How progressive is multiculturalism?

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How progressive is multiculturalism?

Does multiculturalism defend migrant rights?

By Iggy Kim

In spite of a quarter century of multiculturalism as ideology and official policy, the conditions of life for most non-English-speaking immigrants have changed little. With the exception of a minority of wealthy business immigrants, the great majority of workers whose English is poor are trapped on the lower end of the pay scale, with less job security than others.

A far higher proportion of non-English-speaking Australians live on less than $300 per week than native-born: in Melbourne, 23.5% compared to 15.6%; in Sydney, 23.5% as opposed to 14%. Those most affected are from Lebanon, Vietnam, Korea, Turkey, Cambodia, Laos, China and the former Soviet republics.

Unemployment rates are also disproportionately higher: 38.9% for Lebanese-born and 19% for Vietnamese-born. On top of that, non-English-speaking workers still suffer ethnic prejudice in the workplace, regardless of what level they occupy. Those who are non-white cop the double barrel of racial and ethnic bigotry.

All this seems peculiar in a country which, after the last two and a half years of introspection under the impact of Pauline Hanson, has overwhelmingly concluded that it is a model of "tolerance" for the rest of the world, free of the ethnic/racial/"tribal" strife found elsewhere.

This has been credited to the success of the policy of multiculturalism and its nearly unanimous acceptance by all sections of the national establishment, including migrant organisations, employers, governments, trade union officialdom, political parties from the mainstream conservatives to the liberal left, religious denominations and more.

This consensus has touted multiculturalism as the ultimate answer to the racially exclusive, ethnic (i.e., linguistic-cultural) assimilationism of the white Australia policy.

The implication is that racial and national bigotry, as an institutionalised system, has come to an end. The result: racism continues to exist, but multiculturalism absolves the social system of any role in it. In fact, multiculturalism has washed the appearance (as opposed to the substance) of racism from the deprivations of the mass of non-English-speaking people, thereby allowing these deprivations to continue.

The ultimate 'good' nationalism

In contrast to its white Australia predecessor, multiculturalism has assimilated non-English-speaking and non-white immigrants into a more cosmopolitan Australian national identity and, thereby, redefined and broadened the basis of Australian nationalism.

The white Australia policy first began as an exclusion of both non-white and non-English-speaking people. But after the second world war, obeying big business demands for more workers, the Labor government expanded the policy to include white continental Europeans. From there, the emphasis on racial exclusion was matched by an equal emphasis on ethnic-cultural assimilation into British-Australian culture and language.

This was unsuccessful. Many non-English-speaking white migrants failed to identify with such a narrow national identity, precisely because it fuelled prejudice and discrimination against their obvious ethnic differences.

In the 1960s, this problem was exacerbated when the bosses needed to replace declining numbers of European migrants with those from Asia — people who could identify with neither the racial nor the ethnic components of the white Australian national identity. This coincided with the development of the Aboriginal rights struggle and the anti-colonial, anti-racist solidarity of many white people worldwide, further eroding an increasingly irrelevant nationalism.

By contrast, multiculturalism has successfully promoted a national identity based on the social outlook of a liberal, pluralistic and multicultural (soon-to-be) republic. This has been accomplished by acknowledging the validity of all national cultures.

But in the very process of this acknowledgment, multiculturalism has also remoulded an overarching, single national culture. That is, it has had to develop the ideological tools to dissolve and harmonise the antagonisms between national cultures — the heart of which is nationalism — and replace them with a common Australian nationalism. These tools are, principally, the concepts of "tolerance" and "celebration of diversity". With the later refinement of the Keating years, they were joined by the ideology of "reconciliation".

Multiculturalism recognises the token equality of all national identities, cultures and nationalisms, but by its very nature (as an ideology to broaden the base of Australian nationalism) it cannot be a mosaic of multiple nationalisms. It has ultimately to rely on only one, Australian nationalism, but a version that's no longer racially and ethnically exclusive. Instead, it's the liberal nationalism embodied in the multicultural-reconciliatory republic.

How often has One Nation been accused of "divisiveness", of destroying Australia's example of a multiculturally harmonious and united nation? The solution advocated by all those refined liberals was that if we simply ignored her she'd go away and we could all go on being the world's pre-eminent model of "tolerance".

