Untangling the knots: Finding collectivity in the mire of liberal multiculturalism.

A very long essay I wrote around 7 – 8 years ago. I don’t love all of it now (and have edited a few bits out here) and it takes some ‘interesting’ twists and turns. However, I think the critique of liberal multiculturalism in the first half has some useful moments – although it’s heavily theoretical. Then there’s a strange middle section where I basically review a novel – ‘The Black Album’ by Hanif Kureishi – before a rambling ending that considers the possibilities of radical collectivity.


Understanding contemporary multiculturalism in Australia, in all its liberal, capitalist garb, sets a background from which we can consider why it is that certain traditional cultural forms – religion in particular – have an ongoing resonance for migrants. The point of which is not to lay a critique about cultural choices at the feet of particular migrant groups but instead to show how this resonance of traditional cultural forms exposes the empty core of liberal capitalism and its exhortations to individualistic, market-based choice. Much of this will be inspired by sections of Zizek’s evisceration of liberalism in Violence as well as taking a look at some of the ideas in The Black Album, Hanif Kureishi’s novel from London in the early 90’s.

I also have additional motivations. I am interested in the role that religion plays as a form of collective reassurance in the face of the social alienation of liberal capitalism. An alienation that for migrants to Australia is amplified by the direct and subtle racism we encounter. But as someone who loathes the socially conservative hold that religion has, I am interested in looking to other, potentially radical, forms of social and cultural collectivity that may exist to counter the isolation of liberalism without retreating into that social conservatism. As well as giving full value and space to the autonomy of racial and cultural diversity. This is clearly not a problem with a simple, singular solution. So it will be a fairly open-ended section steering entirely clear of any Soviet Russia forms of all-encompassing, state-controlled collectivity and instead looking for a multiplicity of ways in which we might move towards such things.

The Multicultural thing

In Australia, the terms and conditions of multiculturalism have come to act as a base level for mainstream nationalist discourse. Even where it is contested, its tropes are invariably referenced when we hear such platitudes as “we are a diverse and tolerant society but…”. There are various layers to multicultural rhetoric but they all play a role in maintaining and reinforcing a particular version of the Australian national imaginary that is merely a continuation of the narrative of settler, colonialism transformed into liberal capitalism. The relationship between this formation of a collective national imaginary and our liberal capitalist society is a point I will return to after looking at the numerous levels at which the multicultural project fails to disrupt standard nationalist fare.

To try to frame this concept of multiculturalism that I will be referencing, I will briefly draw on Sara Ahmed’s analysis (Ahmed, pp.102 -109) of the National Agenda for Multicultural Australia, a policy document produced in 1989 under a Labor government. I would like to emphasise a couple of parts that refer to multiculturalism as a mode of governmentality and also as a defining societal feature that individuals are expected to adhere to. In the first case, The National Agenda describes multiculturalism as “a public policy… (that) encompasses government measures designed to respond to that (Australia’s cultural) diversity. It is a a policy for managing the consequences of cultural diversity in the interests of the individual and society as a whole”. As Ahmed responds there is an immediate implication that diversity and difference is something that needs “to be contained and given a shape or coherence by government policy (Ahmed, p.103)”, while there is also the question of who’s interests are being looked after and how a multiplicity of interests in a ‘diverse’ society can be incorporated into policy. The realistic understanding we can draw from this being that there is in fact a particular over-riding interest that takes precedence in Australia.

Next we have the individual’s relation to this policy of multiculturalism, where The National Agenda suggests:

“Multiculturalism is concerned to encourage all Australians, including those from non Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, to share their diversity of culture… It seeks to make it clear that colour or language, style of dress or mode of worship, are no indication of the degree of personal commitment to the future of our nation. Being an Australian has nothing to do with outward appearance”.

Here at the same time as seemingly suggesting a tolerance of difference there is an assertion that that difference must be put to the service of an already established ideal of ‘being Australian’. Additionally, the examples of types of difference suggest an interchangeability between one individual’s cultural practice and another’s. Cultural forms are not expected to have any deeper hold, unless it is the cultural form of Australian nationalism. This is reinforced later when a ‘limit’ to multiculturalism is defined as “multicultural policies require all Australians to accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society”. This goes on to list certain political traits such as “the rule of law, tolerance and equality, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech”, etc. Simply, there are structures and institutions that are not malleable, that rigidly adhere to pre-determined principles that cannot be influenced by the addition of this so-called ‘diversity’.

Exposition no. 1 – The headscarf and strangers within

For all its inelegantly manufactured refuge in grand ideas such as ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’, multiculturalism is no significant shift away from the historical trajectory that has included the violent colonial displacement of indigenous people and the White Australia policy. That is to say, it has not socially, culturally or politically undermined where power resides to not only decide what difference is deemed acceptable, but how difference is interpreted in the first place. To understand this, I will follow Sara Ahmed’s arguments in Strange Encounters that the key site of interrogation is not so much what is excluded at the border but how a process of differentiation about what is assimilable and what is not occurs within the borders of multicultural Australian society.

