Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Culture vultures and power brokers

Terry Eagleton has a question: “why are so many of our politicians getting steamed up about the supposed dangers of multiculturalism?” And, by a happy coincidence, he’s got the answer, too:

“From the viewpoint of political power, culture is absolutely vital. … It is culture, in the sense of the everyday habits and beliefs of a people, which beds power down, makes it appear natural and inevitable, turns it into spontaneous reflex and response.
“Unless authority entwines itself with the roots of people's experience and identity, it will remain too abstract and aloof to win their loyalty. If it is to secure their allegiance, power must become the invisible colour of everyday life itself. And this is what we know as culture. …
“It is easy to see why a diversity of cultures should confront power with a problem. If culture is about plurality, power is about unity. How can it sell itself simultaneously to a whole range of life forms without being fatally diluted?”


Well, I agree that culture is vital to political power, but more in the sense that the “beliefs of a people” drive how they vote and thus who becomes “power” and what they do while in office. Sorry to suggest that British democracy is anything other than a trick to manipulate and placate those of the proletariat who are too ill-educated to see through it, but I’ve always been something of an imperialist stooge. (The pay’s great BTW. I’m typing this on a keyboard made out of conflict diamonds.)

And what’s this “culture is about plurality”? If so, then the phrase “a diversity of cultures” and even the word “multiculturalism” become pleonasms. But culture isn’t about diversity. It’s about, as Eagleton earlier notes, “everyday habits and beliefs”. It’s about how you understand the world and your place in it, and how you live your life.

Cultural difference is in itself worthless to anyone other than a tourist or an anthropologist. What is precious, though, is freedom of culture (to the extent that yours doesn’t harm other people). If you want to live life in much the same way as the majority of people, then fine: the lack of difference is beside the point. As it happens, diversity is bound to arise in any reasonably liberal society because people do in fact have different outlooks and preferences. But the right to be different is no more important than the right to be mainstream.

And if you happen to be a Member of the X Community, and the Leaders of the X Community think that Their People should live according to a certain version of X Culture, then it’s perfectly fine for you to say ‘thanks but no thanks’ and live your life as you see fit. And if they (or anyone else) think otherwise, then they don’t believe, as Eagleton claims to, that “everyone is allowed to be in on the project of cooperatively shaping a common way of life”. They want separate ways of life that only connect with each other, and only connect to “power”, via the appropriate representatives.

Eagleton argues that superficial cultural differences are less important than the “shared moral values [that] run very deep in human beings”. And, in a sense, I’d agree. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that one of these deeply ingrained human values is, tragically, a tendency to form groups defined against outsiders. And if there are a bunch of pre-existing superficial differences within a society, then it becomes all the easier for political entrepreneurs to work up a system of identity politics.

Look, it’s true enough that a more fragmented society will make it harder for any government to command popular legitimacy. But the most pressing point is that the fragmentation is in itself bad.

If only there were some sort of publicly accountable national governing organisation where differences could be freely aired and compromises brokered for the sake of encouraging us all to hold together.

(David Thompson also has some sharp and shrewd words on Eagleton.)

2 comments:

David Thompson said...

Tom,

Bingo. Strange how Eagleton assumes "power" couldn't possibly have anything to do with the preferences of other people, specifically those who disagree with him for perfectly good reasons. And the comments on "community leaders" are certainly apposite.

Money quote: "Cultural difference is in itself worthless to anyone other than a tourist or an anthropologist."

Money quote #2: "It’s true enough that a more fragmented society will make it harder for any government to command popular legitimacy. But the most pressing point is that the fragmentation is in itself bad."

anticant said...

Terry Eagleton gets more and more bizarre - like almost everything in the "Guardian" [which was my preferred reading for half a century, but no longer].

An excellent demolition job, Tom. And thanks for the link to David Thompson.