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Multiculturalism, Immunisation and Rhythm

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.

JN/MR: After Snowden, you wonder why they asked — they did know what we were thinking! You begin your book by outlining a contradiction in the discourse about multiculturalism in the UK. Can you elaborate on what this contradiction is?

AU: I saw a tension in discourses on multiculturalism and immigration in the UK, where at one and the same time there was hostility towards immigrants, while we still constantly present the country as a place of diversity, multiculturalism and tolerance. There are endless examples in the media of immigrants being blamed, of worries about security and cultural encroachment and so on. In the very first question of the very first election debate in 2010, Gordon Brown rattled off this list of professions: we’ll let no more nurses into this country, we’ll let no more cooks in, no more care-workers, etc. This was meant to be a good thing, protecting British jobs. The very next thing he said was that we’re a diverse country and we’re a tolerant country and that’s really great. There is a passage in Cameron’s ‘death of multiculturalism speech’ (given at the Munich Security Conference in 2011) where he talks about all the things that Islamic culture has contributed to Britain. I read this out to my students without telling them where it was from and no one could guess it was from an anti-immigration speech. Normally we understand this hostility in terms of a backlash: multiculturalism has gone too far. But the tension – the hostility to immigrants and the celebration of multiculturalism – exists at one and the same time. This tension, which wasn’t picked up on by commentators at the time and which wasn’t recognised to be contradictory, this was my starting point.

Less intuitive and familiar than the common fears about the effect of immigrants on security and work is the fear about their effect on Nature itself. There are a lot of articles about how immigrants make cities dirty and trash-up buildings. There was even a series of stories about Eastern Europeans eating swans. And there’s a lot of symbolism here, because the swan is the Queen’s bird. Whichever theme you focus on, you’ll see a lot of fear and hostility directed at migrants, some subtle and some more overt. But at the same time it is not questioned that the UK is a place of tolerance and diversity. It’s taken for granted. This image that was built up during the 90s and early 2000s is still taken to be accurate. The hostility is understood in terms of a reaction to too much tolerance, too much diversity. So the hostility only makes sense against a background perception that the UK is a multicultural, diverse and tolerant country – only too much so.

JN/MR: How do you explain the source of this tension in the discourse surrounding multiculturalism?

AU: The overall idea of my book is that rather than understanding liberal theories of multiculturalism as being concerned with opening liberalism to difference in any meaningful way, multiculturalism is really about strengthening liberalism. This is why I use the term ‘immunisation’, which I borrowed from Roberto Esposito, the Italian political philosopher1. To really understand what is going on in liberal multiculturalism, you must see it as a series of immunitary mechanisms, which strengthen liberalism. What does immunity mean? It’s a concept drawn from medicine, a medical metaphor: a partial incorporation of an outside element to protect against a threat – or a perceived threat – from the outside. When it comes to multiculturalism, there is a perception of threat from the outside. Most importantly the worry that giving too much away to other cultures means undermining fundamental liberal values that we don’t want to risk. There is always this worry of giving too many rights to other cultures: what will happen to women?, what will happen to LGBT people?, etc.

The book presents a selection of immunitary mechanisms. While I focus mainly on three liberal theorists, the idea is to give some representative examples of the conceptual resources in liberal multiculturalism and how to understand them as immunitary mechanisms. I first look at the idea of group-differentiated-rights. Secondly, the idea of a certain type of consensus politics – specifically liberal forms of consensus, rather than anarchist decision-making processes (although how well such anarchist processes deal with diversity is worth examining as well). And finally, a particular way of understanding recognition in liberal political theory. I argue that all these cases are ways of strengthening liberalism, rather than actually opening up liberalism to other practices or other thoughts. Now liberals might not object to that, some of them are quite open about what they are doing – though some of them aren’t. Some of them would like to think that they are really opening up. I argue that if there is a sincere commitment to opening up policy to other practices – that is, having a multiculturalism which lives up to the promise of the name – we need to move beyond the purely liberal framework, beyond liberalism. This doesn’t mean we have to abandon liberal concepts. A genuinely multiculturally-constituted politics wouldn’t have to abandon the liberal tradition – it is one tradition among others.

