The ‘nightmare’ of multiculturalism: Recited truths and affective promises

Gavan Titley

Here be zombies

Multiculturalism is a zombie category, not just in the sense defined by Ulrich Beck, as a social category ‘dead but still alive’ but also in a ritualistic sense, as an unhappy object revived on special occasions to haunt a world that has long ceased to be home.  In late July 2015, Olli Immonen’s Facebook status sought to animate the undead for another round of denunciation, his ode to strength through joy calling for a ‘strong brave nation that will defeat this nightmare called multiculturalism.’As we know, Immonen’s late night fantasy of ‘fighting to the end with his fellow fighters’ went viral, and provoked a significant popular reaction in Finland.

This may be in part because he wrote in English, and the global circulation of those few sentences – ”these are the days that will forever leave a mark on our nations (sic) future”, fascist desire, soft rock anthem chorus – made it impossible for Finnish mainstream political culture to continue to deny the far-right tendency within the True Finns party. His focus on ‘enemies’ that live in an ‘ugly bubble’ that ‘will soon enough burst into a million little pieces’ recalls, as Robert Paxton argues in his influential study The Anatomy of Fascism (1), that the delineation of internal enemies that weaken and betray the nation is perhaps the only consistent dimension across different forms and histories of fascism.

Coming so soon after July 22nd, it was also difficult to avoid the echoes of Anders Breivik’s thinking in Immonen’s plea. Dismissed as a slur by the True Finns, it is nonetheless striking just how faithfully Immonen reproduced what I have termed elsewhere the ‘geometry of war’ in Anders Breivik’s writings and actions: multiculturalism favours the agents of cultural pollution, is advanced by the agents of cultural experiment, and must be opposed by the subjects of cultural imposition (2). In Immonen’s status update, multiculturalism is a drama of aliens, traitors and patriots, a project of ‘homeland’ transformation that must be resisted.

Yet, in this nightmare there are shape-shifters as well as zombies. Interviewed on MTV3 news on July 27th, Riikka Slunga-Poutsalo – the True Finns party secretary – was less concerned with multiculturalism as a civilizational imposition than with emphasizing what Stuart Hall referred to as its ‘maddeningly spongy’ quality. When asked if she shared Immonen’s conviction that multiculturalism needed to be fought against, Poutsalo countered that, well, multiculturalism is one of those ideas that means different things to different people, and who could be sure that they were interpreting it in the same way as Olli? In other words, where multiculturalism encompasses a range of meanings to do with social description, normative philosophy and policy prescription, who could really be sure that Immonen was employing ‘multiculturalism’ simply as a euphemism for ‘multicultural-looking’ people?

The exact sense intended by Immonen is less important than this strategic shifting between imposition and imprecision, between hard object of aversion and soft subject of evasion. Conservatives, as Corey Robin argues in The Reactionary Mind (3), must be understood as arch constructivists, adapting critical tools and strategies from the very projects they profess to oppose, in the service of power and privilege. The True Finns embrace of the endless play of signification – in defence of the singular, ethnic truth of the given nation – is consistent with this. The shifting meanings of multiculturalism have provided a key site of such discursive play, and, as Alana Lentin and I argued in The Crises of Multiculturalism; Racism in a Neoliberal Age (4), its capaciousness supports the articulation of racism in contexts where racism is held to have been overcome, or indeed never to have been a problem. Immonen’s status update drew explicitly on a transnationally circulated discourse of multicultural failure that has provided the radical right and imperialist liberals with an alibi for racism for well over a decade. Some dimensions of it are explored in what follows.

‘Failed experiments’

Discussions of multiculturalism inevitably invoke different and overlapping registers: from the social fact of lived multiculture in diverse societies, to ideas of state multiculturalism as a policy-framework for the governance and accomodation of difference, and normative theories of multiculturalism in relation to the realisation of rights and political claim-making. It may be the case that multiculturalism, in political philosophy, has never amounted to more than an attenuation of liberalism’s universalist tendencies (5), or that, in terms of actually existing governance frameworks, it has rarely comprised of more than a shifting patchwork of limited and frequently disjointed policy initiative in any western European state (6). The point is that in political discourse it has taken on a life that can no longer be recalled to particular movements, normative frameworks, or empirically informed histories.

