Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Multiculturalism and progressive politics

This post was originally published on my old blog on February 2nd, 2011

David Cameron’s speech in Munich  at the weekend has once again put “multiculturalism” back at the top of the political agenda in the UK. While I think the timing of his speech was, at best, unfortunate (and at worst cynical), any opportunity for these issues to receive a more thorough airing in the public sphere should be welcomed. However, unsurprisingly, I have several points of contention with the content of his address – yet there were also parts of his speech which resonated with my own positions.

First, the good parts: Cameron was quick to dismiss the “clash of civilizations” thesis and its supporters. He correctly admonished those who support measures such as the banning of new mosques and argue that democracy and Islam are incompatible – these are indeed positions that fuel Islamophobia and racist extremism. He countered these arguments by highlighting the secular nature of the recent uprisings in Tunis and Cairo and their basis in an appeal for universal rights such as freedom of speech and free elections. And as a response to those that suggest extremism flourishes due to a lack of democracy, he raised the following question: “if it’s the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?” Unfortunately however, his attempts to answer this very good question fell well short of the mark.

While I agree that the contemporary doctrine of multiculturalism has its shortcomings, I come at this from a different angle to both Cameron and others who would position themselves on the other side of the political spectrum from him. However, despite this, when viewed as a way of understanding the validity of our own and other cultural perspectives – and not as a political or philosophical doctrine – multiculturalism can offer us a range of valid and invaluable insights. In this respect, the thought of Bhikhu Parekh, the Anglo-Indian political theorist, is useful.

Parekh argues that a multiculturalist perspective can be instructive in three crucial ways. First, culture is unavoidable: we are all “culturally embedded” in the sense that the world we live in is structured by cultural norms and the significance of social relations is culturally derived. Second, he argues that since different cultures represent different ideas regarding what is “the good life”, no single culture can realize the full range of human capacities. In this respect, cultures need other cultures in order to better understand themselves and avoid the temptation to “absolutize” their perspective, so cultural plurality within societies is essential. His final point is that cultures themselves are internally plural and fluid, so all cultures are in some ways multicultural: they carry within themselves the result of historical interactions other cultures.

His second and third points are most useful to us here. The idea that cultures need other cultures to maintain their vibrancy points to the desirability of living in de facto multicultural societies such as the UK. Indeed, the search for cultural homogeneity precipitated some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century and, I fear, will likely do so again in the future. His final point regarding the internal plurality of all cultures serves as a useful counterargument to those that seek to present certain cultures as “monolithic”, unchangeable or intrinsically inimical to another culture or way of life.

Turning to my objections to Cameron’s arguments in Munich, and my issues with the some of the ways that the political doctrine of multiculturalism has been pursued by political progressives in recent years, the key issue is with recognition of different types of inequality. Cameron argues that the growth of extremism is down to a lack of a clear sense of national identity that is open to everyone; he says “we’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” There is a sense in which he is correct: a common sense of belonging is perhaps a necessary part of maintaining a healthy polity. This does not have to mean a common set of goals, but it must entail a commitment to the political community and a desire to see it persist in its current form. However, this is not the key to understanding the development of violent extremism in our societies – and I would include both terrorism in the name of Islam and the growth of far-right “street movements” in this definition of violent extremism.

There is a tendency among advocates and opponents of the doctrine of multiculturalism to ascribe the alienation felt by certain individuals – and hence their turn to “extremism” – to a “lack of recognition” and a cultural inequality between groups. So we hear, from one side of the argument, that the white working class are being ignored or marginalized and, from the other side, that ethnic minority groups are not receiving sufficient recognition of their unique identity and contribution to society. However, while recognition of this type can certainly contribute to relieving some aspects of inequality between groups, it completely ignores a key contributor to much of the alienation felt by all groups in society: the polarizing and insidious effect of socio-economic inequality, or what some might term “class relations”.

The focus on group-related cultural issues has shifted attention away from the continuing significance of social class as the preeminent driver of alienation and disaffection within our societies. This is not to suggest that social class is the only driver of inequality – gender, race and ethnicity, for example, are all aspects of inequality that should be addressed – yet there is a danger that various struggles for cultural recognition are supplanting economic drivers of inequality as the primary emphasis for some political progressives.

I am not arguing that the fight for cultural recognition should be entirely subsumed to a class-based politics, but that the two are closely related and can complement each other in the struggle for a more progressive political landscape. Indeed, focusing on the relationships between economic domination and cultural alienation should give us a greater insight into the mechanisms that perpetuate inequality in liberal-capitalist societies and polities such as ours.

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