JN/MR: So you think liberalism and genuine multi-culturalism are really contradictory?

AU: Yes, liberalism creates these contradictions but liberal thought is full of contradictions, it’s inherent to liberalism. I don’t think that’s a big problem for anybody.

JN/MR: What do you mean by ‘immunisation’ or ‘immunitary processes’? Can you give some examples of how immunisation works?

AU: I’ll start from the abstract and then get more concrete. Immunisation, as Esposito notes, isn’t just a medical metaphor, it’s also a term from legal discourse: think diplomatic or legal immunity. One of the types of immunitary processes I look at is the way that rights function in liberal theories of multiculturalism, which is usually a notion of group-differentiated-rights. Certain cultural groups are entitled to different types of rights instead of simply having universal individual rights. This is at odds with traditional mainstream liberalism. But liberal multiculturalists say that it’s perfectly in line; it can raise autonomy and doesn’t threaten individual autonomy. This view usually differentiates between three types of groups: indigenous groups, national minorities – like the Welsh or the Basques – and immigrant groups. Different groups are entitled to different rights. So, for instance, if an indigenous group continued to fish on ancestral land, they may be entitled to a veto on things being built through that land. Or, an immigrant group such as the Sikhs in the UK don’t have to wear helmets on motorbikes if they wear a turban, and can carry daggers in certain situations where others cannot. This is meant to be how liberalism opens itself up.

The distinction made in the literature is between external protections and internal restrictions. External protections are meant to protect the practices of the group from the state, which might undermine its cultural practices. Internal restrictions are when members of a group try to enforce discipline and try to stop certain practices within the group, e.g. curtailing the autonomy of women, or preventing certain people from leaving the group. Internal restrictions are seen negatively; no liberal theorist tries to protect these practices. In practice, the way the line is drawn between what kinds of practices we do and don’t want to protect is essentially according to liberal values. We have a catalogue of liberal values, and once they’re infringed upon, the practices are no longer within the realm of what we’re willing to accept. So really the notion of tolerance here is very superficial. Other cultural practices are incorporated into the polity in a very limited way; in a way that’s meant to stop anything moving beyond a certain point. We can have different types of dress, rituals and festivals and all of that, but anything that substantially challenges liberalism cannot be part of the framework. What then happens is that groups are incorporated, and because of this they no longer feel the need to make demands on the liberal state. Any substantial challenge to liberal values is not tolerated; liberal values are not up for question. That’s one way immunisation happens: certain types of claims are neutralised, certain types of claims are accepted.

Another way immunisation occurs is in the context of grievance claims. In a liberal state, these can only be advanced in terms of rights claims; the language of grievance has become the language of rights. Rights are a legalistic part of the liberal individualist tradition; even group-differentiated- rights. Why do we ultimately have them? Because of individual autonomy. Expressing grievance in these terms isn’t necessarily in line with how other traditions do it; they may think of it in more communal ways. For instance, Elizabeth Povinelli2 shows that one of the problems in Australia is that in order to receive recognition of rights to land, aboriginal groups have to go through the liberal legal process. They have to present themselves in a way that is recognisable by that process. But that process in terms of rights is very different from their own tradition. This brings in recognition as well. They have to demonstrate, in a way recognisable to the legal process, that they live according to their ancestral traditions, while engaging in this liberal legal process that is completely at odds with their own practices. The very fact they are engaging with this process completely undermines the idea that they are living by their own traditions. So it gets tangled up. Here, immunisation is working by people being incorporated into the processes of the state. They are no longer completely excluded from the state, they are part of the institutions and get to express grievances in particular ways, and get to make rights claims. But the way they’re included precludes certain types of behaviour and ways of airing grievances. So again, more substantive challenges to liberalism are neutralised because of the way groups are incorporated into the process of the liberal state.

