An interview with Alexej Ulbricht (AU) in March 2015, conducted by Jonathan Nassim and Mikala Rasmussen (JN/MR), with introduction and additional questions by David Cecil (DC).
DC: For many, Britain is an admirably diverse society. In the nineteenth century, London became a destination for immigrants fleeing wars in Europe. In the mid-twentieth century, the subjects of the British Empire (and later Commonwealth) were welcomed in Britain, partly as a much-needed labour force after the demographic ravages of the two world wars. The country became known for its tolerance of differing religious views and ways of life, with a rich tapestry of international cuisine, music, language and fashion in areas like Soho, Brixton and Whitechapel. The social and political means of accommodating this diversity was labelled ‘multiculturalism’, indicating a harmonious co-existence of different cultures. This accommodation was held to be distinct from the more integrationist approach adopted by France (e.g.), which sought to assimilate foreigners into the dominant French culture.
The self-conscious projection of Britain as a multicultural society reached its apogee in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which elaborately staged symbolic enactments of British culture and history. This gaudy nationalist spectacle, viewed by millions worldwide, included explicit tributes to multiculturalism, notably a dramatic depiction of Jamaicans arriving in Britain by boat in the 1950s.
However, hostility towards migrants and minorities is, if anything, on the rise. The Olympic ceremony was immediately and publicly condemned by a leading Conservative Member of Parliament as “leftie multicultural crap”; the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has successfully entered mainstream politics on an anti-immigration platform; while Germany’s islamophobic PEGIDA recently teamed up with the English Defence League to stage public protests in London.
How are we to understand a situation in which Britain both claims to embrace a diversity of people and their practices, while simultaneously rejecting them? On the one hand, British commentators seem to welcome the enrichment to its culture, but the same voices warn of dangers to indigenous employment, threats of terrorism and even the destruction of our green and pleasant land.
Is this contradiction simply to be dismissed as political opportunism? Or a confusion caused by ‘too much multiculturalism’? Or is there an underlying political strategy in this ‘love-hate’ relationship?
Alexej Ulbricht is a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), who has recently published a book entitled Multicultural Immunisation: Liberalism and Esposito. This is a timely contribution to our understanding of social and political attitudes to immigration, including the alleged threats to European culture from Islam and globalisation. Ulbricht takes a step back and asks what gives rise to the contradictions at the heart of liberal multiculturalism. He argues that liberalism is a straitjacket which makes multiculturalism possible only in a superficial sense. Liberal multiculturalism ‘immunises’ society by introducing a few safe elements of foreign cultures into the national body. Therefore, the current hostility is not so much a backlash against multiculturalism, but a strengthening of tendencies built into the liberal multicultural project. Ulbricht argues that we must re-think what multiculturalism is, and go beyond liberalism. Some of the answers, or models of an alternative multiculturalism, he finds in the Berlin musical underground and he speculates on how rhythm may offer another way of thinking about coexistence.
JN/MR: What was your initial inspiration for studying multiculturalism?
AU: The idea for this book was motivated by the kinds of things you read about immigration all the time and the way mainstream discourse about immigration seems to have changed rapidly. Hostile discourse was there all along, but the kind of traction it used to have is different from today. In 2005, the Tories ran an election campaign on the slogan ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’, which I remember because it was the year after I moved to this country. The campaign fell flat, but if they’d run it now they’d probably win on that same slogan. Thinking about that got me interested in multiculturalism. What I ended up arguing was that there is a lot more continuity than discontinuity regarding this kind of hostility towards immigrants. [Read more →]
Romare: Meditations on Afrocentrism and Love Songs: Part One
Invoking demons from West Africa, old soul and blues, Romare coughs up unclean electronica that is as old as it is fresh. Footworkin’, hip-grindin’ bass for the dance floor and a collage of ethnomusicology samples for the brain/scratch.
Batida: Alegria EP
Disarming Portuguese cheese that makes old ravers dance despite their jaded palettes. An irresistibly funky Angolan guitar melody that stinks of glorious sunshine. Soundways are pushing forward their African house/bass vibes to the masses while maintaining integrity. [Read more →]
Within a few months of the last Datacide going to press, the Anti-Homosexuality (AH) Bill was passed into law by the Ugandan government. In that issue, the article Confessions of an Accidental Activist cited a senior government insider suggesting that the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, was using the bill as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the ‘international community’ (i.e. Western donor nations). He could use his control over the AH Bill as part of international negotiations on economic and geopolitical issues, such as control of oil revenues, regional conflict and the security of his tenure. At the same time, expressing support for the Bill domestically would help secure fundamentalist-religious voting blocs ahead of the 2016 elections, which will mark 30 years of rule by Museveni’s National Resistance Movement. The president will thereby be seen to be standing on a platform of ‘traditional African values’ opposed to the decadent, domineering Western imperialists who are forcing homosexuality on Africans under the guise of human rights. The rabid homophobia rhetorically subsumed under these ‘African values’ is, ironically, an import from the US evangelist movement, whose influence on the population of Uganda is perhaps as significant as that of the Western donors.
Here was a skilful post-colonial balancing act for the president: appearing internationally as the guardian of order over an intolerant and fractious society, while pandering domestically to the most cynical demagogues of that same society. So, many were surprised that Museveni had finally tipped the balance and allowed the Bill to pass into law. How had the president achieved this without alienating the liberal donors? [Read more →]
As an erstwhile PERTBUM (Privately Educated Riot Thug Backing Underground Movements), I had, in my youth, occasionally enjoyed the company of real activists. My preferred Underground Movement, Hekate sound system, was only collaterally activist, and the politics were correspondingly sloppy and oblique – we were only ever loosely (some would say ‘louchely’) involved with politics, and that is the way I liked it. Imagine my horror, then, when last year I found myself the subject of an international media shitstorm, and my innocent name tarnished with the label: “gay activist”. This would have caused no little derision in the dormitories of Westminster School, had the unfortunate incident occurred 20 years earlier.
2007 found me at a loose end in Uganda. The London underground had lost its lustre and my life had degenerated into meaningless anaesthetic abuse (to be distinguished from progressive psychonautical exploration). Africa held promise, particularly Uganda, with its absence of haughty white settlers, seemingly anarchic society and pulsating night-life. For a PERTBUM who simply wanted to open a Bohemian cultural centre in the tropics, the soil there looked exceedingly fertile and uncomplicated.
However, when I set forth from England with this missionary intent, Uganda, unlike some other parts of East Africa, had no historic tradition of western-style ‘arts’, except in music and dance. Painting, sculpture, cinema, literature and stage theatre were all barely nascent in the 1970s when Idi Amin came to power. Despite his nasty reputation, Amin was the last Ugandan leader to pump serious money into the artistic crucible of Makerere University. However, this patronage was curtailed by the slow eruption of a vicious civil war, which effectively continued from the mid-70s to the early-90s. This was accompanied by the epidemic of AIDS, of which Uganda was one of the worst cases in the entire world. “In such condition”, as Hobbes noted, “there is no place for… arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death.” However, such condition was perfect for a Leviathan-type state, externally-imposed economic structural adjustment, a recourse to fundamentalist religion, and the invasion of an army of NGOs. In this daunting, post-conflict condition, where were ‘the arts’? [Read more →]