João Paulo Monteiro jpmonteiro at
Thu Nov 16 08:06:52 MST 2000

The matter with multiculturalism

The twentieth century will probably be remembered as the century of the
first wave of socialist revolution and of the liberation of the peoples
subject to colonialism.  Not a bad century, all in all.  The winning of
political independence by the peripheral nations once under the yoke of
the European empires is a particular historical watershed, whose full
meaning will still take some time to unfold completely.

The fight against colonialism was a fierce one.  It was won - or rather,
is still being won - with many sacrifices and with the mobilisation of
the energies, the memory and the creativity of many Asian, African and
American peoples.  It is therefore very dispiriting for a socialist to
see this endeavour being overtaken and corrupted by an epistemological
dead pup like multiculturalism.  But such is life under capitalism.
When the bourgeoisie is forced to take a step back, it always strives to
assimilate and embroil the emancipatory argument it is confronted with,
rearranging it to serve its own purposes.

The struggle against colonialism has brought to life and reaffirmed the
dignity of non-western cultural traditions, restoring their historicity
and offering their precious patrimony to the common fold of humanity.
Yet, now multiculturalism comes in, contending there is no such common

Old wine in new bottles

As the French essayist Alain Finkielkraut has noted, not many today
would draw their pistol when they hear the word culture but, among
prophets of ‘difference’, there are more and more who seem ready to draw
their ‘culture’ when confronted with the word thought.  The recent vogue
and currency of multiculturalism (or cultural relativism) is in fact
part and parcel of a wider philosophical offensive, that of

It may appear wrapped up in progressive tones - as one of the central
themes of the bizarre ‘political correctness’ polemic - but its central
tenet comes straight from the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment and
the French Revolution by such thinkers as Gottfried Herder and Joseph de
Maistre. It contends that national idiomatic patterns and cultural
traditions are closed systems, incommensurable and basically
incommunicable with each other.

The African or the Asian would have nothing to gain or learn from
western science, philosophy or literature (and vice versa), which will
always be strange corpses forcefully introduced on their own conceptions
and world view.  Universal history and culture don’t exist and therefore
Darwin’s evolutionist theory is neither inferior nor superior to any
creationist mythology, be it judeo-christian or from the ‘sad tropics’.
They are only incompatible and mutually exclusive. That is the
contention of Paul Feyeraband’s anarchist theory of knowledge.  A
‘farewell to reason’ indeed.

According to the present-day defenders of PC multiculturalism, each
culture holds in itself its own road to development and the particular
emancipation project for the national, ethnic or even gender group to
which it belongs. There is no more sense in devising a universal utopia,
only particular and particularistic heterotopias.

It’s not hard to understand the purpose of this patronising
multiculturalism (always bearing in mind that philosophical trends are
seldom the result of conspiracies, but nevertheless do obey a certain
objective historical intentionality).  It drives the peoples of the
Third World and the immigrant communities in the core imperialist
countries to their voluntary exclusion from the benefits of the most
advanced knowledge and technology. To their generalised bantustisation,
in isolated pockets of poverty, ignorance and despair.  It’s a
rationalisation of capital’s need - in line with the law of unequal and
combined development - to devise a system of hierarchical segmentation
of markets, most decisively of the labour force market.

Sowing the seeds of competition among workers is a must for the
international ruling class, in order to depreciate the price of labour
and thus counter the overwhelming tendency of rates of profit to
decline.  And this competition is optimised in a ladder-like disposition
of ethnicised segments with little (but still some) effective mobility
between them. Therein lie the sources of modern racism, baited, induced,
indeed imposed on the working classes. The bourgeoisie, creator and
manipulator of the beast, is left off the hook to preach its mild
multiculturalist morals. But the seeds of competition will one day turn
into the tree of worldwide class solidarity and come home to haunt the

It’s curious to realise that, when the European bourgeoisie was
expanding, there was no such talk about the glories of diversity.  All
the emphasis was put on the civilizing mission of the white man and on
rationalist universality.  Now that imperialism (demographically
weakened in the core metropoles) is also plagued with problems of
profitability and self-confidence, the discourse of radical difference
has arisen.  Multiculturalism is not here to offer any redress for past
crimes, and make the world free today, but serves instead quite
different designs.  In its retreat, the imperialist bourgeoisie is
trying to burn the bridges it has so unwillingly built between the
peoples of the world it has mastered and reject capitalism’s own past
confident ideology of making the world one.

