The Spectre of “Multiculturalism” by Molly Klein

(MR Zine, 3 June 2013,


“Multiculturalism” has inspired reams of anguished writing across Europe over the past decade and a half.  Politicians, pundits and academics have competed to produce the most lurid tales of a “failed experiment” conducted by misguided elites, a botched socio-cultural surgery causing grievous harm to the social body requiring an urgent therapeutic process of “integration”.  Without being described with any specificity, both the implementation1and the malfunction2of multiculturalism are widely indicted for having inflicted injury on things of presumed incontestable value, among them value itself, “our” values, Western Civilization, liberalism, democracy, individualism, secularism, national pride, community cohesion, feminism, masculinity, working class struggle, and more.3 As is traditional, the castigation of this mysterious enemy offers an occasion for the ritual assertion of “European” claims to everything worthwhile and admirable humanity has ever produced, with the possible exceptions of ideographs, woks and Jazz.

While the Jeremiahs sermonising against this latest phase of socio-cultural degeneracy insist on the novelty of the grotesque multikulticreature whose ravages they deplore — here’s a new modernity-resistant strain of culture both atavistic and post-modern — there’s really nothing new about the anxiety or the rhetoric in which its principal themes are expressed.  In fact we can recognise “multiculturalism”, with its familiar vices and predictable targets of attack, as none other than the usual suspects in the ruling class’s reactionary diagnoses of human affairs: that is, very simply, usHumanity The “failed experiment” is the old nightmare democracyfrom the point of view of today’s version of the Platonic aristocracy.

Challenges or rivals to class power are always abominated by the dominant appropriator class as menaces to civilisation itself, and it is no surprise we find that we ourselves— we fleshly hordes with our varied languages, tastes, and vices, forever caught in the act of some crime of passion or perversity (“honour-killings”, drug use, overeating, rioting, sexual promiscuity, sexual repression) — are this (failed) “multiculturalism”, a loathsome foil to an ideal labour force of capitalist fantasy composed of streamlined, homogenous clones who can be bred to order and gassed and incinerated, or perhaps recycled into plastic bottles, when superfluous.  We, “multiculturalism”, are a fiend even older than capitalism, older than Christendom, a figure which has taken innumerable forms in ruling class mythology over the centuries, among them maya, the Witches’ Sabbath, the many-headed Hydra, “slave morality”, Jewish-Bolshevism and communism, and which more recently has gone under an array of aliases, among them third worldism, altermondialism and identity politics.

And as Edward Said taught us, this practise of portraiture of the Other (most of us) serves to define and describe Europe (owners of capital, their courtiers and a privileged minority of us) by implication and contrast, effectively attaching to it virtues which could not be positively claimed.  The discourse of “failed multiculturalism” serves today above all to bolster an image of Europe and the West — as for example being characterised by the respect for the rule of law nationally and internationally — that is impossible to assert through the making of a case.  The old white supremacist canards — according to which, for example, it is the victims of capitalism and imperialism whose nature it is to engage in torture and terror (it is enslaved men who rape the masters’ wives, not the masters who rape enslaved women, etc), while the civilizer abominates such barbaric violence — can only be kept current now by means of an immense barrage of image and mytheme made possible by advanced telecom and culture industries, which disseminate incessant repetition of and increasingly vivid imagery illustrating an apodictic connection between the Other (of Europe and the West) and everything the imperial ruling class wishes to present itself as innocent of and the cure for, positioning this Other as a threat to the benevolent and virtuous imperial power who is the real victim not only of violent aggression but of racism and defamation.

