Anglo-multiculturalism: contradictions in the politics of cultural diversity as risk

Anglo-multiculturalism: contradictions in the politics of cultural diversity as risk

For “Media and Cultural Politics” special issue on “From Culture to Politics and Back”

November 2006
Andrew Jakubowicz

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

University of Technology Sydney

PO Box 123 Broadway NSW 2007



The continuing controversy over the place of multiculturalism within national political cultures has been highlighted by recent international policy debates. Nations with European, and especially Anglo-Celtic roots, have been forced into a major re-assessment of their strategies in relation to culturally diverse populations living within the nation-state. The dynamics underlying these tensions reflect fundamental fissures that global terrorism has exposed, sometimes instigating the portrayal of international rifts as confrontations of civilizations.

Great Britain and Australia have long historic links, sharing many cultural orientations, the one of course the founder through invasion of the other. To some extent they have shared a commitment to policies of multiculturalism, which they saw as ways of reducing risks of social conflict in late modernity. They both now experience societal debates where multiculturalism has come under strong political critique – ironically, for amplifying risk. Both societies have presented themselves to the international community as beacons of tolerance and diversity, as successful expressions of multiculturalism, and as examples of the power of the core values of Anglo-liberalism. Yet external audiences sometimes comment, and internal critics have persuasively argued, that such representations disguise systematic structures of racialised inequality masked by surface egalitarian discourses. As these contradictions become ever more apparent, we are thus directed towards a re-formulation of what a multicultural project would require if it is to demonstrate sufficient robustness to survive much into this century.

“Risks are always events that are threatening” (Beck 2006)

The debates over multiculturalisms

Issues associated with what has become known as “multiculturalism” have become matters of global significance – from the banlieues of Paris to the beaches of Sydney violent confrontations involving race, ethnicity and culture have filled television screens and fed newspapers. These public confrontations, usually by and among young adult males, are the most apparent face of much deeper tensions that have intensified in Western societies. While European societies are used to media images of street violence and ethno-sectarian conflict in the lands of Others, their presence in the metrolpoles seems especially un-nerving, reflecting a destabilisation of late modernity that theory would once have suggested was unlikely (Taylor, et al. 1992).

Most theories of modernity have stressed that the special characteristic of modern capitalist societies are their class relations, where the points of tension are generated by the specific contradictions experienced in the realm of production (Taylor 2001). Recent analyses have argued, further, that the urban form of modern capitalist societies channels unresolved tensions in the sphere of production towards overt contestations in the realm of consumption – around urban goods and services, state services and social reproduction (Savage, et al. 2002; Spohn 2003). All this being said, it was assumed that apart from the United States with its heritage of racial divisions generated out of slavery, and the lingering impossibilities of resolution furnished by small residual Indigenous populations where they still persisted, ethno-cultural differences were unlikely to play a significant part in the broad political economy of modernity (Bartolovich and Lazarus 2002; Beck and Ritter 2002).

However, it has become apparent, and not only as a consequence of theories of post-modernity and post-Marxist social models of social conflict, that cultural identities and their manifestation in social movements are not fading away (Kahn 2001). Rather they are gluing together with economic stratification, to create the potential for major structural fragmentations in poly-ethnic complex societies. Many western governments had evolved policies of  “multiculturalism” to prevent such a lamination of cultural and economic inequality (Buechler 2000; Kivisto 2002). Have these policies reduced the potential for such social discord (without eliminating it), or have they intensified cultural fragmentation and thus exacerbated these social processes of dis-integration? How do the goals and processes espoused and critiqued in different versions of multiculturalism relate to the political struggles in neighbourhoods and communities, and in the broader world of public political culture?

In order to explore these questions, we need to move beyond analyses of individual modern societies and the diasporic populations they encompass (Braziel and Mannur 2003), to an examination of the intersection between national politico-cultural economies, and their generation in processes of historic and contemporary imperialism. The particular national histories of imperialism, and their continuing “empire projects” establish the unstable vectors within which ethno-cultural identities are produced, and ethno-cultural engagement and conflict occurs (Hardt and Negri 2001). For the purposes of this paper, the metropole of the British Empire, England,  and one of its former colonial holdings, Australia, provide a valuable comparative case study. While many nations were once the hub of empires, from Europe to China, through Africa and the Americas, the development of common law discourses about identity and rights in the Imperium have emerged most strongly within English-speaking nations.
While the specific pathways through which the British and Australian government developed the policies that became labelled as “multiculturalism” were rather different, the  policy dialogue between the UK and Australia that exists in many areas facilitated the constitution of a more parallel world-view. Britain as a European metropolitan centre, had been obliged to receive the inflow from its former colonies, in a process once described as the “Empire strikes back”, Australia on the other hand, as a colonial settler society, had few effective colonies of its own, and sought large population growth through recruitment from mainly European societies (including the UK).  Thus Britain experienced large scale immigration of people of colour rather earlier than Australia (where the White Australia immigration policy did not end until after 1972). Multiculturalism was thus always more about “race” in Britain, while its early manifestations in Australia were concerned with language-focussed ethnicities.

