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 2

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Part 2 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…

The collective pulls

I began with religion, and despite the distance between that simple anecdote to where I am at now, religion is the base to which this argument must return. It is important to spell out now why it is the crux of the problem I am getting at. In the face of the institutionalised racism I have described, as well as the displaced sense of identity that migrants face, religion is a cultural marker, an affirmation of being within a community that can be clung too. Additionally, as a traditional cultural form that migrants might cling too, it only works in the collective form – its importance clearly being much more than simple faith, but as a site to meet in commonality with others, a site of practical and emotional support – and therefore in some opposition to the alienated individualism of liberal capitalism. Lets call on Zizek again to sum up how religion as a traditional cultural form is treated within liberalism:

“If the subject wants it, he or she can opt into the parochial tradition into which they were born, but they have first to be presented with alternatives and make a free choice amongst them” (Zizek, p.123).

At this point I am going to take a detour through Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Black Album, which although set in early 90’s London, precisely deals with this conflict between the need for collective safety in the form of traditional cultural practices and the allure of the liberal idea of ‘free choice’ and individuality.

The Black Album

In The Black Album, Hanif Kuresihi pits a version of a collective, religious form against the notion of the ‘freedom’ of liberal individuality. It is not a straightforward weighing of the scales but instead a complex entanglement in which the two seemingly opposite positions are bound together by questions of racism, imperialism, freedom of thought and expression and class politics. These questions revolve around Shahid, recently arrived in London from his family home in suburban England, who in the middle of this alienating city finds friendship and community amongst a small group of conservative Muslims who attend his college and are led by the older, wiser and hardline fundamentalist Riaz (footnote 5). Against that pull is his relationship with his teacher Deedee Osgood, who nurtures his love of literature, art and music (especially Prince) while urging him away from his new-found religious friends towards a politics of secular, liberalism.

Through Shahid and his friends, The Black Album raises a factor, amidst this question of alienation from collective bonds, that seems to perplex law-makers, police and government figures (who clearly aren’t concerned to look very hard) when they wonder why “these people who have been born and raised here hate us so much”. That is the factor of a generational hand-down of displacement where the generation following a migration feel an ongoing sense of alienation. It is the displacement felt either as the hollowness that follows assimilation into another society’s accepted norms, with the requisite cutting of real cultural ties to accept the modes of liberal individualism or it is that felt as having been marked as being ‘the other’ who exists within, as the limit against which the norms of the society are defined. For Shahid it is something closer to the first option.

Shahid is caught in a vice, having grown up in a family that managed to achieve a significant degree of assimilation into British society – for which they are rewarded by being successful small business people. He holds guilt about siding with the racists, wondering “why can’t I be a racist like everyone else? Why is it only me who has to be good (p.11)?” On the other hand, he has a yearning to associate with his own people but doesn’t want to give his subjectivity over completely. Ultimately, he is an outsider amongst them too, having made a ‘choice’ to now become friends with this group at college, he struggles to understand it as a choice that fits into a very particular framework as an assertion of his individuality as opposed to the necessity of cultural bonds. There are echoes of Zizek’s point about how liberalism privileges a subjectivity that, from a position of transcending cultural ties, then chooses to affirm them. Kureishi writes:

“These days everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a man, woman, gay, black , Jew – brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn’t be human. Shahid too wanted to belong to his people. But first he had to know them, their past and what they hoped for (p.92).”

In this way Shahid, becomes a reflection of an utterly alienated experience of culture and, more than the avowed liberal character Deedee, he is symptomatic of the notion that cultural holds can be reduced to individual choice.

What occurs in The Black Album then, is the pull of a traditional cultural form – in this case the Islamic religion – that requires the dissolution of a person’s subjectivity entirely into a collective experience. While such a thought might seem shocking in the context of liberal ideas of individual choice, the resonance of the collective pull here can clearly be seen as an antidote to Shahid’s sense of alienation from the society around him. It fits with this that apart from the radical, revolutionary left, it is often from religious congregations of all stripes that critiques of the alienation of consumer culture emerge – although in these instances it is usually as an invocation to some more pure, socially conservative time. Riaz himself regularly uses this argument against Shahid, invoking more than just religion when he asserts, “We cannot just forsake our people and live for ourselves… If we did, wouldn’t that mean we had totally absorbed the Western morals, which are totally individualistic (p.173)?” And Shahid, who’s religious conviction is always more shaky than that of his comrades, understands the choice he is facing has little to do with faith: “all this believing wasn’t so much a matter of truth or falsity, of what could be shown and what not, but of joining (p.133).”

