Divisive dead-end

Should the left 'defend multiculturalism'? James Turley looks at the reactions to David Cameron's weekend speech

David Cameron with Angela Merkel at Munich

Last weekend saw some peculiarly malign coincidences for all those opposed to the onward march of racist and bigoted ideology. Most frivolously, the BBC was forced to issue a formal apology on Friday after the three stars of its flagship motoring show, Top gear, engaged in a frankly lazy diatribe against, of all peoples, Mexicans - recycling all the old crap about fecklessness and bad food favoured by the soldiers of 19th century American expansion.

The next day saw rather more serious events. In Luton, the English Defence League - a motley crew of hardened fascists and football hooligans - staged its biggest yet march, with attendance estimates ranging from 3,000 to 7,000. The inevitable Unite Against Fascism 'counter-demonstration' was another example, among many, of UAF's dwindling influence - barely 2,000-strong and herded well away from the EDL.

Meanwhile, in Munich, David Cameron delivered a speech to an international conference on 'security'. After some platitudinous pledges to continue British involvement in Afghanistan and Nato, Cameron spent the bulk of his speech on the question of confronting "Islamist extremism". This included some, in reality, fairly mild criticisms of multiculturalism - to be clear, rather than proposing to axe state handouts to soi-disant 'community groups', Cameron proposes to vet them more carefully, to determine whether they believe in "universal human rights - including for women and people of other faiths"; "equality of all before the law"; and "democracy and the right of people to elect their own government". Most importantly, they should "encourage integration" rather than "separation".[1]

Most media comment on the issue focused on, precisely, this coincidence - Cameron's speech was considered ill-judged primarily because it coincided with the EDL's march. Labour MP Sadiq Khan even accused the PM of writing propaganda for the EDL, which - despite the Tory Party's utterly appalling record on these issues - is probably over-egging the pudding.

Indeed, in a mirror image of the usual knee-jerk condemnations in the reactionary press against 'controversial' films, TV shows and books, it is not clear than many of his critics have actually read the speech. In particular, the recurrent claim that Cameron does not make reference to far-right groups is simply not true - he does throughout, mostly as a comparison to expose the supposed hypocrisy of "soft-left" defenders of multiculturalism and "passive tolerance".

That, however, is not really the point - given the longer-term background to Cameron's speech, and indeed the growth of the EDL, any mention of Muslim extremism was inevitably going to provoke a political firestorm over multiculturalism - even if he had dedicated the rest of his speech to talking about The magic roundabout. "The tongue," Lenin writes somewhere, "finds the aching tooth."

Voices from within official British politics have come out, increasingly, against multiculturalism. The turning point, unsurprisingly, was September 11 2001 and the subsequent 'war on terror' - which provided reactionaries and the state with a whole new 'enemy within' to find lurking under every bed in the form of Islamic 'radicalism'. Trevor Phillips, then head of the Commission for Racial Equality, made a controversial speech in 2004 declaring multiculturalism a failure, which had encouraged separateness rather than integration.

Tony Blair was next, making a very similar speech to Cameron's in the wake of the July 7 2005 bombings in London. That was another turning point; not only had the war on terror come to the British capital: its agents were second-generation British Asians, brought up after multiculturalism became a truly comprehensive state policy. Since then, there have been numerous calls for promoting some kind of unitary British identity, based on certain timeless 'British values' like liberty, democracy and so forth. (It is barely worth mentioning that calling these ideas 'British values' is somewhat more historically illiterate even than Nick Griffin's hypothesis of an ethnic community of the British dating back tens of thousands of years.)

Multiculturalism

What, then, is this bogeyman multiculturalism? For some, particularly on the Tory right, it is everything that falls short of an active attempt to cajole immigrants into dropping their old national identities in order to blend seamlessly into the British melting-pot.

A more substantial definition is preferred by Marxists: multiculturalism is the official promotion and celebration of cultural differences, as part of a wider, tolerant Britishness. This resulted in the policy of offering material support to cultural and 'community organisations', coupled with an ideological offensive targeted at the racist right in order to foster social stability. However, its application - facilitating the distribution of state resources according to ethnicity, for example - could be just as divisive as racism itself. As such, it is bound up with that other semi-mythical bogeyman of the right - 'political correctness'.

The first stirrings of multiculturalism were the product of the Labour government of the late 1960s; but the policy did not really find its stride until the 1980s. After 'race riots' in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere, the Thatcher government sought to find partners in these deprived areas with whom it could do business. At this point, one thing should be stated clearly - unsurprisingly given the Iron Lady's inclinations, the recipients of the resultant government largesse were most commonly religious organisations.

Up until that point, the visibility of migrant and ethnic minority communities was a matter of political resistance to oppression - very often unfocused, but nonetheless real. The tendency to recognise mosques and churches, temples and gurdwaras, as representative bodies of a given 'community' became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the concurrent decline of the political left, the tendency was for expressions of minority identity to be set in some relationship with dominant religious institutions. If individuals were not coopted into (say) the mosques, they reacted against the mosques with religious radicalisation rather than secularism; the latter was the story of the 7/7 bombers. (Similarly, when white workers react against the corruption of official politics, they very often go to the radicalised versions of its worst tendencies, in the form of the BNP and EDL.)

"A lie," Mulder is told early on in the X files, "is best hidden between two truths." Thus, for all their political and historical illiteracy, those bourgeois jeremiads about the results of multiculturalism have traction because they also have a certain truth. Multiculturalism, in its own terms, has failed. It was supposed to rid Britain of overt racism - but it has ushered in substantial electoral success for the BNP, and now a growing street-fighting proto-fascism in the form of the EDL. It was supposed to halt ghettoisation, but that has continued at more or less the same pace as before, though it is probably overstated.[2] Thirty years after the Brixton riot, we appear to be back in the 70s on these matters - down to oh-so-hilarious 70s sitcom-style jokes on popular TV shows.

