Thursday, January 27, 2011

How the leitkultur got its groove back

Jonathan Githens-Mazer mocks the efforts by the ruling parliamentary parties to dictate the terms on which Muslims can enter into political organisation and debate. He rightly characterises this obsession with 'integration', with regulating the internal lives of Muslim communties as authoritarian busybodying which displays a 'lack of faith in' (read, complete contempt for) democracy. Such racist paternalism, just for clarification's sake, is what 'leitkultur', or leading culture, actually means. (If and when this term is used, by the way, you may wish to reflect on who's going to be doing the leading.) But the question is why this, and why now?

In part, what's playing out, through columnists like David Goodhart, and poetasters of the 'white working class' such as Michael Collins, is a noxious nostalgia for a form of social solidarity that they blame black people for having undermined. The 'white working class', the object of this nostalgia, is nothing but a biscuit tin and teatowel memory, a tacky bit of commemoration merchandise, not even a museum piece. That this wistful pining for a racially (near as possible) monotone, culturally conservative island society ruling over millions of grateful subjects, should masquerade as empathy for and solidarity with any part of the working class is replete with ironies. The cataclysm that hit the organised working class, tore up the post-war compromise, slashed welfare and left communities isolated and atomised was, after all, prepared and popularised by the first generation of Powellites. It was they, bemoaning the liberal elite, posing as allies of the British worker, who first popularised the neoliberal route to a strong nation. It is their successors who now capitalise on its effects to promote the fabled 'crisis of multiculturalism', and thus plead with the state to involve itself more fully in the regulation and disciplining of minority communities.

What the attacks on Islam do, therefore, is culturalise (racialise) a series of increasingly urgent social and political questions. These would include the distribution of the social product, the backlash against the liberation movements, the prolonged breakdown of the imperial consensus, and the crisis of parliamentary democracy. Each of these issues can be, and is, interpreted through the sickly prism of racist and anti-immigrant ideology. Immigrant-bashing and Islamophobia ostensibly occupy different points in the racist spectrum, the former being directed toward 'outsiders', the latter toward established British citizens. But to leave it there would be to miss how the category of 'immigrant' always tends to expand to include not merely today's 'guest workers' and refugees, but also several generations of British citizens whose roots go back to nations once bloodily bound to the empire. In short, however much anti-immigration arguments seem to base themselves on worries about the burden on public services, or the shortage of resources and jobs, the logic always implies that the descendants of (non-white) immigrants are also a resource-drain, occupying jobs and hospital beds that white workers could make use of. This logic is never explained, is even denied as long as its conclusions are embarrassing, but it remains obvious for all that. And this leads us to yet another irony of the neo-Powellites. Having worked so hard to culturalise/racialise social questions, they then work extremely hard to conceal the fact and to insist that their racist baiting is nothing but un-fazed engagement with pressing social questions.

It is true that, for opportunistic reasons, Baroness Warsi is trying to do something slightly different with this subject. Having availed herself to the neo-Powellites as a loyal, moderate Muslim in the past, Warsi is now offering a slightly ambivelent defence of multiculturalism and some shy, diffident criticisms of Islamophobia. Presumably, this is the Tories' half-hearted attempt to push out a small boat to Muslim voters, whose political loyalty to Labourism has been severely tested in the last decade. But it won't last. The logic of austerity capitalism demands an ever more intense securitisation of daily life, an increased policing of the poor, and a careful cultivation of strata and divisions among the working class. That logic will prevail over electoral logic, as indeed it always has so far.