Multiculturalism and its Discontents is a critique both of multiculturalism and of its critics. It will be published this autumn by Seagull Books as part of its Manifestos for the Twenty-first Century series. You can read here the introduction to the book. And you can order it through my Pandaemonium bookshop in Britain or the USA.
Multiculturalism and its discontents
On 22 July 2011, Anders Behring Breivik planted a car bomb outside government buildings in the Regjeringskvartalet area of Oslo. The explosion killed eight people and injured more than 200. Two hours later, Breivik, dressed in an all-black paramilitary uniform, launched an attack on a summer camp organized by the youth division of the Norwegian Labour Party on the nearby island of Utøya. For an hour and a half, he walked round the campsite, firing indiscrim- inately with machine guns, unzipping tents and gunning down people cowering inside. Sixty-nine people were killed in the homicidal rampage.
It was a viscerally shocking moment, the worst atrocity that Norway had suffered since the Second World War. Breivik’s aim was to launch not simply a physical assault but an existential one, too. In his eyes the killings in Oslo and Utøya were the first shots in a war to defend Europe against multiculturalism. Shortly before the attacks, he had published online a 1,500-page manifesto entitled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. ‘2083’ refers to the four hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vienna when the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe had been checked by the armies of the Habsburg Empire. Twenty-first-century Europe, Breivik claimed, faced a similar threat and required a similar military response. ‘The individuals I have been accused of illegally executing,’ he wrote, ‘are supporters of the anti-European hate ideology known as multiculturalism, an ideology that facilitates Islamization and Islamic demographic warfare.’ They were ‘killed in self defence through a pre-emptive strike’ having ‘been found guilty and condemned to death’.
Few but the most psychopathic could have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet, the belief that multiculturalism is undermining Western civilization, that Muslim immigration is eroding the social and cultural fabric of European societies, transforming Europe into ‘Eurabia’, that politicians responsible for allowing this to happen are at best irresponsible, at worst traitors – all these notions now find a widespread hearing, and not just on the fringes of politics. Bruce Bawer is a distinguished US literary critic and poet. He was, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, outraged by Breivik’s attack, not simply because of the carnage, but because the carnage would ‘deal a heavy blow to an urgent cause’. Breivik’s rampage was ‘unspeakably evil’ and yet, claimed Bawer, he was expressing in his manifesto ‘a legitimate concern about genuine problems’. There is, wrote Bawer, ‘reason to be deeply concerned about all these things and to want to see them addressed forcefully by government leaders’. British writer and broadcaster Melanie Phillips is a recipient of Britain’s highest accolade for political journalism, the Orwell Prize, and a fellow panellist of mine on BBC Radio 4’s weekly debate programme The Moral Maze. She, like Bawer, condemned the ‘horrible carnage’ at Utøya. She, too, insisted that ‘Multiculturalism and Islamic extremism raise entirely legitimate and very serious concerns about defending a culture from attack both from within and from without.’
Twenty years ago, multiculturalism was widely seen as the answer to many of Europe’s social problems. We’re All Multiculturalists Now, as American sociologist Nathan Glazer, a former critic of pluralism, suggested in the title of his book. Celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics had all come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies
And yet, the very moment that Glazer was declaring us all to be multiculturalists was also the moment that many stopped being so. Or, rather, it was the moment when doubts about multiculturalism began to haunt mainstream politics, particularly in Europe. Over the past decade, and particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, such doubts have grown and come to dominate the debate. Today, multiculturalism is seen by growing numbers of people not as the solution to, but as the cause of, Europe’s myriad social ills. That perception has led mainstream politicians, such as British prime minister David Cameron, German chancellor Angela Merkel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, to denounce the dangers of multiculturalism. It has provided fuel for the success of far-right parties and populist politicians across Europe from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Marine Le Pen in France, from the True Finns to the UK Independence Party. And it greased the obscene, homicidal rampage of Anders Behring Breivik.
The reasons for this transformation in the perception of multiculturalism are complex and at the heart of what I will explore in this book. It is not just the perception of multiculturalism that has changed but also the character of its critique. As much of the debate surrounding the Breivik assault reveals, the contemporary critique is often driven by crude notions – indeed myths – about Islam, Muslims, immigration, European history and Western values.
These changes pose a problem in writing a book such as this. I have been critical of multiculturalism from long before it was fashionable to be so. But my critique is rooted in a completely different vision to that of most contemporary opponents. I am hostile to multiculturalism not because I fear immigration, despise Muslims or want to reduce diversity but, on the contrary, because I favour immigration, oppose the growing hatred of Muslims and welcome diversity. There is a long and important tradition of leftwing and progressive critiques of multiculturalism and of the ideas that underlie it, a tradition that has largely been buried by the rightwing assault in recent years. That assault has both reframed the debate about multiculturalism and made many on the left reluctant to challenge it for fear of being associated with the likes of Bawer and Phillips, Wilders and Le Pen. This book is a critique of multiculturalism. It is also a critique of its critics. At its heart is the insistence that the challenge to multiculturalism and the challenge to its rightwing foes are inseparable.
Before we can discuss the claims both of multiculturalists and of their critics, we need first to unpack what we mean by ‘multiculturalism’. Part of the problem is that the term has, in recent years, come to possess two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.
The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and celebrate. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case not for open borders and minds but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.
The aim of Multiculturalism and its Discontents is to celebrate diversity while opposing multiculturalism. The book begins with a brief discussion of the historical and philosophical roots of multiculturalism, and of the philosophical debates surrounding it. It looks then at the political roots and social consequences of multicultural policy. Finally, I examine the contemporary critique of multiculturalism, to show that much of it is not simply wrong but also dangerous. The message of this book is that both multiculturalism and much of the discontent with it needs to be challenged.