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 →]