In the modern world the nature of empires has transmuted. Rather than requiring the physical suppression of Indigenous peoples (though indeed that process may continue) and the political control of space by the metropolitan power (though that also may occur), modern empire projects are far more concerned with the cultural and economic dominance as expressed through particular socia-cultural orientations, with their ancillary economic benefits.

I would argue that these empire projects are framed by three vectors, their intersections setting the parameters within which national cultural political economies occur. The building of cultural empires requires their accommodation to three inescapable imperatives – competition with other empires for the control of the spaces they occupy, the subordination of prior Indigenous populations, and the normalisation of incoming populations into the existing or desired hierarchies of cultural power (Jakubowicz 1989) . “Multiculturalism” has emerged as a policy model for attempting to align all of these imperatives within an overarching ideology of liberal citizenship.

Modernity has another characteristic – one theorised by Ulrich Beck in his exploration of the idea of risk society (Beck 2006). Beck has proposed that in the current global epoch of modernity, risk has become the dominant parameter of social relations, with anxiety replacing scarcity as the basis of contemporary political struggles.  From within such an orientation we can see multiculturalism initially as a mode of addressing societal management of the consequence of global recruiting to meet the national scarcity of labour that characterised post-war Britain and Australia at the end of an earlier period of modernity, and also as a site for experiencing the anxieties associated with global terror and that part of cultural diversity that stands outside the nation-state, in the most contemporary period of late modernity. For Beck as well, while the nation-state seeks to equate itself with society, in fact it always fails to do so successfully, as society spreads globally and diasporas seep across national borders, and exude social bonds that transgress legal limitations of movement, sentiment and belonging (Beck and Ritter 2002).  Indeed one of the contradictory claims of liberal multiculturalism may be that the nation-state is exactly coeval with specific societies, and that those who are not of the approved society should be regulated, excluded, expelled or incarcerated.

The continuing controversy over the place of multiculturalism in countries with European, and especially Anglo- Saxon/Celtic roots, has forced a major re-assessment of strategies in relation to the culturally diverse populations living within the nation-state borders, whether immigrant, naturalised, or native-born. The dynamics underlying these tensions reflect fundamental pre-existing fissures that global terrorism has exposed. Some have spoken of these (incorrectly but with no less impact because of this) as confrontations of civilizations (Huntington 1998), though they are far more correctly described as arising from contradictions within civilisations, or more particularly, from contradictions generated by the imperatives of national empire projects in an era of globalisation.

By concentrating on societies that draw their imperial momentum from the long sweep of British imperial history, we can examine their interconnections and similarities, as well as the national specifics. Commonalities appear in ideas of cultural pluralism as a basis for structural cohesion and integration, in the ideas of citizenship and the reciprocal responsibilities and obligations that come with state guarantees of rights, and the contradictory tendencies generated by recognition of group cultural difference within a framework of individual rights and freedoms.  The public discourses that provide evidence for this analysis, critically expose the way in which Anglo-modernity as a broad philosophy of social relations reveals its discomfort along a number of fractures – most notably around gender and sexuality, but also in relation to access to economic and political power, and in the tensions between global and national citizenship. As will become apparent, the policy discourses around multiculturalism have their own very specific national trajectories – yet they all address, in some form, the impact of the globalisation of populations in late modernity on national social and political life, and the challenge Lenin identified decades ago, of how states turn populations into peoples – which is the core demographic imperative of empire (Lenin 1934) – or as Beck would have it, the impossibility of nation-states encapsulating the totality of a society within its boundaries and practices (Beck and Camiller 2004).

Three orientations to the discourses of multiculturalism

The following examination of the dynamics of multiculturalism, its protagonists and antagonists, builds from the proposition that three broad possibilities exist under the rubric. Three clusters of concepts, world-views and policy options permeate the current debates about multiculturalism in the Anglo-West – that constellation of nation states with its shared set of cultural aspirations and trajectories with which the official discourses of belonging in both Britain and Australia identify. These positions are “ideal types” in the sense that Max Weber used the term, abstracted expressions that illuminate the logic of an argument even if the specific cluster is unlikely to be found in so pure a form in real societies (Alexander and Seidman 1990).