The question of where power resides in how a narrative of the nation is constructed is at the heart of the sort of critique of multiculturalism that I am taking up here (as opposed to a conservative criticism that effectively argues for a reassertion of the dominance of white, Anglo values, or more racism). That is to say, even as we accept Australia as a multi-ethnic, heterogeneous society, the issue at stake is how the discursive and material formulations of multiculturalism effectively enshrine a specific version of Australia to which all newcomers must prove themselves assimilable. Or not. But importantly those who do retain their distance, their being as ‘strangers’, do so from already being within the nation. As Ahmed argues:

“The proximity of strangers within the nation space – that is, the proximity of that which cannot be assimilated into a national body – is a mechanism for the demarcation of the national body, a way of defining borders within it, rather than just between it and an imagined and exterior other.” (Ahmed p.100).

So in a self-perpetuating cycle, it is against those that are here who cannot or have no intention to attain this degree of assimilation that this national imaginary reinforces itself.

It is important here to elaborate the nuances of this argument. That is, we are looking at difference that is differentiated between that which is assimilable into the standardised ‘we’ of the nation and the figure of the stranger that cannot be assimilated, but still exists within the nation space. However, Ahmed adds that the stranger who cannot be assimilated is in fact “assimilated precisely as the unassimilable and hence they allow us to face the ‘limit’ of the multicultural nation” (Ahmed, p.106). Within the discourse of the multicultural nation, the site of that ‘limit’ is in constant flux, shifting and “undergoing constant redefinition of who ‘we’ are through the very necessity of encountering strangers within the nation space” (Ahmed, p.101). Ultimately, how this limit is determined identifies where power is located amidst these shifting concepts of ‘tolerance’, ‘diversity’ and ‘acceptance’.

To anchor this section of my argument in something a bit more concrete as well as starting to move forward, I would suggest as a solid example the debate around the wearing of the headscarf and burqa. Clearly this stands as one of the moments where a struggle occurred around the very limits of multiculturalism. More fundamentally than simply tapping into a strain of Islamophobia that runs through Australian society, this debate was a show of power by white Australian society, a harking back to John Howard’s “we will decide who comes here and on what terms”. It didn’t matter what side of the debate a person stood on, the simple fact of being involved meant allusions to that difference which is ‘ok’ or ‘integrated’ or that which cannot be, which will always be the domain of the stranger. Despite being a piece of clothing, the burqa came to symbolise a bridge too far, so that even while not officially ‘banned’, it was the visual marker of the stranger that could not be assimilated. And the debate around it fell in line with the ongoing, mainstream, systemic political strategy of reinforcing the idea that there are good Muslims who practice their culture in a way that is at the service of white, Australian culture and bad Muslims, who refuse to assimilate in this way.

So in Australia the presence of Muslims, even where a level of hostility exists, allows a strengthening of the national imaginary that this is a ‘tolerant’ and ‘diverse’ nation. However, the degree that this is accepted is the degree to which that presence doesn’t begin to challenge those notions. That is, diverse cultural forms may exist, as long as they are practised in a way that mimics the practice of dominant cultural forms and do not attempt to displace those dominant forms. Ahmed point us towards the idea that there may be a general acceptance of the appearance of difference as long as underneath that appearance the cultural practice is essentially the same and, most importantly, assimilable. While I would say that this generally holds true, I would add that the appearance of difference is considered most acceptable where it can easily be transformed into a consumable commodity – food, music, art, fashion, etc. That which cannot take such an obvious commodity form or which is seen to hold a more ingrained symbolic meaning – such as the burqa – form the grey area from which the limits of multicultural Australia come to be affirmed.

Exposition no. 2 – the violence of origins

While the limits of the national ‘we’ is necessarily a site of conflict within multicultural discourse, the very foundations of this discourse seem to ride out the various levels of contention (footnote1) it faces. I would argue that this is because its foundations are solidly tied to the entire bloody history of racial politics in Australia as opposed to having to somehow establish itself as any actual break from that. In Violence, Zizek outlines the historical argument of:

“the notion of the illegitimate origins of power, of the ‘founding crime’ on which states are based, which is why one should offer ‘noble lies’ to people in the guise of heroic narratives of origin” (Zizek, p.98).

It is clear that the history of Australian frontier colonialism is one site where the reality of the illegitimate and brutal origins of power (Terra Nullius anyone?) was turned into a story of a heroic struggle against the odds – although it is a story that is increasingly disputed, undermined and shown up. However, it would be false to suggest that its hold has been reduced to merely those circles of kooky, right-wing Windshuttle-ites. As I will argue its resonance has far more ongoing effects.

