The multicultural zombie

The latest war in Iraq – coming soon to Syria! – has had many unintended consequences, not least the utter disarray of the neocon project, at least as far as any intellectual or ideological consistency goes. Not least among these has been the changing fortunes of ‘multiculturalism’, which has found itself back in favour again on the right. The latest round of police crackdowns, and the sheaf of new laws extending ASIO and other powers, is now defended as being in service to multiculturalism, which, according to the Australian and other propaganda organs, is now the glue that holds us together. Violent Islamism must be rooted out wherever it is to be found, or not found, because its non-pluralist ideology threatens ‘the success of multiculturalism’.

Wow. The right is accustomed to turning on a five-cent piece – condemning relativism one moment, then pushing climate change denialism the next – but this is a spin even for them. Five and ten years ago, multiculturalism was the number one enemy, an ideology promoting division. We got a reminder of that with the John Howard ‘interview’ on Seven last week. Howard still sings the old tunes like any good touring retro act, pushing some fantasy notion of ‘assimilation’. In the ‘zeroes, this was pushed relentlessly by Piers, Bolt, and Janet Albrechtsen (who was conducting the interview in question). Now apparently, those right assaults are over. Should we rejoice and claim victory?

Well, not exactly. Multiculturalism was always the most complex and contradictory cause, subject to fantasy identification and deliberate misinterpretation on both left and right. That it’s being pressed into service for a war cuts with the grain of it, not against. It was always a ‘cultural technology’ designed to shape people’s desires and identities in ways amenable to power. The attacks on it in the ‘zeroes, were the aberration – from the elite right – not the norm.

What was/is multiculturalism? The essence of it is not mass colourblind immigration. That has happened many places and times – not least during the Howard era, which saw flows of immigration decisively tilt from southern Europe and the Middle East to India, Asia and Africa. Nor is it the idea that people will keep their own cultural observances when they arrive. They always have. Why would they not? Before the 1948-onwards mass-migration era began in Australia, Melbourne and Sydney had daily papers in Italian and Chinese, and back earlier, German and Yiddish. In 1900, New York, heart of the ‘melting pot’ had more than 100 daily newspapers in non-English languages. Back then, ‘difference’ was far starker than in the multicultural period.

The essence of multiculturalism is the notion of an ethnic ‘community’ within a wider one. It’s a community with ‘leaders’, sometimes living in a particular area, offering a way of life within the wider community, which is sometimes separate in the form of mass celebrations etc.

For decades, that idea of a ‘community’ was real: migrants arrived with no English and were found accommodation within a ‘little Italy’ or ‘Germantown’ by representatives of powerful groups. Such leaders got them official papers, dealt with the state, found them work, and so on.

Multiculturalism, as a policy, came along at a time when that process was starting to break down in material terms – the 1960s. At that time, more migrants were arriving with some English, a greater knowledge of the modern world, and were more capable of making their way independently. They were less likely to live close-knit or to go to the social centre on a Saturday night.

Thus, multiculturalism is an abstraction of an earlier migrant process, for the purpose of social shaping and control. Take for example the Xian ‘community’: it exists even though migrants from X are scattered across a city, and do not recognise or know the ‘leaders’ who have been (self-)appointed.

Multiculturalism enforces ethnic solidarity as an affinity over other affinities. Is the gay Lebanese man ‘represented’ by whichever lawyer/activist/shyster has become a ‘spokesperson’ for the community? What about the disabled Indian man? The Vietnamese-Australian riot grrrl? The Somali IT specialist who lives in Narre Warren and writes Firefly fanfic?

Counting them in such ‘communities’ says something about our ideas and practices of what constitutes affinity and connection.

In truth, the multicultural ideology and its material grounding was already fading, even when, during the Hawke era, the money and facilities going to it reached its height. SBS, in its pre-crazy-NZ-potluck-channel incarnation was a vital enforcer of late-stage multiculturalism, as were the numerous grants handed out to this or that association. Who got them? Who steered them? How were they used? Their effect – which may ultimately have reinforced religious conservatism – deserves a major retrospective study from the left.

Time and again, the right flirted with racism: the Howard/Blainey call for a pause on Asian immigration (a hysteria hilarious in retrospect, as Jeff Sparrow noted), Andrew Peacock’s 1990 election use of the Japanese-inspired ‘multifunction polis’ proposal (in the campaign against which, full disclosure, this author played a role), to the adaptation of Pauline Hanson’s policies (followed by the pursuit and jailing of Hanson herself), to Howard’s head-on critiques of the policy. But not once did they cease talking to ‘community’ leaders, or turn off the money flow. And under Howard, the far-Right’s nightmare of an Asian Australia was fulfilled: continued high immigration, and a foreign education market gave major cities a substantial, not marginal, Asian component.

