The Crises of Multiculturalism

Ironically, working through the idiom of multicultural failure is a form of political correctness; a way of talking about issues of migration, identity, power, belonging, legitimacy and socio-political anxiety while steering clear of a lexicon associated with the overt history of a shameful, racist past. However, it has also become a discourse that launders racism.
Gavan Titley Alana Lentin
18 July 2011

The failure of ‘multiculturalism’ is an article of faith among resurgent far-right parties, centrist politicians and liberal commentators. And like most articles of faith, it depends on an underlying mystery. When was this formative era of multiculturalism, and where was it implemented? As Markha Valenta argued on openDemocracy in March, the denunciation of multiculturalism by the British, German and French premiers between late 2010 and early 2011 would have made more sense if European multiculturalism had actually ever existed.

For all this, the ‘failed experiment’ is accorded tremendous social and political power. A grab bag of societal problems, from terrorism, ‘radicalization’ and ‘ghettoization’ to youth unemployment, sexism and homophobia are pinned squarely on multiculturalism. Several analysts, most recently John Bowen in The Boston Review, have set out to untangle the historical exaggerations and analytical conflations that beset this widespread narrative, for, as Bowen argues, ‘…an intellectual corrective may help to diminish its malign impact’. Multiculturalism has always involved conceptual and practical messiness, spanning questions of policy, philosophy and rhetoric, yet in these incessant denunciations it takes on the unambiguous form of a ‘failed experiment’ that now requires the remedial political action of ‘integration’.


However, multicultural policies have never amounted to more than piecemeal affairs, and a coherent, normative multiculturalism has never been uniformly incorporated into policy even in countries, such as the Netherlands and Canada, that are widely associated with what David Goldberg calls ‘prescriptive multiculturalism’.

In our new book, we do some similar untangling, but ask additional questions about the political ends of this discourse. Why has multiculturalism been singled out for such exaggerated treatment, and why now, when ‘it’ has been in practical retreat for years? Our aim was to draw out the political and cultural reasons for conjuring disjointed and limited policy initiatives into a ticking time bomb which, if not defused, will trigger the explosion of the social fabric. Above all, we argue that untangling contemporary investments in the idea of a failed multiculturalism returns us to the tangled question of ‘race’.

In analyzing the recent round robin of rejection, Valenta correctly notes that ‘in fact what Merkel, Cameron and Sarkozy actually are saying is that western Europe’s response to immigration has been a failure.’ At a fundamental level, the crisis of multiculturalism should more correctly be viewed as a problematisation of lived multiculture, or the fact that, due to postcolonial and globalized migration, European societies have become more noticeably diverse. Ironically, working through the idiom of multicultural failure is a form of political correctness; a way of talking about issues of migration, identity, power, belonging, legitimacy and socio-political anxiety while steering clear of a lexicon associated with the overt history of a shameful, racist past.

However, it has also become a discourse that launders racism. As multiculturalism is held responsible for a vast range of social ills presented as symptoms of past mismanagement, it provides a shorthand for all that was wrong with the guilt-ridden, relativist, overly permissive West, post colonialism. This is why the True Finns, as the most recent anti-immigrant party on the block, have been able to successfully launder racist politics by pointing to the sensationalised evidence of ‘multicultural failure’ in Sweden. Or why Christopher Caldwell, in his widely publicised book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, can pass off Eurabian ideas of a decadent Europe being trampled by confident immigrant cultures - sure of themselves in a way that Europeans, apparently too in thrall to the allure of diversity, no longer are – through a quizzical examination of multicultural disaster.  

As Charles W. Mills notes, multiculturalism has come to stand for anything loosely related to race, culture and identity ‘defined simply by negation – whatever does not fit in to the “traditional” political map of, say, the 1950s is stuffed in here’ (2007: 89). To lament or desire the death of multiculturalism is, in coded fashion, to exasperate over race.

