What we should be talking about is how we reach an integrated society, one in which people are equal under the law, where there are some common values. (Trevor Phillips, April 2004)Trevor Phillipss attack on the utility of multiculturalism with particular reference to modern Britain, where he heads the Commission for Racial Equality is a symbol of how globalisation is indeed helping to dissolve national frontiers.
What do I mean by this? Quite simply, there appears to be a growing consensus among western governments and decisionmakers, particularly in the context of the post9/11 war on terror that the west must ideologically stand together. Trevor Phillips could not have made his comments before 11 September 2001; neither, perhaps, may he have wanted to.
After that watershed, however, the idea is becoming more widely shared among western elites that governments must do all they can to ensure social order and unity and that the use of force and the denial of civil liberties can be legitimate to advance these ends. What were once fundamental national differences between, for example, the French republican politics of assimilation and the British model of cultural relativist coexistence are retreating in the face of a common vision of the importance of national security achievable only through internal social cohesion.
What is striking about this trend is how the emphasis on an essentially nationalist exclusivity combines with an overall claim for the specificity of western civilisation. And it is in the context of an increasingly introverted, yet dominating and expansionist vision of westerness that multiculturalism has come under attack.
It may not be surprising in principle that multiculturalism should be caught up in the moral panics of the early 21st century. But it is ironic that many people who for at least two decades have questioned and proposed alternatives to the multicultural model now find themselves, by default, defending it in case it is replaced by arrangements of a significantly less progressive and more anticosmopolitan nature.
For example, antiracist activists long opposed to the way that multiculturalism envisioned society as composed of minority ethnic communities and their members as passive recipients of institutional support rather than proactive political agents resist the idea that the multicultural model is outdated.
It is not hard to understand why some former critics of multiculturalism have turned defenders in response to its architects post9/11 wish to move on. But this any port in a storm attitude is, I would argue, deeply regressive and inadequate even in furthering the models professed values of tolerance, diversity and justice. To see why, a recovery of the context in which multiculturalism as a concept evolved is necessary.
From politics to community
It is taken for granted that the concept of multiculturalism refers to the struggle of minority ethnic groups for recognition of their cultural diversity in western societies. It is indeed fair to say that multiculturalism is a reaction to pressure on immigrants, their descendents, and other minorities (national, linguistic, religious, sexual) should shed their particularisms and assimilate into the culture of the dominant host community.
On this level, multiculturalism has played a role in mirroring the diversity of contemporary western societies, where it is impossible to speak of a single culture, lifestyle, religion or set of national traditions dominating the daily consciousnesses of all the citizens. But it has been far less effective in shifting the powerbalance at the political level.
One of the reasons for this is that the multiculturalist model has not truly responded to the real demands and aspirations of members of minority communities themselves; its focus on culture has been driven too often by community leaders, not from the bottom up. Those it was ostensibly designed to benefit did not themselves demand it.
The topdown nature of multiculturalist policymaking is illustrated by modern British experience where as Paul Gilroys 1992 essay The End of AntiRacism points out local governments in the early 1980s instigated it in reaction to the nationalism of Conservative central government. However, the policys cultural focus destroyed the autonomous, highly politicised antiracism of the local race committees established in the 1970s in reaction to the far right and institutional racism.
Moreover, the multicultural model is vulnerable to the charge that it uncritically endorses the image of enclosed, internally homogeneous cultural groups, each taking its place in a mosaic of equal but different communities and so ignores both group heterogeneity and the fact that members of minorities often identify with a hybridity of cultural references , including that of the dominant society.
More importantly, multiculturalisms exclusive focus on culture can present an apolitical picture of minority experience and agency that evades the daily realities of institutionalised racism. This emphasis on culture lies at the heart of the problem of multiculturalism, and I would argue makes it an unworthy prize for progressive voices now seeking to reclaim it.
From race to culture
The origins of contemporary multiculturalist policies can be found in the post1945 antiracism of international institutions, specifically in the emphasis placed by organisations such as Unesco on the principle of cultural relativism as a means of combating racism.
This stance formed the background for the elite response to racism among many western governments, and played an important role in elevating the discourse of culture to its current status. The group of anthropologists and antiracist scientists who drafted the Unesco statement on the nature of race differences (1951) set out both to disprove race as a scientific theory and to propose an alternative concept for understanding human difference.
This alternative concept was culture. In accepting that race as a categorisation of humanity was scientifically false, the Unesco scientists nevertheless understood that human diversity especially in an era of immigration needed explaining.
Culture was seen as a means of capturing the differences between human groups. No superiority or inferiority was inferred; rather, the uneven spread of progress created a coexistence of equalbutdifferent groups, each bringing to the world its own competencies. Unesco promoted the idea of intercultural knowledge as a means of combining crosscultural understanding and cultural diversity with the slogan: reconciling fidelity to oneself with openness to others.
For the Unesco approach, the continuing realities of racism were attributed to individual prejudice; the historic role of the European nationstate in utilising the category of race in its political projects was ignored.
Thus, by replacing race with culture, the Unesco project failed to engage with the realities of imperialism, slavery, class inequalities, tight migration controls and, ultimately, the Nazi genocide. In this, Unesco permitted European states to deny the centrality of the idea of race to their formation an evasion that persists, even (as David Theo Goldberg argues in The Racial State) in the unmentionable modern version of racelessness promoted by western states today.
From identity to solidarity
These two broad trends post9/11 moral panics (over immigration, asylum, terrorism and Islam) and the longterm, elite avoidance of racisms roots in western culture form the essential background to the current debate on multiculturalism and its discontents.
In such circumstances, those who seek to recuperate multiculturalism from the promoters of socially cohesive (read: nationalist) citizenship are generally aware of this. Many are also active in defending the rights of asylumseekers and migrants against unequal social and labour rights, detention and unjust deportation.
But their promotion of multiculturalism as policy, in continuing to elevate culture as the primary definition of difference, reifies group identity and ultimately diminishes the possibilities for political solidarity against racist discrimination.
It is a waste of time to attempt to save multiculturalism from attack. Rather, the primary focus of all those concerned with creating a society based on equal social, political and yes, cultural rights should be on the persistence of state racism and its extension into the new realms opened up by the war on terror.