While Australians no longer have to be of English-speaking origin, or even white, they are ideologically pressured to accept the so-called democratic principles of this pluralistic, egalitarian and "tolerant" country in which everyone reconciles their differences peacefully through a fair state and civil society. This has required a cultural concession: non-English-speaking migrants are no longer hounded into all the cultural stereotypes of the Anglo-Celtic white Australian (only possible if you are white to start with) and are free to maintain their own culture, language, foods etc.

This concession has brought significant progress in the general culture of the country: a widening of people's experiences and outlook, the availability of translation services in government departments, migrant resource centres, non-English language collections in public libraries and a diversification of literature and the arts, among others. This free interaction of different national-cultural expressions must be resolutely defended.

But the concession has been in exchange for ideological assimilation into Australia's variant of liberal democracy, touted as the premier model of stable and peaceful resolution of conflict. Implicit in the "tolerance" of linguistic and culinary difference is the "tolerance" of difference in public and political affairs — i.e., immigrants abandoning "extremist" or "fanatical" political traditions alien to Westminster gradualism.

Tolerance is not equality

Multiculturalism's "good" nationalism is deeply embedded in the outlook of many people opposed to racism. The sentiment of how fundamentally good and tolerant this country had become, since the onset of multiculturalism, was common in the recent anti-racism movement. Keeping Hanson out of "the mainstream" was all about protecting this basic national goodness — its "civilised" nationalism.

But Hanson's white Australian nationalism continues to simmer because the social relations of Australian monopoly capitalism have spontaneously reproduced it through the generations. These relations are deeply racialised by the dispossession of Aborigines and the racial division of the world between exploiter and exploited countries, brought close to home by Australia's proximity to the impoverished masses of Asia.

Benefiting from this are not only the big mining monopolies, but also the predominantly white English-speaking workers whose conditions and wages are the stuff of dreams for most Third World workers.

These wages and working conditions, while won through struggle, have nevertheless been conceded from the super-profits extracted through the racial oppression of Aborigines and the miserable conditions of non-English-speaking workers in Australia and workers in the Third World. Preserving these conditions has usually meant keeping them from those workers "unaccustomed" to them but whose lack of such experience fuels these relatively good wages and conditions.

Breaking this spontaneous tendency will require a radical restructuring of the working class to bite into these racially and ethnically doled-out privileges. This will be done by either winning major improvement in the situation of the majority of Aborigines and non-English-speaking workers or overthrowing capitalist rule altogether (which will still have to be followed by specific measures for ethnic and racial equality).

Multiculturalism does not represent such an overhaul: it's a deliberate attempt to rehabilitate Australian nationalist ideology.

But as long as this ideological shift is about nationalism, multiculturalism will not be able to oust its white Australian cousin, which more naturally emanates from the privileges of the white, English-speaking, better-off workers.

This sharply limited nature of the multicultural project is why many people who reject One Nation do not automatically interpret attacks on migrants which are justified economically as attacks on multiculturalism per se.

Concrete experience has shown that the spontaneous defence of multiculturalism is not about defending concrete material and institutional reforms for migrants' equality. Attacks such as the exclusion of so-called illegal migrants do not violate multiculturalism or "tolerance" for other cultures, since these measures are necessary in difficult times to preserve the wealth that underwrites "tolerance".

This is different from the real reforms won by Aborigines, institutionalised in the organisations and funding for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the legal services, health services, lands councils and (until recently) Abstudy. The prevailing rationale of these reforms still remains a moral and social obligation to redress the inequality of Aborigines. Indeed, the very attacks against ATSIC have been justified on the grounds that the commission hinders equality.

By contrast, multiculturalism has been defended, not on the grounds of obligations to migrants and strivings toward equality, but on the basis of capitalist economic prerogatives. In fact, unequal obligations are demanded from migrants, their acceptance being conditional upon "making a contribution". So the good cop of multiculturalism celebrates the "diligent" work ethic of migrants, something forced on them by the bad cop of the "national interest" which, for instance, bars social security for new immigrants.

Consequently, in place of real reforms, the institutions of multiculturalism have been primarily ideological: SBS radio and TV, advisory bodies, endless inquiries, multicultural arts bodies and festivals, and ethnic communities councils whose chief function is to sell official multicultural policy to migrant community associations and politically absorb the vanguard of these communities into a lobbying framework (i.e., into multicultural nationalism).

