Austerity and war against multiculturalism

Understanding how austerity, sexism, multiculturalism and racism become intertwined discourses. Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

Alana Lentin
21 June 2016


Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Debates preceding the looming referendum on whether or not Britain remains in the EU have sharpened the edges of what always was a poll on the future of multiculturalism, proving that ‘Lexit’ supporters could never have hoped to control the debate. Aaron Bastani, who previously proposed a left-wing rationale for Brexit due to ‘the disdain for democracy, the zealotry and the legacy of half a century of colonialism,’ now advocates remaining in the EU. The reason: the Brexit campaign has been fought on a ticket of ‘outright xenophobia’ with no intelligent defence of migration from the Left.

As Andrew Brown reports, the publication of’s racist cartoon leaves no doubt – if there ever had been any - that the Right is using repurposed antisemitic tropes to argue that ‘swarthy bearded figures’ (now marauding Muslims), carrying bags of money and pushing ‘waves of immigration’ on a public cowed by the shark of ‘political correctness’ will be the death knell for British (read English) culture. In the popular imagination so successfully captured by this tropism, the suffering of the English ‘working class’, made more acute under austerity, is portrayed as caused by global elites determined to further dispossess them with unwanted migration.

Of course, those who oppose migration have less of a problem with migrants who display what are perceived as more similar cultural traits to those of the ‘host’ nation, as Arun Kundnani has argued. The idea that EU membership, or globalization more broadly, are responsible for working class people losing out has always targeted the ‘immigrants taking our jobs’ rather than the ‘ex-pat’ elites (tax-avoiding or otherwise) who are unlikely to suffer any material consequences as a result of a Brexit. Schrodinger’s immigrant lays bare, in one simple meme, the poverty of the Right’s argument: are immigrants stealing our jobs or lazing about on benefits? But the anxieties that the Brexit campaign has brought once again to the fore are less about jobs and more about the sense of loss encapsulated by what Arjun Appdaurai has called ‘fear of small numbers’.

In reality, it is black and other racialised people who have lost out most as a result of the UK government’s cuts. The fact that they are for the most part citizens, does not deter right-wing Brexiters from encouraging the conflation of Muslims in particular with so-called ‘bogus’ asylum seekers allowed in by a fictionally borderless EU. That this rings true for so many is the result of the fact that over a decade since it was first declared, the idea that the ‘crises of multiculturalism’ have generated uncohesive societies in which ‘self-segregating’ immigrants have destroyed the social fabric is by now common sense. Multiculturalism, rather than being recognised as a set of initiatives largely conceived to curb antiracist alliance building, has been rewritten as the project of an out of touch ‘third-worldist’ elite determined to absolve itself of its white guilt.  This belief is now mainstream in a ‘postracial’ Europe ringing with declarations that ‘we’ should no longer be cowed by resentments about the colonial past.

Multiculturalism was so easily discredited as a ‘failed experiment’ because the belief holds sway across the political spectrum. Since Trevor Phillips’s first declaration that the UK is ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ in 2005, the idea of societies ‘broken’ by the fiction that incompatible cultures can live peacefully side-by-side, equally sharing limited resources, has united the Right and many parts of the Left. This is witnessed, for example, in the mainstreaming and spread of the Pegida movement and is a direct result of the failure to effectively parse the legacies of race and colonialism in Europe. The ‘muscular liberalism’ called upon in David Cameron’s ‘war’ on multiculturalism is an attempt at clawing Britain (and Europe) back from its inevitably creolised future.

The demand to accept austerity, therefore, is inextricable from this war: self-sacrifice is a necessary arm of self-preservation. It is little wonder that it is the same people likely to suffer most from its measures who are also most likely to point to immigration, rather than governments, as the root of their worries. Poverty, or its threat, has been successfully ‘outsourced’ - to migrants and refugees.

The reason why the Left has been largely unable to mount a convincing critique of the EU, one that attacks compulsory austerity and the unending ceding of power to corporations under the TTIP, is precisely because racialised arguments about migration and multiculturalism are as much identified with the Left as they are with the Right. That is not to say that those advocating for Lexit are anti-multiculturalist. But, in no small part due to the association with Left-wing politics of a number of key commentators in a terrain traditionally occupied by the Right, any anti-imperialist form of Brexitism is quite simply dead in the water.

Take for example, an article by Prospect Magazine’s David Goodhart in the Daily Mail. The headline calls him a ‘leading Left-wing voice’ and lauds him for saying that ‘misguided compassion is only making the migrant catastrophe worse.’ Goodhart rehashes the staples of his arguments going back to 2005, reiterated in his 2013 The British Dream, which claims to speak to the Left about its delusions on migration from the Left. The bones of that argument are that economic security can only be assured by shared cultural identity. Ties ‘based on habits of co-operation, familiarity and trust, and on bonds of language, history and culture’ are the only ones, Goodhart claims, which can ensure that individuals in society care for each other. That he can completely disregard the fact that austerity measures, already cutting deep into the survival capacities of European citizens, are being rolled out whether or not migration is curbed is testament to the fact that the proposed failures of integration have never been more than a deflection from the aims of governments such as Cameron’s Conservatives.

It is the threat of theft of what are proposed are the rightful belongings of the ‘decent… majority in Britain’, that is actually at stake. And to make the argument, figures such as Goodhart rely on a mix of sex and race – the sexualisation of race, which has always been at its heart. The fear we are told to have is of ‘the fittest and nimblest — generally young men’ who will ‘battle their way in’, usurping the place the woefully unmuscular Left presumes is being reserved for; those who Goodhart, borrowing shamelessly from anti-colonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, calls ‘the wretched of the earth’.

