Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Just what in the hell is multiculturalism anyway?

Psst.. there is a TL;DR at the bottom, if you are that sort of person.

This blog documents one of those moments where something, some issue you have always considered right, suddenly flips around on you, and you cannot un-see what you have seen.

My view of multiculturalism, from a UK perspective, up until about 4pm Bangalore time last Sunday:

"Multiculturalism is a great thing. A diversity of culture is as close to an objective measure as I know to measuring the healthiness of a societal system, that is, the rate, breadth, and sustenance of cultural evolution. I mean, look at any point of History.. could you imagine a time when so many people, of so many races, could live side-by-side for generations without major trouble? This may be anecdotal, but I was 27 before I first heard a racial slur used in anger, and that was in Serbia. That just wouldn't have been conceivable before. Multiculturalism, as demonstrated in the UK, is a continuing force for good, for overcoming prejudices, and for enlivening traditional British culture with a whole fusion of influences."

OK, now I'm not saying I have thrown all of this out the window. It has been a positive force in reducing racism, it has led to a cultural renaissance in cooking, music, fashion, etc, and it has, for the most part, worked. But there's a hitch. I now feel I have to add punctuation. 'Multiculturalism' in the UK isn't quite what it says on the tin, as we can see by looking at what it means when people say that multiculturalism has been a success or failure. Additionally, it also highlights why I now view 'multiculturalism' as at best irrelevant, at worst a potentially dangerous turn of events.

N.b From now, I will use 'multiculturalism' to denote my prior understanding, at that of the majority of people in the UK, of the term. I will use 'multi-culturalism' to denote what I now regard as the correct definition, as I will explain below.

When people point to successful multiculturalism, inherent in the concept is that of successful integration. Sure, we benefit from the influences and fusions of other cultures, but it is presupposed that integration should be the aim. Conversely, multiculturalism is seen to have failed when integration does not occur, as when cultures congregate into what become segregated areas, targets of mistrust and suspicion because of their 'otherness'. We thus see that 'multiculturalism' is a misnomer, or at least a slightly Orwellian-sounding word by matter of circumstance. For it is the inputs of the system only that are actually multi-cultural; it is through the process of multiculuralism, aka integration, that the intended output is in fact cultural homogeneity. Synthesis of cultural influences does not create plurality in-and-of-itself, indeed it creates homogeneity when forced through power's cultural filter that is multiculturalism. Rather than a new paradigm of social living, what multiculturalism in fact represents is the successful effort of integration of races and ethnicities into a significantly enough sized culturally-homogenous mass to maintain passive control.

These is no mean feat in itself, and relative to what preceded capitalism (for this is the paradigm under which this process is made viable) it was, and still would be seen to be in some places, a force for moral good. But as with every social paradigm, there comes a time when it is no longer adequate, no longer legitimate to a civil sphere that by definition evolves quicker than institutionalised power. Now is that time. What started as a noble experiment, multiculturalism has become an all-too-successful strategy for GovCorp to mitigate counter-cultural threats through the dictation of a new cultural/social environment that is homogenised, atomised, and thus increasingly vulnerable to the use of fear and misrepresentations of genuine multi-culturalism; the 'other'. It is a pattern repeated throughout history: culture's homogenise, the mass shared identity is then abused by those wielding the monopoly on cultural production, and the populace is blindly steered into horrendous acts, all facilitated by the shared moral limits brought to them by their shared, morally-exclusive propaganda.

This is a dangerous path, regardless of any success that may have accrued regarding racism. We need to realise that the colour of your skin means sweet FA as an indicator of multi-culturalism, especially once you get beyond second-generation immigrants. Multi-culturalism is about what is inside your mind; your identity, your moral sphere, your subjective beliefs and values. It doesn't matter anymore whether you are white or black; if you all read the Sun everyday and nothing else, you are both equally likely to be fucking idiots in a distinctly British way. Awesome. Multiculturalism should not be considered as it is in terms of the variety of skin-colour visible in the same shops and bars and T-shirts; it should be measured by the presence of multiple cultures. The clue is in the name.