While the economic integration of the planet proceeds and accelerates,
the mechanisms of capitalist accumulation on a world scale have driven
the greater part of humanity into isolation and the vicious spiral of
dependency.  The centre of the system is ever more ‘global’, but the
periphery lives isolated and completely subject to the mediation of the
imperialist metropoles for any exchanges.  There is an exploitative
North-South axis, but there is no South-South axis.  It’s the centre,
the great powers of the First World, that dominates globally all the
relevant fluxes of value: capturing markets, controlling and
appropriating natural resources, exploiting cheap labour, collecting
interests and now even benefiting from new situations of rent
(industrial licenses, insurances, freights, concessions, franchising,

The imperialist metropoles control the whole circuit of capital and have
exclusive access to cutting edge scientific knowledge and all the
relevant fora of political decision-making.  In store for the peripheral
nations is ignorance, confinement and irrelevance, them being denied any
voice and conscious participation on the life of the planet.  Why so?
Because, multiculturalism tells us, they have their own inviolable
culture, different and incommensurable with the western...

Multiculturalism and eurocentrism

We are told that multiculturalism is the alternative to eurocentrism.
Hardly. For as long as there is capitalism, long-held western
misconceptions and prejudices about the ‘other’ will have widespread
currency. In fact, what multiculturalism achieves is to justify this
deep estrangement (despite of the growing mercantilisation of ‘exotic’
products: world music, world religions, world sports), by decreeing that
understanding between different cultures is impossible. It’s precisely
because we can’t understand that we should ‘tolerate’.

Another curious result (or is it a premise?) of multiculturalism is the
confusion it promotes between modernity and westernisation.  All the
features of modern life are supposed to be the marks of western
influence. So, in order not to lose their ‘soul’ (those doomed
westerners already having lost theirs), non-western peoples should stand
guard against any modern technologies and concepts. This is, no doubt,
an excellent mechanism to deflect the just struggle against imperialist
exploitation and oppression into a muddled reaction to external
influences, including, for sure, such ‘foreign’ ideas as development and
emancipation, let alone marxism and proletarian internationalism.

Of course, after the european expansion (colonialism), the ideal line of
projection of a completely autonomous historical development for most
non-western societies was definitively broken. ‘Purety’ was lost
forever. But that shouldn’t, for a moment, obscure the fact that those
societies were and - though now obstructed by the chains of imperialism
- are indeed still developing independently towards the same ideals of
liberty, equality and citizenship the bourgeois revolution has promised
(and forfeited) in the West. It’s precisely on the atrophy that
imperialism has caused on the historical development of non-western
societies that multiculturalism feeds itself for its supercilious

What we are coming across where reactionary traditionalist movements are
on the rise - notably in India and throughout the countries of Muslim
faith - is in fact a fabrication whereby the rich and sophisticated
cultural traditions of these peoples are ‘excised’ of any lay and
universalistic elements. Only that which is parochial, superstitious and
the most crude manifestations of regressive bigotry are celebrated as
genuine. And this is precisely what we are told we should ‘tolerate’.
Rational endeavour, progress, innovation and emancipation are supposed
to be western idiosyncrasies (the West’s ‘superstition’) that shouldn’t
be ‘imposed’ on others.

Multiculturalism is the kinder, gentler name for racism, now stripped of
its unfashionable biological determinism which is replaced by an even
more rigid ‘cultural’ determinism.  Against it, we must argue that
humanity is one and whole. The overcoming of the present world economic
system, based on the exploitation of the labour force, will be the work
and common project of all its peoples, on the base of the most advanced
human knowledge. Trans-ethnic solidarity will go way beyond the deaf and
dumb ‘tolerance’ of multiculturalism, into the realm of a true
cosmopolitan class conscience. Or it will never be.

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