Left DebateOpinion

Multiculturalism and Neoliberalism

We should not be caught in a misleading debate, writes Gavan Titley

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the European left has once again been sucked onto the terrain of ‘integration’ politics, and this exchange seeks to translate these debates to Ireland. But you don’t need to be a postmodernist to wonder how far a celebrity death match between multiculturalism and republicanism gets us.

The reason is simple; in reality, neither exists in the stripped-down and polished-up abstract form that animates so many polarised and ‘principled’ debates. Neither is the basis of an adequate anti-racist politics in this conjuncture.

In contemporary Europe, multiculturalism is presented as a coherent project, a generous experimental past with negative consequences that must now be politically undone. First developed in the settler colonial societies of Canada and Australia, it has long been used in Western Europe as an umbrella term for a vast range of state and civic responses to “the problem of immigration”.

In political theory, as sociologist Pathik Pathak has pointed out, multicul- turalism is less a fully-grown ideology than a polite tempering of liberal excep- tionalism. Of central importance is the idea of recognition: liberal equality can only stem from recognition of how his- torically and socially-inscribed difference structures dispossession and marginalisation.

Despite now being blamed for social dis-cohesion, multiculturalism was an integrationist initiative, and one opposed by antiracists in the UK for its mode of integration: a ‘micro-colonial’ structure of community leaders speaking for discrete cultural groups, and the taming of radical demands for equality through culturalised solutions.

Yet, multiculturalism is now little more than a zombie category. Never fully alive and now long dead in practice, it is ritually revived by politicians solely to haunt the living. Across Europe, in countries where limited multicultural provisions have long vanished, and in countries where it never even existed, there is a critical contrast between weak histories of implementation and strong narratives of blame, and it is in this gap that contemporary state racism flourishes.

The narrative runs as follows; they asked for multiculturalism, we tried, but they failed, and so now we need to get back to a state of national integration and shared values achieved through sur- veillance of problem communities, public suspicion and harassment, cultural spectacle and legal stratification.

As the neoliberal state disintegrates society it seeks a compensatory politics in culture. As the Left discourse of ‘anti-anti-multiculturalism’ in the UK insists, it is not necessary to subscribe to ‘multicultural principles’ to oppose how distorted histories of state multi- culturalism are used by the neoliberal state and imperialist liberal-Left to hold racialised people responsible for their own oppression and exclusion.

If multiculturalism is regarded as the UK ‘model’, republicanism is – with more justification – associated with France. Rather than recognition, republican- ism proposes a subjectivity of political becoming, of integrating to a secular public realm that transcends cultural particularity in favour of a universalist civic identity.

Yet, as decolonial and antiracist activists in France argue, the republican assumption that allegiance to cultural difference is the problem, rather than the ways in which differences are continually racialised in the nation-state, means that republicanism is a form of nationalism that denies itself through its universal claims.

For all its claims to universalism, French laïcité has historically shifted in emphasis and form. For example, the foundational laws of 1880, which ensure the separation of church and state, oblige institutional, not individual neutrality. Yet the 2004 ‘headscarf’ law redefined personal religious symbols as inherently proselytising.

In their ideal forms, both sides of this clash propose divergent imaginaries of the political community, and on this basis, are taken up as possible models for integrating the society of the nation-state. In their actual, tangled and overlapping histories, both have failed to impose the political subjectivities demanded by their idea of the political community, ideal types manifestly inadequate to the complexity of the social contexts they seek to circumscribe.

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