JN/MR: Why should we be worried about immunisation?

AU: Well, it depends on your perspective. If you’re a liberal and you want liberalism to be strengthened, then there’s no problem at all. Immunisation works, at least for liberals. I don’t think it works for minorities, but it does what it’s supposed to do for liberalism, at least to a large extent. Generally speaking, immunisation is problematic insofar as it reinforces boundaries between inside and outside. It is trying to fortify against the outside, and so is problematic because it is exclusionary. Some people think that every politics must exclude something; I’d like to hope that this is not necessarily the case.

So whether it’s a problem or not depends of whether you think of diversity – substantial diversity, involving diverse practices with a difference, rather than a superficial notion – as something that‘s worth protecting and promoting. If you don’t think it is then there is no reason to be critical of the things I outline. I’m very critical of any foundational argument, and so I offer no foundational argument for valuing diversity. I think it is a radical political choice, either you endorse it or you don’t. A lot of these liberal theories say they do endorse it, which means they have a big problem.

What would it mean to go outside of immunity? Esposito talks of immunity as the paradigm of modernity. I realise that when I look at non-immunising ways of coexistence, they might in fact institute their own immunitary processes. Depending on what values you endorse that might be fine.

DC: Your book critiques prominent theorists of liberal multi-culturalism, including Charles Taylor. In one of Taylor’s essays, he tries to overcome the problem of radical difference between cultures with the idea of a ‘fusion of [cultural] horizons’ – which I take to mean a broad consensus or compromise about an ultimate agreement on ‘the good life’, which surpasses lesser differences. Could Taylor not argue that what you describe as ‘processes of immunisation’ are more a democratic way of limiting or accommodating difference to achieve this broad fusion, rather than a hegemonic strategy?

AU: ‘Fusion of horizons’ is one of these abused concepts that gets picked up almost more for the name than anything (although Taylor is far from the worst offender here). In practice it does seem to refer in these theories to consensus of some kind; the concept seems to get collapsed into a kind of Habermasian agreement. This is far from what Gadamer had in mind when he coined it.

But philosophical nitpicking aside, if we do take consensus – either on the good life, or simply on certain core values around which to regulate coexistence – to be what is meant, then what is the problem? Fusion isn’t really about diversity; it is about creating a new type of unity. However, the conditions under which the move towards consensus of fusion takes place is never really interrogated. What are the power differentials? How level is the playing field? So really this can end up as a way of sidelining certain concerns in the very instance of incorporating groups into the political process. What gets shut down moreover is any notion of productive disagreement, so essentially this kind of consensus is a stunting of political subjecthood in the name of democracy – Jacques Rancière has written extensively on this process.

DC: Following Esposito, you describe ‘immunisation’ as being ‘the dispositif of our times’. [‘Dispositif’ is a term taken from Foucault roughly meaning ‘process and strategy of domination in the social body’.] This is hard to understand in the context of modern fascism, communism or nationalism. Would it be fair to say that immunisation is mainly a strategy of liberalism, with its emphases on diversity and tolerance?

AU: No. Esposito does not develop the notion of immunity to talk specifically about tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism – that’s the area I’ve chosen to apply his thought to, but he is writing in much more general terms. Esposito links immunity to modernity through readings of various thinkers from Hobbes onwards, and following that trajectory might lead us too far. But we can also see the idea of immunity as a dispositif of our times in the sense of a generalised and accelerating fear of contagion in every sphere of life: computer networks; global health epidemics; the war on terror; or migration flows. This fear inheres much of our thinking.

Certainly, in so far as liberalism is the dominant system of thought in the present day it can seem tempting to see immunisation as a purely liberal phenomenon. But we can think of socialist or fascist modes of immunisation just as much. Moving outside of liberalism is no guarantee for moving outside of immunity, however I think it is a necessary step.

JN/MR: What would multiculturalism look like in your opinion, if it were to live up to its name?

