Monday, 12 September 2011

The crises of multiculturalism – racism in a neoliberal age - book review

The crises of multiculturalism – racism in a neoliberal age.
Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley
Zed books

Why did you write this book?

One of the initial triggers for this book was noticing how, in Ireland a few years ago, when there was an increase in migration, public discussion was full of warnings about ‘learning from the failures of multiculturalism elsewhere’.

Factoids about ‘ghettos’ and ‘parallel lives’ and ‘incubating terrorism’ were in constant circulation, as if these were simple, given social phenomena that develop automatically from the presence of ‘migrants’. As we began to look at it more closely, we found these strong ‘failure of multicultural’ discourses in countries where nothing approximating to multicultural policy ever existed.

We began to examine how they circulate transnationally; particularly after 9/11, the mere presence of Muslims in a given country was enough to sanction a quite repressive what if politics – what if what happened there happens here.

So we began to research how the idea of the failure of multiculturalism launders anti-Muslim and anti-migrant racism. It says, in effect, see? We tried, we were too generous, they were too different, and now we need to get back to the certainties of integrating them on our terms, and excluding them to protect our ways of life.

You don’t define multiculturalism – why’s that?

Because our primary interest was in mapping and analyzing how ‘multiculturalism’ works in political rhetoric, media shorthand, and racist code. It can’t just be defined and then super-imposed on societies that now use it to talk about a huge spectrum of issues relating to race, culture, migration and social anxieties.

Throughout the book we discuss different understandings in different countries, as well as different academic theories, but discussions aimed at defining multiculturalism frequently have little to do with actual political developments. So we had little interest in proposing an elegant but basically redundant definition, or in adjudicating between existing ones.

What we trace is the ways in which rejecting something called multiculturalism is frequently a code for rejecting multicultural societies themselves. Ironically, it is a form of political correctness, one that allows social problems to be pinned on racialized minorities without leaving one open to the accusation of racism.

Was or is multiculturalism a challenge to the status quo?

Bluntly, no it isn’t, but a longer discussion would do justice to some political achievements. In the UK, in the early 1980s, for example, ‘town-hall’ multiculturalism certainly gave some forms of respect and autonomy to besieged communities, but it also took the politics out of anti-racism, ultimately reducing the struggle for equality and against state racism to one of cultural recognition and support.

To simplify a little, cultural recognition is nowadays a cost-free politics, and increasingly used as a placebo for more radical change.

This doesn’t mean it’s not important, but as a political horizon it excludes quite a lot. The irony now is that multiculturalism is mainly depicted as a state-sponsored, liberal assault on the national status quo, its roots in processes of control are written out.

Why have politicians been so willing to declare multiculturalism a failure?

Because they spend most of their time justifying or spinning decisions made in the interests of capital, and taking control of the ‘problem’ posed by lived multiculture provides a compensatory spectacle, a chance to appear decisive and responsive.

This is why the fiction of a failed experiment of multiculturalism is so important; it allows politicians to present the diversity in societies as something they can govern, and that they are going to take in hand in the interests of the silent, put-upon majority. It provides a good source of ‘dog-whistle’ politics, and a way of continuing the pretence that migration policy is influenced by public opinion.

What has motivated those who have attacked multiculturalism for its [supposed] lack of liberalism?

Multiculturalism has long been presented as the opposite of liberalism, i.e. as arguing for forms of collective rights over those of the individual. Even in the rarefied tussles of political philosophy, that is a gross exaggeration, it is more accurate to see multiculturalism as trying to fill in liberalism’s blindspots about how individuals actually live in society.

Politically, multiculturalism has become associated with an ‘anything goes’ cultural relativism that can impact on the freedoms of women, or of LGBT people. The problem is that ‘being a liberal’ is frequently worn as a cultural identity defined against people who are assumed to be anti-liberal. It might reject multiculturalism, but this kind of liberalism is itself a multicultural identity.

How has rejecting multiculturalism been central to laundering increasingly acceptable forms of racism?

One of the things we often hear is that something isn’t racism because it speaks about culture, and the problems with ‘their culture’ not their ‘race’. Yet racism has never been just about spurious theories of biology or violence on the basis of skin colour, even if these have been central to the racist horrors of the modern period. Racism has always been about organising and justifying hierarchies, and culture has been historically central to this.

However, the widespread political consensus is that we are all post-race, therefore talking about culture is different, even when it follows the same logics, and has the same exclusionary effects, as the racism being rejected.

Why are you concerned that some women, gay men and lesbians are denouncing the Muslim community for what they perceive is hostility towards them?

Because there is no such thing as the Muslim ‘community’, and the struggle against sexism and homophobia is not furthered by locating these problems overwhelmingly in the presumed culture of an imagined ‘community’.

The presumed conflict between gay or women’s rights and Islam paradoxically contributes to the fundamentalist idea that homosexuality is a ‘western disease’ rather than a universal fact of life. By making being gay, or indeed a woman, about ‘western values’ that very universality is challenged by those claiming to work for women’s and gay rights everywhere.

The participation of some feminists and gay activists in furthering Islamophobia leads to a politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than building on the potential alliances between marginalised groups. This allows for imperialist politics, such as the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq to hide behind a discourse about defending women.

The ban on the burka in France is also supposed to be about women’s rights, but what happened to a woman’s right to choose? What kind of liberal society presumes that all Muslim women are unable to resist patriarchy, that every veiled woman, even those with degrees and good jobs, are oppressed by Muslim men, all of who are (potential) ‘honour killers’?

The veil is a perfect example of how spurious arguments about women’s rights are used to mask a much deeper societal discomfort about the challenge to the very idea of the nation it poses. The French and the Dutch understand that Muslim people know that their liberalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that frightens them and leads them down the road of repression.

You pose some parallels with the situation faced by German Jews in the early part of the last century and those of Muslims in Europe today – is that wise?

We make some very specific comparisons and to go beyond them would not be wise, of course. The point we make, in discussing certain mainstream authors, such as Christopher Caldwell, is that the arguments they use concerning the impact of strong, faith-led Muslim communities on a supposedly weak, relativist European culture is that these were the same kinds of arguments made about European Jewry; a culture eating away at tolerant hosts from the inside.

Further, it doesn’t seem to be very disturbing for many people that a large, diverse European population is routinely singled out as a problem. The echoes of that, if not parallels, should disturb everybody.

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