In the discourse of “failed multiculturalism” we find rehashed, in (scarcely) updated terms, the ancient scheme dividing the natural slaves, who are determined objects, matter rather than mind, the highest of animals, from the master elites of free self-fashioning individuals, who are all mind and only incidentally bodily, a kind of demigod (possessor of value in increasingly abstract forms) — the made (by the world and by the superior others), on the one hand, and the makers (of the world, including themselves and the rest of humanity), on the other.  As humanity across the globe becomes increasing enraged by the insatiable parasitism of a proprietor elite led by the FIRE sector, reasserting this mythology, alongside the increasingly magico-fantastic accounts of the mysterious productivity of finance, becomes a matter of urgency for the salvation of ruling class legitimacy.  Thus the ironic structure and seeming incoherence of the core slogans and memes of anti-multiculturalist harangue — e.g. Universality = French (or European, or Western) Tradition; zero tolerance for the intolerant who would undermine our culture of tolerance; the bombardment or murderous siege of a city is a “message” while a provocation written on a placard or the burning of a car is “violence” — expresses this disguised but constitutive contradiction or hypocrisy of liberal individualism itself.  It is increasingly apparent that the liberal individualism grounded in the proprietor individual whose form of property can only be the despotic control of other individuals (a despotism exercised in recent years in a manner too flagrant and direct to ignore) requires an assumed but unspoken hierarchy in humanity.  As Charles W. Millsexplained, “the Racial Contract . . . underwrites the social contract.”  The clamour for an end to “multiculturalism” is the declaration of a renewal of this Racial Contract in the guise of the defence of a liberal individualist social contract that long served as its cover and posed as universal.

In 1985, at the height of the first massive campaign of imperial cultural revanchism post-68, typified by Allan Bloom’s reactionary laments4for an Academy in the aftermath of the social movement and culture war victories of the post-war era (overrun with the enemies of civilization, Reason and Intellect such as Women’s and Africana Studies programmes), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz delivered a witty but nonetheless trenchant riposte to the then latest phase of this anti-humanity alarmism:

A scholar can hardly be better employed than in destroying a fear.  The one I would like to go after is cultural relativism.  Not the thing itself, which I think merely there, like Transylvania, but the dread of it, which I think unfounded.5

This “cultural relativism” that was the fiend of the day for “neo-universalists” in anthropology is a precursor of today’s catch-all “multiculturalism” (which has absorbed it).  Like “multiculturalism” as it is demonised and attacked by celebrity fascoid intellectuals like Slavoj Žižek and fascist terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik, the unforgiveable villainy of “cultural relativism” was its imagined treason to the Hegelian account of world history, the credo of Euro-supremacy and the shirking of the civilizing mission of Western Empire.  Cultural relativism, Geertz told his Princeton audience, was imagined by his anxious colleagues to spawn a great many theoretical and moral evils, among them “subjectivism, nihilism, incoherence, Machiavellianism, ethical idiocy, [and] aesthetic blindness” while the “promised rewards” of repudiating this heresy were a “pasteurized knowledge” that never materialised.  The familiar anxiety about moral decay and its association with impurity, hybridity and the multi-perspectivalism of both Marxism and much of what is disparagingly labelled “identity politics” (whose scholarly accessories include critical legal studies, critical race theory, and the feminist and queer elaborations of these, also often though not always Marxist) appears again in the denunciations of “multiculturalism”.  Geertz went on:

To be more specific, I want not to defend relativism, which is a drained term anyway, yesterday’s battle cry, but to attack anti-relativism, which seems to me broadly on the rise, and to represent a streamlined version of an antique mistake.  Whatever cultural relativism may be or originally have been (and there is not one of its critics in a hundred who has got that right) it serves these days largely as a spectre to scare us away from certain ways of thinking and toward others.  And as the ways of thinking away from which we are being driven seem to me more cogent than those toward which we are being propelled, and to lie at the heart of the anthropological heritage, I would like to do something about this.  Casting out demons is a praxis we should practise as well as study.

Two Irish social scientists Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley undertake to do precisely this in their truly useful new book The Crisis of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age(Zed Books, 2011).  And when I term the book as “useful”, I mean to say it is one of those rare books that are a weapon for struggle.  Like Geertz, Lentin and Titley carry no brief for “multiculturalism” — they too are endeavouring instead to take a position anti anti-multiculturalism and destroy the fears that discourse incites, fears provoked by an aggressive ruling class to assist in the management of the populations against whom they are conducting the kind of plunder and terroristic offensive that the privileged citizenry within the rich core have not seen since the Second World War.

