The Poverty of Multiculturalism

The author of a new pamphlet on multiculturalism offers his critique of the liberal-left’s celebration of difference.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

Today, to criticise multiculturalism, one is invariably derided as ‘right wing’ or ‘reactionary’. Conversely, to champion multiculturalism, one is invariably perceived as ‘progressive’ or ‘of the left’. But it should be, and historically it has been, the other way around. Multiculturalism represents the antithesis of the Enlightenment principle of colour-blindness and the notion of the universality of humankind – while the fetishisation of ethnic particularism is a quintessentially Tory ideal. The liberal-left’s love affair with multiculturalism today is a betrayal of what it used to stand for.

From Edmund Burke to Roger Scruton, traditional conservatives have attached greater importance to place, tradition and culture, while those on the Left had a far greater affinity with the tenets of the Enlightenment and the idea of the brotherhood of humanity. As opposed to conservatives, progressives were inclined to believe that we are all part of a greater thing, and that we all have our part to play in helping to bring about solidarity and equality. This is why theorists of the welfare state were often nationalists. In his 1931 book Equality, RH Tawney wrote that ‘what a community requires…is a common culture, because, without it, it is not a community at all’. Similarly, in his report of 1942, William Beveridge recognised that a system of social insurance would require ‘a sense of national unity overriding the interests of any class or nation’. It was logical for the British nation to vote out the Tory Winston Churchill in 1945. It was because the country was then experiencing a surge of solidarity, and a belief that the nation was ‘all in it together’, that it could vote in a Labour government in such vast numbers.

Multiculturalism in subsequent years has acted only to divide the population into groupsicles of competing ethnicities who feel they have nothing in common with each other. What is more, redistributive politics are not accepted when people feel they have to share with strangers, who are ‘not like us’. In an article in the liberal monthly, Prospect, in December 2000, Alan Wolfe and Jytte Klausen argued: ‘Solidarity and diversity are both desirable objectives. Unfortunately, they can also conflict. A sense of solidarity creates a readiness to share with strangers, which in turn underpins a thriving welfare state. But it is easier to feel solidarity with those who broadly share your values and way of life. Modern progressives committed to diversity often fail to acknowledge this.’ Diversity and solidarity, both sound bites of the Left, can be mutually antagonistic.

It is peculiar that many who are the inheritors of the secular, rational Enlightenment tradition, and who call themselves progressives, are not only apologists for ethnic separateness, but – under the ostensible banner of respecting diversity – defend organised religion and irrationalism. When Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum lost her High Court battle to wear strict Islamic dress to school in June 2004, some left-leaning commentators decried this as racist and oppressive. The following month, Mayor of London Ken Livingstone argued that Britain should never follow the French example and ban headscarves in schools. ‘The French ban is the most reactionary proposal to be considered by any parliament in Europe since the Second World War’, he said (with not a little exaggeration). ‘I am determined London’s Muslims should never face similar restrictions. It marks a move towards religious intolerance which we in Europe swore never to repeat, having witnessed the devastating effects of the Holocaust.’

Whatever happened to the Left’s suspicion of organised religion? What of the idea that faiths should be tolerated only in the private sphere, and not funded in the public sphere? It took the vice president of the National Secular Society to argue: ‘If a line is not drawn, the next demand may be for permission to wear a burkha, or to be excluded from lessons taught by men, or to be excused lessons which contradict the Koran. This could be followed by the desire to be absent from lessons five times a day.’

As Stephen Eric Bronner laments in Reclaiming the Enlightenment (2004), this is the symptom of a deeper corruption of the Left. Under the spell of relativist postmodernist theory, and despairing of the failure of the Socialist experiments of the twentieth century, erstwhile progressives have sought intellectual refuge in identity politics. They have come to resemble the conservatives of old. Todd Gitlin notes this in The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995): ‘Between Left and Right there has taken place a curious reversal. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Left believed in a common human condition, the Right in fundamental differences among classes, nations, races. The Left wanted collective acts of renewal, the Right endorsed primordial ties of tradition and community against all disruptions…. Today it is the Right that speaks a language of commonalities. Its rhetoric of global markets and global freedoms has something of the old universalist ring. To be on the Left, meanwhile, is to doubt that one can speak of humanity at all’.

Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli and Michael Oakeshott are paleoconservative heroes, and detractors of the Enlightenment. Since Hayek and Popper, however, many on the Right have come to embrace the universalist aspects of the Enlightenment. Simultaneously, many on the Left have moved in the other direction.

In academia, there are relatively few voices of the Left still championing reason, such as Noam Chomsky; Brian Barry, author of Culture and Equality (2001); Stephen Eric Bronner; Richard Wolin, author of The Seduction of Unreason (2004); and the late Susan Moller Okin, whose Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women? (1999), gave the answer ‘yes’ to its title. When Okin concluded that gender equality was impossible to achieve among societies that practice polygamy, forced marriage or female genital mutilation, she faced the accusation of being dogmatically attached to Western liberalism.

One can count a few British public figures on the Left who stand up against the unreason that is smuggled under the banner of culture: the scientist Richard Dawkins; the journalists Mick Hume, Francis Wheen and Polly Toynbee, the last of whom laments that ‘[t]he natural allies of the rationalists have decamped. The left embraces Islam for its anti-Americanism. Liberals and progressives have had a collective softening of the brain and weakening of the knees’ (although Toynbee’s quarrel is less with multiculturalism than with organised religion).

Another to put his head above the parapet is the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who rebutted accusations that his effort to ban homophobic reggae singers is racist. ‘Some defend violently anti-gay reggae music on the grounds that homophobia is “part of Jamaican culture”. Racism was part of Afrikaaner culture in apartheid South Africa, but that did not make it right’, Tatchell wrote in the Guardian in August 2004. ‘The real racism is not our campaign against murder music, but most people’s indifference to the persecution of gay Jamaicans. No one would tolerate such abuses against white people in Britain; it is racist to allow them to happen to black people in another country.’

Peter Wilby, former editor of the left-leaning weekly New Statesman, concurs that the multicultural agenda often detracts from socioeconomic concerns. With unemployment in Britain among men of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Caribbean origin at 10 to 15 per cent higher than it is among white men, ‘[w]hat concerns most ethnic-minority people is not whether their daughters can wear the hijab at school, or the council sponsors Diwali celebrations, or lessons include references to Arab scientists. They want jobs and good wages.’

The sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, a tenacious socialist, agrees: ‘If insecurity and the paralysing feeling of powerlessness are the two major spectres haunting the poor, “multiculturalism” and “moral relativism” must be two of the least topical worries of poorer people’. It has come to a bizarre predicament when, in July 2004, the left-wing Ken Livingstone saw no objection to welcoming to City Hall an Islamic extremist Muslim cleric who asserted that women who are raped are partly to blame; that husbands should be permitted to hit their wives; and that homosexuality should be punished by burning or stoning to death.

The celebration of ethnic particularism is a betrayal of the socialist ideal that the best way to create a more equal society is to perceive oneself, above anything else, along class lines. Celebrating diversity is an unwitting way of implementing a policy of divide and rule. In the words of the left-wing sociologist Brian Barry: ‘There is no better way of heading off the nightmare of political action by the economically disadvantaged that might issue in common demands than to set different groups of the disadvantaged against one another.’

I’m no socialist, but I do believe that the best way to achieve a more just world is not to celebrate difference, but to ignore difference.

The Poverty of Multiculturalism is published by Civitas. See here for more information.

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Topics Politics


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