Multiculturalism discursively acts, in effect, as a continuum of the particular ‘heroic’ narrative that prevails in Australia – of the egalitarian, land of the ‘fair go’ where anyone prepared to work hard can make it. So in breaking from ‘White Australia’ as a policy, the heroic settler narrative was tweaked in such a way that certain historic and governmental factors that underscore the entire basis of Australian society are hidden as teething problems of a new nation that are ultimately overcome as ‘we’ become open, accepting and tolerant to all. Bullshit. As Foucault asserts in The Birth of Biopolitics – in an early section about the art of governing – it is through:

“a series of conflicts, agreements, discussions, and reciprocal concessions: all episodes whose effect is finally to establish a de facto, general, rational division between what is to be done and what is not be done in the practice of governing” (Foucault, p.12).

That is to say all the ‘conflicts, agreements, discussions and concessions’ of the early days of colonialism and through a near century of ‘white Australia’ leave immense traces in the structures of multicultural Australia even as they cloak themselves in new terminology. And the traces they leave are that certain power structures are legitimate and others are not, that certain ways of being are correct in the mind of the national ‘we’ while others are not, etc.

This returns us to the figure of the stranger and ideas of assimilation. However, instead of the figure of the stranger within that cannot be assimilated and as such sets the limit of multiculturalism, we can now look at how some difference is considered assimilable into the national ‘we’ and importantly, the conditions on which this ‘acceptance’ occurs. Ultimately, the point that multiculturalism is merely a discursive twist from a heroic, settler narrative is that while certain difference acts as the recognisable limit of the national imaginary, other difference can be incorporated under certain terms so that it in fact works to reinforce the multicultural narrative of ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’. Sara Ahmed outlines the complexity at play in how:

“national identity can be claimed through turning ‘their’ differences into ‘our’ difference: those who are ‘culturally different’ from the ‘typical Australians’ can display their difference but only in such a way that it supplements what is already assumed to be the coherence of culture itself (Ahmed, p.105).

More simply, assertions of cultural diversity merely cover a flattened and standardised nation space that seeks to assimilate only “those differences that do not threaten the ‘we’ of an Australian being” (Ahmed, p.106). And so the ‘diversity’ that exists under multiculturalism bares some resemblance to the wall of cereal you may choose from at your local supermarket. In his essay on cosmopolitanism and multicultural Australia, Graeme Turner refers to a “performance of a vigorously hybridised cultural identity” (pp372-373) as a defining feature of multicultural Australia. He suggests that the forms of cultural ‘diversity’ that can easily be displayed and are transferable, one for the other, are the extent of that which is considered acceptable.

What we are left with then, is a situation, where even when there are those holders of ‘difference’ who are accepted into the (discursive) nation space, this only occurs through a process of assimilation that is not so much ‘tolerant’ (footnote 2) as an alienating, violent act of recuperation that seeks to present itself as a neutral process. As Zizek points out, “socio-symbolic violence at its purest appears as its opposite, as the spontaneity of the milieu in which we dwell, of the air we breathe” (Zizek, p.31). So the ‘acceptance’ of cultural difference within liberal multiculturalism is no more than a socio-symbolic artefact, as the reality of this ‘diversity’, as i’ve already shown, is that only some difference is considered assimilable and to do so it must contort itself to replicate expected and pre-established cultural standards that now appear as spontaneous. Lets return to Ahmed to finalise this point:

“The imagining of the nation as a space in which ‘we’ belong is not independent of the material deployment of force, and the forms of governmentality which control, not only the boundaries between nation states, and the movements of citizens and aliens within the state, but also the repertoire of images which allows the concept of the nation to come into being in the first place” (Ahmed, p.98).

That is, the existance of a national imaginary which set the outlines for what difference is accepted and how, is overwhelmingly pre-determined by already established historical, material and political factors. And my argument is that while multiculturalism may somewhat adapt these factors and give them a new outfit, it is not any attempt to break from them so as to re-align the sites of power in Australian society.

Exposition no. 3 – a nationalist tolerance

The formation of a ‘national imaginary’ that conjures a version of a collective national self, defined not just in terms of physical borders, but also through symbolic and discursive cultural practices is both a necessity and a contradiction at the heart of a globalised, liberal capitalism. To start with, it is a necessity due to what Zizek calls “the ‘worldless’ ideological constellation” that is capitalist society, therefore:

“depriving the large majority of people of any meaningful cognitive mapping. Capitalism is the first socio-economic order which detotalises meaning: it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’, no ‘capitalist civilisation’ proper… ); its global dimension can only be formulated at the level of truth-without-meaning, as the ‘Real’ of the global market mechanism” (Zizek, p.68).

While the ‘Real’ of the global market mechanism has become the undoubted paradigm-maker, what Foucault calls “a site of verification-falsification of governmental practice” (Foucault, p.32), it has done so through the politico-economic assertion that it must be “allowed to function according to its nature, according to its natural truth” (Foucault, p.31). This means that not only does liberal capitalist society produce alienation in the form of wage labour and the separation of our labour and creativity from what we produce, but at it’s very core there is a requirement to accept an abstract market-based ‘truth’ that needs not justify itself with meaning or with anything more than its natural functions.

