Multiculturalism and Empire (With Update)

I tried sometime last fall to read radical orthodox theologian John Millbank’s Theology and Social Theory. I appreciated the central claim he was making or trying to make in the book: that the endeavor by religious thinkers to answer the Enlightenment on the Enlightenment’s terms was a failure because the Enlightenment itself is religious (a conclusion I had come to some time before reading Millbank). I really liked that he was trying to end the “conversation” between sociology and religion, and the social sciences and religion in general.

But it was a tough read. Tough because Milbank writes like a critical social theorist. For every pithy paragraph (worth three or four excited readings) describing that the capitalism of the modern world reflects Scottish economist James Stewart’s Steuart’s ideas more than it those of moral philosopher Adam Smith, or that the very concept of “society” is an invention of the Enlightenment, there were pages and pages of ponderous drivel dealing more with high theory, aesthetics and even mythology. It was not as difficult a read as Horkhheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was itself so steeped in the aesthetic and mythic as to think one can tell the story of human ideas and human history that way. This approach is similar to that of Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West, or James Frazier in The Golden Bough, or Toynbee, grand theories of everything which make human history as much the story of the artistic and aesthetic as it is economics and events. In which myth is authentic history, more authentic than recorded history, and thus the stringing together of myths can effectively tell the human story. This approach, which may make sense to others, make utterly no sense to me, and I can get little or nothing out of such history telling. (This may or may not be a subject for a later time.)

At any rate, at one of the Christian Anarchist websites I’ve begun frequenting, I found an essay by John Milbank, “Sovereignty, Empire, Capital and Terror,” from a 2002 issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, and it is refreshing to see the man can actually write and communicate clearly. I have not read the entire essay, yet, but I came across an interesting description Milbank uses for the difference between American and European approaches to empire:

Because of its history of expanding frontiers—its internal wars against native Americans, African Americans, British loyalists, Spaniards in the South and West, the dissenting Confederate states, southern and Central America, dealers in alcohol and drugs, and Communists in the 1950s, the United States has in a sense been long preparing for this new sort of global conflict. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued in their Empire, American neo-Roman imperialism works by a constant subsumption and inclusion of “others,” such that difference is apparently welcomed, yet actually subordinated to an unremitting uniformity. This subsumption coincides with an obliteration of the older distinction between colonies as the extracapitalist sources of “primary accumulation” and the fully capitalized home markets. Now all comes to be within the unrestricted one world market. …

This contrasts with older European imperialism, which held the other at a subordinated distance, permitting its otherness, even while subordinating it for the sake of an exploitation of natural and human resources. And one should I think add to Hardt and Negri that, in the case of Britain and France, there were also many utopian imperialist schemes that went beyond even this subordination and tended to deploy the peripheries and “savage” to mock the center and “civilized” (see for example Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines). Such nuances are often overlooked in pseudo-left-wing American “postcolonial” discourses, which actually assist the ideology of the American Right by implying the original “innocence” of the United States as a once-colonized nation, and it’s natural solidarity with all the colonized.

Now, what I find most interesting about this is the implication that the American empire is one of forced inclusion, of forced assimilation. Annoying New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been the most forceful advocate of forced assimilation and inclusion as the solution to the problems of globalization — that those left out or choosing to be left out must be forcibly included in the emerging “global” economy and society as a way to protect those who have chosen or at least accepted that globalization. This has been the Bush Regime’s reigning justification for war in the Middle East, or at least was in the beginning when things seemed to be going well.

The response to assimilation as a ruling ideology of empire has been the creation of multiculturalism as an alternative to assimilation. Multiculuralism appears to assume that cultures are organic wholes, are based largely on ethnicity/race, language and religion, and that assimilation demands the abandonment of one’s own “culture” in order to assimilate, to accept the values and assumptions of the ruling culture. Rather than impose one specific “culture” as normative for an entire society, multiculturalism seeks a process by which all “cultures” can retain integrity and influence (and be influenced) by other cultures in a given society. Individual members of a “culture” need not abandon whatever culture they bring in order to be part of the larger society.

