capitalism, modern nation-state, Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton on Multiculturalism, Capitalism, and the State

An excerpt from an excellent article by Terry Eagleton from the latest Commonweal issue:

Economic liberalism has generated great tides of global migration, which within the West has given birth to so-called multiculturalism. At its least impressive, multiculturalism blandly embraces difference as such, without looking too closely into what one is differing over. It imagines that there is something inherently positive about having a host of different views on the same subject. Such facile pluralism tends to numb the habit of vigorously contesting other people’s beliefs-of calling them arrant nonsense or unmitigated garbage, for example. This is not the best training ground for taking on people whose beliefs can cave in skulls. One of the more agreeable aspects of Christopher Hitchens’s polemic against religion, God Is Not Great, is its author’s ready willingness to declare that he thinks religion poisonous and disgusting. Perhaps he finds it mildly embarrassing in his new, post-Marxist persona that “Religion is poison” was the slogan under which Mao launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet. But he is right to stick to his guns even so. Beliefs are not to be respected just because they are beliefs. Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes “abuse” clearly have a problem.

That problem encompasses a contradictory fact: the more capitalism flourishes on a global scale, the more multiculturalism threatens to loosen the hold of the nation-state over its subjects. Culture, after all, is what helps power grow roots, interweaving it with our lived experience and thus tightening its grip on us. A power which has to sink roots in many diverse cultures simultaneously is at a signal disadvantage. A British defense think tank recently published a report arguing that a “misplaced deference to multiculturalism” that fails “to lay down the line to immigrant communities” was weakening the fight against political extremists. The problem, the report warned, was one of social fragmentation in a multicultural nation increasingly divided over its history, identity, aims, and values. When it came to the fight against terrorism, the nation’s liberal values, in short, were undermining themselves.

Multiculturalism threatens the existing order not only because it can create a breeding ground for terrorists, but because the political state depends on a reasonably tight cultural consensus. British prime ministers believe in a common culture-but what they mean is that everyone should share their own beliefs so that they won’t end up bombing London Underground stations. The truth, however, is that no cultural belief is ever extended to sizable groups of newcomers without being transformed in the process. This is what a simpleminded philosophy of “integration” fails to recognize. There is no assumption in the White House, Downing Street, or the Elysée Palace that one’s own beliefs might be challenged or changed in the act of being extended to others. A common culture in this view incorporates outsiders into an already established, unquestionable framework of values, leaving them free to practice whichever of their quaint customs pose no threat. Such a policy appropriates newcomers in one sense, while ignoring them in another. It is at once too possessive and too hands-off. A common culture in a more radical sense of the term is not one in which everyone believes the same thing, but one in which everyone has equal status in cooperatively determining a way of life in common.

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