What does all this have to do with multiculturalism and the formation of an Australian national imaginary? While capitalism may be ‘worldless’ in its outlook, its hegemonic power lies in its capacity to incorporate a myriad of cultural forms and filter them though a framework of market mechanisms and individual choice so that their existence sits snugly within the functioning of capital. For one, the continued existence of a collective Australian national imaginary that delves into colonial history, tweaks it a bit and ultimately leaves a heroic narrative of the nation, is a necessity not opposed to, but symbiotic with the functions of the market as truth-maker in society. It provides a sense of collectivity that the inherent alienation of capitalism cannot, a more totalising sense of meaning (without truth?) that the ‘worldless’, truth-without-meaning of market mechanisms do not. The ‘Real’ of the global market mechanism here, is similar to the ‘Real’ of the national imaginary. That is, without either having a specific material basis in the formation of truth that can be tangibly pointed to, their existence is instead proved in how they directly a                ffect the way we perceive, and how we materially experience, our social reality.

The disjuncture between oft-repeated mantras of what Australian society is and my own experience of the social space we inhabit is constantly fascinating to me. Even before entering the terrain of potentially dangerous racial politics there are numerous load-bearers of the national imaginary that seem entirely deluded – from the laid-back, egalitarian land of the fair-go (despite constant attacks on welfare recipients and an ingrained, bitter obsession with ‘working hard’ to get ahead) to a sports-obsessed nation (despite half-full stadiums at all but the biggest events). These examples are a distance from my main arguments (although the first bears some relevance), but they do underline how a national imaginary is constructed and produces our lived reality even where there seems to be a extremely precarious basis for its existence.

While a national(ist) imaginary in the Australian case seems particularly separated from the material reality (footnote 3) of this country, its existence cannot be denied even if it exists only on a socio-symbolic or discursive level. And as I have already described, despite often being a contested term, it is multiculturalism that currently provides the tools to supplement this national imaginary. Put absolutely simply, these take the form of the idea that Australia is a ‘tolerant’ and ‘diverse’ society, that it is ‘not racist’ but simply expects others to assimilate their difference into the mainstream spectacle of diversity. Significantly, for this to work, difference must be reduced to the level of the individual and only occur superficially. As Ahmed argues:

“Those cultural forms that are more acceptable are precisely those that may look different, but are in fact the same underneath. As a result, this multicultural nation accepts those differences that do not threaten the ‘we’ of the Australian being: the differences that cannot be reduced to mere appearance become the unassimilable” (Ahmed, p.106).

The hollowness of a collective national imaginary supposedly based on ‘diversity’ is underlined here as this suggestion of diversity is revealed to only exist at the level of appearance. It quickly evaporates when faced with cultural forms that call into question the pre-determined, normative modes of cultural practice that are considered to fundamentally uphold the unity of the Australian national imaginary. Where certain cultural forms are considered unassimilable, they are marked as the limits of the nation and it is here that the power relations behind concepts such as ‘tolerance’ reveal themselves.

This points us towards the contradiction at the heart of the relationship between a collective national imaginary and liberal capitalism – and the real basis of my argument – that those forms of collectivity that do exist against the alienation inherent in liberal capitalism, are all, when taken to a certain degree, potentially a threat to the paradigm of individual, market-based choice. Zizek focuses on this ‘paradox’ between collective formations of cultural practice and the individual:

“In liberalism culture survives, but as privatised: as a way of life, a set of beliefs and practices, not the public network of norms and rules. Culture is thus literally transubstantiated: the same sets of beliefs and practices change from the binding power of a collective into an expression of personal and private idiosyncracies” (Zizek, p.120).

All this suggests why the foundations of the Australian national imaginary based on the ultimately symbolic ‘diversity’ of multiculturalism is perfect for liberal capitalism. Here, a diversity of cultural forms can exist only if they are practised at a superficial level, with the ‘other’ – lets say migrants – expected to ‘buy in’ as individuals who have already ‘transcended’ their cultural ties. Individuals ‘displaying’ their cultural choices, as opposed to migrant communities practising traditional cultural forms, is far more amenable to the hegemony of the market because it does not rely on a more deeply-rooted collective solidarity.

The collective, public binds of culture are a problem for the market-based model of liberalism because they introduce certain unquantifiable factors into processes of consumption and production. Any examples of true material collectivity and solidarity that do exist must be discursively prescribed and carefully confined (footnote 4) and must ultimately be presented as part of the commodity spectacle. Zizek takes up this argument in regards to “the limitations of the standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women wearing a veil”:

“Women are permitted to wear the veil if this is their free choice and not an option imposed on them by their husbands or family. However, the moment women wear a veil to exercise a free individual choice… the meaning of wearing a veil changes completely. It is no longer a sign of their belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of their idiosyncratic individuality” (Zizek, pp123-124).