One reason for this is the term’s productive ambivalence. In Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s assessment, the idea of multiculturalism, however it is developed, can be made to insist on a ‘constitutive heterogeneity’ (7) that refuses reductions to foundational constructions of a national ethnos. Thus while state-led multiculturalism ‘accommodations’ have been consistently critiqued as reductive, top-down strategies, designed to contain the autonomy of anti-racist movements (8), the idea of multiculturalism retains an idealist and critical sense derived from this sense of refusal, and from its historical incorporation into migrant, minority and anti-racist struggle. However, the converse to Shohat and Stam’s idea also holds. The pronounced sense of multiculturalism as an imposition, as an unwelcome amendment to a pre-existing monoculturalism, makes claims on affective senses of how social life is lived, and ‘…the very idea of multiculturalism, the ideology, disturbs out of proportion to what in fact it may be’ (9).

This sense of (planned) imposition informed, as Roger Hewitt (10) notes, a multivalent international ‘backlash’ against something called multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s: in the reductively titled ‘culture wars’ in the US; in the politics of what Ghassan Hage (11) termed ‘white anxiety’ and its mobilisation through Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in Australia; and in the axiomatic logics of the so- called ‘cultural racism’ that shaped the mainstream political success of anti-immigration and far-right parties in northern and western Europe (12). For all the near irreconcilable variations of multiculturalism invoked in this brief list, it is also possible to note some key trajectories of backlash, trajectories inseparable from if not reducible to the insecurities of neoliberal capitalist ‘restructuring’: the populist instrumentalities of countering unfairness and ‘reverse racism’ to silent majorities, reclaiming the shrinking state from asylum-seekers and immigrants, and of defending the integral nation from various, minority agents of moral and cultural erosion.

Ralph Grillo has argued that currents of multicultural discontent are shaped in the gap between the ‘weak multiculturalism’ that has largely characterized institutional practice and the widespread critical assumption that it is always in its ‘strongest form’, that is, for many critics, ‘…multiculturalism is always already ”unbridled”’ (13). It is of little consequence to these perceptions that, by the early to mid 1990s, even in contexts firmly associated with full-on multicultural experiment, multiculturalism had little sustained institutional expression beyond the managerial aspirations of governmental rhetoric.

And sometimes not even: for all the general association, for example, of the Netherlands with a multicultural backlash following the murders of Pim Fortyn and Theo Van Gogh, an influential discourse of multicultural rejection was politically mainstreamed by the early 1990s (14). A series of immigration and integration acts, from the mid to the late 1990s, actively dismantled the limited provisions anyway dedicated to ‘immigrant integration’. As Ellie Vasta summarises, there was a demonstrable ”…ideological shift (in the early 1990s) from support for group needs to promoting individual identity. Even if there is agreement that there has been strong multiculturalism for the past ten years, officially this is not the case” (15).

This ‘strong multiculturalism’ takes shape only in the rhetorical denunciations of political leaders. Writing in The Boston Review, and reacting to speeches in 2010-11 by David Cameron and Angela Merkel that have become markers in the narrative of post-multicultural awakening, the anthropologist John Bowen lays out the political utility of this mythic past:

…while it is hard to know what exactly the politicians of Europe mean when they talk about multiculturalism, one thing we do know is that the issues they raise—real or imagined—have complex historical roots that have little to do with ideologies of cultural difference. Blaming multiculturalism may be politically useful because of its populist appeal, but it is also politically dangerous because it attacks ”an enemy within”: Islam and Muslims. Moreover, it misreads history. An intellectual corrective may help to diminish its malign impact.

