From multiculturalism to where?

Neal Ascherson
18 August 2004

In the mid-2oth century, one of humanity’s worst periods, politics were about what we could become. Two collectivist ideologies about destiny claimed to be scientific. Marxism-Leninism was based on inevitable, universal laws of class development and conflict; Nazi-Fascism proclaimed inevitable laws of racial and biological development for one race alone.

Today, we think less about what we could all become. Instead, we worry more about how to live together as individuals in community. The whole world is on the move, migrating and hoping. The rich world, above all Europe and North America, faces the rising determination of a hundred latecomer nations who were once silent under the blanket of colonialism and backwardness.

How do we learn to live together, and at three levels: in an international system, in individual nation-states, and – most immediately and intimately – in western cities which are increasingly the home and the goal of migrants from those “delayed” parts of the world?

The ties that bind, and break

The rich world’s current answer to this question is multiculturalism. I argue that this ideal, although it is well-meaning and an improvement on previous recipes, has grown obsolete and is losing its relevance.

Multiculturalism presently dominates political discourse. If there is to be a gleaming “city on the hill”, then – in this age of migration and human rights – it is held to be a city in which many ethnic communities live peacefully side by side, even celebrating each other’s cultural traditions.

This vision replaces the older “melting-pot” image of assimilation, in which new arrivals simply vanish into the dominant national culture they find. Instead of the melting-pot, many western city managers now prefer to talk about the “salad bowl” – a healthy, crunchy mixture of contrasts.

This sort of multiculturalism is also supposed to mean a decisive move away from the politics of ethnicity. But it does not. It is still contained within the notion of ethnicity. Multicultural politics certainly get away from the aim of assimilation, from the idea that ethnicity politics can only mean absorption into the enforced monopoly on power and culture of the majority ethnic group. But what is now being said is that ethnic nationalism can be tamed by a sort of “equality proclamation”. It sounds good to say that all ethnic nationalisms are born equal and as good as each other. But it is hardly a programme for action.

Read Paul Gilroy’s Multiculture and Melancholia for a contrasting view of “the strange career of multiculturalism”

And how stable is multiculturalism? One of the saddest spectacles of recent years has been the way that ancient multicultural communities break up in violence and hatred. We have seen this in Europe – most recently in the disintegration of Yugoslavia – but it is going on all over the world.

Why do people of different religions and cultures who have lived together in something like peace for centuries – gossiping together as they wait at the village pump, their children sharing the same school bench and speaking one another’s languages – suddenly discover that they cannot bear to live together any more?

My hypothesis is a gloomy one. It’s the experience of “liberation” which can be the fatal catalyst, precipitating particles of suspicion and cultural distaste into a hot, dark sludge of hatred. These suspicions were never entirely absent, even in mixed communities which seemed to rub along together tolerably for generations. There always remained a sense of otherness, of strange things which the neighbours might be doing or saying behind closed shutters or in their own shrines.

This sense was a shadow never quite absent from the apparently stable mixture of Azeris and Armenians in Karabakh, of Muslims and Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia, of Hindus and Muslims in British India, Jews and Arabs or Berbers in North Africa, Polynesians and Indians in Fiji … the list is long, and growing.

A democracy of separation

For a story from the “borders of difference” see Maruf Khwaja’s memoir Becoming Pakistani

The glue which held those communities together was fear. All those old multicultural societies lived under forms of arbitrary rule. They were subjects of a tsardom or a colonial empire or a caliphate which governed by force and offered them few or no political rights. If mutual tolerance within such a community broke down into disorder, then everyone knew that a more or less brutal outside authority would send in its armed men to “restore calm”. All would suffer; nobody would be the winner.

But when that external pressure is removed – by the fall of an empire, or the Soviet Union or Tito’s Yugoslavia – then the current of fear is switched off. “Freedom” tempts people to look at their neighbours in new, less forgiving ways. Culprits are sought to blame for historical wrongs, as liberated peoples begin to reinvent their past. And the arrival of “democracy” in such communities can divide rather than unite.

In the condition of plural democracy, people are invited to choose sides, to identify what divides them rather than what unites them. In societies where no network of free local institutions, no civil society had been allowed to develop, the first difference which often comes to mind is not wealth or class or social function, but ethnicity.

