by Gavan Titley and Alana Lentin
The idea that multiculturalism is in crisis is a predominant feature of the post-9/11 world
and has become a pronounced aspect of public debate in a host of western European nation-states. This crisis did not start, despite the prevailing narrative, with the attacks on
New York and Washington. Lived multiculture in twentieth century – and particularly
postcolonial – Europe has posed a problem since being conceptually framed within
philosophies and practices of multiculturalism. The idea that people of diverse “origins”
could live together within a national (or global) space without having to assimilate the
dominant cultural and social values conflicts with both humanist universalism and white
European mythologies of superiority.
In recent years, however, a broadly shared narrative of crisis has emerged that – often regardless of the complex histories of ambivalence and incoherence that have characterized ‘multicultural projects’ – perceives a range of states emerging from a period of failed experimentation that emphasized difference over commonality, cultural particularity over social cohesion, and a default relativism at the expense of shared liberal/universal/national values. Faced with the emergence of ‘parallel societies’, ghettoes’ and diverse populations who do not share our ‘way of life’ and may even be enemies of it, these European sites now advocate the honest, open articulation of common values and the reconstruction of multicultural fragments through the promise of ‘integration’. This narrative is shared by states such as the UK, Netherlands, Denmark,
Germany and France with established histories of and institutional responses to migration, and by countries such as Ireland where immigration is a recent phenomenon and there is a stated public determination to avoid the pitfalls of multiculturalism elsewhere.
The very public rejection of a mythologised multiculturalism is in fact a solution to the problem posed, as David Goodhart wrote in 2004, by ‘too much diversity’. In other words, it is the fact of ethnoracial, national, religious, linguistic, and under today’s neoliberal imperative, economic diversity that is being rejected rather than the policies held to over-protect and promote diversity. The crisis deemed to be posed by too much diversity is publicly addressed in the transformation of immigration policy: the widespread restriction of the right to asylum and the parallel introduction of economic and demographically driven ‘managed migration’ schemes. However the solution to what is portrayed as the increasing ghettoization of the urban spaces of western Europe, crosscut by fundamental cultural fault lines, is said to lie in the spread and inculcation of national values. Citizenship tests and ceremonies for new immigrants – but also the
formal and informal policing and surveillance of ‘ethnic minorities’- are said to encourage social cohesion in contexts of cultural diversity. The mediated narrative that, as UK race relations supremo Trevor Phillips put it, we are ‘sleep walking into segregation’ calls for a return to ‘shared values’ which have been diminished both by migration and the elite frameworks which have encouraged fragmentation.
The general logic of the attack on multiculturalism as an excess of diversity is neither anti-culturalist nor – however naively – pro-humanist. It remains avowedly cultural in its inability to perceive of politics in any other way, and this is one of the starting points for this project of questioning the ‘crisis’. As George Yúdice notes, culture has superseded politics in much the same way as race, at the height of imperialism, was deemed to be ‘all’1. What the extension of culturalist racism and the contemporary intensification of the biopolitical state have produced is a racialisation of cultural differences. The naturalisation of culture, noted by Martin Barker in 1981 to be the fundament of rightist politics, has now become the logic upon which states in the West construct their dealings with minority citizens and alien outsiders. Cultural difference has become an officially legitimate reason for exclusion, often eliding the obvious imbrication of migration in global inequalities. This is particularly the case where, as Arjun Appadurai argues (2006), the ‘fiction of the ethnos’ in nation-states has become – to obviously varying extents – a cultural resource through which full sovereignty can be performed in an era of hegemonic economic globalization.
If modernity can be read politically as having, as Foucault (2003) implies, replaced the legitimacy of the sovereign with that of science (biology), the culturalism that defines the present era can be seen as a further extension of the cultural into the realm of the natural. Thus the response to the perceived crisis of multiculturalism is not a return to politics but a further insistence on the primacy of culture both as a primary explanation of social, political and economic phenomena and, normatively, as the (cultural) solution to the problems of late modern life. Where once ‘racial feebleness’ was seen as a problem of prime political concern, today cultural weakness – irrespective of the banal ubiquity of celebratory cultural rhetoric – is a central focus of public anxiety.
Paradoxically, the crisis of multiculturalism has been conceived of as a miscalibration, rather than an excess, of culture. Too much emphasis has been placed, it is felt, on separate cultural affiliations, and not enough on the culture that should bind us, a culture that increasingly slips between visions of the national/European/universal. Thus overculturalised minorities, Muslims in particular, are being responded to culturally, and not politically as their protest would in fact demand. The inability to move beyond culture is also rooted in an implicit belief that ‘they’ understand no other language. Mirroring the reification of the ‘other’ under colonialism as wholly definable in relation to his inferior level of progress, using culture as a medium to access Muslims/immigrants/non-whites is seen as the only possible means of ‘dialogue’.
“Much like other irritating subjects of the times – postmodernism, globalization, terrorism, among others – the very idea of multiculturalism, the ideology, disturbs out of proportion to what in fact it may be. The reality is that the world in which many people suppose they are living is actually plural: worlds – many of them, through which we pass whenever we venture out of the doors of what homes we may have. Yet, strangely, in a time like the one prevailing since the 1990s when a growing number of people began to profess the multicultural as a way of thinking about the worlds, their professions are often greeted with dismay.”
