Multiculturalism and the discontents of globalisation

Yahya Birt
25 May 2007

There is much to admire in Tariq Modood's defence of multiculturalism, developed in his book Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea and presented in his openDemocracy article "Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity" (17 May 2007). The gist of his case is that it needs to be mended and not ended, surely the only sensible response to an inescapable shift to superdiversity in our globalising world. Multiculturalism may be reinvigorated by linking it positively to more inclusive notions of citizenship and national identity and belonging. If the nation-state is more inclusive, then the "multilogical" processes by which integration may take place allows more easily for the inclusion of minorities within an expanded vision of Britishness, which (as Modood indicates) has more to do with process than with lists of core values.

Yahya Birt is director of City Circle. His personal blog is www.yahyabirt.com

Yahya Birt is responding to the article by Tariq Modood: "Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity"
(17 May 2007)

Tariq Modood's article draws on his new book, Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea (Polity, May 2007)

Also in openDemocracy, responses to Tariq Modood’s work by Sunny Hundal, Nick Johnson and Nick Pearce in an ongoing feature My main concern with Modood's thesis is that it underplays the impact of globalisation in debates around multiculturalism. For example, al-Qaida is portrayed in these debates as a rude intrusion into what should otherwise be the more orderly business of restating multicultural citizenship, rather than as an unintended but integral outcome of the world created by the post-1970s neo-liberal consensus. Its signature motif was "deregulation", or the freeing up of markets, but it had a more radical central tenet: namely, that (in the words of David Harvey) "market exchange is an ethic sufficient to regulate all human action". As a result, borders have become more porous as people, commodities and ideas have spread everywhere.

The United Nations estimates that currently 200 million people live outside their countries of origin, an increase of a quarter since 1990; a March 2007 report by the Institute of Public Policy Research found that 5.5 million British citizens live outside the United Kingdom, rather more than the number of foreign nationals who live in the UK. This mobile global elite, the children of neo-liberalism, are prone to advocate cultural globalisation (presented as "virtuous deracination"); to champion open borders; and are less interested by nationalism, instead arguing for new sorts of regional and global reordering, like the simultaneous expansion of the European Union alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales.

The more profound outcome of neo-liberalism, however, is its emphasis on the consumer over the citizen, a process which places identities of consumption centre-stage through the mass media and weakens civic and nationalist identities that are primarily mediated through local and national state institutions.

9/11 might similarly be understood as the deregulation of the large-scale capacity for violence and destruction out of the hands of the nation-state. Al-Qaida's politics cannot be placed within the traditional framework of nationalist self-determination, but are in fact part of the emergence of new globalised protest movements, two decades or so after the neo-liberal economic order helped to create huge prosperity and opportunity as well as inequality, exploitation and environmental degradation.

Unthinkable without globalisation and the internet, al-Qaida aspires to its own form of cultural globalisation, imagining that it might revive the fortunes of the Muslim supernation (umma) by overturning the nationalist order in the Middle East, without recourse to any recognised Islamic conception of ethics or law. Al-Qaida does not represent the revenge of pre-modern tradition against modernity, or "jihad vs McWorld" but, rather, as Slavoj Zizek appropriately extended Benjamin Barber's formula, "McJihad vs McWorld".

Where the state "no longer has the clout or the wish to keep its marriage with the nation rock-solid" (as Zygmunt Bauman argues), other possibilities suggest themselves. The horizon of political concern has itself expanded. Our interconnectedness means that what happens in Kashmir matters in Birmingham, and Northern Ireland in Boston. This in turn implies that we can no longer so easily divorce domestic from foreign concerns, nor disconnect nationalism so quickly from the other wider identity-claims that are made upon us.This would seem to suggest we need to expand the horizon of concern to think about multiculturalism in contexts larger than just the nation. The question is how to join these identities together in creative synthesis, to find a middle way between an unrooted abstract universalism and self-interested nationalism.

One such synthesis is "cosmopolitanism", characterised by Kwame Anthony Appiah as "universal concern" for all humanity above family and nation and a "respect for legitimate difference". Appiah recognises that these two values clash, and as such "cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge", a challenge it seems that multiculturalism, at least in Modood's formulation, is not prepared to consider seriously. If we are address globalisation and its discontents without recourse to abandoning multiculturalism at home and undertaking military intervention abroad, then we need to find ways to make "the global village" a more convivial place, one in which the Osama bin Ladens of this world will find no support.


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