The Golden Barley School

an anarchist, a communist & a feminist walk into a bar…

Stranded in an ocean of individuals, or rescuing collective practice from liberal multiculturalism. Part 1

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Part 1 of a very long article i put together about race, religion and liberalism…  Also to be found at my own blog And thanks to the other editors of this blog who all at some point helped with this…


Lets start with a simple moment, nothing more than a passing word and a flicker of a smile, a polite thanks but no thanks, but really it’s nice you’re out here trying to talk with people. It’s Islamic week at the university where I work, and the woman with the headscarf nods and smiles back. Rewind a few months when the geeky kids with the Evangelical Union t-shirts are out in force and my reaction to being approached is one of unconcealed hostility in the hope that one of them dare take me on and give me a chance to launch into a stinging rebuke about the violence and regressiveness that underpins everything they hold dear. If only. 

This would all be much simpler if my intention now is to re-launch that anti-religious diatribe that I didn’t get to satisfactorily try out on those poor, unsuspecting kids. But there is more complicated terrain to cover here than to simply join the chorus of insipid, aetheist self-congratulation. In particular, I’m interested in looking at the ways that the intersection of religion and race play out in Australia, specifically in relation to migration. To do this, it is immediately necessary to consider how the policies and discourse of multiculturalism have kept in play – if given a different tone too – a dynamic of institutional racism that is splattered across the pages of Australian history. In doing this I will rely somewhat on Sara Ahmed’s writing in Strange Encounters. I should add here that my use of the term ‘migrant’ will include, and ultimately may be more interested in, those who might be better understood as second generation migrants – people born here to migrant parents and those who grew up here after moving at a young age.

Understanding contemporary multiculturalism in Australia, in all its liberal, capitalist garb, sets a background from which we can consider why it is that certain traditional cultural forms – religion in particular – have an ongoing resonance for migrants. The point of which is not to lay a critique about cultural choices at the feet of particular migrant groups but instead to show how this resonance of traditional cultural forms exposes the empty core of liberal capitalism and its exhortations to individualistic, market-based choice. Much of this will be inspired by sections of Zizek’s evisceration of liberalism in Violence as well as taking a look at some of the ideas in The Black Album, Hanif Kureishi’s novel from London in the early 90’s.

I also have additional motivations. I am interested in the role that religion plays as a form of collective reassurance in the face of the social alienation of liberal capitalism. An alienation that for migrants to Australia is amplified by the direct and subtle racism we encounter. But as someone who loathes the socially conservative hold that religion has, I am interested in looking to other, potentially radical, forms of social and cultural collectivity that may exist to counter the isolation of liberalism without retreating into that social conservatism. As well as giving full value and space to the autonomy of racial and cultural diversity. This is clearly not a problem with a simple, singular solution. So it will be a fairly open-ended section steering entirely clear of any Soviet Russia forms of all-encompassing, state-controlled collectivity and instead looking for a multiplicity of ways in which we might move towards such things.

The Multicultural thing

In Australia, the terms and conditions of multiculturalism have come to act as a base level for mainstream nationalist discourse. Even where it is contested, its tropes are invariably referenced when we hear such platitudes as “we are a diverse and tolerant society but…”. There are various layers to multicultural rhetoric but they all play a role in maintaining and reinforcing a particular version of the Australian national imaginary that is merely a continuation of the narrative of settler, colonialism transformed into liberal capitalism. The relationship between this formation of a collective national imaginary and our liberal capitalist society is a point I will return to after looking at the numerous levels at which the multicultural project fails to disrupt standard nationalist fare.