From here it opens up for us to consider how some collective cultural forms, unlike the multicultural national imaginary, do recognise and resist the abstraction of cultural practice into the terrain of market-based consumption, of ‘individual idiosyncrasies’.

The collective pulls

In the face of the institutionalised racism I have described, as well as the displaced sense of identity that migrants face, religion is a cultural marker, an affirmation of being within a community that can be clung too. Additionally, as a traditional cultural form that migrants might cling too, it only works in the collective form – its importance clearly being much more than simple faith, but as a site to meet in commonality with others, a site of practical and emotional support – and therefore in some opposition to the alienated individualism of liberal capitalism. Let’s call on Zizek again to sum up how religion as a traditional cultural form is treated within liberalism:

“If the subject wants it, he or she can opt into the parochial tradition into which they were born, but they have first to be presented with alternatives and make a free choice amongst them” (Zizek, p.123).

At this point I am going to take a detour through Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Black Album, which although set in early 90’s London, precisely deals with this conflict between the need for collective safety in the form of traditional cultural practices and the allure of the liberal idea of ‘free choice’ and individuality.

The Black Album

In The Black Album, Hanif Kuresihi pits a version of a collective, religious form against the notion of the ‘freedom’ of liberal individuality. It is not a straightforward weighing of the scales but instead a complex entanglement in which the two seemingly opposite positions are bound together by questions of racism, imperialism, freedom of thought and expression and class politics. These questions revolve around Shahid, recently arrived in London from his family home in suburban England, who in the middle of this alienating city finds friendship and community amongst a small group of conservative Muslims who attend his college and are led by the older, wiser and hardline fundamentalist Riaz (footnote 5). Against that pull is his relationship with his teacher Deedee Osgood, who nurtures his love of literature, art and music (especially Prince) while urging him away from his new-found religious friends towards a politics of secular, liberalism.

Through Shahid and his friends, The Black Album raises a factor, amidst this question of alienation from collective bonds, that seems to perplex law-makers, police and government figures (who clearly aren’t concerned to look very hard) when they wonder why “these people who have been born and raised here hate us so much”. That is the factor of a generational hand-down of displacement where the generation following a migration feel an ongoing sense of alienation. It is the displacement felt either as the hollowness that follows assimilation into another society’s accepted norms, with the requisite cutting of real cultural ties to accept the modes of liberal individualism or it is that felt as having been marked as being ‘the other’ who exists within, as the limit against which the norms of the society are defined. For Shahid it is something closer to the first option.

Shahid is caught in a vice, having grown up in a family that managed to achieve a significant degree of assimilation into British society – for which they are rewarded by being successful small business people. He holds guilt about siding with the racists, wondering “why can’t I be a racist like everyone else? Why is it only me who has to be good (p.11)?” On the other hand, he has a yearning to associate with his own people but doesn’t want to give his subjectivity over completely. Ultimately, he is an outsider amongst them too, having made a ‘choice’ to now become friends with this group at college, he struggles to understand it as a choice that fits into a very particular framework as an assertion of his individuality as opposed to the necessity of cultural bonds. There are echoes of Zizek’s point about how liberalism privileges a subjectivity that, from a position of transcending cultural ties, then chooses to affirm them. Kureishi writes:

“These days everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a man, woman, gay, black , Jew – brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn’t be human. Shahid too wanted to belong to his people. But first he had to know them, their past and what they hoped for (p.92).”

In this way Shahid, becomes a reflection of an utterly alienated experience of culture and, more than the avowed liberal character Deedee, he is symptomatic of the notion that cultural holds can be reduced to individual choice.

What occurs in The Black Album then, is the pull of a traditional cultural form – in this case the Islamic religion – that requires the dissolution of a person’s subjectivity entirely into a collective experience. While such a thought might seem shocking in the context of liberal ideas of individual choice, the resonance of the collective pull here can clearly be seen as an antidote to Shahid’s sense of alienation from the society around him. It fits with this that apart from the radical, revolutionary left, it is often from religious congregations of all stripes that critiques of the alienation of consumer culture emerge – although in these instances it is usually as an invocation to some more pure, socially conservative time. Riaz himself regularly uses this argument against Shahid, invoking more than just religion when he asserts, “We cannot just forsake our people and live for ourselves… If we did, wouldn’t that mean we had totally absorbed the Western morals, which are totally individualistic (p.173)?” And Shahid, who’s religious conviction is always more shaky than that of his comrades, understands the choice he is facing has little to do with faith: “all this believing wasn’t so much a matter of truth or falsity, of what could be shown and what not, but of joining (p.133).”

