The argument against multiculturalism

On my other blog, I often write in defence of migrants against the repression of the state. Because of this, and my opposition to border controls, my opponents on the right often presume that I am in favour of multiculturalism and mass immigration. This is not the case.

I have already explained, in The case against borders, why defending the rights of migrants and opposing border control systems does not equal support for mass migration;

Such an argument assumes that those who advocate an end to the border regime simply want to scrap border controls and then let a chaotic free-for-all happen. This is, quite simply, not true at all.

Mass migration has absolutely nothing to do with how “tough” or “soft” border controls may be. Mass migration is a product of the unjust and often violent military and economic policies that displace people on a massive scale. On important example is the General Agreement on Trade and Tarrifs (GATT) that came about in the aftermath or World War II has essentially kept the colonial system alive through the establishment of “free trade areas” – essentially meaning that we have pried open the third world to our plunder. It’s something we’ve always done, but now there’s international legislation barring them from using protectionist tariffs to prop-up their economies. This restriction enacted specifically to prevent the third world using precisely the measures that the developed world used to become developed.

This disparity is the driving force behind mass migration, and responsibility for it lies primarily in western hands. The United States and Great Britain have spent half a century imposing market fundamentalism through unaccountable bodies like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and legislation like GATT. This is not to mention military interventions, funding, arming, and mobilising of terrorist groups, propping up third-world dictators and pumping aid to them in order to keep corporate profits on a high.

The only way to end mass migration, then, is to end precisely these injustices.

Mass migration is already happening, and border controls won’t alter that. They will only make life more miserable for said mass of migrants. The real answer lies in drastic social and economic changes.

But what about multiculturalism?

My viewpoint on this is something that both the right and the (non-anarchist) left have trouble getting their heads around.

In part, this is because anarchist opinions on cultural identity don’t often enter into discourse on the subject. The spectrum of opinion is presumed to go from liberal multiculturalism to ethnic nationalism, with traditional conservatism somewhere in the middle. I will attempt to rectify that in this post, offering an anarchist and radical libertarian stance on this issue.

The other reason that many have trouble getting their heads around where anarchists stand is a misunderstanding of what exactly multiculturalism is. Before I go on, this needs to be cleared up.

The descriptive and the normative

Like so many other words in sociopolitical discourse, “multiculturalism” has more than one meaning.

Many people equate it to diversity. An area, or workplace, or society that contains people of different cultural backgrounds is described as multicultural. This, we can call descriptive multiculturalism, and I have no quarrel with it. The vast majority, if not all, objections to multiculturalism in this sense come from a cultural separatist or ethno-nationalist point of view.

On the other hand, we have normative multiculturalism. That is, the social policies aimed at achieving or promoting such diversity.

In this sense, multiculturalism linked to cultural relativism. In the field of anthropology, this simply means that “study of a and/or any culture has to be done with a cold and neutral eye so that a particular culture can be understood at its own merits and not another culture’s.”

However, it was after World War II and with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the concept of cultural relativism expanded into the philosophical sphere. Thus, people saw cultural relativism as synonymous with moral relativism, the conclusion of this line of thought being that all cultures are both separate and equal, and that all value systems, however different, are equally valid.

In Mirror For Man, Clyde Kluckhohn explained the problems with this idea;

The concept of culture, like any other piece of knowledge, can be abused and misinterpreted. Some fear that the principle of cultural relativity will weaken morality. “If the Bugabuga do it why can’t we? It’s all relative anyway.” But this is exactly what cultural relativity does not mean.

The principle of cultural relativity does not mean that because the members of some savage tribe are allowed to behave in a certain way that this fact gives intellectual warrant for such behavior in all groups. Cultural relativity means, on the contrary, that the appropriateness of any positive or negative custom must be evaluated with regard to how this habit fits with other group habits. Having several wives makes economic sense among herders, not among hunters. While breeding a healthy scepticism as to the eternity of any value prized by a particular people, anthropology does not as a matter of theory deny the existence of moral absolutes. Rather, the use of the comparative method provides a scientific means of discovering such absolutes. If all surviving societies have found it necessary to impose some of the same restrictions upon the behavior of their members, this makes a strong argument that these aspects of the moral code are indispensable.

In essence, anthropology may not be concerned with absolute standards, but it does lend itself to the search for universal ones.

Nonetheless, the concept that entirely different (even contradictory) values have equal merit within the context of separate cultures came to manifest itself in the philosophy and practice of multiculturalism. For example, one might say that it isn’t appropriate to judge the practice of polygamy in Islam by the Judeo-Christian values that declare it wrong. After all, the people who engage in the practice are from a different culture, within which it is acceptable.