That is the truth in Cameron's statement. What are the lies? He is certainly careful to hedge his language, and refuses to lump Islam in with "Islamist extremism", which confusion is the common currency of the "far right" (but then so did George Bush). This is an obfuscation in itself: in common with all religions, whose social role is increasingly limited to sustaining reactionary institutions - in particular, patriarchy - that capital can no longer advocate openly, 'good' Islam cannot be so easily dissociated from 'bad' Islam. Many apparently pacific Muslim clerics have come under fire for bloodthirsty statements regarding homosexuality - just as the purportedly liberal Church of England has proven itself increasingly beholden to similar opinions. (That is to say nothing of the shades of opinion in Cameron's own party, which includes former wearers of the infamous 'Hang Nelson Mandela' badge.)

His isolation of "Islamist extremism" serves a more dubious purpose even than this, however. Let us quote him at length, responding to "soft-left" explanations for Islamist terrorism on the basis of particular grievances:

"They point to the poverty that so many Muslims live in and say, 'Get rid of this injustice and the terrorism will end.' But this ignores the fact that many of those found guilty of terrorist offences in the UK and elsewhere have been graduates and often middle class. They point to grievances about western foreign policy and say, 'Stop riding roughshod over Muslim countries and the terrorism will end.' But there are many people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are angry about western foreign policy, but who don't resort to acts of terrorism.

"They also point to the profusion of unelected leaders across the Middle East and say, 'Stop propping these people up and you will stop creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.' But this raises the question: if it's the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies?"

Here, David 'There is such a thing as society' Cameron, above all else, reveals himself to be a true-blue Thatcherite. His incomprehension of the notion that poverty could radicalise someone who is not starving, or imperialist-sponsored autocratic regimes could disgust someone who does not suffer under one, points to an elementary failure to understand even the most basic level of social solidarity.

His real concern in wheeling out this bizarre logic, of course, is to conveniently sweep all these grievances under the carpet as soon as mentioning them. There is no need to withdraw troops from Afghanistan (as demanded by the leader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan), no need to stop superexploiting countries at the periphery, no need to withdraw support for oppressive states - because it is all the fault of a "perverse" ideology, propped up by multiculturalism.

What else is there?

The half-truth is that, as noted, the relative strengthening of religious organisations as a whole has led to grievances being interpreted in religious terms (the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry among Christians, Hindus and others is an almost identical phenomenon to the rise of Islamism). Yet can David Cameron really imagine that the aggressive strains of Islam would have much appeal, were the 'hate preachers' not able to point to all this injustice in the world? Even Osama bin Laden cannot claim his attacks to be purely and simply in the interests of establishing a new caliphate - he must talk in terms of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine to energise the likes of Sidique Khan.

Despite his attack, however, nobody should imagine that Cameron has delivered the eulogy for multiculturalism. His great solution is … to apportion public money to different religious groups. That was also Blair's response to 7/7. For all the bashings it comes in for, multiculturalism is proving a difficult beast to slay. This, in the end, is because it is the principal means the state has to manage ethnic tensions in a bourgeois society characterised by large-scale, but unfree, immigration. Multiculturalism is a way to get influential sections of ethnic communities inside the tent, pissing out, and gain passive support from the rest of the community through the petty-patriarchal power structures already in place. For Cameron in particular, whose 'big society' programme - inasmuch as it manifests at all - effectively amounts to an attack on secularism, this is not something that can be easily sacrificed.

Multiculturalism represents a partial gain for oppressed groups by comparison to the overt state racism that preceded it. Now more than ever, however, it is revealed as a reactionary dead end. The struggles of the oppressed against their oppression are paramount to the success of the revolution - but resolving them democratically means rejecting multiculturalism, which merely serves to reinforce the structures of patronage sustained by religious and patriarchal groups and is directly counterposed to the aspiration of achieving a higher, working class culture, able to absorb the best from the thousands of diverse ethnic, national and local cultures the world over.

The Socialist Workers Party, albeit seemingly in retreat from its generally uncritical endorsement of multiculturalism, remains in a state of confusion on this point. "While Cameron holds multiculturalism responsible for the growth of 'Islamic extremism'," writes a Socialist Worker correspondent, "the left has its own critique of the policy. We have taken it to task for being tokenistic and seeking to blunt radical challenges to racism. Nevertheless, we have always understood that another kind of multiculturalism was possible, one that rests on the traditions of unity forged in struggle. Our multiculturalism can be seen in today's Britain. It is the product of decades of protests and strikes, gigs and carnivals, relationships and friendships."[3]

This amounts to saying that multiculturalism should be promoted from below, not from above. In fact the SWP's internal Party Notes goes further, imploring: "... we have to defend multiculturalism and black and white unity" - apparently unaware of the contradiction between the two.[4] We stand for class unity against the state - the exact opposite of the multicultural legacy, which means begging at the rulers' table for a few crumbs of council money, of which there is in any case not going to be much in the coming period.

Such unity will be achieved through the promotion of a common, working class identity, not the continued celebration of differences.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-transcripts/2011/02/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference-60293.

2. Socialist Worker cites a study by the University of Manchester, which found that less than 20% of ethnic minority individuals socialise exclusively amongst their ethnic group - compared to 50% of whites ('Don't let the Tories play the race card', February 12). Indeed, ghettoisation is as much a function of 'white flight' as anything else.

3. 'Racism: part of a long Tory tradition' Socialist Worker February 12.

4. Party Notes February 7: www.swp.org.uk/party-notes.