The alternative forces grasping at Shahid do not offer that sense of collective ‘joining’, but instead propose something like the idea that through an open-minded individual rigorousness which picks and chooses amongst all manner of influences, a sense of self that finds a place in the world may be achieved. Deedee, as Shahid’s love interest, unfortunately reads a bit too much as a caricature of an unfulfilled, liberal in mid-life crisis, but for the purposes of my analysis plays an important role. Strong-willed, undeterred by her comparative age and certainly not restrained by any religious beliefs, she does not see a contradiction between pleasure as an immediate fulfilment of subjective desire and a broader understanding of society. She is in opposition to Shahid’s friends’ fundamentalism which preaches that “one pleasure… can only lead to another. And the greater the physical pleasure, the less respect for the other person and oneself. Until we become beasts (p.128).” However, Deedee cannot comprehend the sense of belonging that Shahid feels when with his friends and can’t see beyond a framework that posits the individual consumption of art and literature in place of collectivity (footnote 6) as a mode of existing within society.

Art and literature become the battle-ground for these opposing ways of understanding the world as Kureishi uses a situation that is based on the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie, as a key point in the narrative progression. Along the way Shahid has it repeated to him that enjoyment of literature is “how intellectual people elevate themselves above ordinary ones (p.21)” and that “the masses are simpler and wiser than us (p.175)”. But these are the overly-determined views of fundamentalists (which possibly Kureishi has ascribed too simplistically?) that seek to justify a particular and rigid version of collectivity which they fear will be threatened by any subjective experience. A different type of collectivity is subscribed to by Deedee’s husband, Brownlow, a staunchly atheist, socialist who backs the fundamentalist Islamic position out of a sense of duty to an anti-colonial politic. He explains to Shahid that instead of “fighting for literary freedom”, the liberals are “just standing by their miserable class. When have they ever given a damn about you – the Asian working class – and your struggle (p.215)?” Class solidarity as a basis for collective struggle is a position long held by revolutionaries everywhere, but it can potentially present a similar problem as nationalist ‘tolerance’ when it is assumed to be a collective space where other collective forms and expressions of difference are dissolved into a position of pure class identity.

Ultimately The Black Album leaves us with the problem that resonates throughout this entire article: that while liberalism is an abstraction of the individual – asserting a belief in a subjectivity that can transcend material and cultural ties – the collectivity of conservative religion is also an abstraction, relying on an idea of transcendental faith to hold people together. I am not interested in transcendental faith that seeks to deny individual pleasure, but I am interested in the material and lived experience of solidarity that comes with this – that sense of ‘joining’ – that can pose such a threat to liberal capitalism. There is a small moment where through the party-going, drug-dealing, raver Strapper, another example of material collectivity is described. Strapper tells Shahid of:

“The soulfulness and generosity of people he’d met on the scene who, mocked and outlawed by the straight world, would welcome him into their homes on this very day if he turned up, no questions asked, sharing whatever they had, for they understood one another, as if they had been in combat together; it had been a collective love (p.197)”.

This provides an example of a collective, cultural sustenance that does not necessarily have to fall back on traditional values to create a sense of belonging. The point, as I move into the closure of this article, is not to suggest that this example is somehow a preferable or more radical ideal of collectivity, but to emphasise that many and varied versions of cultural and social collectivity do exist and that, significantly, at some level the processes of solidarity that underwrite them exist in opposition to the material atomisation and subjective individuality of liberal capitalist society.

A final refrain

In writing this, my focus has become one that seeks to present the hold of religion as that of something that provides a communal comfort and collectivity in the face of the alienation experienced in liberal, capitalist society, an isolation more keenly felt by migrants. In looking at race, migration and the production of an Australian national imaginary, I have not just been trying to propose a critique of multiculturalism. More crucially, I have been trying to show how multiculturalism, both as a broader discourse and as policy, is a site of analysis where the entanglement of questions of race, diversity, cultural practice (individual and collective) allows us to come to a strategic and specific understanding of the broader functioning of liberal capitalism and how an individual subjectivity removed from solid collective holds becomes the unit from which this society is created and reproduced. The collective, cultural affinities that are hinted at in multicultural discourse have to be reduced to a version of individual choice if they are to be ‘tolerated’.

In searching for a radical, revolutionary even, ideal of collectivity that can be a site of resistance to liberal capitalism without retreating to conservative social values, it is important to be careful to not fetishise any or all moments of collectivity that do exist, as proponents of social change. As I explained in the section on multiculturalism, some versions of collectivity uphold the neoliberal state of things by filling the lack that the rationalised economic system produces. They provide collective fulfilment both in a psychological sense of belonging and sometimes also in a material sense where communities provide for each other because they cannot afford, or there are no, hospitals, etc. And of course, there are also numerous examples of collective presence that may have gripes with neoliberal society but that propagate other ultra-conservative or reactionary principles – the far-right and its explicit nationalism and some football supporter groups and their violent machismo are a couple of examples that spring to mind (footnote 7).