To try to frame this concept of multiculturalism that I will be referencing, I will briefly draw on Sara Ahmed’s analysis (Ahmed, pp.102 -109) of the National Agenda for Multicultural Australia, a policy document produced in 1989 under a Labor government. I would like to emphasise a couple of parts that refer to multiculturalism as a mode of governmentality and also as a defining societal feature that individuals are expected to adhere to. In the first case, The National Agenda describes multiculturalism as “a public policy… (that) encompasses government measures designed to respond to that (Australia’s cultural) diversity. It is a a policy for managing the consequences of cultural diversity in the interests of the individual and society as a whole”. As Ahmed responds there is an immediate implication that diversity and difference is something that needs “to be contained and given a shape or coherence by government policy (Ahmed, p.103)”, while there is also the question of who’s interests are being looked after and how a multiplicity of interests in a ‘diverse’ society can be incorporated into policy. The realistic understanding we can draw from this being that there is in fact a particular over-riding interest that takes precedence in Australia.

Next we have the individual’s relation to this policy of multiculturalism, where The National Agenda suggests:

“Multiculturalism is concerned to encourage all Australians, including those from non Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, to share their diversity of culture… It seeks to make it clear that colour or language, style of dress or mode of worship, are no indication of the degree of personal commitment to the future of our nation. Being an Australian has nothing to do with outward appearance”.

Here at the same time as seemingly suggesting a tolerance of difference there is an assertion that that difference must be put to the service of an already established ideal of ‘being Australian’. Additionally, the examples of types of difference suggest an interchangeability between one individual’s cultural practice and another’s. Cultural forms are not expected to have any deeper hold, unless it is the cultural form of Australian nationalism. This is reinforced later when a ‘limit’ to multiculturalism is defined as “multicultural policies require all Australians to accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society”. This goes on to list certain political traits such as “the rule of law, tolerance and equality, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech”, etc. Simply, there are structures and institutions that are not malleable, that rigidly adhere to pre-determined principles that cannot be influenced by the addition of this so-called ‘diversity’.

Exposition no. 1 – The headscarf and strangers within

For all its inelegantly manufactured refuge in grand ideas such as ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’, multiculturalism is no significant shift away from the historical trajectory that has included the violent colonial displacement of indigenous people and the White Australia policy. That is to say, it has not socially, culturally or politically undermined where power resides to not only decide what difference is deemed acceptable, but how difference is interpreted in the first place. To understand this I will follow Sara Ahmed’s arguments in Strange Encounters that the key site of interrogation is not so much what is excluded at the border but how a process of differentiation about what is assimilable and what is not occurs within the borders of multicultural Australian society.

The question of where power resides in how a narrative of the nation is constructed is at the heart of the sort of critique of multiculturalism that I am taking up here (as opposed to a conservative criticism that effectively argues for a reassertion of the dominance of white, Anglo values, or more racism). That is to say, that even as we accept Australia as a multi-ethnic, heterogeneous society, the issue at stake is how the discursive and material formulations of multiculturalism effectively enshrine a specific version of Australia to which all newcomers must prove themselves assimilable. Or not. But importantly those who do retain their distance, their being as ‘strangers’, do so from already being within the nation. As Ahmed argues:

“The proximity of strangers within the nation space – that is, the proximity of that which cannot be assimilated into a national body – is a mechanism for the demarcation of the national body, a way of defining borders within it, rather than just between it and an imagined and exterior other.” (Ahmed p.100).

So in a self-perpetuating cycle, it is against those that are here who cannot or have no intention to attain this degree of assimilation that this national imaginary reinforces itself.

It is important here to elaborate the nuances of this argument. That is, we are looking at difference that is differentiated between that which is assimilable into the standardised ‘we’ of the nation and the figure of the stranger that cannot be assimilated, but still exists within the nation space. However, Ahmed adds that the stranger who cannot be assimilated is in fact “assimilated precisely as the unassimilable and hence they allow us to face the ‘limit’ of the multicultural nation” (Ahmed, p.106). Within the discourse of the multicultural nation, the site of that ‘limit’ is in constant flux, shifting and “undergoing constant redefinition of who ‘we’ are through the very necessity of encountering strangers within the nation space” (Ahmed, p.101). Ultimately, how this limit is determined identifies where power is located amidst these shifting concepts of ‘tolerance’, ‘diversity’ and ‘acceptance’.

