A Left Communitarianism? What about Multiculturalism? A More Plural Approach Can Help to Heal Breaches Both within the 'Multicultural Community' and Beyond

Article excerpt

Ejected from power, the centre left is once again a place of thinking. Old antagonisms that marked the ways in which its fractions conceived of culture, identity, difference and equality are being reconsidered. Recent discussions that put at the centre of debate issues of cultural politics and social renewal - rather than the management of markets, public services and the state - are very much to be welcomed. In the debate, traditions and concerns of the working class, especially in relation to identity-anxieties, have become key matters. We welcome this focus but worry that minority-majority relations are not featuring in it. This dimension, for example, was entirely missing from a recent ideological mapping by Stuart White that put figures such as Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford into the 'left communitarian' corner. (1) Admittedly it was a very short piece, but it baffles us that anyone can outline 'four evolving strands of progressive thought' without any reference to the place of minorities and 'difference' (including gender) in these positions. Rethinking progressive politics should be about more than marrying white working-class organisations and white middle-class intellectuals.

The new thinking must include multiculturalism, but that is not the point that we are rehearsing now. (2) Rather, in recognition that this is a time to bring together the fragments of the alternative to the right, and to get beyond some of our divisions, we are attempting to do this in a specific case. Our argument is that there has been a major division in what we might call the multicultural constituency, and that now is a time to lessen the breach. At the same time we think that our efforts speak to the new debate that recent articles in Soundings have been addressing, which, interestingly, have some real parallels with the division amongst multiculturalists. (3)

Two modes of 'difference'

Let us start with lived experience. It is almost too obvious to mention that to speak of British ethnic diversity is not to speak of a variety within a single register. There are differences in kind in how non-white Britons conceive of themselves, their place in the world, and their identities and relationship with society and with others. For some the legacies and hurts of colour racism are central; for others it may be national origins or cultural-linguistic heritages; for others the call of faith or the voices of a global faith community cannot be ignored. For many, especially younger people, the predicament and the opportunity of hybridity fascinate. Progressives have embraced the sociability of the intercultural - welcoming challenges to tradition, and to the authority of boundaries, indeed the very fact of novelty - but have been divided when religious communities have sought national recognition, political representation and legal dispensation. So, when Cameron proclaims that he is against 'state multiculturalism' he is denounced by progressives for ignoring the fact there are many happy multiethnic neighbourhoods - as if his problem is discomfort with a home in multicultural Notting Hill. Yet, for many progressives, no less than for Cameron, state endorsed communitarian multiculturalism is the problem. Leaving aside the role of the state on this occasion, there remains the problem that the centre left is distinctly unenthusiastic about groups whose 'difference' lies in community rootedness, especially if religious and demanding in public. Till we find a way of bridging these two modes of 'difference' - the fluidly hybridic and the communally conserving - there can be no satisfactory political response to anti-multiculturalism.

Each of these two modes of 'difference' projects their own version of multicultural society. The first, which we will call multiculturalism, is in favour of public spaces that allow for, refrain from penalising, and ideally respect, the simultaneous assertion of claims for difference and inclusion. …