The latest release from Forum Press (an imprint of Swift Press dedicated to “free debate and bold ideas,”) Rakib Ehsan’s Beyond Grievance is a curious polemic against the identity politics the author believes has taken over the left. Ehsan argues that there has been an increasing divide between “cosmopolitan” identity politics and the reality of immigrant communities, which are often traditional, conservative, and community based.
Ehsan’s basic thesis is relatively simple, that the growth of diversity and exclusion studies, the so-called “grievance” politics of the book’s title, has in fact been detrimental to eliminating racism. Ehsan argues, in hyperbolic terms, that the growth of these theories the UK is an example of the “aggressive importation of US-origin pseudo-academic theories.” The book argues that academic fields of study, such as critical race theory or intersectionality, are at best unnecessary. At worst they are, we are told, “a cultural poison that threatens to undermine the very foundations of Western civilization.”
This demonstrates one of the book’s recurring problems: an unwillingness on Ehsan’s part to take certain ideas seriously, and instead falling back on hyperbolic insults and attacks. The book often stops to repeatedly air Ehsan’s personal grievances, such as describing the Labour MP Clive Lewis as “the master of bad takes,” and the MP Zarah Sultana as “a glorified student activist.” This score-settling undermines the seriousness the book is aiming for and makes for an uneven tone.
Despite his flippant dismissiveness of identity politics, Ehsan does attempt a serious, if sometimes idiosyncratic, argument against it. The book deploys a wide array of factual and anecdotal analysis, highlighting high levels of poverty in many majority white areas and high levels of academic achievement in minority communities, to argue against white privilege. Ehsan also leans heavily on cultural analysis, suggesting that in many cases under-representation in professions such as policing is driven by parental preference.
The haphazard nature of these arguments is another weakness of the book, as they often ignore or fail to contextualise the experience of minorities. For example, Ehsan’s focus on absolute poverty levels fails to account for the fact that minority experiences of poverty are often very different, and feature aspects of life such as over-policing. Ironically, Ehsan’s arguments are often addressed by concepts such as intersectionality, which he offhandedly dismisses.
The book is also very keen to tie the “grievance politics” that it denounces to the Labour Party, which Ehsan sees as having become increasingly obsessed with an anti-racist agenda he rejects as excessively left-wing and detached from reality. A large part of the book is preoccupied with the racial politics of the Labour Party, which Ehsan claims has become irrelevant to minority communities and hinder its success there.
He pinpoints this alleged obsession as a product of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. For Ehsan, the Corbyn era was a period when Labour fundamentally lost touch with ethnic minority voters, and the idea of a harmonious Britain, instead being drawn into the politics of resentment. Corbyn himself is described as having “never hesitated to express his solidarity with those who are not remotely interested in fostering a more cohesive and harmonious society.”
The book is however willing to praise the achievements of New Labour, such as the 2010 Equality Act. Ehsan is equally very clear in his opposition to the Conservative Party, and particularly castigates the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition for austerity and its atomisation of communities.
Perhaps the most distinctive part of the book’s thesis is that it in many ways has a deep veneration for ethnic minority and immigrant communities. In general Ehsan characterises them as more religious, more socially orientated, and less prone to family breakdown than White communities and families, all things he extensively enthuses about. This praise of the social conservatism in these communities is qualified; he is critical of, for example, the restrictions they can impose on women, but it is nevertheless emphatic – Ehsan cites polling data as showing religious people are happier and more fulfilled. Furthermore he argues that this social conservatism is desirable, as it keeps families together, something he argues leads to better outcomes for children.
The book is keen to emphasise the religiosity of many migrant communities as a positive factor. Ehsan asserts that migrant communities’ social cohesion and community focused nature is in fact a benefit to Britain. It will, the author feels, help make Britain a more unified country.
The book is generally at its most cogent when arguing in favour of Britain as a successful, multi-ethnic, multicultural country. Ehsan is able to find a wide array of evidence on the way in which Britain’s minority communities are engaged and committed citizens, and it is hard not to feel that there is much to his thesis that Britain’s ethnic minorities are committed and engaged patriots.
Ehsan is also willing to acknowledge and answer at least some evidence that contradicts his thesis. For example, he accepts the utility of equalities measures such as name-blind CV screening and police body-worn cameras, even while mounting somewhat quixotic defences of stop and search policies.
The book makes interesting arguments about how ethnic minority communities exist and is successful in showing Britain as an apparently thriving multi-ethnic democracy, however the principle arguments it makes are eccentric and intersect badly. In particular, Ehsan often attempts obviously illogical comparisons, such as his claim that white privilege is a myth because of poverty in majority white areas, which ignores elements of systematic racism that minorities experience, such as excessive policing. The book is consistently unwilling to take the ideas it is criticising seriously and instead denounces them in petulant or insulting terms and attacks Ehsen’s perceived opponents.
Fundamentally Beyond Grievance is not a book that convincingly makes its case, relying as it does on an assemblage of badly constructed arguments and polemical attacks. While Ehsan does make some interesting analysis of why US solutions do not necessarily translate to the UK, the book is too superficial and repetitive to build on the fragmentary analysis. The result is a curiously shallow book, prone to making grandiose claims it fails to back up.