Thus, the sudden call-to-arms on behalf of multiculturalism is a revival of its integrationist aspect, rather than an aberration. To a degree there is nothing else the right can do: any sort of call to nativism would be absurd. We are one stage on from the Anglo-Celtic Australian culture it appealed to, one dissolved more by the decades-long onslaught of US popular culture than anything else, and the centres of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have a decidedly Asian presence, which is starting to have a history of its own.

That return to a form of population and expectations management has exposed some of the shortcuts the left made in its defence of multiculturalism – by which we meant racial equality and colour-blind immigration procedures. The elevation of multiculturalism did privilege certain regressive processes that were expressed by it – the dominance of ‘communities’ by religious leaders, the continued shaping of subcultures which did offer limited roles and expectations to women, and so on. During the ‘postmodern’ period, when some on the left renounced any idea of universal values – and even those who did not, found them harder to defend or argue for than hitherto – the fusion of the left and multiculturalism was particularly regrettable. Some of us argued against that (in Arena, for example, for many years), but not enough. Some were simply hopelessly confused, continuing universalist projects – that is, Marxist revolutionary ones – while supporting forms of total cultural relativism. One disastrous product of official multiculturalism has been the legitimation of extended private education – under the guise of small Christian and Muslim community schools, most of which are inherently and explicitly socially conservative.

So to a degree, the right’s new defence of multiculturalism lets us off the hook.

But what should be returned to is the idea of universal citizenship of human equality, prior to any limiting cultural commitment. If an adult, or even older teenaged, woman wants to commit to a conservative Christian ‘surrendered’ lifestyle, or Jewish ultra-orthodoxy, or sharia Islam, well who’s to say she shouldn’t? But it is quite another thing to be comfortable and relaxed about children being raised in ‘total environments’ generated by such beliefs, in which family, community and school all reinforce a concrete and limiting idea of the human.

The left project implies a humanist universalism at its root, since it advances the idea not merely of political and material liberation (which it shares with liberalisms), but of a reflexive liberation that allows for self-determination via an understanding of certain material truths (crucially, the absence of any presence of an interventionist God in human life, whatever more abstract Theist ideals one might entertain). That applies not just at home but abroad, because much of the current push for a large-scale conflict has been based on the defence of ‘communities’ not people. Indeed, this war may be a whole new lease of life for the ideology – multiculturalism becomes not only what must be defended, but that which goes on attack, has its own drones and missiles, and rains new death from above.


Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. I pretty much agree, though maybe I would have put the argument somewhat differently. Multiculturalism, particularly in a its early days, was advocated as a modern form of nationalism, a more viable way of fostering national cohesion in a multi-ethnic nation: ‘we are, you are, Australian’ or however that song goes. Hence the reliance on community leaders, who were called upon to keep unruly members of their constituencies in line and enroll them in the new consensus. So for me the real argument becomes about attitudes to nationalism and, by extension, the state.

  2. Multiculturalism is often veiled rhetoric for assimilation to the status quo, in that minority ethnic communities are celebrated only when they are palatable for white consumption, or have integrated in a way that is approved by the general consensus. A slippery slope to settler nationalism, as Jeff Sparrow above also puts across.

  3. This post, with Rundle’s obligatory swipe at Marxism, sort of just blends into the current Islamophobic frenzy we are witnessing in the liberal media at the moment.

    1. I think that’s a pretty thin line to draw, to suggest the endless fear-mongering whipped up by the media around Islam, that has manifested its self in physical and verbal assaults on members of the public and the ‘oppression’ of Marxists.

  4. A Labor MP on FB about national security laws, proving the point:

    It is important to note that these reforms are the result of a long standing Committee inquiry into Australia’s national security legislation laws initiated by the previous Labor Government. It was initiated under Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, my predecessor in Gellibrand and a staunch advocate of the rights of the Islamic community groups in Melbourne’s West, in May 2012.

  5. Guy, isn’t the problem that a debased form of “humanist universalism” already exists in the material form of the state, and that the state can never do better than more or less successfully administer the competing particularisms of civil society? This is because the state in fact has its own particular interests over against the particular interests found in society.

    This explains why, whether it’s “assimilation” or “multiculturalism” or whatever other policy you or I may dream up, the state is in the end pursuing policies for its own ends, and we should treat them this way. It’s the social content of the policies … of the state trying to manage society … that we should be clear on.

    If we on the Left try to cook up a new form of “humanist universalism” then the state will at best use that to manage society on its own behalf and not for any grand ideals in our heads.

  6. Multiculturalism was always a con. To be truly ‘multicultural’ the mainstream society would absorb and adopt the culture of immigrant and indigenous groups and that hasn’t happened, nor it was ever going to happen. So we have the food and the dances which don’t disrupt anything and we label that ‘multiculturalism’ but if any cultural trait was to threaten the mainstream Australian Anglo-Culture it would be slapped down pretty quickly.

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