The alternative forces grasping at Shahid do not offer that sense of collective ‘joining’, but instead propose something like the idea that through an open-minded individual rigorousness which picks and chooses amongst all manner of influences, a sense of self that finds a place in the world may be achieved. Deedee, as Shahid’s love interest, unfortunately reads a bit too much as a caricature of an unfulfilled, liberal in mid-life crisis, but for the purposes of my analysis plays an important role. Strong-willed, undeterred by her comparative age and certainly not restrained by any religious beliefs, she does not see a contradiction between pleasure as an immediate fulfilment of subjective desire and a broader understanding of society. She is in opposition to Shahid’s friends’ fundamentalism which preaches that “one pleasure… can only lead to another. And the greater the physical pleasure, the less respect for the other person and oneself. Until we become beasts (p.128).” However, Deedee cannot comprehend the sense of belonging that Shahid feels when with his friends and can’t see beyond a framework that posits the individual consumption of art and literature in place of collectivity (footnote 6) as a mode of existing within society.

Art and literature become the battle-ground for these opposing ways of understanding the world as Kureishi uses a situation that is based on the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie, as a key point in the narrative progression. Along the way Shahid has it repeated to him that enjoyment of literature is “how intellectual people elevate themselves above ordinary ones (p.21)” and that “the masses are simpler and wiser than us (p.175)”. But these are the overly-determined views of fundamentalists (which possibly Kureishi has ascribed too simplistically?) that seek to justify a particular and rigid version of collectivity which they fear will be threatened by any subjective experience. A different type of collectivity is subscribed to by Deedee’s husband, Brownlow, a staunchly atheist, socialist who backs the fundamentalist Islamic position out of a sense of duty to an anti-colonial politic. He explains to Shahid that instead of “fighting for literary freedom”, the liberals are “just standing by their miserable class. When have they ever given a damn about you – the Asian working class – and your struggle (p.215)?” Class solidarity as a basis for collective struggle is a position long held by revolutionaries everywhere, but it can potentially present a similar problem as nationalist ‘tolerance’ when it is assumed to be a collective space where other collective forms and expressions of difference are dissolved into a position of pure class identity.

Ultimately The Black Album leaves us with the problem that resonates throughout this entire article: that while liberalism is an abstraction of the individual – asserting a belief in a subjectivity that can transcend material and cultural ties – the collectivity of conservative religion is also an abstraction, relying on an idea of transcendental faith to hold people together. I am not interested in transcendental faith that seeks to deny individual pleasure, but I am interested in the material and lived experience of solidarity that comes with this – that sense of ‘joining’ – that can pose such a threat to liberal capitalism. There is a small moment where through the party-going, drug-dealing, raver Strapper, another example of material collectivity is described. Strapper tells Shahid of:

“The soulfulness and generosity of people he’d met on the scene who, mocked and outlawed by the straight world, would welcome him into their homes on this very day if he turned up, no questions asked, sharing whatever they had, for they understood one another, as if they had been in combat together; it had been a collective love (p.197)”.

This provides an example of a collective, cultural sustenance that does not necessarily have to fall back on traditional values to create a sense of belonging. The point, as I move into the closure of this article, is not to suggest that this example is somehow a preferable or more radical ideal of collectivity, but to emphasise that many and varied versions of cultural and social collectivity do exist and that, significantly, at some level the processes of solidarity that underwrite them exist in opposition to the material atomisation and subjective individuality of liberal capitalist society.

A final refrain

In writing this I have moved further and further away from the direct critique of religious practice I had suspected would be fairly fundamental to this article. Instead, my focus has become one that seeks to present the hold of religion as that of something that provides a communal comfort and collectivity in the face of the alienation experienced as inherent in liberal, capitalist society, an isolation more keenly felt by migrants. In looking at race, migration and the production of an Australian national imaginary, I have not just been trying to propose a critique of multiculturalism. More crucially, I have been trying to show how multiculturalism, both as a broader discourse and as policy, is a site of analysis where the entanglement of questions of race, diversity, cultural practice (individual and collective) allows us to come to a strategic and specific understanding of the broader functioning of liberal capitalism and how an individual subjectivity removed from solid collective holds becomes the unit from which this society is created and reproduced. The collective, cultural affinities that are hinted at in multicultural discourse have to be reduced to a version of individual choice if they are to be ‘tolerated’.