To anchor this section of my argument in something a bit more concrete as well as starting to move forward, I would suggest as a solid example the debate around the wearing of the headscarf and burqa. Clearly this stands as one of the moments where a struggle occurred around the very limits of multiculturalism. More fundamentally than simply tapping into a strain of Islamophobia that runs through Australian society, this debate was a show of power by white Australian society, a harking back to John Howard’s “we will decide who comes here and on what terms”. It didn’t matter what side of the debate a person stood on, the simple fact of being involved meant allusions to that difference which is ‘ok’ or ‘integrated’ or that which cannot be, which will always be the domain of the stranger. Despite being a piece of clothing, the burqa came to symbolise a bridge too far, so that even while not officially ‘banned’, it was the visual marker of the stranger that could not be assimilated. And the debate around it fell in line with the ongoing, mainstream, systemic political strategy of reinforcing the idea that there are good Muslims who practice their culture in a way that is at the service of white, Australian culture and bad Muslims, who refuse to assimilate in this way.

So in Australia the presence of Muslims, even where a level of hostility exists, allows a strengthening of the national imaginary that this is a ‘tolerant’ and ‘diverse’ nation. However, the degree that this is accepted is the degree to which that presence doesn’t begin to challenge those notions. That is, diverse cultural forms may exist, as long as they are practised in a way that mimics the practice of dominant cultural forms and do not attempt to displace those dominant forms. Ahmed point us towards the idea that there may be a general acceptance of the appearance of difference as long as underneath that appearance the cultural practice is essentially the same and, most importantly, assimilable. While I would say that this generally holds true, I would add that the appearance of difference is considered most acceptable where it can easily be transformed into a consumable commodity – food, music, art, fashion, etc. That which cannot take such an obvious commodity form or which is seen to hold a more ingrained symbolic meaning – such as the burqa – form the grey area from which the limits of multicultural Australia come to be affirmed.

Exposition no. 2 – the violence of origins

While the limits of the national ‘we’ is necessarily a site of conflict within multicultural discourse, the very foundations of this discourse seem to ride out the various levels of contention (footnote1) it faces. I would argue that this is because its foundations are solidly tied to the entire bloody history of racial politics in Australia as opposed to having to somehow establish itself as any actual break from that. In Violence, Zizek outlines the historical argument of:

“the notion of the illegitimate origins of power, of the ‘founding crime’ on which states are based, which is why one should offer ‘noble lies’ to people in the guise of heroic narratives of origin” (Zizek, p.98).

It is clear that the history of Australian frontier colonialism is one site where the reality of the illegitimate and brutal origins of power (Terra Nullius anyone?) was turned into a story of an heroic struggle against the odds – although it is a story that is increasingly disputed, undermined and shown up. However, it would be false to suggest that its hold has been reduced to merely those circles of kooky, right-wing Windshuttle-ites. As I will argue its resonance has far more ongoing effects.

Multiculturalism discursively acts, in effect, as a continuum of the particular ‘heroic’ narrative that prevails in Australia – of the egalitarian, land of the ‘fair go’ where anyone prepared to work hard can make it. So in breaking from ‘White Australia’ as a policy, the heroic settler narrative was tweaked in such a way that certain historic and governmental factors that underscore the entire basis of Australian society are hidden as teething problems of a new nation that are ultimately overcome as ‘we’ become open, accepting and tolerant to all. Bullshit. As Foucault asserts in The Birth of Biopolitics – in an early section about the art of governing – it is through:

“a series of conflicts, agreements, discussions, and reciprocal concessions: all episodes whose effect is finally to establish a de facto, general, rational division between what is to be done and what is not be done in the practice of governing” (Foucault, p.12).

That is to say all the ‘conflicts, agreements, discussions and concessions’ of the early days of colonialism and through a near century of ‘white Australia’ leave immense traces in the structures of multicultural Australia even as they cloak themselves in new terminology. And the traces they leave are that certain power structures are legitimate and others are not, that certain ways of being are correct in the mind of the national ‘we’ while others are not, etc.