This realisation came so starkly when I noticed that, despite seeming to be the only white male within a two-mile radius of our neighbourhood here in Bangalore, and (perhaps slightly to my ignorant western eye) a highly homogenous ethinc mix, what I was seeing was nevertheless actual multi-culturalism. This contradiction with my previous notion of multicultural as meaning multi-ethnic hit me hard. Yet here, my day-to-day life consists of a myriad human interactions with informal workers in multiple sectors, a constant presence of a wide variety of architecture and trade (not the identikit houses and high streets we have in the UK), different songs, traditions, festivals, religions, and civic organisations, all highly visible and evident to everyone in a shared, multi-cultural environment.

You cannot segregate cultures here in India like you can in the UK. Would the rich have to view disfigured child beggars on Oxford street? Would cows be tolerated in choosing to to sleep on busy roads? Would the rights of the poorest include a policy environment recognising and facilitating the highly informal economic sector? While you may cry "What about convenience, safety, what about the children?!', at what cost have we sanitised and, to use a corporate word, rationalised, western society? It is now possible to do all of your shopping in one place, and not even talk to a cashier; hell, you can do it all from home and not give the delivery guy a second-look.  The west has regulated its way into mass social segregation and the loss of public-space grassroots expression, has allowed its populace to become products, and has allowed the social contract to be re-determined according to neoliberal macroeconomic mythological doctrine "our" representatives are now slaves to.

I once saw the UK as a beacon for multi-culturalism. Now I realise it is the exact opposite: a prime example of how culturally homogenous power can indoctrinate, sorry, integrate (and maintain, though for how long who can say) multiple cultures under one, overarching ideological doctrine that actually acts against their own interests, all within a generation.

This is the fundamental difference that makes India actually multi-cultural, and the UK merely multicultural. In India, (and I am not endorsing this, merely pointing out its relevance from a systems perspective) there is a caste system, a scale of inequality, and a variety of deep-rooted, mythological beliefs that keeps cultural identities numerous, distinct, and robust, yet all the while sharing the same physical space and thus making dissonance impossible to avoid. India has multiple loci of shared cultural identity: religion, state, civic, and commerce, that are all incredibly visible and that all have at least some influence on decision- and policy-making. It makes for a hodge-podge of cultural and community expression practised side-by-side, impossible to homogenise yet able to integrate up to a point.

This is key; this is multi-culturalism. No one has convincingly argued (and to my mind, could not..) that full cultural integration of outside cultures is a necessary or intrinsic good in a globalising world; in fact, attempts to do so have often coincided with mass genocide. There are people all over the world right now who share enough culture to create and maintain new communities, despite growing-up in radically different cultural climates. No one cultural identity can any longer morally claim authority to define the terms of what constitutes 'inclusion', or an 'official' national culture, or the 'other'. We learnt that already regarding religion in the West some time ago, with varying degrees of success, but the same holds true for political and economic ideologies also; all are trying to claim this authority by virtue of the impossible: the supposed ability to understand, predict, and control society, a complex adaptive system.

Incidentally, I do not use the reference to genocide glibly by the way. Cultural homogeneity is in my opinion the single worst target to aim for (unless you are on an isolated island). Particularly today, in this globalised, interconnected world, cultural homogeneity within the present paradigmatic confines of the nation state will only lead to fascism without a radical redefinition of the social contract, so as to remove its inherent nationalistic duty, and extend domestically held rights, our cultural production, and thus our moral sphere, to all humans and the environment.

This is particularly true of the West, where the sidelining or subversion of religion by the state and capitalism respectively, the vulnerable dependence on state spending of civic organisations (being cut as we speak), and the gradual and all-but-complete corporate subsuming of governmental and even fourth-sector stakeholders' individual and institutional frameworks, have all left the cultural landscape utterly monopolised by corporate culture. CEOs and politicians now speak the same, dress the same, go to the same places, swap jobs; the Venn-diagram of their cultural systems, and therefore their moral values and doctrinal priorities and sense of duty, are aligning, as competition between the two once opposing and balancing ideological identities declines. For all its benefits, for all the ska and the curries, multiculturalism has not been of any use in countering this homogenisation of culture, and the corporate power that lies behind it.