It would be presumptive to propose the specifics of what formations of revolutionary collectivity could exist that do not impinge on cultural autonomy, that create versions of freedom that do not simply boil down to individual choice and that do not regress into an idealised version of some purer, socially conservative time. What must be recognised is that in the face of the isolation of liberal capitalism and in the very fact of having to materially survive everyday, people do enable various versions of collectivity. And many of the positive attributes that I have identified may often occur in otherwise conservative contexts. So, to suggest a way to think about where too from here, I want to use as a basis this (extensive) quote by the The Invisible Committee from their incendiary tract The Coming Insurrection:

“The West everywhere rolls out its favourite Trojan horse: the exasperating antimony between the self and the world, the individual and the group, between attachment and freedom. Freedom isn’t the act of shedding our attachments, but the practical capacity to work on them, to move around in their space, to form or dissolve them… The freedom to uproot oneself has always been a phantasmic freedom. We can’t rid ourselves of what binds us without at the same time losing the very thing to which our forces would be applied (p.32)”.

So freedom not as that much promulgated emissary of liberalism – a trait carried wholly by the individual removed and ‘free’ of worldly, material attachments – but as an interaction, an ongoing capacity to engage and effect our attachments, our cultural and social affinities. And as a collective form that doesn’t demand absolute doctrinal compliance, but allows space for exploration without having to detach from those collective attachments.

These would be formations of collectivity then, do not simply provide material or emotional support as a necessity of holding people within a collective net, but instead provide these things specifically as a base to explore and to form new collective modes. From this ‘safety net’ the material relations that so privilege individual subjectivity over collectivity and that therefore foster the overarching societal alienation we experience can begin to be undone. The Free Association use the metaphor of the ‘refrain’ in jazz to theorise the importance of this collective safety:

“They provide the base from which innovation can develop. You also see (or hear) refrains working in jazz. After each virtuosic solo, the musicians return to the same chorus. The restatement (even with variations) of that familiar melody – the refrain – provides both musicians and listeners with the reassuring basis from which to throw themselves into the next piece of crazy virtuosity (p.74)”.

While The Free Association are more explicitly referring to the value of the refrain in relation to people already more directly involved in radical political practice, I hope the link it has to migrants trying to find space within the prescribed limits of liberal multiculturalism is clear here too. That is, those traditional collective forms that migrants often cling too as an anchor against the displacement they face can play the role of a refrain, can be the solid ties of collective social experience to hold on and return to. But they also are the point of departure from which it is possible to more confidently explore the possibilities in a hostile or unfamiliar social space.

In my experience of migration to liberal, multicultural Australia, these ties to traditional cultural practice were kept in play by my mum, who despite not being at all religious would have me and my sister attend the Sikh temple on occasion, less for the ceremony and more for the food and collective social space it provided. While a conservative practice of such collective ties often creates a pressure and obligation that it is morally correct to filter our engagement with broader society through cultural practices based on heritage, the idea of the refrain seeks to turn this position on its head. Instead these cultural practices must seek to progress and to do so by being open to a multitude of influences and through the creation of new modes of collectivity. The Free Association point out that “refrains depend on people taking part and then carrying things forward. They change and adapt – like birdsong, refrains are in constant evolution (p.75)”. For this idea of the refrain to truly be a frame for how we conceive of collectivity, it is necessary to understand our subjective self as being borne of collective ties which can either constrain or release us.

My feeling is, that without ever articulating it in such way, this was the experience of cultural collectivity I entered into through my mum and family. We were inevitably formed by the cultural affinities that are our heritage and relied on them as a space of solidarity, but were also free from the most restricting of rules due to a lack of inclination towards a religious-based abstract faith. For truly radical forms of collective solidarity to exist – that could undermine and erase current modes of capitalist containment – they must not rigidly constrain our subjective experience by presupposing their way of doing things as the correct one. So, without the faith, our traditional cultural affinities could be a base to extend our experience and form other pacts of social collectivity. We weren’t the only ones doing this at the temple, at school and at work. All this is in opposition to the liberal idea that the individual is somehow, in origin, free of these collective binds and from a transcendental position is able to choose how to place themselves within a range of such options.

This is my point of departure from the collective reassurance provided by conservative religious practice or nationalism, they tend to not seek to evolve, becoming static and embracing social conservatism. It is also certainly more than possible to see such static and dogmatic rigidity in the collective forms of supposedly revolutionary groups. While that is an important consideration for radical practice in general, it is not my specific focus to grapple with now. It does however bring me to the question of shared collective practice and the possibility of this occurring as a method of engendering solidarity across different cultural forms. This broader solidarity, these pacts of affinity that could cut across different collective forms have to start from a place of understanding a particularly significant lesson of liberal capitalism – that we cannot consider the particular and the universal to be opposing forces, each is entirely implicated in the existence of the other. It is useful here to return to Zizek to emphasise this in his claim “it is not only that every universality is haunted by a particular content that taints it; it is that every particular position is haunted by its implicit universality, which undermines it (P.132)”. He uses the more direct example of how “an individual capitalist thinks he is active for his own profit, ignoring how he is serving the expanded reproduction of universal capitalism (p132)”.