I take issue with multiculturalism’s sense of itself as an alternative to assimilation because it is assimilation. It assumes many of the same things that assimilation does — the moral legitimacy of the nation-state and of the community bounded by the nation-state (“society”) and defined by shared citizenship. It assumes that all social relationships between individuals and communities (“cultures”) within “society” must be governed by one set of values, values imposed by the state through the catechetical process of compulsory public education (the greatest evil perpetuated by the state) and backed up by state violence (law and law enforcement). The multiculturalist, like the assimilationist, cannot abide the desire by individuals to live in self-defined communities or enclaves that refuse to participate in “society.” The autonomous enclave is as unacceptable to the multiculturalist as it is to the assimilationist. Now, multiculturalism may make some sense as an idea created by people who viewed deliberate and purposeful segregation and exclusion from “society” as the problem. But it still seeks the same answer as assimilation — forcible inclusion and participation of all in “society.” Whether they want to be included or not.

And because of this, multiculturalism is just another ideology of empire, just another very American ideology of “unremitting uniformity.”
Pluralism, and not assimilation/multiculturalism, is how people really live. It is how they choose to live when state and parastatal actors are not trying to compel assimilationist ideologies upon them. This is why I love great big cities. I myself do not care if I live surrounded by people who “look” like me. I do not assume that I hold anything in common with such people. In fact, my most passionate prejudices tend to be be against working-class and poor white people, especially those with tribal and communal outlooks. But I accept there are people who want to live surrounded by folks who “look” or speak (and thus, they hope, think) like they do. And there are lots of people for whom ethnicity, language, religion and kinship are very, very important. So I say let them make the neighborhoods and communities they want, so long as no one is compelled to participate or (more importantly) prevented from leaving. There are plenty of places where such communities intersect, especially in big cities, where one can be properly cosmopolitan and meet and form communities with other cosmopolitans. And you can always pick up and move to someplace suitable cosmopolitan.
There’s actually something I admire in the anti-globalization movement, and that is the desire to secede, to drop out, to not accept what one is handed and instead create an alternative. As near as I can tell, the anti-globalization movement is protesting not the creation of a global economy and something akin to a global society, but the fact that most folks have no say in how they are forced to participate in that global society and economy. Where I disagree with the anti-globalization movement is in the desire to create a formal global polity that will achieve one of the longest cherished dreams of social democracy — an economy subject to political, and allegedly “democratic,” control. Like the multiculturalists, most anti-globalization activists aren’t opposed to globalization, nor are they opposed to force and coercion. They merely want to create institutional structures that would privilege their idea of what globalization is and should be. They claim that capital currently does what it does in an unregulated fashion. This is a lie. Capital can only exist with state support, and the right-wing social democrat believe just as much in the political control of the economy as the left-wing social democrat. Anti-globalization forces would not abolish the World Bank or the IMF; they would merely use them, and all their tools, “differently.” But they would still use them.

Multiculturalism, like the assimilationism it claims to oppose, does not accept “no” for an answer. It will not allow self-definition, voluntarism or secession. It is inherently statist in nature, and intervention and violence are by necessity the way it does business. The state defines what a “culture” is and how individuals within those “cultures” must interact with other human beings. The state is the main determinant of all social values. And where “no” cannot be spoken, heard and listened to, where it is not an acceptable answer to the state, there can be no real freedom for individuals or communities.

UPDATE: I finished the Milbank essay. Meh. It was intriguing in places, but as a whole it was not that interesting.

One thought on “Multiculturalism and Empire (With Update)

  1. Multiculturalism is no different than red/blue-state fascism prancing about as “freedom” or environmentalism and its “green” diktats. It’s all for “your own good”. Meaning you’d best shut up and hand over your money while shouting hosannas about your newly found faith, through relentless political indoctrination, in having less than your ancestors.


Comments are closed.