The first can be described as the “hard multicultural” vision. Here we have active government involvement, to the point where government plans the relationships between communities, and acts to keep them separated (Jakubowicz 1989). Unlike apartheid regimes however, this orientation argues for a natural equality of all cultures, and passes no judgement – to the point where it cannot even propose a set of criteria for assessing cultural preferences between competing social orders. Such an approach has difficulty with the concept of universal values of any sort, moving to a position of extreme cultural relativism. In particular it accepts, if not facilitates, the intercultural reproduction of cultural communities through the generations, while expressing reservations about any moral assessment that might offend members of different groups who do not necessarily share the cultural assumptions of the dominant social group in the society.

Such regimes do not appear to exist anywhere, though they are often presented by opponents of multiculturalism (Galligan and Roberts 2004) as an exemplary model of multiculturalism in practice (Kramer 2003). On the other hand, much public debate about multiculturalism focuses on events that are claimed to provide evidence for such a reading –  for example, where governments ban Christmas celebrations in public schools, for fear that they might offend Muslim and Jewish parents.

The second, “liberal”, discourse of multiculturalism takes an opposing stance on nearly all the relevant variables. Government intervention is reduced in communal affairs – the market is left to determine relationships and the allocation of costs and benefits. In most Western societies Christian values or Christian social institutions dominate public debate and public practice. As the market – with its economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions – reflects the differential power of social actors, the outcomes tend to reflect the interests and values of the dominant groups, though minorities can play a secondary set of roles. Liberal multiculturalists are enamoured of the concept of natural assimilation of minorities into the mainstream over time, and their inter-generational shedding of core values of the parental community, and replacement with the wider values of the national discourses. While liberals express regard and respect for difference, they patrol the cultural boundaries with vigour and aggressive intent against those who transgress the notional line that marks acceptable difference from threatening deviance. Thus in multiculturalism (and here we are only talking of those who in general support elements of the concept) neo-conservatives with their concern for social cohesion, and liberals with their concern for individual freedom, form a shaky alliance (Blainey 2003). The sharpest contradictions occur here between a society’s diversity and the more unitary population agendas of the nation state.

While these two approaches have a clear place in current debates, I want to suggest a perspective based on certain universal principles, those which seek to balance security with personal freedom, group cohesion with social development, cultural difference with social learning. It draws on the insights of Axel Honneth (Honneth 1995) in his work on the politics of recognition, and argues that societies require constantly elaborated processes of reciprocal recognition, a legitimising of presence, and an acceptance of difference within the collectivity.

This “transformational cultural interaction” perspective takes it as given that societies are networks of inter-dependence, rather than clusters of self-defined interests in competition for space and a place in the sun. It recognises that societies are constantly changing and that change can trigger personal growth and the building of communal resources and solidarity. It recognises that in multicultural societies there will always be inter-generational melding and transformation of cultural expression, with a healthy awareness of an respect for the many trajectories that bring people into the same social world from very different backgrounds. Such a perspective would embrace a critical nationalism while advocating enhanced international co-operation. In particular its paradigm of reciprocal respect of diversity would place obligations on everyone to recognise the human in other members of society, and be equipped through education and wider social debate with the skills to engage sympathetically with views rather different to their own.

We now turn to an examination of Great Britain, where the British values discourse has been a growing part of the wider societal debate over the future of Britain and the place of cultural minorities.  This debate has been framed by growing nationalism in the peripheral states (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), where regional national identities are asserted more strongly than a unitary identification with the Union (Political Studies Association 2005).

United Kingdom

A series of speeches in April 2004 by Commission for Racial Equality chair Trevor Phillips provided one trigger for British debate on multiculturalism. Phillips argued that there were core British values – not racialised but definitely cultural – that all residents of Britain should accept, and which were a sine qua non for the survival of a cohesive and egalitarian society. Phillips, a Black Briton and journalist, and a former radical student leader of the 1970s, was motivated by the burgeoning evidence for him that some young Muslim Britons were more committed to a version of global Islam than the British nation state (interview September 2004).

The backlash to Phillips’ comments from Britain’s ethnic communities was muted but significant. There was concern that labelling people as un-British would set new boundaries to what was seen as politically correct, and would single out Islam alone as the unacceptable wing of the society. In July 2005, in the wake of the London bombings and echoing London Lord Mayor Ken Livingstone’s defence of diversity, Phillips argued again:

We already know some of the principles behind the architecture of the integrated society.