Ultimately, what I am arguing here, is that even in reclusive, self-isolating forms of collective, cultural practice an element of universality is unavoidable and often it is the functioning of the market-form that amplifies the crossover of the universal into the particular. Bridging the perceived gap between the universal and the particular, the global and the local and the individual and the collective is so much of the difficulty at the core of any formation of revolutionary practice. However, the contradictions and conflicts that are inherent in capitalism also mean there are numerous points of rupture where different cultural forms can find affinity and create new versions of collective practice. Zizek finally comes to assert that:

“The formula of revolutionary solidarity is not ‘let us tolerate our differences’, it is not a pact of civilisations, but a pact which cuts across civilisations, a pact between what, in each civilisation, undermines its identity from within, fights against its oppressive kernel… A better formula would thus be: in spite of our differences, we can identify the basic antagonism or antagonistic struggle in which we are both caught; so let us share our intolerance and join forces in the same struggle (p.133)”.

These ‘pacts’ can occur in workplaces and in neighbourhoods, in places that are in no way free from the rhythms of capital or the implicit power structures of multicultural nationalism but which nonetheless also have the potential to engender new forms of encounter and collective solidarity. They do not require abandoning all existing cultural, collective holds, but do require enough scope for flexibility that conditions (Footnote 8) are not placed on the existence of these new collective forms a priori. What is being sought is the articulation of collective forms that always desire their own transformation through encountering other forms, so as to be in a position to not just respond to, but also overcome and pre-emptively dissipate, the social and material conditions of that ‘oppressive kernel’.

Footnote 1 – To be far too simplistic and reduce this to arguments of the left and right I would suggest they would be 1) a radical, anti-racist position such as i’m taking up here and that builds on the site of anti-colonial indigenous resistance but the reach of which is limited to either academia or smaller cliques of the left; & 2) a conservative position that argues multiculturalism has failed because it has allowed in too much unassimilable difference but that is ultimately an argument that takes on the format of multiculturalism because it is aimed at the limits of the national ‘we’.

Footnote 2 – And there is a whole range of analysis of how that term upholds and reinforces certain power dynamics

Footnote 3 – I’m thinking of the the vast distances; the urban/ rural divide, especially multi-ethnic suburbs and monocultural towns; the genocide and ongoing displacement of indigenous folk seen against the relative wealth of the rest of the nation; etc, etc.

Footnote 4 – I’d suggest looking at the way the formation of a certain collective identity through following sport is considered acceptable and encouraged in much of Australia but only to a certain point. That is, to the extent following your sporting team upholds the nation-bearing themes of machismo and ‘mateship’ it is deemed a positive, but once ethnic ‘tribes’ start to coalesce around support of a particular team this is considered ‘unAustralian’.

Footnote 5 – The Black Album has much to say about religion and its role in society beyond my specific interest with it as a collective form in opposition to the individualism of liberal capitalism. I would otherwise be interested in taking up an argument against Riaz’s assertion that “without religion society is impossible. And without God people think they can sin with impunity. There’s no morality” (p.32). Basically it would be an echo of Zizek’s point that it is often in fact entirely because of this transcendental faith in a ‘higher power’ that people think they can take all sorts of actions with impunity. This is what Zizek calls ‘divine violence’.

Footnote 6 – While I don’t really have the space or inclination to go into it in the main body of this article it is necessary to mention that a great reason for Deedee being disavowed from any sense of collective politics are her experience of being a socialist-newspaper-seller in the 70’s as well as her failing relationship with her staunchly old-school, socialist (soon to be ex-) husband Brownlow. That is to say, the particular rigid, dogmatic ‘collectivity’ of some socialist organisations merely produces another form of alienation that undoubtedly puts off many people.

Footnote 7 – Or Fight Club. Obviously a work of fiction, but one that I often hear held up as a fantastic critique of consumer capitalist society. Which it probably is, but the actual formation of the fight clubs are a pointed reference to a tendency towards a militaristic and hierarchical, fascistic form of collective belonging that is absolutely reactionary and in no way a step on the way to any positive social transformation.

Footnote 8 – And here the restrictive conditions of religion are only one side of the coin. Another case would be the CFMEU’s recent, re-run of a campaign focusing on protecting the conditions of ‘Aussie workers’ while targeting ultra-exploited, 457 visa holders. While the 457 visa may be an attack on workers’ conditions by the capitalist class trying to create new pools of cheap labour, this should not result in a focus on the visa holders themselves. Here the pre-condition being placed on the possible creation of a form of collective solidarity is that it be defined by nationality, and so it immediately removes the possibilities of any more radical occurring.

Things I Read…

Sara Ahmed: Strange Encounters

Slavoj Zizek: Violence

The Free Association: Moments of Excess

The Invisible Committee: The Coming Insurrection

Hanif Kureishi: The Black Album

Michel Foucault: The Birth of Biopolitics

Graeme Turner: ‘The cosmopolitan city and its Other: the ethnicising of the Australian suburb’ in Inter- Asia Cultural Studies vol.9, no.4, 2008. fffff fffffff

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