In searching for a radical, revolutionary even, ideal of collectivity that can be a site of resistance to liberal capitalism without retreating to conservative social values, it is important to be careful to not fetishise any or all moments of collectivity that do exist, as proponents of social change. As I explained in the section on multiculturalism, some versions of collectivity uphold the neoliberal state of things by filling the lack that the rationalised economic system produces. They provide collective fulfilment both in a psychological sense of belonging and sometimes also in a material sense where communities provide for each other because they cannot afford, or there are no, hospitals, etc. And of course, there are also numerous examples of collective presence that may have gripes with neoliberal society but that propagate other ultra-conservative or reactionary principles – the far-right and its explicit nationalism and some football supporter groups and their violent machismo are a couple of examples that spring to mind (footnote 7).

It would be presumptive to propose the specifics of what formations of revolutionary collectivity could exist that do not impinge on cultural autonomy, that create versions of freedom that do not simply boil down to individual choice and that do not regress into an idealised version of some purer, socially conservative time. What must be recognised is that in the face of the isolation of liberal capitalism and in the very fact of having to materially survive everyday, people do enable various versions of collectivity. And many of the positive attributes that I have identified may often occur in otherwise conservative contexts. So, to suggest a way to think about where too from here, I want to use as a basis this (extensive) quote by the The Invisible Committee from their incendiary tract The Coming Insurrection:

“The West everywhere rolls out its favourite Trojan horse: the exasperating antimony between the self and the world, the individual and the group, between attachment and freedom. Freedom isn’t the act of shedding our attachments, but the practical capacity to work on them, to move around in their space, to form or dissolve them… The freedom to uproot oneself has always been a phantasmic freedom. We can’t rid ourselves of what binds us without at the same time losing the very thing to which our forces would be applied (p.32)”.

So freedom not as that much promulgated emissary of liberalism – a trait carried wholly by the individual removed and ‘free’ of worldly, material attachments – but as an interaction, an ongoing capacity to engage and effect our attachments, our cultural and social affinities. And as a collective form that doesn’t demand absolute doctrinal compliance, but allows space for exploration without having to detach from those collective attachments.

These would be formations of collectivity then, do not simply provide material or emotional support as a necessity of holding people within a collective net, but instead provide these things specifically as a base to explore and to form new collective modes. From this ‘safety net’ the material relations that so privilege individual subjectivity over collectivity and that therefore foster the overarching societal alienation we experience can begin to be undone. The Free Association use the metaphor of the ‘refrain’ in jazz to theorise the importance of this collective safety:

“They provide the base from which innovation can develop. You also see (or hear) refrains working in jazz. After each virtuosic solo, the musicians return to the same chorus. The restatement (even with variations) of that familiar melody – the refrain – provides both musicians and listeners with the reassuring basis from which to throw themselves into the next piece of crazy virtuosity (p.74)”.

While The Free Association are more explicitly referring to the value of the refrain in relation to people already more directly involved in radical political practice, I hope the link it has to migrants trying to find space within the prescribed limits of liberal multiculturalism is clear here too. That is,those traditional collective forms that migrants often cling too as an anchor against the displacement they face can play the role of a refrain, can be the solid ties of collective social experience to hold on and return to. But they also are the point of departure from which it is possible to more confidently explore the possibilities in a hostile or unfamiliar social space.

In my experience of migration to liberal, multicultural Australia, these ties to traditional cultural practice were kept in play by my mum, who despite not being at all religious would have me and my sister attend the Sikh temple on occasion, less for the ceremony and more for the food and collective social space it provided. While a conservative practice of such collective ties often creates a pressure and obligation that it is morally correct to filter our engagement with broader society through cultural practices based on heritage, the idea of the refrain seeks to turn this position on its head. Instead these cultural practices must seek to progress and to do so by being open to a multitude of influences and through the creation of new modes of collectivity. The Free Association point out that “refrains depend on people taking part and then carrying things forward. They change and adapt – like birdsong, refrains are in constant evolution (p.75)”. For this idea of the refrain to truly be a frame for how we conceive of collectivity, it is necessary to understand our subjective self as being borne of collective ties which can either constrain or release us.

My feeling is, that without ever articulating it in such way, this was the experience of cultural collectivity I entered into through my mum and family. We were inevitably formed by the cultural affinities that are our heritage and relied on them as a space of solidarity, but were also free from the most restricting of rules due to a lack of inclination towards a religious-based abstract faith. For truly radical forms of collective solidarity to exist – that could undermine and erase current modes of capitalist containment – they must not rigidly constrain our subjective experience by presupposing their way of doing things as the correct one. So, without the faith, our traditional cultural affinities could be a base to extend our experience and form other pacts of social collectivity. We weren’t the only ones doing this at the temple, at school and at work. All this is in opposition to the liberal idea that the individual is somehow, in origin, free of these collective binds and from a transcendental position is able to choose how to place themselves within a range of such options.