Herein lies the secret of the UK's multicultural 'success'. The monopolisation of cultural production (mass-media corporate conglomerates, regulatory frameworks creating market barriers, the fencing off of the internet into a few, widely-used, exploitative and closed applications) afforded by neoliberalism has created such a homogenised mass-culture that it doesn't matter what colour someones skin is, all consume a cultural diet utterly dominated by corporate propaganda that is increasingly being paid for via your attention, your data, and your time (that most valuable commodity). And by all, I mean all. Welfare systems and the exploitation of cheap labour and unethical mining operations abroad have made communication technologies ubiquitous even amongst the lowest levels of the socioeconomic ladder in the UK (as rich Tories keep reminding us, scornfully). The result is a homogeneous culture, a homogeneous populace, and the creation of enabling conditions for simple, easy mass manipulation.

For Christ's sake, we now live in a society where people are locked up for causing offense in a tweet, where our intelligence agencies are making the Stazi look antiquated, where our entire governance model is directed toward patently false macroeconomic ideals that benefit only a few, screws everyone else, and oh, by the way, might kill billions as it drives the complete transformation of our planets climate. So why, in such a 'multicultural' society of educated people, are we debating the apparent abject apathy of the entire fucking UK? Well, we aren't even doing that: not even when it briefly popped into the news cycle earlier this year thanks to Russell Brand, everyone was too busy applying simplistic, vacuous, un-insightful misrepresentations of a lone comedians passionate cry for change. But, why?

PR, spin, marketing... it all used to be called the same thing up until the early 20th Century: propaganda. The name was changed, because, well, they were marketers and they know that 'propaganda' sounded bad.. for some reason or other. 'Propaganda' was even the title of the first seminal text on the new art of marketing. One of the early drivers of marketing in the United States was efforts to find ways to claw back the money the rich now had to pay their slaves. And it is becoming a science, probing behavioural psychology and the cutting edge of social science research to find ever more subtle, effective ways to, let's call it what it is, undermine what free-will we may possess. Furthermore, the more homogeneous the culture, the identities of the populace, the more people there are to mass-target and successfully infect with mediocre, focus-group derived psycho-ops.

"You're fat. People are judging you. You need this to be a good parent. What would the neighbours think? This product will solve that problem we just made you realise you had. Climate change? Here, why don't you buy some tanning UVF50 spray, and we will kindly donate a penny to some scam of a carbon-reduction scheme some corporate lobby group conceived of...". Beautiful people, plastered 8ft high, stare down at you from either side as you enter the secular cathedral that is the corporate shopping mall, niggling at your insecurities, creating whole new ones, all just to get your money. No doubt all the adverts will feature the same mix of ethnicity, perhaps a disabled person, proudly displaying just how wonderfully inclusive and tolerant this corporate paradigm of mind-crushing mass wage-slavery really is.

Here's the rub: if there were something in our genes that made us inherently different when it comes to consuming, evaluating, and internalising culture, then 'multiculturalism' might be a) a useful indicator [of] b) something to strive for. But there isn't. The vast majority of us, regardless of skin colour, are still ideological victims, still subject to the same group-dynamics, pattern-recognition instincts, social-hierarchy insecurities, relative thinking, positive bias and the like that humans have contended with for millennia. Multiculturalism is a sham, a distraction, a mode of thinking stuck squarely in the 20th Century. Multi-culturalism on the other hand is a whole different kettle of fish; messier, more chaotic, a better enabling environment for cultural evolution, a system of checks-and-balances against the monopolisation of power by any one identity, and, on an anecdotal level at least for me, far more amenable to a healthy mind than the rigid, rule-laden, homogenous, boring, calcifying, increasingly immoral, cotton-wool wrapped worker battery farm that is the West.

All that is required is that people give up on this idea that someone over there, out of sight, perhaps even hundreds of miles away, should be forced to submit to the exact same kind of cultural prison they are. It really isn't hard. Just want for people to be free.

TL;DR Multiculturalism should not be about race or ethnicity. It is an Orwellian misnomer that actually means 'cultural homogenisation'. What was once a force for good has turned into a tool of power that is no longer moral (at least in the west). Contrast with India, where I'm the only white guy in my neighbourhood and yet I am experiencing real multi-culturalism to an insane degree - and loving it.