Official multicultural policy has never been about an open-door immigrant intake; it has never been about full legal equality on immediate arrival; it has never been about a system of affirmative action; it has never been about a systematic expansion in the provision and accessibility of English language tuition; it has never been about institutionalising, at state expense, real material services specifically improving welfare, housing and education for non-English-speaking workers.

One of the central demands of non-English-speaking migrants has been the recognition of overseas trade and professional qualifications, a reform that would advance the prospects of real equality. This demand has never been met under any period of multiculturalism, from Whitlam to the present government.

In the same year as introducing multiculturalism into government policy, the Whitlam government cut immigration from 140,000 to 110,000. Two years later, Whitlam reduced it to 80,000. When, at the height of multicultural policy under the Fraser Coalition government, an inquiry found that $50 million needed to be spent to redress migrant inequality, the furthest that Fraser ever got was tabling the findings in parliament in 10 languages. This was multicultural deception in a nutshell.

Despite many attacks against the material welfare of immigrants, the self-image of Australia's multiculturalism has not been fundamentally tainted. In fact, the material inequality suffered by non-English-speaking workers is compatible with multiculturalism's worship of difference and diversity.

Even on a cultural level, multiculturalism has not truly revolutionised Australian culture. Non-Anglo-Celtic cultures form an exotic accessory dangling from mainstream (white, English-speaking) Australia — a novel museum of interesting foods, dances, costumes and rigidly frozen customs and rituals for the indulgence of this mainstream.

Accordingly, we have the divisions of "Aboriginal Australia", "ethnic/multicultural Australia", and just "Australia", the last being the norm from which the first two are perpetually excluded.

The internationalist alternative

Multiculturalism's "tolerance" of difference entrenches the material inequality of non-English-speaking workers, because it also tolerates their social marginalisation. Migrant groups are objectively part of the Australian nation. But the logic of multiculturalism is to make them a subordinate part by integrating them into a new nationalism while leaving intact the language barriers that exclude non-English-speaking workers from equal participation in Australian society.

We should support neither forced assimilation nor marginalisation on the pretext of cultural diversity. Full equality in an ethnically diverse nation means providing, at the expense of the state, all the concrete means for diverse ethnic groups to interact mutually and engage with genuine freedom. Principally, this means providing the resources to enable them to learn the common English language of the Australian nation. The government is doing the opposite, by cutting access to English language classes.

The formal freedom to interact culturally is given under multiculturalism, but the very heart of its ideology lies in its celebration and freezing of difference. Therefore, the real freedom is denied; there's no necessary motivation for multicultural policy to offer comprehensive, widespread and fully accessible English language tuition.

The goal should be the integration of nations and ethnic groups on a genuinely free, democratic and equal basis, not along racist or nationalist lines.

This entails a genuine and extensive freedom of ethnic groups to maintain their language and democratic cultural traditions (which is not the case even under multiculturalism). It also requires the full material means for all working people, regardless of national origin, to freely communicate and thereby participate equally in struggles for their common needs and interests. This means celebrating the worldwide cultural values of democracy and social justice — elements of which exist in every national culture.

Concretely, a genuine and extensive freedom to maintain language and democratic intellectual culture means the right of school students to have supplementary courses on the history and language of any chosen national culture at state expense.

The right to integrate freely, at a free pace, would necessitate more comprehensive translation and interpreter services that thoroughly extend into the private sector. The only way to make this freedom genuine is also to enforce fully paid leave for non-English-speaking workers to attend free, accessible, extensive and properly resourced English language classes.

On immigration policy, it means no discrimination on the basis of wealth or language, no discrimination against overseas trade and professional qualifications.

To combat the illusions fostered by multiculturalism, we should press real, material demands that go beyond the limits of the "national interest". By pointing to the subordinate position of non-English-speaking workers and explaining the measures needed to combat it, we dispel illusions in the "goodness" of Australian capitalism.

We should defend multiculturalism's diversification of the general culture of this country, but we should be critical of any celebration of diversity that glosses over or justifies the denial of genuine material equality.

In short, we should fight for national, racial and ethnic equality, so that ultimately all nations, ethnic and racial groups can seamlessly assimilate on a genuinely free, democratic and equal basis. We should always see ourselves as part of an international struggle to integrate and reorganise the whole of human society.