This returns us to the figure of the stranger and ideas of assimilation. However, instead of the figure of the stranger within that cannot be assimilated and as such sets the limit of multiculturalism, we can now look at how some difference is considered assimilable into the national ‘we’ and importantly, the conditions on which this ‘acceptance’ occurs. Ultimately, the point that multiculturalism is merely a discursive twist from a heroic, settler narrative is that while certain difference acts as the recognisable limit of the national imaginary, other difference can be incorporated under certain terms so that it in fact works to reinforce the multicultural narrative of ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’. Sara Ahmed outlines the complexity at play in how:

“national identity can be claimed through turning ‘their’ differences into ‘our’ difference: those who are ‘culturally different’ from the ‘typical Australians’ can display their difference but only in such a way that it supplements what is already assumed to be the coherence of culture itself (Ahmed, p.105).

More simply, assertions of cultural diversity merely cover a flattened and standardised nation space that seeks to assimilate only “those differences that do not threaten the ‘we’ of an Australian being” (Ahmed, p.106). And so the ‘diversity’ that exists under multiculturalism bares some resemblance to the wall of cereal you may choose from at your local supermarket. In his essay on cosmopolitanism and multicultural Australia, Graeme Turner refers to a “performance of a vigorously hybridised cultural identity” (pp372-373) as a defining feature of multicultural Australia. He suggests that the forms of cultural ‘diversity’ that can easily be displayed and are transferable, one for the other, are the extent of that which is considered acceptable.

What we are left with then, is a situation, where even when there are those holders of ‘difference’ who are accepted into the (discursive) nation space, this only occurs through a process of assimilation that is not so much ‘tolerant’ (footnote 2) as an alienating, violent act of recuperation that seeks to present itself as a neutral process. As Zizek points out, “socio-symbolic violence at its purest appears as its opposite, as the spontaneity of the milieu in which we dwell, of the air we breathe” (Zizek, p.31). So the ‘acceptance’ of cultural difference within liberal multiculturalism is no more than a socio-symbolic artefact, as the reality of this ‘diversity’, as i’ve already shown, is that only some difference is considered assimilable and to do so it must contort itself to replicate expected and pre-established cultural standards that now appear as spontaneous. Lets return to Ahmed to finalise this point:

“The imagining of the nation as a space in which ‘we’ belong is not independent of the material deployment of force, and the forms of governmentality which control, not only the boundaries between nation states, and the movements of citizens and aliens within the state, but also the repertoire of images which allows the concept of the nation to come into being in the first place” (Ahmed, p.98).

That is, the existance of a national imaginary which set the outlines for what difference is accepted and how, is overwhelmingly pre-determined by already established historical, material and political factors. And my argument is that while multiculturalism may somewhat adapt these factors and give them a new outfit, it is not any attempt to break from them so as to re-align the sites of power in Australian society.

Exposition no. 3 – a nationalist tolerance

The formation of a ‘national imaginary’ that conjures a version of a collective national self defined not just in terms of physical borders but also through symbolic and discursive cultural practices is both a necessity and a contradiction at the heart of a globalised, liberal capitalism. To start with, it is a necessity due to what Zizek calls “the ‘worldless’ ideological constellation” that is capitalist society, therefore:

“depriving the large majority of people of any meaningful cognitive mapping. Capitalism is the first socio-economic order which detotalises meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’, no ‘capitalist civilisation’ proper… ); its global dimension can only be formulated at the level of truth-without-meaning, as the ‘Real’ of the global market mechanism” (Zizek, p.68).

While the ‘Real’ of the global market mechanism has become the undoubted paradigm-maker, what Foucault calls “a site of verification-falsification of governmental practice” (Foucault, p.32), it has done so through the politico-economic assertion that it must be “allowed to function according to its nature, according to its natural truth” (Foucault, p.31). This means that not only does liberal capitalist society produce alienation in the form of wage labour and the separation of our labour and creativity from what we produce, but at it’s very core there is a requirement to accept an abstract market-based ‘truth’ that needs not justify itself with meaning or with anything more than its natural functions.

