the Disillusioned kid: Polyculturalism: Not just a silly name for a bird
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Saturday, January 22, 2005

Polyculturalism: Not just a silly name for a bird

In the light of the recent controversy around David Bell's comments on faith schools I've been thinking about multiculturalism and how those of us concerned about racism should advocate dealing with cultural issues. Readers may be surprised to discover that I am actually opposed to multiculturalism, not for the reasons given by the likes of Nick Griffin, who want to protect some supposedly "pure British culture" from contamination by immigrants, but because I'm far from sure it achieves the racial harmony its supporters (and myself) desire. Below I append some thoughts by others and some commentary of my own which you might care to take for a spin in your mental microwave to see how they defrost.

Vijay Prashad offers a compelling critique of multiculturalism's failings:
Multiculturalism assumes that people come in cultural boxes that are hermetically sealed, that their culture is a thing that is immutable and pure. There was a time when this theory was valuable against the torrent of white supremacy, but now it is itself a problem and it is historically ridiculous. There is no culture that is pure; even those who live in "remote" areas share forms and manners transmitted through traders, etc.

If we assume that cultures are pure and that people live within these cultural boxes, then any struggle on the terrain of race (now seen as culture) is sought to be managed by someone who is a cultural expert or a multicultural officer. This is most obvious on college campuses, where tensions are to be softened by education, which actually means a banal discussion about cultural stereotypes masking as cultural literacy. Multiculturalism fosters the idea of racial harmony, whereas I am more interested in anti-racism, in the struggle to abolish the idea of racial hierarchy and of race itself.
As an alternative he advocates something he calls "polyculturalism":
Polyculturalism, taken seriously, obliterates authenticity. The pose of authenticity offers the ruling elites of a "race" to attain demographic power vis-à-vis other "races," to argue that they represent a group of people and because of "race" can speak for them. Authenticity allows race to top all other social fractures, and thereby give entrenched elites of color the power to be representative when all they are is compradors. Fanon's diatribe on the "pitfalls of national consciousness" is an early smash at the idea of authenticity. By the way, the argument about the authentic (whose content is often colonial ethnology) allows white supremacy to adjudge who is a real native, to say that the rebellious Asian, for example, is doing a disservice to Asian culture.
He argues,
A polyculturalist sees the world constituted by the interchange of cultural forms, while multiculturalism (in most incarnations) sees the world as already constituted by different (and discrete) cultures that we can place into categories and study with respect. What would history look like from a polycultural perspective? Well, rather than see Hong Kong business exclusively as a hybrid of an ancient Confucianism and a modern capitalism, as in the work of Tu-Wei Ming, we might take heed of the Jesuit role in the making of early modern ?Confucianism?, as in the fine work of Lionel Jensen? Rather than treat Indian students at Yale as aliens, we might consider that the university received seed money from Elihu Yale, one time governor of Madras, whose wealth came from the expropriated labor of Indian peasants
'Lenin' meanwhile takes a different approach, focusing on multiculturalism as a discursive framework he notes the way that the far-right have been able to co-opt this for their own ends and argues, "What must displace multiculturalism is universalism; that is, we must replace a discourse which fetishises difference with one that prioritises the rights which we all have." He expands on this idea in response to criticism explaining,
[W]hen I protest against the fetishisation of difference, it isn't because I wish to see difference obliterated. To that extent, I am not that bothered about whether people choose to 'integrate'. I simply find it irrelevant from a political point of view whether one prefers the pie 'n' mash shop or the curry house. In fact, the only point at which such a thing would become relevant would be if the universal rights that we all are entitled to as basic, fundamental trumps over-riding anything else, were infringed on for a particular group - say, if curry houses were firebombed by racists.

This is what I mean when I say that culturalism must be displaced by universalism. This isn't about us having different cultures and you respecting my culture and me respecting yours, it is about social justice, about rights that we are all entitled to. The universalist (socialist) attitude to the oppression of gays or Muslims is to say that these are common strategies of exclusion and marginalisation which say something more fundamental about the society as a whole. We all want good housing, decent jobs, safety from bullying and so on, and being an anti-racist is a logical corollary of that.
This strikes me as being an entirely sensible position and I can see no reason why it should be inconsistent with polyculturalism as outlined above.

Elsewhere the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) assert in their manifesto, "Multiculturalism, which insists everyone be treated differently, also undermines the concept of fairness at the core of anti-racism. For example, in America recent research has found that the application of the multicultural strategy has increased segregation in many cities and created a black middle class, often directly at the expense of the black working class." They advocate a position in line with that of their de facto parent organisation Red Action who draw similar conclusions to 'Lenin' on the co-option of multiculturalist discourse, although they expand the point to include its co-option by the status quo in order to forestall radical challenges. In the place of race, they argue that anti-racists (and anti-fascists a group amongst whom Red Action have some influence given their central role in Anti-Fascist Action) should instead focus on class. This appears to be the strategy being pursued by the IWCA.

For what it's worth, I think there is much of value in the IWCA strategy and I have written before that I think that the wider left should pay more attention to their efforts than it does. I also think that their focus on class is important, not just because it is a more progressive basis for identifying oneself than race, but also because class as an issue has largely been sidelined in mainstream and much radical discourse. Nonetheless I don't think, as some Marxists seem to suggest, that class is a totalising phenomenon. Rather, it should be seen as one element within a web of oppressions which interact with each other and vary in severity according to context. It is important therefore that other forms of oppression (such as racism or patriachy) are not ignored.

It should be clear from the above that I don't have all the solutions and much of what I have laid out raises as many questions as it answers. Nonetheless racism is a major problem. Racist attacks appear to be a growing problem with the BBC reporting in October last year that referrals to Victim Support had increased ten-fold over the previous decade. You hardly have to look far to find someone prepared to make vitriolic, unsubstantiated allegations about asylum seekers. The consequence of this (coupled with other factors) has been the increasing electoral successes of the BNP, who as I've noted before polled more than three times as many votes in last June's European Elections as George Galloway's Respect Coalition. In light of this we cannot afford to be pursuing a misguided strategy, the stakes are too high.

Update: I forgot to mention a lengthy interview with Justin Podur (of the Killing Train) available in two parts here and here which considers the arguments for multiculturalism, polyculturalism, assimilation and nationalism. It's very good.

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