The 'Crisis of Multiculturalism' and the Global Politics of Trumpism

Image: Lena Bell

Sunday 4th December, 2016

Alana Lentin

Latina feminist writer Flavia Dzodan has drawn up what she calls a ‘haphazard archive’ of the times the mainstream media in Europe and the US has declared that the racist right is on the rise. Her point is that, far from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump bringing extreme right racism onto the political stage, it never went away. The electoral successes of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, the emergence of the British National Party and the English Defence League, the arrival onto the Dutch political scene first of Pym Fortuyn and then of Geert Wilders, not to mention the election of extreme right parties to government in Austria, Poland and Hungary, all sounded the alarm bell. However, at every turn, as now, these parties and personalities were portrayed as wholly separate from both mainstream politics today and the longer history of Europe. Crucially, as Dzodan has also pointed out, both left and right have made this artificial division.

In The Crises of Multiculturalism, Gavan Titley and I claimed that a denial of the centrality of race for understanding European history, politics and sociality and a dishonest celebration of a fictitious postracial era enables the anti-multiculturalist backlash that gripped Europe in the early 2000s. A refusal to address the persistent harmful effects of colonialism on those ‘in but not of Europe’ (to borrow Stuart Hall’s phrase) was accompanied by a belief in an intrinsic European humanist antiracism. Nazism and fascism, in this reading, were aberrations. Any failure to appreciate Europe’s ‘generosity’ in accepting postcolonial migrants or, later, refugees was evidence of cultural incompatibility, self-segregation and insufficient social cohesion.

It is hard to remember that, far from multiculturalism being demanded by racialised minorities themselves, it was, insofar that it was ever any more than what Charles W. Mills has called a ‘conceptual grab bag’ of ideas, discourses and policies, installed from the top down to clamp antiracist opposition.

In 2011 David Cameron condemned a ‘doctrine of state multiculturalism’ that ‘encourages different cultures to live separate lives.’ This paints a picture of cowed governments bending over backwards to appease threatening minority groups, most commonly Muslim, who demand to live in ethnically cleansed enclaves. It is the rhetoric that leads the Daily Mail to question whether British MP Jo Cox was assassinated because her murderer, Thomas Mair, had fears of losing his council house to an immigrant family.

It matters little that it is whites in both Europe and the US who are most likely to live what Trevor Phillips called ‘parallel lives’. The fact is that the idea of cultural incompatibility became all pervasive, shared across both sides of the political spectrum, from those at one extreme advocating for the closure of borders to those at the other blaming ‘identity politics’ for causing the breakdown of class consciousness be it today or ten years ago.

But, we need to look even further back than does Dzodan for example in her exposure of the role of the white left in instituting a ‘class trumps race’ reading of left-wing failure in the mid 2000s. It is instructive to hear the self-declared leader of the Alt-Right, Richard Spencer, the focus of frenetic media attention in the wake of the US election, say that Mexican-Americans ‘can go home again, they can connect with their real identity.’ This, of course, is the discourse that Pierre-André Taguieff identified as ‘differentialist racism’ or that Etienne Balibar called the ‘new cultural racism’ in the early 1990s. The implication is that cultural racism replaces ‘old’ biological racism. But, as I have written many times, this separation between old and new implies that before the late 20th century, racism never mobilised cultural tropes to makes its case. On the contrary, as Ann Stoler has remarked, the cultural incompatibility and ultimate inadequacy of the ‘native’ is central to colonial racism.

By introducing this as a new idea, the implication, earliest in Taguieff, but later becoming a staple of the anti-identity left, is that Black people and ethnic minorities, those who Taguieff explicitly calls ‘Third-Worldists (specifically Frantz Fanon) are to blame for the culturally racist success of the extreme right. In this worldview, shared across the mainstream of politics, there are two equally weighed extremes: the far-right and the equally totalitarian anticolonialists. Original opposition to the radicality of the Algerian liberation struggle or the Black Power movement, for example, is transposed for our times onto the Black Lives Matter movement or intersectional feminists. Hence, the success of Trump at the polls is the fault of those who buckle to the demands of Black, Indigenous, Muslim and other antiracists today, just like the breakdown of social cohesion was the fault of those who bent over backward to accommodate minority ethnic multiculturalists, causing the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’.

It is true to say that paving the way for Trump are Le Pen, Wilders, Farage and company; that Europe, far from exempt from the newfound acceptability of openly fascist and antisemitic discourse, is its originator. But it would be a mistake to attempt to explain the current state of either European or US politics without paying close attention, not only to the failure to deal with the legacies of race, but crucially, to the attack on antiracist and decolonial resistance from both the right and the white left as playing a major role in our current predicament.

Alana Lentin is Associate Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University. She tweets at @alanalentin.

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