If it were not already clear, the events of New Years Eve 2016 in Cologne, Germany, during which gangs of young men, largely misidentified as Middle Eastern refugees, sexually harassed women in the streets brought the threat home. The rape of Europe was no longer metaphorical. Now, the living proof that Europe embodies everything that those clamouring to get in desire seemed to materialise in front of our eyes. It does not matter, as was ceaselessly pointed out, and again reiterated in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, that violence against women and queer people is a result of toxic masculinity which is as much a product of western societies as it is of anywhere else. The point for the ‘controversial’ Left-wing, most prominently Slavoj Zizek, as recently discussed by Sara Ahmed, is that the desire for Europe will be unquenchable unless it is stopped.

For Zizek, Enlightenment values, which he sees as uniquely European, are usurped by excessive openness to migration. That which attracts migrants to Europe which, Zizek concedes, is inaccessible to them in part because of racism, becomes the driving force for Europe’s ultimate destruction. Writing in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks, Zizek blames ‘a nihilist reversal’ of the desire for Europe: ‘frustration and envy get radicalised into a murderous and self-destructive hatred of the west, and people get engaged in violent revenge.’ Europe, its women and its queers, recategorised as uniquely white in a nativist sweep that ignores the actual hybridity of Europe’s living breathing publics are, for Zizek, following Alain Badiou, literally on the frontlines of a battle to save them from migrants’ ‘acts of orgiastic (self)destruction.

In response, Zizek advocates for ‘bravery’ instead of what he sees as the paradoxical condescension towards refugees of the well-meaning European left. For Zizek, one should see the Cologne attacks for what they were: ‘an obscene lower-class carnival’ which was fundamentally an upbraiding of ‘the politically correct liberal Left’ by means of ‘a public spectacle of installing fear and humiliation, of exposing the “pussies” of the privileged Germans to painful helplessness’ through the defilement of (their) women.

Zizek leaves no stone unturned: he takes to task the elites as well as the politically correct middle classes, configuring himself as the only one brave enough to speak truth to power. This is why his voice still appeals to those who consider themselves of the Left, but who have bought into the discourse of what Zizek and Badiou openly call ‘Islamo-fascism’ (one of the principal modes for them through which ‘envy [is turned] into hatred’). It permits a Left critique - because ostensibly focused on global capitalism - of Islam(ism), multiculturalists, migrants and their supporters. But it also translates easily for a Right-wing audience for whom the potency of the sex/race nexus is as tantalising as Zizek claims Europe (and its women) are for young male migrants.

And indeed Zizek must be right because an Algerian writer - Kamel Daoud - used the same Cologne events to pathologise Arab/Muslim sexuality, reducing it to the need of the refugee or the immigrant to either possess or veil women’s bodies. Opposed to Arab women, always ‘a woman for all, all but herself’ is the western woman, again generalised as ‘free’ and ‘modern’, even if only in the migrants’ imagination. All the actors in the scenarios painted by Daoud are reduced to their racialised essences, read exclusively through an Orientalist lens in which western women are free and eastern women submissive. Muslim feminists, and their views, about sex, about politics, about anything, are nowhere to be found. The men are desirous and angry, and unquestionably straight (indeed everyone is gendered exclusively male or female). Western masculinity, for its part, is absolved of any role in the creation of these polarities.

And, once again, anger about the world that has been created in which the pie to be fought over is made smaller and smaller, and in which people are literally dying – killed by roadside bombs, drones, or (just) starvation, drowned in capsized boats, or again queuing for soup kitchens, in Europe, in 2016, or freezing to death in cardboard boxes repurposed as homes – is translated as envy and hatred: they want what we have. But what do we actually have?

This was the point that sociologist and anti-austerity campaigner Lisa McKenzie was trying to make in an article based on her research with ‘white working class women’ in Nottingham and Tower Hamlets who fear greater hardship as a result of asylum seekers being housed in their already over-burdened estates. ‘The tensions on the estate’ as a result of the UK government’s austerity were exacerbated in her account by the women being asked ‘for “business”, meaning sex’ by a group of men referred to as ‘Iraqis’. This was presented as part of a narrative in which the women were aware that they were considered to be racist by elites and hence played down their complaints of sexual harassment. In McKenzie’s account, this specific fear is presented alongside a more generalised ‘threat of being moved out of the borough where they have lived all their lives, as rents rise and homes become more scarce.’

Whereas the reasons for people losing their homes, especially in increasingly desirable areas of London such as Bethnal Green are largely the result of gentrification, McKenzie reports women as ‘anxious about who else will move into their neighbourhood and whether these refugees will be “given” an affordable home.’ In the rapid passage from the fear of sexual harassment at the hands of ‘Iraqis’, to fear of losing one’s home, to refugees being ‘given’ (their) houses McKenzie collapses together a number of well-trodden themes leading to the conclusion that there is a link between the effects of austerity, refugee intake, and sexual threat.

In an impassioned defence of McKenzie, Katie Beswick argued that she was right to point out that to ‘uncritically dismiss these women’s fears as ‘racism’ was unhelpful’. According to McKenzie in a new article, to do so is the privilege of academics and the middle class, Zizek’s politically correct elites, floundering under the weight of misplaced white guilt. Not only does this retort make assumptions that the working class is monolithically white, but Beswick’s notion that pointing out racism is ‘uncritical’ ignores the fact that, as Sara Ahmed has argued, ‘speaking about racism is… heard as an injury not to those who speak but to those who are spoken about.’

It has become a problem to identify that racism has been made to play a role in how austerity is framed – as a struggle between the deserving native and the undeserving, undesirable yet desiring migrant. This conveniently ignores the detrimental effects that the mobilisation of race, and sexualised race in particular, has on achieving the societies we need, in which there is enough for all.

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