This begs the complex question as to how ‘culture’ and ‘race’ intersect. In the 1980s and 1990s, astute observers noted a shift in the discourse of racism from one centred upon a discredited biological basis to one that took culture as its object. The success of parties such as the French Front national was enabled by a cooptation of the leftist language of cultural relativism, and throughout this period, the far right enjoyed a newfound acceptability by speaking about cultural incompatibility rather than racial hierarchy.

Central to this success has been a widespread assumption that, beyond extremist movements and ignorant individuals, racism is a thing of the past. This declaration was made both by a Liberal-Left self-satisfied with its role in bringing about its demise, and by the Right, convinced it never existed except as a stick to beat embattled whites with. Yet race, as Charles Mills argues, ‘is socio-political rather than biological, but it is nonetheless real’. That African migrants drown continuously off the militarised shores of southern Europe, with muted public reaction, is but one example of that implacable reality.

The ‘crisis’ of multiculturalism provides a convenient means through which the unutterable subject of race is kept alive. While liberal politicians and commentators regard far-right parties as beyond the pale, post 9-11, there has been a curious cross-pollination of ideas and arguments. Terrorism, and the subsequent intensification of an ongoing crack-down on asylum and immigration, has enabled this to some extent. The failure of integration is never related to racism at home or abroad, but to the unwillingness of the racialized to seamlessly integrate into the dominant culture. As Gary Younge asked in response to the integrationist project in the UK , ‘Where will we find the perfect Muslim for monocultural Britain?’ (2009). S/he doesn’t exist, because the force of the question relies upon it never being answered.

That this dominant culture is expressed sometimes through a conventional idea of the national home, and sometimes through the new idiom of nationalized liberalism, is in effect beside the point. Ongoing declarations of the need for shared national values by UK politicians of all stripes ignore the fact the it is not a willingness to buy into ‘the national story’ that encumbers most immigrants, but the ever increasing impediments that face them once they set out on the quest for meaningful integration.

The laundering of racism during the last decade is complex, and one of its most disturbing aspects is the suturing of progressive causes to a politics of exclusion. Beyond the Neo-Nazi right, ‘diversity’ is uncontroversial, however disciplining what we term in the book ‘bad diversity’ creates an outlet for liberal racism. Headscarves, burkas and minarets have all provided opportunities for spectacles of disapproval for (Muslim) bad diversity, and it is no accident that the most forceful framing of multicultural failure involves issues of gender and sexuality.

The idea that too much relativism has allowed culturally regressive minorities to endanger the fight against sexism and homophobia suggests that these are purely struggles between the West – the birthplace of democracy, human rights, and singular achievements in gender equality and sexual freedom – and the rest, most problematically those illiberal subjects who have been allowed to live among us. Multiculturalism - not the institutionalised sexism, patriarchal structures or homophobia that affects all societies - can be blamed for the persistence of domestic violence, or the violation of gay rights.

Proven multicultural excess permits, according to this vision, a new ‘honesty’ about race, and this taboo-breaking is deemed necessary to undo years misspent pandering to illiberal particularism, and to guide us back to virtuous universalism. What this in fact permits is not only a re-shaping of racism and resultant inequalities, but a foreclosure of potential dialogue and solidarity between marginalised and oppressed groups who are common targets of institutionalised and banal discrimination.

Situating racialized subjects as products of cultures that are at odds with liberal individualism has a further, laundering, effect; it allows the failure of marginalised minorities to attain full equality to be attributed to indoctrination or unwillingness. Under what David Goldberg calls ‘racial neoliberalism’, the state’s insistence on flexible individuals responsible for their own integration is conflated with the fully-liberal individual demanded by post-multicultural rhetoric. Both visions, in the discourse of multicultural breakdown, hold immigrants and their descendants culpable for a lack of social cohesion. The Crises of Multiculturalism does not provide prescriptions to these problems, but argues that anti-racist politics needs to come to terms with the uses of multicultural crisis and the power of these legitimate aversions for our political age.

Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, authors of The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age (Zed Books, July 2011).

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