The best, fairest societies are ones in which people share experiences and common ambitions whatever their cultural backgrounds. Societies where we can celebrate our diversity, but where difference does not have to mean division. Societies where everyone has the chance to participate in making the decisions that count. And societies in which we share basic values – the rule of law, equity, equality of women, and yes, equality and liberation for people whatever their sexual orientation or gender status. (

By September 2005 the CRE head, in a speech to the Manchester Council for Community Relations, struck an even more dramatic stance:

We are becoming strangers to each other, and we are leaving communities to be marooned outside the mainstream… Even if there is no calamity, these marooned communities will steadily drift away from the rest of us, evolving their own lifestyles, playing by their own rules and increasingly regarding the codes that the rest of us take for granted as outdated behaviour that no longer applies to them.

22 September 2005 (

The updraft from the bombings carried a message about the critical importance of working out what “multiculturalism” could continue to mean. Phillips remained averse to the word’s use, while still advocating active integration and empowerment of minorities within the existing value structure of the society. Multiculturalism had become a pejorative label for separateness and division, while others saw it as increasingly important as a blanket cover for acceptance of diversity within the hierarchy of class and race that was Britain (Gilroy 2004).

Britain, as a senior partner with the USA in the Iraq invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, had discovered that its domestic political situation was affected by this alliance, exacerbating the sedimented inequalities and hostilities apparent from Home Office studies. There had been waves of urban riots in Muslim centres across the country in 2001 (Cantle, 2001), and it was clear that the more accommodating if not assimilationist leadership of an earlier generation of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Middle Eastern immigrants were unable to forge an attractive enough set of British nationalist values for the alienated young men who congregated in the uprisings. Indeed the inter-generational experience of exclusion and marginalisation significantly undermined the authority of these older mainstream leaders, leaving it to more radical political and religious leaders to interpret that exclusion in ways that sought the mobilisation of youth in direct action.

The Guardian newspaper reported (December 12, 2001) on a Home Office study, commissioned by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, after the race riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, that:

  • The towns showed a “depth of polarisation” around segregated communities living “a series of parallel lives”.
  • Further violence is likely if government, police and community leaders fail to break this polarisation.
  • An oath of national allegiance from immigrants might help future race relations.
  • Politicians, community leaders and the media should promote “a meaningful concept of citizenship”.
  • At least 25% of places in single-faith schools, be they state or private, should be given to children of alternative backgrounds.
  • Police should extend community policing initiatives and break drug networks in some no-go areas.
  • Local newspapers are criticised for publishing inflammatory material.
  • Where extremists are determined to stir up trouble, mutual ignorance of inward-looking communities can easily turn to fear.

The report was written by the former chief executive of Nottingham City Council, Ted Cantle, in 2001 head of the government’s community cohesion review team. It was to be towns like these – and Leeds in particular –  that produced the London bombers, apparently integrated, but effectively alienated.

Phillips’ initiative – “let’s move past multiculturalism” – was predicated on the argument that multiculturalism allowed too wide a range of political allegiances, undermining the national project of modern Britain. Implicitly in public statements, and explicitly in discussions with me, Phillips indicated that the “freedom” of late twentieth century multiculturalism had assumed a reciprocal pay-off for the host community – namely the primary allegiance to the British state by minorities as the trade for government permission for and facilitation of cultural diversity (Gilroy 2004).  According to Phillips, ethnic segregation was intensifying, leading thereby to the creation of more “ghettos”, and there was less and less interaction between communities – all contributions to a potential disaster. All Phillips’ positions have been contested by critics who have argued that he is wrong about the dynamics of exclusion and marginalisation experienced by ethno-cultural minorities (Madood 2004).

The generation born in Britain saw no reason for it to hold to a deal done by their predecessors (if indeed any such deal had really occurred), and anyway the pay off to them had been rather ineffective – widespread racism including police harassment, poor educational outcomes, and high unemployment. Moreover, the sense of marginalisation and exclusion was to be intensified by the ideological manipulation of their perceptions that the cause was their Islamic beliefs or more correctly, their Muslim ethno-cultural identity – and that Islam was an enemy of the West. Even where individuals experienced some social mobility, their sense of outrage and exclusion remained vibrant.

Increasingly then the problem had become how to sustain widespread support for equality of opportunity and anti-racist philosophies, in the face of the apparent refusal of the supposed beneficiaries of these policies to lock into “mainstream” agendas and acceptable practices.  For communities experiencing the poor social conditions, initiatives such as home detention for suspected terrorists simply cemented their views that the state was anti-Muslim, and that young Muslim men were legitimate targets for interrogation, harassment and internment. And for the “mainstream” society, the message was similar – intensifying fear of domestic disruption, and projecting apprehension of terrorism onto the faces of Asian-looking Britons, especially those who adopted traditional non-western attire.