What does all this have to do with multiculturalism and the formation of an Australian national imaginary? While capitalism may be ‘worldless’ in its outlook, its hegemonic power lies in its capacity to incorporate a myriad of cultural forms and filter them though a framework of market mechanisms and individual choice so that their existence sits snugly within the functioning of capital. For one, the continued existence of a collective Australian national imaginary that delves into colonial history, tweaks it a bit and ultimately leaves a heroic narrative of the nation, is a necessity not opposed to, but symbiotic with the functions of the market as truth-maker in society. It provides a sense of collectivity that the inherent alienation of capitalism cannot, a more totalising sense of meaning (without truth?) that the ‘worldless’, truth-without-meaning of market mechanisms do not. The ‘Real’ of the global market mechanism here, is similar to the ‘Real’ of the national imaginary. That is,without either having a specific material basis in the formation of truth that can be tangibly pointed to, their existence is instead proved in how they directly effect the way we perceive, and how we materially experience, our social reality.

The disjuncture between oft-repeated mantras of what Australian society is and my own experience of the social space we inhabit is constantly fascinating to me. Even before entering the terrain of potentially dangerous racial politics there are numerous load-bearers of the national imaginary that seem entirely deluded – from the laid-back, egalitarian land of the fair-go (despite constant attacks on welfare recipients and an ingrained, bitter obsession with ‘working hard’ to get ahead) to a sports-obsessed nation (despite half-full stadiums at all but the biggest events). These examples are a distance from my main arguments (although the first bears some relevance), but they do underline how a national imaginary is constructed and produces our lived reality even where there seems to be a extremely precarious basis for its existence.

While a national(ist) imaginary in the Australian case seems particularly separated from the material reality (footnote 3) of this country, its existence cannot be denied even if it exists only on a socio-symbolic or discursive level. And as I have already described, despite often being a contested term, it is multiculturalism that currently provides the tools to supplement this national imaginary. Put absolutely simply, these take the form of the idea that Australia is a ‘tolerant’ and ‘diverse’ society, that it is ‘not racist’ but simply expects others to assimilate their difference into the mainstream spectacle of diversity. Significantly, for this to work, difference must be reduced to the level of the individual and only occur superficially. As Ahmed argues:

“Those cultural forms that are more acceptable are precisely those that may look different, but are in fact the same underneath. As a result, this multicultural nation accepts those differences that do not threaten the ‘we’ of the Australian being: the differences that cannot be reduced to mere appearance become the unassimilable” (Ahmed, p.106).

The hollowness of a collective national imaginary supposedly based on ‘diversity’ is underlined here as this suggestion of diversity is revealed to only exist at the level of appearance. It quickly evaporates when faced with cultural forms that call into question the pre-determined, normative modes of cultural practice that are considered to fundamentally uphold the unity of the Australian national imaginary. Where certain cultural forms are considered unassimilable, they are marked as the limits of the nation and it is here that the power relations behind concepts such as ‘tolerance’ reveal themselves.

This points us towards the contradiction at the heart of the relationship between a collective national imaginary and liberal capitalism – and the real basis of my argument – that those forms of collectivity that do exist against the alienation inherent in liberal capitalism, are all, when taken to a certain degree, potentially a threat to the paradigm of individual, market-based choice. Zizek focuses on this ‘paradox’ between collective formations of cultural practice and the individual:

“In liberalism culture survives, but as privatised: as a way of life, a set of beliefs and practices, not the public network of norms and rules. Culture is thus literally transubstantiated: the same sets of beliefs and practices change from the binding power of a collective into an expression of personal and private idiosyncracies” (Zizek, p.120).