For ease, I will refer to descriptive multiculturalism simply as “diversity.” As previously stated, I have no opposition to this. It is the normative definition of multiculturalism, above, that I am referring to in the rest of this post.

The problems with cultural boundaries and moral relativism

It will not have escaped the notice of more astute readers that the definitions of multiculturalism and of nationalism are startlingly similar. The main difference is that, in nationalism, the separate but equal cultures exist across the globe, divided from one another by the borders of the nation-state. In multiculturalism, the different but equally valid cultures can co-exist alongside each other within a single country.

I also noted this parallel on the page On race and nationality, where I offer a broad overview of the arguments against nationalism.

The problem with both ideas is that they presume a “culture” to be a static thing, a constant with easily defined borders. But, as blogger Stiffkitten points out, “cultures are not static and nor are they pure or uncontaminated. On the contrary, cultures intermingle with each other, learn from each other, and thereby remain progressive, vibrant and dynamic.” People do not fit into neatly-packaged cultural blocks. As such, “isn’t any definition of the boundaries of culture(s) impossible, as all cultures are porous and absorbent?”

It is this false presumption, of cultures being static and rigidly defined, that justifies the moral relativism required by multiculturalism. An example of this is the accusation of “Islamophobia” aimed at gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in the essay Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘War on Terror’ (PDF download).

According to authors Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, Tatchell has “claimed the role of liberator and expert about Muslim gays and lesbians” and is “part of the Islamophobia industry.”

As evidence, they cite Tatchell’s criticism of UAF;

UAF [Unite Against Fascism] would not invite as a speaker someone who said that black people are immoral, harmful and spread diseases, or who vilified Jewish people as offensive, immoral and repugnant. Why, then, are they giving a platform to a bigot who says these things about gays and lesbians?

This “comparison between ‘black’ and ‘Jewish people’ on the one hand and ‘gays and lesbians’ on the other hand,” apparently “serves to construct them as non-overlapping groups who are in competition with each other.”

This, aside from being a non-sequitur, is a deliberate attempt at distraction. It is not too hard, if one isn’t deliberately looking for racism, to imagine the term “black” to include all black people regardless of sexuality, whilst the reference to “gays and lesbians” is equally indiscriminate on the matter of race.

Indeed, then-chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain Iqbal Sacranie has said precisely those things about the LGBTQ community. With no regard to the race of those he views as “repugnant.” Not to mention, of course, the fact that the majority of queers who suffer as a result of the homophobia of Muslim groups will be Arab and Muslim. Just as it is most often white Christians who suffer the homophobia of preachers in America’s bible belt.

It is not just white men like Tatchell and myself who make this point. In the words of Iranian feminist Azal Nafisi, “I very much resent it in the West when people – maybe with good intentions or from a progressive point of view – keep telling me, ‘It’s their culture’ … It’s like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches.”

Another example concerns the English Defence League (EDL), and their now-abandoned plans to march on the Tower Hamlets in London in opposition to a meeting organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS).

Soon after the march was announced, the statement “Against Fascism in All Its Colours” was circulated by an umbrella of activist groups. It contained the following paragraph;

As we confront the fascist thugs of EDL we in the Bengali and the Muslim community are being asked to stand side by side with Islamic Forum in Europe (IFE). This we refuse to do. The IFE does not represent the Muslim community in Tower Hamlets. They do not uphold the glorious tradition of Cable Street, Altab Ali and the anti racist movement. Under the patronage of an exclusivist Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia they are attempting to impose it amongst the Bengalis in this borough.

Just as the EDL takes the guise of being ordinary English citizen to hide their true identity of  fronting the fascist BNP so do IFE act as the sole representatives of ordinary Muslims but are in fact operating under the direction of their parent organisation Jamaat-e- Islami in Bangladesh. It is Jamaat that was party to the massacre of innocent Bangladeshis in the 1971 war of independence that establish the independent state of Bangladesh. A war Tribunal has been established in Bangladesh to try leaders of Jaamat-e- Islam who are IFE’s real ideological and organisational gurus. In other words IFE represent a virulent form of political Islam that is fascistic in nature like Jaamat Islam and verges on the anti-Semitic and is very exclusivist and undemocratic.

In defending the people of Tower Hamlets and especially the ordinary Muslims we do not have to defend IFE. EDL is attacking the Muslims of this borough and we must protect them. IFE must not be allowed to use this occasion to propagate their very reactionary version of political Islam.

Fair enough, one might think. Certainly, it offered far more political context than the UAF statement which only mentioned the meeting as “a peace conference, organised by a Muslim charitable foundation and aimed at building understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.” However, this difference of perspective triggered a rush of comments on the Socialist Unity blog accusing the Whitechapel Anargist Group (WAG, who have been open in their criticism of IFE and the Islamic far-right) of being racist and in league with fascists.

