2020s >> 2021 >> no-1402-june-2021

Cultures, multi and otherwise

Back in 2011, in a speech at a security conference, then Prime Minister David Cameron discussed extremism and Islamist terrorism. He noted that Islam and extremism were not the same, and saw the issue of identity as crucial to why some young Muslims were drawn to extremist views:

‘In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream’.

State multiculturalism was thus seen as implying separation, with people from different cultures living in their own distinct ways, perhaps with little integration with those from other cultures. Society, Cameron went on, should not just be passively tolerant; rather it should pursue ‘a much more active, muscular liberalism’, promoting freedom of speech, the rule of law, equal rights and so on. What was needed, he claimed, was ‘a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.’

But just what is multiculturalism (state or otherwise)? And how do politicians and others use this concept to construct arguments and policies? And what might a shared national identity consist of?

In Keywords, Raymond Williams describes culture as ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’, due to both its complex history (related to cultivation, among others) and its variety of current uses. On the one hand, it involves such activities as cinema, theatre, museums, music, and so on. But also it can refer to the kind of topics studied in cultural or social anthropology: a way of living, covering religion, language, kinship and family structure, work and production, food and diet, rural vs urban, and customs in some general sense. It is this last meaning which the idea of multiculturalism takes up: the position that a society consists of a number of different cultures, and it would be preferable if that were not the case or the differences were much reduced.

A detailed critique of multiculturalism is found in The British Dream by David Goodhart. The concept, he says, ‘has come to refer to the arrival of non-European, “visible” immigrants in western countries in recent decades and their political and social interaction with the majority society’, but apparently it ‘also implies a favourable and accommodating attitude to the arrival on the part of the majority society’. There are two versions: liberal multiculturalism expects immigrants to integrate into mainstream society, while the separatist version ‘privileges minority identities over common citizenship’ and thus slows down integration. The separatist variety in particular states that immigrants do not need to adapt, other than in relatively minor ways, to the society they now live in. As usual in such accounts, immigrants are not just those who have themselves migrated but their children and grandchildren at least too (second- and third-generation immigrants).

Opponents of multiculturalism, of whichever version, usually emphasise the lack of integration by immigrants and their descendants. At one level, this encompasses support, or at least toleration, for practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation. It can also extend to segregation in terms of residence, with towns such as Bradford and Oldham being highly segregated, with immigrant populations living in particular areas where most of the residents are immigrants from the same region, Pakistan and Kashmir serving as examples. Eric Kaufman (nationalreview.com, 6 February, 2019) identified a supposed contradiction at the heart of multiculturalism: ‘White majorities are compelled to be cosmopolitan, urged to supersede their ascribed identity. Minorities are enjoined to do the reverse.’ Multiculturalism was thus asymmetric, making different demands on ‘natives’ and immigrants, with the latter getting an easier ride. This is seen as one of the main reasons behind the rise of populism, which often views immigrants as not truly part of ‘the people’.

According to the Fabian Society, Blair’s Labour government from 1997 was the most multicultural in Britain, if not in Europe, introducing faith schools, bringing Muslims into governance and passing the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, seen as a positive step. This made it illegal to discriminate in immigration matters on grounds of race or colour but, as Maya Goodfellow points out in Hostile Environment, it permitted discrimination on grounds of nationality or ethnic origin. New Labour, she says, also dehumanised asylum seekers, and all in all their policies and rhetoric ‘helped to embed anti-immigration ideas into British politics’. So the 2000 Act and Labour’s policies more generally were by no means all their supporters claimed them to be.

Opponents of multiculturalism seldom identify specifically what counts as British culture. Perhaps it is such things as having a sense of fair play, keeping a stiff upper lip and not pushing in at the front of a queue. Or football, the pub, Christmas shopping, holidaying in Spain, a Chinese or Indian takeaway, talking about the weather, and so on.

The socialist view is that multiculturalism is a misplaced and irrelevant idea, that being for or against it really misses the point. Putting people into categories (Muslim, immigrant, whatever) ignores the fact that people have far more in common than these labels suggest. We are all human beings, and under capitalism most of us are members of the working class, forced to work for a wage or dependent on someone who does so. Thus we are all subject to the exploitation of capitalism, and to varying degrees to its inequalities and discrimination. People differ of course: gender, sexual orientation, abilities, interests, but allotting people to pigeon-holes disguises what brings us together. Nations are artificial entities, and the ‘shared national identity’ mentioned by Cameron would have to be invented and constantly reinforced by propaganda.

Goodhart identifies a trend he terms ‘post-nationalism’, which he ascribes to George Monbiot and Danny Dorling: a view which supposedly rejects all national borders and emphasises universalism and support of the interests of everyone globally, not just those of one nationality. We need not concern ourselves with how accurately this reflects the actual views of Monbiot and Dorling, just point out that in this sense socialists are post-nationalists. Socialism will be a global society, with no countries or borders or passports, where the whole idea of migration, if it exists at all, will be purely geographic. As for culture, it will be up to people in socialism to organise their lives as they wish. We cannot predict now, but there are likely to still be differences such as language, diet, sport and so on. This of course does not mean permitting such barbaric practices as FGM. Aspects of climate will result in differences in how people live, with some finding ways to pass the long winter nights while others will spend far more time outdoors, with some places perhaps having siestas.

In the words of the Chinese saying, ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’. Though later hijacked by Mao Zedong, this expresses well the idea that people in a socialist world will be able to live as they wish, as long as it does not infringe on the freedom of others.


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