In his lecture, Geertz noted that anti-relativism’s accusations of nihilism against cultural relativism in anthropology (as well as against “aesthetic relativism” in Stanley Fish’s literary criticism and “cognitive relativism” in the theories of Thomas Kuhn) was comforting to “those afraid reality is going to go away unless we believe very hard in it”, and it could be said that an anti-multiculturalism that Lentin and Titley take on is also fulminating with exaggerated accusations against multiculturalism that comfort those who fear that their reality, which they call “Europe”, is likely to disappear, like Tinkerbell, without sufficient expressions of love and faith.  But in the case at least of the ruling elites who foster anti-multiculturalist campaigns, this fear (that the loss of legitimacy facing the current ruling elites across the globe may pose an existential threat to the status quo) isn’t entirely unreasonable.

“As Markha Valenta argued on openDemocracy in March,” Lentin and Titley wrote on openDemocracyrecently, “the denunciation of multiculturalism by the British, German and French premiers between late 2010 and early 2011 would have made more sense if European multiculturalism had actually ever existed.”

But as Lentin and Titley show in their book The Crisis of Multiculturalism — a staggeringly detailed and thorough dissection of the current stream of supremacist, imperial-apologist, racist discourses — it is precisely a legendary and not a concrete menace that is required and fashioned by the denouncers.  The real target of the attacks on “multiculturalism” is, as they put it, “lived multiculture”, and the real content of the condemnations is the production of race and racism, an overt engagement with which is taboo and for which the discourse of “failed multiculturalism” provides a euphemistic lexicon.  An actually existing multiculturalism (as perhaps might encompass a range of policy in education, media development, arts funding, urban planning, or perhaps designate an attitude or tendency in various grassroots social, aesthetic, hermeneutic, or organizational practises) could never live up to the monstrous figment’s evil reputation or justify the level of terror required to solidify a portion of the public’s allegiance to the status quo.  The irreversible illegitimacy of racialist ideas or biologistic racism and the dogma of the contemporary era as “post-race” seal the difficulty and awkwardness of advancing Euro-supremacist interpretations of reality and ideological elements of white supremacist praxis in any way other than in disguised and yet codified and legible form such as the “multiculturalism debate” offers.  This explains why the wreckage of this misbegotten multicultural Thing’s rampage is visible all across new and old media, but the beast itself is glimpsed only obliquely, as in the most effective horror entertainments.  Addressees of these warnings about the ubiquitous and protean enemy are intended to infer the contours and features of multiculturalism from the shapes of the wounds it has dealt to a parade of evocative abstractions.

Having reported the diagnosis of the ailing European “host” social body and the results of the biopsy of multiculturalism its assailant, voices from across the political spectrum in Europe demand that “immigrants” be expected, without apology, to embrace and adopt the admirable dominant culture or Leitkultur(La République, British values, Europeanity, Enlightenment, liberalism, modernity) from this moment forth.  This imperative is put forward by the leading politicians and mediatised intellectuals (figures such as Alain Finkielkraut for example in France or David Aaronovitch in the UK) as a simple matter of the willingness on the part of “aliens” to adapt themselves to their present environment, as might be depicted on an episode of Star Trek.  The rhetoric of “host society” is deployed to suggest that immigrants and ethnic minorities are guests — who should behave as if they were in the home of those claiming a more ancient right of residence, to whom they are beholden for hospitality and who have a right to expel them if they offend — or, worse, parasites, with the obvious implications of that image, especially in a media context wherein commentators from a wide range of political commitments discuss immigrants incessantly as dependents and drains on the state and community rather than as producers and contributors drained by the state and an exploiter class and, arguably, the most vulnerable to exploitation as domestic workers, sex workers, by other sellers of labour power.  It is merely assumed, but never stated, that the majority populations of Europe who are neither immigrants nor ethnic minorities are daily practising and producing this culture expressive of European values in such a way as to make it available for the recalcitrantly unassimilated to immerse themselves in so they may become as virtuous and admirable as those from whom this culture emerges naturally like silk from worms.