Anthony Elliot & Charles Lemert The New Individualism (2006: 137)
The paradox of the crisis of multiculturalism is not only its often unthinking and sometimes strategic reification of culture as the insurmountable horizon and nexus of politics, it is also the profoundly cultural nature of the supposed crisis. As Elliot and Lemert suggest, it is often only when the lived realities of multiculture and social diversity in late capitalism become understood within the framework of multiculturalism that familiar and perhaps comforting trajectories of conflict are opened up. It is our suggestion that the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ is a profoundly mediated crisis, and that thinking through the dynamics of its mediation is a precondition of reconstructing a ‘post-multicultural’ public politics of anti-racism.
At one level, describing the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ as a mediated phenomenon does little more than reflect the central role of varieties of media in shaping political discourse. It is the ways in which this shaping takes place, and how the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ has become reinforced in European communicative space that is of particular interest. In the practice of reportage, there is much to reflect on the ways in which media events shape themselves around a narrative of crisis, and in turn amplify it. By way of example, February 2008 in the UK saw intense debate concerning the need for an unapologetic reinstatement of ‘British values’ led entirely by elite utterance in the public sphere – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s widely misunderstood comments on Sharia law, the release of a report on security and multiculturalism by the Royal United Services Institute and the launch of a ‘Be British’ campaign by the Daily Telegraph. Beyond the political instrumentalism of these media events, what is also visible here, and in the meaning structure of ‘crisis’, is the fabric of what Michel de Certeau has critiqued as the recited society (1986), the society in which social truth is a product of narrativisation and repetition, where the story powerfully organises subsequent understandings of social events and processes.
This is most visible in the narrativisation of crisis and its genesis in a range of different national contexts. As, for example, Kundnani (2007) has argued in relation to the UK and Wink (2007) in relation to the Netherlands, it is difficult to examine recent social history and discern anything coherently approaching a ‘multicultural project’ in either of these contexts. Nor does the prevalent temporalisation of ‘crisis’ to the new realities of post September 11 2001 stand up to sustained analysis. As Kundnani points out, the pop psychology of how the enemy within has been incubated within multiculturalism’s parallel societies is inaccurate; “(the assumption of) a slippery slope from segregation to extremism to terrorism was widely accepted despite its inconsistency with the actual biographies of terrorists” (2007: 124). Yet in a recited society, arguing over veracity has become quaintly peripheral; the narrative of crisis, through its constant repetition and accretion, recites not only what was, but what is, what is yet to come, and what should be done about it. It also travels; an interesting aspect of the narrativisation of crisis is how disparate social debates and tensions in one country become crystallised around national
and continental crisis as parsed by an incident elsewhere – headscarves, ghettoes and other spectacles from elsewhere now swiftly mediate the crisis as viewed from here. This dynamic may be one among many points of departure for comparative analysis.
There is much work to be done on the modes, routines, forms and frameworks of the crisis narrative. The increased economic centrality of ‘comment’ and the market defining identities of columnists; the little-noted promiscuity – as opposed to centralised ideology – of media channels in selecting and promulgating frameworks of understanding; the central public role of think-tanks; the massive transatlantic industry in post 9-11 explanations of the new world order and the Islamic threat (While Europe Slept, etc) and more fundamentally, the complex relationships between the dynamics of mediation and the culturalisation of politics (the call for a return to values sits perfectly at this juncture) are but some of the routes that need to be pursued.
Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that the mediated nature of the crisis of multiculturalism is limited to the realm of the represented and the textual. Mediation suggests not only representation, but also shaping and transformation. A review of the current forms of biopolitics and surveillance that minority populations are increasingly and publicly subjected to illustrates that these political responses are gestural and performative – it is not enough to control minority populations, one must look like one is controlling minority populations in ways that signify control. The new vogue for integration is the apotheosis of this; the performative nature of integration promises an expandable range of gestures that can be sought from the always unintegrated in pursuit of an undefined state of integration. This state remains undefined as it is in this state that it promises ontological comfort, the promise of a social world which is fixable in relation to mediations of what society, culturally, should be.
This is why, as Hari Kunzru points out (2004), ‘immigrants’ are always subject to the sourcing of supplementary gestures over and above the legal requirements placed on citizens. Citizenship tests, declarations of fealty, processes of earning citizenship, the requirement to seek leave to marry; the mediated logic of these processes is not, as is always pointed out in relation to citizenship tests, that ‘natives’ would never pass them. It is that the gesture can be sought and produced for public gaze. Supplementarity must be enacted and embodied. Becoming integrated becomes an individual responsibility, subject, as Mathew Hyland notes (2004), to a technocratic ‘expert debate’ on “…how to induce self-identification with ‘society’ among culturally dis-integrated subjects”. The power of the supplementary gesture is that it becomes a naturalised second order of subjective requirement irrespective of law – it is this that allows Nicholas Sarkozy, with limited outcry, to propose deporting those who do not integrate. As Ghassan Hage
contends (1998), integration and ‘national values’ debates allow both the state of integration to be perpetually displaced, and also allay obscene fears that racialised subjects may actually integrate too well. Integration logics ultimately let their race thinking slip; don’t culturalised subjects, in being seen as being capable of ‘adopting values and a way of life’, implicitly prove themselves to be anything but the essential cultural subject propounded in crisis narratives?
We read the crisis of multiculturalism, in this first instance, as the mediation of an anxious fantasy, the reduction of disjunctures in globalised, neoliberal societies to the impact of disintegrating forces from elsewhere. The ideology of multiculturalism, to return to Elliot and Lemert’s quotation, is greeted not only with dismay, but with relief; its aggressive rejection promises the return to a host of certainties which, irrespective of debates concerning their historical veracity, have no purchase in nation-states where the post World War II consensus on the relationship between state and society has irredeemably altered.