This is my point of departure from the collective reassurance provided by conservative religious practice or nationalism, they tend to not seek to evolve, becoming static and embracing social conservatism. It is also certainly more than possible to see such static and dogmatic rigidity in the collective forms of supposedly revolutionary groups. While that is an important consideration for radical practice in general, it is not my specific focus to grapple with now. It does however bring me to the question of shared collective practice and the possibility of this occurring as a method of engendering solidarity across different cultural forms. This broader solidarity, these pacts of affinity that could cut across different collective forms have to start from a place of understanding a particularly significant lesson of liberal capitalism – that we cannot consider the particular and the universal to be opposing forces, each is entirely implicated in the existence of the other. It is useful here to return to Zizek to emphasise this in his claim “it is not only that every universality is haunted by a particular content that taints it; it is that every particular position is haunted by its implicit universality, which undermines it (P.132)”. He uses the more direct example of how “an individual capitalist thinks he is active for his own profit, ignoring how he is serving the expanded reproduction of universal capitalism (p132)”.

Ultimately, what I am arguing here, is that even in reclusive, self-isolating forms of collective, cultural practice an element of universality is unavoidable and often it is the functioning of the market-form that amplifies the crossover of the universal into the particular. Bridging the perceived gap between the universal and the particular, the global and the local and the individual and the collective is so much of the difficulty at the core of any formation of revolutionary practice. However, the contradictions and conflicts that are inherent in capitalism also mean there are numerous points of rupture where different cultural forms can find affinity and create new versions of collective practice. Zizek finally comes to assert that:

“The formula of revolutionary solidarity is not ‘let us tolerate our differences’, it is not a pact of civilisations, but a pact which cuts across civilisations, a pact between what, in each civilisation, undermines its identity from within, fights against its oppressive kernel… A better formula would thus be: in spite of our differences, we can identify the basic antagonism or antagonistic struggle in which we are both caught; so let us share our intolerance and join forces in the same struggle (p.133)”.

These ‘pacts’ can occur in workplaces and in neighbourhoods, in places that are in no way free from the rhythms of capital or the implicit power structures of multicultural nationalism but which nonetheless also have the potential to engender new forms of encounter and collective solidarity. They do not require abandoning all existing cultural, collective holds, but do require enough scope for flexibility that conditions (Footnote 8) are not placed on the existence of these new collective forms a priori. What is being sought is the articulation of collective forms that always desire their own transformation through encountering other forms, so as to be in a position to not just respond to, but also overcome and pre-emptively dissipate, the social and material conditions of that ‘oppressive kernel’.


Footnote 5 – The Black Album has much to say about religion and its role in society beyond my specific interest with it as a collective form in opposition to the individualism of liberal capitalism. I would otherwise be interested in taking up an argument against Riaz’s assertion that “without religion society is impossible. And without God people think they can sin with impunity. There’s no morality” (p.32). Basically it would be an echo of Zizek’s point that it is often in fact entirely because of this transcendental faith in a ‘higher power’ that people think they can take all sorts of actions with impunity. This is what Zizek calls ‘divine violence’.

Footnote 6 – While I don’t really have the space or inclination to go into it in the main body of this article it is necessary to mention that a great reason for Deedee being disavowed from any sense of collective politics are her experience of being a socialist-newspaper-seller in the 70’s as well as her failing relationship with her staunchly old-school, socialist (soon to be ex-) husband Brownlow. That is to say, the particular rigid, dogmatic ‘collectivity’ of some socialist organisations merely produces another form of alienation that undoubtedly puts off many people.

Footnote 7 – Or Fight Club. Obviously a work of fiction, but one that I often hear held up as a fantastic critique of consumer capitalist society. Which it probably is, but the actual formation of the fight clubs are a pointed reference to a tendency towards a militaristic and hierarchical, fascistic form of collective belonging that is absolutely reactionary and in no way a step on the way to any positive social transformation.

Footnote 8 – And here the restrictive conditions of religion are only one side of the coin. Another case would be the CFMEU’s recent, re-run of a campaign focusing on protecting the conditions of ‘Aussie workers’ while targeting ultra-exploited, 457 visa holders. While the 457 visa may be an attack on workers’ conditions by the capitalist class trying to create new pools of cheap labour, this should not result in a focus on the visa holders themselves. Here the pre-condition being placed on the possible creation of a form of collective solidarity is that it be defined by nationality, and so it immediately removes the possibilities of any more radical occurring.

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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