AU: What would a theory of regulating coexistence look like that doesn’t fall into the same pitfalls as liberalism? It would need to be multiculturally constituted, not consist purely of a Western liberal framework in which other cultural practices simply insert themselves. It has to make use of the conceptual resources of different traditions; it would not be a universal model, but locally constituted. The first step of building a multiculturally constituted way of regulating coexistence would be to engage with other traditions. I want to see how other traditions have thought of the regulation of coexistence, of hospitality, and what they have done in terms of coexistence on the ground. Traditions the world over have thought about these issues, for instance, Persian thought in relation to the multicultural empire or Korean Neo-Confucian thought on treating shipwrecked sailors. The aim, as I see it, is to create a pragmatic interplay of concepts, not a universal fusion. That is, not to simply say ‘here’s the Confucian way, and here’s the liberal way, let’s combine them and we have ourselves our new, definitive model of multiculturalism.’ But rather to think about which mix of conceptual resources is appropriate to a given local situation.

But we have to be careful when interpreting other traditions, we need to contend with the issue of translation – what happens when we try and relocate a concept from one time and place to another. For instance, if we look at how liberal multiculturalism has travelled today, we can see that what is billed ‘multiculturalism’ in Korea is really assimilationism under the name of ‘multiculturalism’; so you’ll have programmes on TV, celebrating multiculturalism, that consist of immigrant women making kimchi [Korean pickled cabbage] in traditional Korean dress. This can be understood to mean that you’re allowed to take part, so long as you’re doing our things.

JN/MR: In your book you present rhythm as offering an alternative way of thinking about coexistence.

AU: Yes, I find rhythm very interesting conceptually. While I don’t feel entirely expert on it, I do attempt to engage it. In my book I outline certain features that a genuine multiculturalism would have to have: be multiculturally constituted, locally constituted and so on. I also mention that we need to think of different ways of thinking about togetherness, and new ways of thinking about community. Complete relativism doesn’t help us here, because it leaves everyone to their own devices. We need a way of thinking about community and connectedness that isn’t totalising. A way that doesn’t just replace one immunitary – and so exclusionary – view with another.

I offer a sketch of an alternative. ‘Rhythm,’ in Lefebvre’s sense, can be a way of thinking about connection without being totalising.3 In his Rhythmanalysis, Lefebvre talks about different rhythms such as the sun rising and setting, the plants outside, the weather, the rhythms of the city, people going to work, traffic, traffic lights, people walking past. Rhythm analysis is a way of thinking of certain phenomena in terms of rhythms which influence each other, or syncopate, but they don’t simply become the same. Their influence on each other might be for a brief or extended period of time, so there is some kind of temporary connection with no attempt at fusion. In thinking about communities, we want to be able to think of temporary connections, a certain amount of solidarity, but they have not become fused into one community. There is interaction in some way that can allow us to root a politics in it.

Liberals always say ‘If there’s too much difference how will people commit to institutions?’. Well, it will be local, there will be interactions and conviviality, and rhythm is a way of giving these interactions an ontology. In the book I mention some actual music productions, which provide some limited but productive examples of what non-hierarchical cultural interaction can look like. For instance, the first album of the Berlin-based band Rotfront mixes Eastern European music, reggae, rock influences and so on. They sing in English, German, Hungarian and Russian, and it’s all about the mixture. Performances are good examples of temporary communities, where in the performance everyone works together, but this doesn’t mean it is a permanent fusion. There isn’t a fusion, the old components haven’t disappeared. The fact that there can be interaction of people working for a certain purpose doesn’t mean you cannot also continue with traditional practices. For the purpose of regulating coexistence some level of interaction has to happen, and rhythm gives a way of thinking about this.


[1] He elaborates the concept in his trilogy of books Communitas, Immunitas, and Bíos. Esposito, Roberto, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, trans. Timothy Campbell, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Cambridge: Polity, 2011); Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

[2] In her The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism, 2002, Duke University Press

[3] Lefebvre, Henri, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. Stuart Elden & Gerald Moore (London: Continuum, 2004).




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