Thus “multiculturalism” had become officially labelled as problematic, and moreover, implicitly identified as a primary cause of urban disaffection and internal terrorist threats. The reassertion of the British core of UK values, especially by aspirant Prime Minister Gordon Brown, while still a diffuse and non-specific project, suggested that key elements would include the use of the English language, commitment to economic and social institutions of the UK, and a rejection of other political allegiances lying outside the British nation state, or at least outside “European civilization”. Moreover, the new social contract would be offered (or imposed?) through a unitary Single Equality Act, its vehicle an Equality and Human Rights Commission, its remit to include all groups liable to discrimination, including on grounds of belief or religion.

The CRE had demonstrated its awareness of widespread inequality in the world of civil power, where non-Anglos were barely represented in Parliament, and significantly under-represented in the police. It argued that there should be no leeway to permit racism to flourish; but race was not culture, and cultural difference could only be allowed to stretch so far.  For the CRE the three key elements in the way forward would be:

a)     Equality – of treatment and outcome

b)    Participation – in decision making and responsibilities for the whole society and

c)     Interaction – between communities.

The evidence demonstrated that on each of these parameters, in significant but by no means isolated cases, the situation was deteriorating.

The CRE had created a discourse on multiculturalism that contained both the conservative and liberal simplifications of the situation outlined in opening this paper. There was no significant exploration of the nature of reciprocal recognition, that would allow the nation-state to establish policy settings that could move beyond demands that minorities meet the value priorities espoused by the state. It had become a risk management strategy, identifying the spheres of anxiety that the broader society would have to respond to – none addressed the anxieties of  those segments of ethno-cultural minorities that had demonstrated their alienation in the past.

Where Britain accepted immigrants as one of the consequences of its former empire, and in order to meet certain sorts of employment short-falls, Australia has for over fifty years been concerned with population building and importing human capital and skills through a large-scale immigration policy. Multiculturalism plays a more central place in the ideology of Australian government and nation building – even where populist politicians (from both within and outside the government parties)  have attacked it. In Australia the rhetoric and policy practices of multiculturalism have been affected the government’s re-positioning of it as a central part of the new risks associated with the war on terror, and the older risks associated with failure to recruit sufficient human capital to feed the globalisation of its economy.


Since 2001 Australian political life has been convulsed by the challenges of creating a “people”, and how populations are to be managed. The concerns intensified in the weeks before the New York and Washington bombings of September 2001, when Australian troops boarded a container ship on the high seas, and forced it to take its rescued cargo of asylum seekers to a holding camp in the client state of Nauru (Hodge and O’Carroll 2006). Then came the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and then a series of bombings of Australian holiday makers in Bali – in October 2002 and 2005, and closer to home, the December 2005 riots between youth from the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla and Lebanese Muslim youth from poorer landlocked suburbs to the west (Jakubowicz 2006).

The terrorist bombing events of July 2005 in London (the heart of the empire) had already focussed the attention of Australian politics on the role of “multiculturalism” in the generation of current social unease about diversity. A series of articles in The Age newspaper by usually liberal commentators such as Pamela Bone and Terry Lane, argued that multiculturalism should be reviewed. Bone, (18 July 2005) while voicing a concern for the well-being of Muslims in general went on to argue:

Muslims feel entitled to hate non-Muslims.

Should we blame multiculturalism for this? Does it mean we can’t any longer afford to be as nice and welcoming as we would like to be? I hope not, for as others have observed, if we change our values in response to the threat of terrorism, the terrorists will have won.

We are not alone in asking these questions. In Britain today they are certainly being asked. In Canada, there is controversy about attempts to establish separate sharia courts to hear family law matters.

Meanwhile the ultra-conservative John Stone, writing in The Australian newspaper (22 July 2005) put it more succinctly.  Stone was clear in his perspective, under the heading “One Nation, One Culture” :

First, official multiculturalism policies must be abandoned outright. That does not mean we should cease receiving immigrants (albeit more selectively). It does mean all official multiculturalism’s appurtenances (for example: SBS, government grants to ethnically based councils) must be abolished.

Second, we must sharply reduce, indeed virtually halt, Muslim immigrant inflow.

Third, the precious gift of Australian citizenship must be harder to obtain.

Stone moreover blamed the London bombings on Blair’s multiculturalism and its tolerance of diversity.

Australia has historically been influenced by Canadian innovation, yet in recent years has increasingly seen the influence of the US culture wars. Australia was an ally in the Iraq invasion (Jakubowicz and Jacka 2004) and has been a consequential target for overt aggression by Islamist terror groups (especially in Indonesia and more recently in late 2005 in apparently foiled plots in the homeland). Multiculturalism in Australia has thus been affected by many of the factors present in Britain, complicated by a reverse trajectory of political development – in Britain from Conservative to labour over the past decade, in Australian from Labor to the conservative Liberal-national Coalition.