All this suggests why the foundations of the Australian national imaginary based on the ultimately symbolic ‘diversity’ of multiculturalism is perfect for liberal capitalism. Here, a diversity of cultural forms can exist only if they are practised at a superficial level, with the ‘other’ – lets say migrants – expected to ‘buy in’ as individuals who have already ‘transcended’ their cultural ties. Individuals ‘displaying’ their cultural choices, as opposed to migrant communities practising traditional cultural forms, is far more amenable to the hegemony of the market because it does not rely on a more deeply-rooted collective solidarity.

The collective, public binds of culture are a problem for the market-based model of liberalism because they introduce certain unquantifiable factors into processes of consumption and production. Any examples of true material collectivity and solidarity that do exist must be discursively prescribed and carefully confined (footnote 4) and must ultimately be presented as part of the commodity spectacle. Zizek takes up this argument in regards to “the limitations of the standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women wearing a veil”:

“Women are permitted to wear the veil if this is their free choice and not an option imposed on them by their husbands or family. However, the moment women wear a veil to exercise a free individual choice… the meaning of wearing a veil changes completely. It is no longer a sign of their belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of their idiosyncratic individuality” (Zizek, pp123-124).

From here it opens up for us to consider how some collective cultural forms, unlike the multicultural national imaginary, do recognise and resist the abstraction of cultural practice into the terrain of market-based consumption, of ‘individual idiosyncrasies’.


Footnote 1 – To be far too simplistic and reduce this to arguments of the left and right I would suggest they would be 1) a radical, anti-racist position such as i’m taking up here and that builds on the site of anti-colonial indigenous resistance but the reach of which is limited to either academia or smaller cliques of the left; & 2) a conservative position that argues multiculturalism has failed because it has allowed in too much unassimilable difference but that is ultimately an argument that takes on the format of multiculturalism because it is aimed at the limits of the national ‘we’.

Footnote 2 – And there is a whole range of analysis of how that term upholds and reinforces certain power dynamics

Footnote 3 – I’m thinking of the the vast distances; the urban/ rural divide, especially multi-ethnic suburbs and monocultural towns; the genocide and ongoing displacement of indigenous folk seen against the relative wealth of the rest of the nation; etc, etc.

Footnote 4 – I’d suggest looking at the way the formation of a certain collective identity through following sport is considered acceptable and encouraged in much of Australia but only to a certain point. That is, to the extent following your sporting team upholds the nation-bearing themes of machismo and ‘mateship’ it is deemed a positive, but once ethnic ‘tribes’ start to coalesce around support of a particular team this is considered ‘unAustralian’.

It is important to add here that while liberal multiculturalism privileges the individual within its version of societal composition, it tends to dole out acts of retribution, punishment and discipline at the level of the group or collective. So where particular collective formations tend to more strongly resist the compulsion towards a superficial practice of collectivity in favour of a transcendental subjectivity, they swiftly become scapegoats, vilified as a group of people that are threatening to ‘our’ way of life. This is obviously even more pertinent to the extent that I have described, in which Australian nationalism is closely tied to liberal capitalism. So Muslims in general have had to wear the retribution of Australian society at numerous levels.

But there are also less racially-based examples such as the hostility that generally is aimed at workers’ collective organisations which has seen whole swathes of legislation enacted with the purpose of undermining the functioning of unions. We only have to look at the increasing barriers to the existence and effectiveness of workers and trade unions to see that certain forms of collectivity, especially ones based in material needs and solidarity, are absolutely considered undesirable and threatening to liberal capitalism and so must be heavily regulated and preferably written out of officially-approved versions of collectivity.

Things I Read…

Sara Ahmed: Strange Encounters

Slavoj Zizek: Violence

The Free Association: Moments of Excess

The Invisible Committee: The Coming Insurrection

Hanif Kureishi: The Black Album

Michel Foucault: The Birth of Biopolitics

Graeme Turner: ‘The cosmopolitan city and its Other: the ethnicising of the Australian suburb’ in Inter- Asia Cultural Studies vol.9, no.4, 2008.

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