Hobgoblin Journal

The Hobgoblin - 8 (Online) 2006

Cultural Diversity Or Cultural Oppression?

By George Shaw

Azar Majedi, the head of the Organisation of Women's Liberation, asks some pertinent questions in a speech in Canada on Sharia Courts and Women's rights.
Is the recognition of two or more sets of values, laws and rights conducive to a harmonious society? Are we not going back in reversing what has been hard won rights for citizens particularly women in the modern context? Are we to accept the patriarchal value system experienced by women in some communities because of diversity this could hardly be called voluntary? Should not citizens have universal rights which are paramount as opposed to community sectarian interests? Has empowerment of the leaders of local religious communities created a monster reducing the rights of some members of their communities in the realms of marriage and some aspects of education?

Azar Majedi says: “We have long witnessed in the past decades, a glorification of culture as a primary issue dictating people’s lives and rights. Culture has come to take precedence over human rights, equality, liberation, rights of individuals, children’s right and women’s rights – concepts and issues which have been long been argued and have prominence in modern and civil societies. The birth of cultural relativism its recognition in the society as a credible concept is the result of this process.”

Azar Majedi goes on to query: “I ask you why an arbitrary concept as culture must be so glorified that takes precedence over prominent issues such as freedom, equality, and justice? Why should people be categorised and placed in different pigeon holes according to culture and religion? These should be private matters. There is no justification for assigning such prominent status to culture, which overshadows any sense of justice, equality and freedom, the achievements of long battles fought by freedom loving people and socialist for more than two centuries.”
Whenever some of us attempt make an objective critique of the whole issue the accusation of Islamophobia is thrown at us as cultural relativism is pushed down our throats – a new monster for us to fight. Perhaps Agnes Poirier of the French daily Liberation (29 July 2005) points out that the nation-building ideals of the French Revolution were deployed to bring down with the monarchy, aristocracy and regional languages. As the revolutionary France started fighting off its reactionary neighbours, that identity took shape. Poirier goes on to mention that in 1905 they separated the State from Church. The State, free from dogmatic religious values, would be able to teach all the children of France - whatever their social and religious background - the “esprit” critique and how to question all revealed truths. This is what laicite (secularism) is all about, you leave your religion and all sorts of social division at home in order to enter the public space on an equal footing with the rest of society. In any case those ideals seem to have now run up against the recent events events in the northern suburbs of Paris - the revolt of disaffected young Afro Caribbean, Senegalese and young Asian or Magrebian youths -,thus threatening the bourgeois revolution’s recipe for inter communal harmony. Egalitarian society in the French context as in all large urban complexes elsewhere has a long way to go.

All the pronouncements about the colonial legacy, tired old solutions of “empowerment”, pouring in massive tranches of funding to bolster deprived areas are simply not enough. Neither is the pushing for secularism is enough for a free society, except to say that religion is a personal and private thing. Certainly statist sponsored religion does not offer any pointers to a new Enlightenment or more specifically to development of new social relations.

If the concept of multiculturism and diversity has reached its limits and usefulness, this is not simply or only the result of Messrs Blair’s, Chirac’s or George Bush’s policies. What is more fundamental is the structural problems in Capital itself that have been manifested in the past three decades or so. Changes in the requirements and imperatives of capital as an economic system have largely spawned the wide polarisation in our inner cities and suburbs. The motor that has driven the system has had to replace its means for accumulating value in declining production to other sources in its drive to expand. We must not be thrown off course by what Blair, Chirac or Bush are doing, but be quite clear about the enemy we are fighting.

The whole question begs a concerted approach that lies deeper than the current panaceas on offer about “going back to the Family and its values” or a resort to religious manifestations of varying kinds. Multiculturism and diversity as ideologies may have had good intentions at the start but are now failing those very people that have took to the streets as well as the victims of “honour killings”. These have been trotted by the “left” out precisely because there is a void that is not being filled to project any real alternatives. The continued reformist preoccupations with reformism of nationalising property and production, and with tinkering about with civil society and culture continues to act as a brake on any serious discussion on the social relations of capital and the need to change it.

Hegel, in his preface to the ‘Phenomenology of Mind’, makes a critique of the “abstract negation” that now prevails today as post-modernist ideology. The anti-modernity of post-modernism opens it up to tailending reaction fundamentalisms, especially those which parade themselves as anti-imperialist. Hegel concept of “determinant negation” was concretised by Marx as determinant negation of capitalism. As the 2005/6 Perspectives of the US News and Letters Committees put it: “The failure by Post – Marxists to transform the production relations because they fetishized property forms has led many to act now as if the most we can reach for is to transform the political and cultural superstructure of capitalism. In BOTH cases transforming alienated labour and the capitalist mode of production is left untheorised.”

6 December 2005