversity and a narrowing of the debate around values and ideological positionings.

    For me, this narrowing of politico-cultural diversity fails to reconcile the deeper differences of interpretation that are present in terms of values including equality and solidarity and notions of identity and nor does it reconcile the tendency for ahistorical (liberal) identity formation to create social atomisation and as you point out the problems that this atomization creates such as identitarian politics.

    In David Goodhart’s words, the underlying conflict that you seek to address is “between the mobile ‘achieved’ identity of the people from Anywhere, and the more marginalised, roots-based identity of the people from Somewhere”. But how do you create solidarity between these different polico-cultural groupings and the means by which to encourage engagement so that these different groupings debate and safely conflict over different ideological positionings when their respective viewpoints are irreconcilable. Hence you have the problems associated with Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and Condorcet Paradox.

    The answer seems to be democracy despite its inherent failings to maximise the interests of all citizens with different political parties representing different viewpoints as they change according to changes in national circimstances. In respect to your critique that politics is now focused on largely cultural concerns, I fail to see how our democracy, our parliamentary politics or even our local politics are now “defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’” except in the very narrow sense of a largely marginal culture war that is being played out between elements of the radical left and elements of the radical right.


  3. For pity’s, sake Kenan, give us a glimpse of the concretisation of your estimable thoughts. To paraphrase Marx, it happens in the dialectical rotations of your head.
    Do you image that populist antipathy towards compulsory mass migration and the colonisation of entire localities into monocultural enclaves is fuelled by some bizarre addiction to Gobineau, Burke and so on?

    It is the fear of, and the existential experience of the erosion of social, material and cultural capital; the absence of even a fig-leaf of consultation; the absence of serious resources to staunch the catastrophic degradation of social life.
    Insofar as there is any post-Herderite ideology fuelling the right, it functions as kind of short-hand parable of bewilderment.

    What actually do you and the likes of Goodheart, Cohen and so on,suggest? Apart from more repetitious – though laudible – cogitation?

    • Do you image that populist antipathy towards compulsory mass migration and the colonisation of entire localities into monocultural enclaves is fuelled by some bizarre addiction to Gobineau, Burke and so on?

      If you can show me where I suggested that, I’d be grateful. I’ll even put it right straight away. If, on the other hand, you want to explain why, in talking about contemporary diversity, it is not worth pointing out the historical amnesia that underlies the claim that European societies were homogenous in the past, or that there is more than one way of thinking about what constitutes communities, and that hostility to immigration is usually wrapped with notions of community and nation that are backward-looking and problematic, again I am happy to listen.

      It is the fear of, and the existential experience of the erosion of social, material and cultural capital; the absence of even a fig-leaf of consultation; the absence of serious resources to staunch the catastrophic degradation of social life.

      As I have pointed out again and again and again, demonizing immigration is the fig leaf used to cover the real causes of ‘the erosion of social, material and cultural capital’ and ‘the absence of serious resources to staunch the catastrophic degradation of social life’.

      Insofar as there is any post-Herderite ideology fuelling the right, it functions as kind of short-hand parable of bewilderment.

      I see what you mean by ‘dialectical rotations of your head’…

      What actually do you and the likes of Goodheart, Cohen and so on, suggest? Apart from more repetitious – though laudible – cogitation?

      I actually suggest that we challenge the idea of immigration as the primary cause of ‘the erosion of social, material and cultural capital’ and ‘the absence of serious resources to staunch the catastrophic degradation of social life’. I suggest that we start building movements that can challenge the economic and political policies that do cause the erosion and degradation, such as the imposition of austerity, the failure to build social housing, the promotion of the market in very area of social life from education to health. I suggest that we rebuild our unions so that they can defend rights and wages of both migrant and non-migrant workers. I suggest that we combat the pernicious impact of identity politics, and of the social policies that have accentuated that pernicious impact. I suggest that the authorities do not subcontract out their responsibilities to community leaders but deal directly with citizens, whether from minority or majority communities, as citizens, not as members of particular groups. I suggest that public resources be allocated according to need, not ethnicity or faith. I suggest that speech should be as free as possible, and that legal restrictions on giving offence and hate speech be removed. I suggest that we repair the organizations and institutions of civil society which once provided both a sense of commonality and a means of socializing individuals. I suggest that we remove constraints on the democratic process, starting with the House of Lords. Most of all, I suggest that we stop yearning for simple, quick (and wrong) solutions to our problems, or believing that demonizing groups of people is a good approach to solving our problems, and that far from ridiculing thinking deeply about these issues, we start recognizing that we have to ask the right questions before we can find the right answers.

      As for what Goodhart or Cohen (whichever Cohen it is that you have in mind) suggest, I suggest that you ask them (you do realize, incidentally, that Goodhart and I fundamentally disagree on the question of immigration, so that whatever may be my sins, they are unlikely to be his, too?)

      • Thank you Kenan for you’re patient, weary reply.
        We clearly mean different things by concretisation.
        Aside from immigration then, ‘social housing’ seems to be your only nod in the direction of actually instantiating your wholly worthy wish-list.
        I image you mean some form of subsidy – shared ownership, fixed rents and so on. Buildings perhaps like the medium-rise dormitory campuses that bespatter the perimeter of central London.
        Perhaps on the basis that the post-war version was such a rip-roaring success at engendering neighbourliness, trust, obligation, sense of belonging, civic homogeneity………
        All of which latter of course, underpin democracy.
        Are such issues beneath you?

    • To be fair David Goodhart does actually provide policy suggestions within the general remit of Blue Labour which to some extent are being taken up by May’s government. Jonathon Rutherford is an interesting chap to follow but abit policy lite too.

      The difficulty is the pervasive power of left-wing international liberals within establishment circles who seem to think that national welfare is not a priority and even castigates it as fundamentally racist hence the rejection of Amber Rudd’s proposal for businesses applying to sponsor foreign workers to work in the UK to disclose the proportion of British to foreign workers within their company. In other words until the liberal elites are purged then national economic injustice will continue as will the great divide which can only spell bad news for immigrants.

      • Who are these “left-wing international liberals within establishment circles who seem to think that national welfare is not a priority”, how are they responsible for “national economic injustice”, who is going to identify and “purge” them, and what exactly will this purging entail? We need to know.

  4. Simon Ashton

    This is very informative and useful, thank you. I feel as though it builds very well from your recent posting; not post-truth as too many “truths”, which I also found very useful.

  5. Kenneth Crook

    Yes. Absolutely superb. I have nothing to add (except how much I’m looking forward to reading From Fatwa to Jihad once I finish Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi).

Comments are closed.