The Reality of an Illusion

When I claim that multiculturalism is hegemonic, I only claim that it is hegemonic as ideology, not that it described the reality of predominant social relations – which is why I criticize it so ferociously. So when Ahmed writes that “multiculturalism is a fantasy which conceals forms of racism, violence and inequality,” I only can add that this goes for every hegemonic ideology. I do not confuse ideological fantasy/illusion and fact – they are confused in reality: the reality of what Ahmed calls “civil racism” can only function through (in the guise of) the illusion of anti-racist multiculturalism.

And, furthermore, an illusion is never simply an illusion: it is not enough to make the old Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it – as is so common amongst politically-correct critics on the Left. The counter-argument that the form is never a ‘mere’ form, but involves a dynamic of its own which leaves traces in the materiality of social life, made by Claude Lefort and Jacques Rancière, is fully valid. After all the ‘formal freedom’ of the bourgeois sets in motion the process of altogether ‘material’ political demands and practices, from trade unions to feminism. Rancière rightly emphasizes the radical ambiguity of the Marxist notion of the gap between formal democracy with its discourse of the rights of man and political freedom and the economic reality of exploitation and domination.

This gap between the ‘appearance’ of equality-freedom and the social reality of economic and cultural differences can either be interpreted in the standard symptomatic way, that is the form of universal rights, equality, freedom and democracy is just a necessary, but illusory expression of its concrete social content, the universe of exploitation and class domination. Or it can be interpreted in the much more subversive sense of a tension in which the ‘appearance’ of egaliberté, is precisely not a ‘mere appearance,’ but has a power of its own.

This power allows it to set in motion the process of the re-articulation of actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive ‘politicization’: why shouldn’t women also vote? Why shouldn’t conditions at the work place also be of public political concern? and so on. If the bourgeois freedom is merely formal and doesn’t disturb the true relations of power, why, then, didn’t the Stalinist regime allow it? Why was it so afraid of it? In the opposition between form and content, the form possesses an autonomy of its own – one can almost say: a content of its own. – Back to Ahmed, how, then, does multiculturalism as fantasy function?
The prohibition of racist speech should not then be taken literally: rather it is a way of imagining ‘us’ as beyond racism, as being good multicultural subjects who are not that. By saying racism is over there –‘look, there it is! in the located body of the racist’ – other forms of racism remain unnamed, what we could call civil racism. We might even say that the desire for racism is an articulation of a wider unnamed racism that accumulates force by not being named, or by operating under the sign of civility.

The best example one can imagine of this are the presidential elections in France a couple of years ago when Jean-Marie le Pen made it into the second round: reacting to this racist-chauvinist threat, the entire “democratic France” joined their ranks behind Jacques Chirac who was reelected with an overwhelming majority of 80%. No wonder everyone felt good after this display of French anti-racism, no wonder people “loved to hate” le Pen: by way of clearly locating racism in him and his party, the general “civil racism” is rendered invisible.

In a homologous way, there was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them).

When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma.

It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

One of the most irritating liberal-tolerant strategies is to oppose Islam as a great religion of spiritual peace and compassion to its fundamentalist-terrorist abuse – whenever Bush or Netanyahu or Sharon announced a new phase in the War on Terror, they never forgot to include this mantra. (One is almost tempted to counter it by claiming that Islam is, as all religions, in itself a rather stupid inconsistent edifice, and that what makes it truly great are its possible political uses.)

This is liberal-tolerant racism at its purest: this kind of “respect” for the other is the very form of appearance of its opposite, of patronizing disrespect. The very term “tolerance” is here indicative: one “tolerates” something one doesn’t approve of, but cannot abolish, either because one is not strong enough to do it or because one is benevolent enough to allow the Other to stick to its illusion – in this way, a secular liberal “tolerates” religion, a permissive parent “tolerates” his children’s excesses, etc.

Where I disagree with Ahmed is in her supposition that the underlying injunction of liberal tolerance is monocultural – “Be like us, become British!” I claim that, on the opposite, its injunction is cultural apartheid: others should not come too close to us, we should protect our “way of life.” The demand “Become like us!” is a superego demand, a demand which counts on the other’s inability to really become like us, so that we can then gleefully “deplore” their failure.

(Recall how, in the apartheid South Africa, the official regime’s ideology was multiculturalist: apartheid is needed so that all the diverse black tribes will not get drowned into our civilization…)

The truly unbearable fact for a multiculturalist liberal is an Other who effectively becomes like us, while retaining its specific features.
Either “true” multiculturalism, or we should drop the universal claim as such. Both solutions are wrong, for the simple reason that they are not different at all, but ultimately coincide: “true” multiculturalism would have been the utopia of a neutral universal legal frame enabling each particular culture to assert its identity.

The thing to do is to change the entire field, introducing a totally different Universal, that of an antagonistic struggle which does not take place between particular communities, but splits from within each community, so that the “trans-cultural” link between communities is that of a shared struggle. Slavoj Zizek