In its mainstream usage, multiculturalism in Australia describes a policy perspective that seeks outcomes in relation to social development –

a)     it looks to ensure social cohesion (whatever that may mean in day-to-day lives) in a society marked by cultural and social differences induced by immigration from over 100 countries and 200 ethnic groups;

b)    it seeks to utilise the cultural capital represented by this diversity through its exploitation in the economic realm (“productive diversity”)

c)     it recognises and seeks to promote a global consciousness in which inter-cultural communication based on mutual respect characterises public discourse

d)    it relegates the problematic persistence of Indigenous communities  to arenas outside multiculturalism.

Public opinion and discourses

Public discourses in Australia are both influenced by and contribute to the global unease in the West about cultural diversity as a public good. Indeed in Australia as noted above there has been a sustained stream of at times vitriolic language directed against accepting cultural diversity at any level. Assimilationist world views have significant leverage, so much so that in in the wake of the July 2005 London events  senior government ministers (Brendan Nelson and Peter Costello) have been heard to voice the great Australian ultimatum – “if you don’t like it here with our values, go back to where you came from”. A few other gems from the past two decades capture the continuing power of this refrain and its embedded certitudes about cultural hierarchy.

If multiculturalism is endeavoured to be erected into an all-embracing national cement, for all Australians, then I believe that it is inadequate to the task, and that is my reservation, and there is my criticism…

John Howard, leader of the Liberal Party, FECCA annual conference, Canberra, (1988), in 2005 Prime Minister of Australia.

The term ‘Australian multiculturalism’ could be redundant in 25 years as more and more Australians adopt it as a way of life…

Gary Hardgrave , Liberal Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs (July 2003)

Most Australians no longer see the need to prove our ethnic diversity…They are too busy practising it and enjoying its benefits. They are already living a life of many cultures. … I think it’s very important that we maintain our Australianess and all the other people who come from fascinating parts of the world can add to the blend, but we must maintain the fact that we are basically a Christian, English speaking country
Mark Latham, when he was Leader of the Australian Labor Party (April 2004)

Peter Costello has lashed out at “mushy misguided multiculturalism,” warning that Australian values are “not optional” — and that migrants who do not share them should be stripped of their citizenship. People will not respect citizenship that explains itself on the basis of “mushy multiculturalism,” Mr Costello said. (reported in The Age 24 February 2006)

The debate over multiculturalism has recently intensified, after a decade of marginalisation. The Labor Party has distanced itself from its historic commitment to the concept, leaving its current status undefined and without any policy articulation. The government parties have accepted a version of multiculturalism that reinforces the existing cultural hierarchy, reduces government support for cultural preservation, and pushes integration and inter-faith dialogue as the way forward.

“Multiculturalism” was adopted as a policy label by the Australian government in the mid-1970s, and was celebrated then by the leadership of both major political blocs (if reluctantly by many of their followers). The term came to summarise the set of responses that were constructed to deal with the burgeoning social issues that the 1960s had generated in the process of trying to normalise or assimilate the immigrant population. On the other hand, multiculturalism never sought to encompass Indigenous societies, while Indigenous leaders saw multiculturalism as a problem for the invaders and settlers – not for the original peoples. Indigenous rights were political and economic questions, locked into land and ownership, whereas multiculturalism was essentially a struggle over hierarchies of culture.

The collapse of the Asian Tigers, the over-throw of Suharto in Indonesia, the revolution in East Timor, and civil wars in Yugoslavia, and the meteoric rise of the anti-multiculturalist One Nation party under its leader Pauline Hanson, all tended to erode public confidence in any ‘non-Anglo’ directions. In 1999 after three years of subdued debate amidst proposals that multiculturalism should go all together,  the conservative national government adopted the term ‘Australian multiculturalism’, stressing the adjective, and asserting the critical role of social cohesion, and allegiance and responsibility to Australia. Current policy issues include cultural preservation, the place of religious diversity in a secular society, economic mobility and employment opportunity, and immigraton strategies. In each of these spheres of public policy, the avoidance or minimisation of risk has become an overarching parameter – the threatening possibility of danger from the outside world, and increasingly, from the unknown dimensions of diversity within.