Why does the sense of freedom translate into the wish to be free alone – without the Other? As yet, no sociologist has a satisfying explanation. But all over the world, and especially in the last fifteen or twenty years, there has been ethnic separation as minorities have been driven from their homes. Unhappily, this is going to go on. The world is full of countries where governance has never been anything but arbitrary and in which the experience of liberation, or democratic revolution or whatever we like to call it, is yet to come.

More neighbours will find they cannot live together. There will be more floods of helpless refugees, millions more asylum-seeking families. Some, with the return of peace and the devoted work of volunteers on the ground, may eventually return home – or their children may. Some will be consigned to the “Gaza Archipelago “ of permanent refugee camps which already stud the globe. But many will end up in the favelas or tower-blocks of foreign cosmopolitan cities.

After multiculturalism

And here the argument returns from the past to the present. From traditional mixed communities, we are back in the vast cities of modern Europe and America as they suck in migrants from every corner of the earth. Can those old forms of multiculturalism, in which ethnic groups stay distinct but live together peacefully, be reconstructed in London, Berlin, Toronto, Istanbul, Antwerp? Yes, they can – because after all they already exist in those “salad-bowl” cities. But they cannot exist forever, or even for long. The crucial point is this: western urban multiculturalism is not a destination. It is only a way-station on the road to something else.

openDemocracy’s People Flow debate, in collaboration with Demos, explores the possible impacts of mass migration on Europe over the next fifty years. Contributors include Theo Veenkamp, Saskia Sassen, Zrinka Bralo, Nigel Harris, Achilles Skordas, Ash Amin, and Liza Schuster

It is important to understand just how conservative the multiculturalist solution is. It is literally conservative, in that it tends to enfranchise the most reactionary and traditionalist elements in an ethnic group – usually those of the older generation who want to enforce religious and cultural orthodoxy (in Britain, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is among those who write well about this). But it is also conservative in a wider sense. It tries to freeze-frame and render permanent a single moment in what is in reality a process of continuous change.

This is a battle which the elders cannot win. Cultural fusion is irresistibly taking place, in the context of these huge cosmopolitan cities and of continuing immigration. What lies ahead – indeed, it’s already emerging fast – is what has been called “hybridity”.

This is a new kind of urban society. It is neither a bouquet of contrasting cultures nor the adoption of the patterns of the old indigenous majority, but a fresh synthesis. It is produced by the spread of the human-rights culture, by the dissolution of protected career structures in favour of a bewildering succession of short-term job opportunities, by intermarriage, and by all the other economic and social pressures which give priority to individual life-choices over group conformity. As Tom Nairn has put it, hybridity means “the acceptance of irrevocable mixture as starting-point, rather than as a problem”.

Starting-point? Yes, because hybridity is unlikely to be a final destination either.

Beyond it comes yet another phase which can be called “post-hybridity”. Tom Nairn has a very optimistic notion of how that will look: it will look political. In other words, once the emphasis on “culture” (read: cultural differences) has worn away, people will at last be free to get down to making new democratic arrangements. They can do so, because they will have freed themselves from old and oppressive regimes – whether imperial, colonial or home-grown autocratic. But, more importantly, they will also have freed themselves from domination by the cultural and ethnic categories which for so long were held to be the basic texture of human associations.

Hybridity and whatever follows have many implications. One is geographical: the separation of the big hybrid city from its traditional role as “capital” of an extensive territory. It’s easy to fancy the re-emergence of city-states; harder to imagine the political future of surrounding territory whose villages and small towns may still be almost mono-ethnic. Another implication for Europe is that political loyalty may become institutional rather than ethnic. Patriotism would be directed not to a flag or a people but to common achievements: a constitution, a legal code, even (as British chancellor Gordon Brown once proposed) a National Health Service.

But the most important change would be the withering of culture-based politics. In their place may come a politics without boundaries and ethnic symbols. People would choose whatever they wanted to keep or celebrate from their Somali or Bengali or Kosovan tradition. But as citizens they would meet face to face, without qualifications, in a common human nature.

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