In the aftermath of riots in London and across the UK in reaction to the police execution of Mark Duggan, an unarmed, black British man shot dead at close range while, according to one eyewitness, restrained on the ground by multiple officers in Tottenham, the BBC invited the historian David Starkey onto a primetime current affairs programme to discuss the recent events with two other guests.  Starkey’s diagnosis belongs to the camp of anti-multiculturalism but was unusually blunt, bringing what is often confined to the hinted right out in the open.  The problem is that the whites have become black,”he said, elaborating a standard reactionary fable of degeneracy through hybridity and mingling that was only unusual for ignoring the common etiquette of euphemism.  He culminated, as is traditional, by stressing the corruption and vitiation of language — the main artery of cultural essence — performing a mocking recitation of what he sneeringly deplored (in a manner reminiscent of Wagner on the abomination of Jewish speechamong endless iterations of this theme going back to the trial of the Knights Templar) as “Jamaican patois” which is “wholly false” and “intruded in England” (that he actually seems to have mistaken a cockney locution for a British Caribbean one is telling but beside the point).  What is perhaps even more distressing however than the fact that a person often appearing on the public broadcaster’s programmes and by no means shunned as a crank could make such remarks, and by doing so create facts on the ground for the further re-barbarisation of manners, was the inability of the three others on the programme (the host and two guests) to respond in a satisfactory way that would have immediately exposed the sinister illegitimacy of all his assumptions and rendered them risible.  Indeed the incident served as an extraordinary illustration of how little the culture wars that did significantly unmoor the mythology of Whig History, Hegelianism and white supremacist mythology in general in the US milieux which are socially comparable to that in which the Newsnightguests move have loosened the grip of the ideology of British Empire on the UK liberal mainstream.

On YouTube one can see the film of a Cambridge Union debate on the topic “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”  The debate pitted James Baldwin and one Cambridge student against William F. Buckley and another.  Baldwin’s debating partner was a well meaning young man, with an accent less posh than the rest, who was certainly sincerely indignant over the injustices of white supremacy in the US, but who, when it came to giving a picture of his idea of the contribution of the American Negro” to American culture and society, could think only of manual labour, “music and jokes”.  That democracy, Enlightenment, feminism, Reason, etc might more reasonably be attributed to “black culture” than to “Europe”, “the West” or “white culture” is a possibility which even the Cantabrigian sincerely trying to ponder the question of what “the America Negro” has contributed to “the American Dream” could not entertain.  That was 1965.  Nearly half a century later, another young man, this time an Oxonian — also not as posh as most, seated across from Starkey in the BBC’s studio and unfortunate enough to be the addressee of his remarks as if Starkey saw in the only other white male in the room a natural ally — still could not come up with anything other than “black music” to cite in rebuttal of the white historian’s lament for the deleterious influence of blackness on Britain.

Had Lentin and Titley’s The Crisis of Multiculturalismbeen part of his education, the youthful Oxonian would have at least possessed the conceptual and hermeneutical tools and information to offer an unanswerable reply to the evocative, mythological propaganda with which he was confronted.  It’s the kind of text that can upgrade the arsenal of culture warriors who choose not to retreat.


1  As for example in such articles as: Slavoj Žižek, “Mulculturalism, or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism,” New Left Review I/225, September-October 1997; Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Diversity,” New Left Review 52, July-August 2008: Pascal Bruckner, “Enlightenment Fundamentalism or Racism of the Anti-racists?”,, 24/01/2007.

2 For a typical iteration see Kenan Malik’s “The Failures of Multiculturalism”, a lecture contributing to the conference “The State and Secular Society”, Avesta Sweden, June 2006, available at:  For an overview of recent chorus of declarations of multiculturalism’s failure by European politicians see John Bowen “Europe Against Multiculturalism” in Boston Review, July/August 2011,

3 . . . also Enlightenment, internationalism, universalism,  modernity, progress, atheism, Reason, Truth, Christianity, Judeo-Christianity, socialism, working class struggle, German-ness, French-ness, Dutch-ness, Irish-ness, British-ness, English-ness, Swiss-ness. . . .

4  See Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, which originated with a 1982 essay in the National Review.

5  Clifford Geertz, Distinguished Lecture: “Anti Anti-Relativism”, delivered at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, 1984.

Follow Molly Klein on Twitter @MrHermsprong.

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