Cultural preservation

Multiculturalism in Australia has reflected a historic if somewhat fuzzy-edged accord between the dominant society and the incoming minorities. In exchange for the right to live, work and prosper in Australia immigrants would owe their primary allegiance to the Australian polity (thus Australia rejected the migrant worker model adopted in part by Germany and the USA). The polity in recognition would validate their communal values and linguistic choices, within an agreed pattern of acceptable diversity.  During the 1980s and 1990s governments directed small but significant sums towards cultural preservation, and accepted the political nature of much cultural practice (e.g. Croatians preparing to re-assert ethnicity over confederation in the post-Tito debacle of Yugoslavia), even where this underwrote some Australian nationals becoming involved in international conflicts in Serbia and Croatia (Skrbiš 1999) (Hudson and Reno 2000). In recent years the government ahs reduced this type of support, reflecting the view that communal matters were issues of choice, not policy, and that communities could raise and commit their own resources to such affairs. Moreover culture has become a far more tendentious area, with some populist demagogues arguing that the specificity of Australia lies exactly in its racial diversity but cultural homogeneity. The 2001 UNESCO Universal declaration on cultural diversity directly challenges current government thinking on these issues – for instance, the decision by recent Arts and Culture ministers to remove cultural diversity as a criterion for considering appointments to the Australia Council for the Arts.

Religion and public life

Religion however has emerged to the forefront of the multicultural debate. A decade ago religious differences were a significant but essentially ethnographic dimension of multiculturalism. While some religious conflicts disturbed local social cohesion, they had few ramifications for the wider society. Since the rise of global Islamist terror groups, religious dimensions have overtaken cultural differences in public discourse, with religious beliefs at times expressed as cultural proclivities. In Australia the 300,000 Muslims have experienced a growing wave of social hostility, much of it focussed on Muslim communities from the Middle East and those who wear distinctive apparel. The New York bombings, the rounds of Bali bombings, the London bombings and the recent Al Qaeda terror threats have raised the stakes. In addition the increased tensions over national loyalties have exacerbated purely local problems of violent and organised crime.

These issues have focused policy attention on inter-faith dialogues, and government and community sponsored symbolic displays of inter-cultural collaboration and unity. One outcome has been a much closer liaison between various levels of government and religious and communal organisations, generating some though often passing attention to the more deep-rooted and difficult questions of economic inequality. However despite the powerful and unheralded work of many local groups, government strategies of seeking to find cultural collaborators has polarised the Muslim communities of Australia, and drawn some of them to a position of critical separation from the dominant political ethos.

More importantly the national government has sought to halt the secularisation of society, by re-assigning responsibilities for social inclusion and social welfare to religion-based organizations – primarily Christian. Confessing Christians have twice been appointed to the key symbolic role of Governor General, while Christian evangelical groups have gained increased political influence (such as the Family First Party which has the balance of power in the Senate).  Even though Australians increasingly self-identify as non-believers or atheists (Jakubowicz 2005),   government policy seeks to support faith-base schools and similar institutions.

Economic transformation and human capital

Multiculturalism had as its central promise to both immigrants and the host community that it would ensure that the society would not fracture nor would there be increasing sedimentation of inequality along ethnic and class lines – that is, it would ensure opportunity for economic mobility was not constrained by ethnic discrimination. Over the past decade this focus has waned, with governments more prone to adopt libertarian free-market approaches, and allow the sticks to fall where they may. One effect has been to corral some ethnic groups that entered the country with limited human capital – especially those from war-torn regions with poor schooling – into long-term ghettoes of low income and poor prospects (Birrell and Seol 1998).

The layering of certain ethnicities into inter-generational unemployment has begun the creation of urban under-class enclaves, which are apparently unsusceptible to government exhortation. While this pattern is not generally the case (second and later generation non-Anglo immigrants exhibit strong evidence of social and economic mobility for the most part) the specific concentration of some Muslim communities, Pacific Islanders, and some Indo-Chinese into poor areas with overlays of crime and poor housing have created public images of ghettoisation.   Only in those localities where religious or ethnic violence has emerged have governments addressed the economic issues – and in places, to quite good effect. Other communities with less public presence have missed out on this attention, intensifying alienation, and reducing the future possibilities for creating strong social bonds and innovative economic development.

Three pillars of immigration

In the global arena Australia has become renowned for its tough if not brutal immigration control regime. In the name of border defence Australia has created a series of off-shore internment camps, where hundreds of people were held for years in atrocious circumstances, their only hope if their refugee bids were recognised a temporary permit to enter Australia. Yet Australia is a major player in the immigration field, articulating a three-pillar model of immigration. It seeks to recruit immigrants with high levels of human and cultural capital, accept if grudgingly the direct family members of those already in the country if they are not so highly valued, and selectively accept refugees applying through “proper channels”. In order to sustain this strategy the government penalises, excoriates and intimidates refugee applicants who seek to arrive outside the orderly schema. Australian public opinion is widely divided over this strategy, but it is sufficiently popular for the government to only need to fine-tune it from time to time, and for the Opposition to critique only minor elements of the package.