In part, such absurdities can boil down to a narrowness of perspective, and being unwilling to see beyond the black and white. But within the ideology of multiculturalism such a condition is systemic. It cannot be otherwise when you begin with the presumption that entirely different and opposing value systems are equal.

If multiculturalism is unpalatable, then, what is the alternative?

Polyculturalism and moral universalism

A rejection of multiculturalism, in its normative form, does not imply a rejection of diversity. In fact, going beyond the limited notion of “culture” which classifies people almost as one would insects, we can recognise a diversity that does not rample upon individuality and personal freedom.

In Revolutionizing Culture, Justin Podur makes this point in relation to the idea of “polyculturalism;”

Multiculturalism focuses too much on “cultures” having autonomy, resources, and so on. I would say a polycultural outlook puts the focus on people and on whole societies. Polyculturalism recognizes that a single person holds multiple identities, multiple allegiances and affinities. We speak different cultural ‘languages’, and we can change. And to go from the individual to the society, polyculturalism recognizes that cultures overlap, they change, they evolve over time. They cross-fertilize, and all societies are in a permanent state of flux, with all kinds of often very creative exchanges and interactions happening.

So if a multiculturalist says that a society should allow all cultures to develop autonomously, a polyculturalist says fine. But the “wider society” has a culture of its own, and that culture is one that everyone would have to relate to. It is in this shared space where people of different cultures interact that the basis for solidarity can be built. So in addition to having cultural autonomy, it would be important that the shared space be representative of everyone, and be based on things that are universal (and I believe there are some universals). No one is going to live sealed off in a single culture. There is just no such thing -and there probably never was.

Likewise if a nationalist says that you should owe your primary loyalty and cultural affiliation to the nation, a polyculturalist says no, there are many loyalties and affiliations, that overlap and merge and change.

We can still, as multiculturalists do, recognise “that cultures, modes of communication and expression and group identification other than the dominant one are worthy and deserve a certain autonomy.” But this is no justification for the bigotries and injustices that may still exist in certain cultures. Nor does it define people according to tick-box idea.

It is “integration without assimilation” and “autonomy without separation.” Unlike multiculturalism, moral relativism is not a requirement. In fact, it works well in tandem with moral universalism.

This is the simplest of ideas and yet the most often overlooked. Too many people think that we either allow people to hold to distinct cultural identities or we have a central value system. Diversity is placed in opposition to “one law for all.” But, of course, there is no reason that we can’t uphold basic, universal values whilst allowing people to pray, dress, talk, or cohabit differently.

And what are those basic, universal values? In essence, freedom and equality. The freedom to live without coercion or violence, as long as you don’t impose the same upon others, and to do so without others having an artificial advantage over you, or you over them.

In Podur’s words, “there is a constant tension in polyculturalism, between autonomy and solidarity, between trying to ensure a shared space is really representative and realizing that the boundaries between the things that are represented are fluid and overlapping.” With a more authoritarian or discriminatory set of universals, it becomes impossible to maintain the balance. One side of the equation will override the other, and we return to either multiculturalism or nationalism and their inherent problems.

If we want an alternative to multiculturalism, then, there is only one choice. The answer, in short, is anarchist communism.

11 Responses to “The argument against multiculturalism”
  1. Spot on, great piece indeed.

  2. anonymously anarchistic says:

    Please stop ripping off academics, especially ones in favor of multiculturalism, in order to support your neo-fascist agenda.

    I won’t embarrass you or your friends by calling-out every idea you have plagiarized from the last 100 years of academic discourse, except the biggest one: Edward Said (but don’t worry too much either, cause supposedly he was a pilferer too! so maybe y’all can have a big old party dedicated to mental masturbation)

    The big trick of anarchism is that it demands that you cease being a know-it-all and actually work towards the betterment of your community. All I see here is grandstanding about freedom and equality? Try and start with respect, maybe then you will stop mimicking the operations of power like a fucking lemming.

    • Phil Dickens says:

      To support my what? If you’d care to explain how I’m promoting a “neo-fascist agenda,” then I’ll gladly answer the charge. If you’re just throwing unfounded accusations you can piss off.

      As for “actually work[ing] towards the betterment of your community,” I do exactly that. This blog is just me thinking aloud. What I really do is on the streets, driving off fascists, and in my workplace with trade union organising. It’s not all “mental masturbation” that you refuse to openly state your disagreement with.

  3. jon says:

    -emigrate to a country where its better to live, better jobs, better pay, better lifestyle, more secure, freedom of speech, free to vote as you wish, then enforce the ‘culture’ of your homelands on the others living in your adopted country. the same ‘culture’ that was responsible for the state and condition of your homelands. easy.

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