The social milieu: social capital and its relation to multiculturalism

The international context helps us take a more comparative perspective on Australian multiculturalism and thereby interpret the tensions between neo-conservative and liberal discourses, bureaucratic implementation of social policies, and the broad sweep of social change in the face of globalisation and environmental crises, and the emergence of the features of a risk society.

The influence of social capital theory on debates over cultural diversity now focuses attention on the at times contradictory and at times complementary features of policy and social change. As globalisation accelerates the flow of populations across borders – desired, resisted or repelled – complex urban societies have no choice but to engage with the consequences of these multidirectional flows.

There are a few emerging trends that will be pivotal to these changes, and will set the parameters within which policies will have to operate. At the global level as indicated, population movements will increase in quantum and in speed. At the national level social cohesion will be further accentuated as a key policy goal, with intercommunal engagement a high priority and respect for difference playing a reduced role. Nationalist symbols will be more highly valued, and “special interests” will face a greater marginalisation.

As a consequence, it is likely that reactive communalism will intensify despite government policies, and unresolved intercommunal hostilities will have the effect of turning communities inwards. Paradoxically government interest in building bridging capital (though with minimal investment) may expand the intensity of local bonding capital within communities – exactly the opposite to the desired outcome. For some groups, despite the rising proportion of skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants for whom ethnicity is not a constraint,  the experience may be that cities feel increasingly ethnically and religiously segregated, thereby reducing opportunities for interaction between young people of different backgrounds. For example, where public education used to provide an arena for inter-group contact and engagement, private education will systematically separate people by religion, class and ethnicity.

Culture, power and freedom: Points of continuing contention

As these societal complexities intensify there are many questions that Australian society has not addressed, let alone resolved. At the heart remains the question of culture – or cultures. What range of cultures can be accommodated in a modern secular capitalist society like Australia? What are the boundaries and who can or should determine these? Should there be any boundaries? Should the existing population be able to insist on certain adaptations by incomers? What hierarchy of cultural priorities can the existing diverse populations agree on as the basis of their demands for compliance by newcomers? To what extent can the patriarchies that tend to represent the diverse communities claim to speak for their own diversities – in terms of gender or political or sexuality aspirations?

Where cultural mores are expressed in ways that challenge and affront currently espoused values of the dominant society, how should they be handled? We have seen in many situations how individual rights are privileged over communal rights – and most Australians would applaud this priority. In practice Australia separates the private/communal realm from the public realm, requiring conformity to the core culture in public but accepting a vast range of behaviours as acceptable in private (cultural and sexual among them). The tensions emerge when the private and public collide – as in the request for the use of public facilities by Muslim women who wish to exclude men and non-Muslims.

As a consequence neo-conservatives have developed policies that withdraw government support from those spaces deemed “private” or “communal’, and concentrate their policies on two aspects of inter-communal relations – scapegoating and stereotyping those who might somehow threaten the constrained centre ground of the core culture, while emphasising the commonality of cultural orientations of those who can be knitted into the mainstream. Thus we see many attempts to have inter-faith dialogues that stress the shared ground of religious belief between the Abrahamic religions; meanwhile between these engagements some religious leaders preach against the other religions and criticise their deviations and apostasies. Rather than identifying the differences and accepting their legitimacy as religious belief, the neo-con agenda seeks to forge (in both meanings of the word) similarities as their most meaningful dimension.

Conclusion: Multicultural Futures in Anglo-imperial societies

Despite the apparent withdrawal from the official use of the term “multiculturalism” in the UK and its reluctant continuity in Australia, the populations into peoples dilemma remains a paramount question in both societies, not just because of its importance in ensuring state legitimacy, but also for the economic need of the societies to fully exploit their human resources. Pockets of marginalised and angry young people, communities which disengage from each other, and ever more heavily militarised internal government security forces, now characterise societies where civil rights, which were recently seen to be the capstone of human social achievement, are being dissolved. The policy needs remain, to build social cohesion and reduce social anger. If the policy is not to be called “multiculturalism” it still needs to achieve a diverse range of goals in an integrated and effective form.

For multiculturalism to work effectively, the apparent paradox of respecting difference while eroding barriers between cultures, can be perceived as an integrated strategy – where education, cultural work, political discourses and social relations interlock to create a sustaining fabric based on human rights for everyone within the society, and for those with whom the society engages in the global polity. In a world of economic exploitation, replete with ideologies of anger, envy and hatred, such a vision may seem overly idealistic. Yet if we are to learn the lessons of the Anglo-West, it teaches us that engagement and interaction provide a far better pathway to social stability than isolation and exclusion.


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