While I respect the deliberative optimism of Bowen’s call for an ‘intellectual corrective’, it is unlikely to come from primarily insisting on a correct reading of history. As Arun Kundnani pointed out when David Cameron attacked multiculturalism in February 2011, his ‘attack on an imagined multicultural orthodoxy was not rendered ineffective by the absence of any such orthodoxy. Virtually the same speech had been delivered by various Labour government ministers over the previous nine years, yet the rhetorical strategy of courageously breaking the politically correct taboos of a fantasy multicultural establishment did not seem to wear thin over time’.

Multiculturalism cannot be recalled to a past that is far more complex, diluted and mythic than the story of multicultural failure contends. Instead, we need to account for the circulation of this recurring narrative and the political work it performs.

The stuff of nightmares

As Didier Fassin argues, the anti-immigrant racisms forged in the post Cold War era – which depended on eliding distinctions between asylum-seekers and ‘immigrants’, and on the figure of the migrant as a ‘social enemy’ embodying anxieties concerning EU expansion and labour market ‘restructuring’ – tended to focus on the defence of the welfare state and sovereign borders. Since ‘9/11’, he argues, a further dimension of ‘menace’ has become more pronounced: ‘Although difficult to name, as it is masked by cultural or religious, sometimes ethnic description, it can be characterized more bluntly as a racial security: it has to do with the protection of a European, Christian and white civilization against Third World, Muslim or black populations’ (16).

In this context, the ‘problem of multiculturalism’ has come to function as a euphemism for the ‘Muslim problem’, or what David Theo Goldberg terms the ‘idea of the Muslim’:

The Muslim in Europe – not individual Muslims, not even Muslim communities, but the idea of the Muslim himself – has come to represent the threat of death…The Muslim image in contemporary Europe is overwhelmingly one of fanaticism, fundamentalism, female (women and girls’) suppression, subjugation and repression. The Muslim in this view foments conflict…He is a traditionalist, premodern, in the tradition of racial historicism difficult if not impossible to modernize, at least without ceasing to be ”the Muslim”’ (17)

The focus on ‘the idea of the Muslim’ as the prime product and beneficiary of multiculturalism’s failure points to an underlying culturalization of politics, particularly under neoliberal conditions, but it must also be grasped in communicative terms. Vertovec and Wessendorf’s account (18) of a convergent European rejection of multiculturalism draws attention to the circulation of a repertoire of highly mediated events. Assembled in salutary narratives of multicultural failure, events, thus assembled, seem to attest a shared, even cumulative reckoning. Working from Paul Scheffer’s article on ‘The Multicultural Drama’ (2000) in The Netherlands, their analysis outlines a litany of events including riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001, September 11 2001, the murder of Pim Fortuyn, David Goodhart’s article ‘Too Diverse?’ in Prospect magazine (2004), the Madrid train bombings, the 2004 murder of Theo Van Gogh, the émeutes in Clichy-sous-Bois and other nationally dispersed banlieues in 2005, the Jyllands Posten cartoons and extended aftermath in 2005-6, and so forth.

That this narrative has become widely circulated transnationally, regardless of profound differences in socio-political context and actual occurrences, suggests that it is culturalism, rather than multiculturalism, that provides an organizing grammar, where a sense of cumulative crisis is patterned by a generally comparable racial politics across western European sites. In these event-centred narratives, the supposed excesses of ‘multiculturalism’ grounds the endless production of Muslims and Muslim-looking people as a ‘problem population’. It is multiculturalism, we are told, that allowed not only ‘radicalization’ but also radical cultural incommensurability to germinate.

Following Michel de Certeau, Alana Lentin and I analyze the circulation of these idioms as ‘recited truths’, the circulation of beliefs about what multiculturalism was and what it did, beliefs that act as a prelude to arguing for what is necessary to undo the damage. Claims about the nightmare of elsewhere become true through their circulation, and come to feel true through affective and political investment. Their truth is derived from a racializing structure of feeling, but they are also circulated and assembled in a transnational media space, and in an internet space where, as Mark Andrejevic argues in Info-Glut (19), the radical plurality of sources of ‘knowledge’ undermine the efficacy of fact-checking and rational critique; there is always another set of statistics or facts available somewhere online about welfare fraud, or ‘immigrant rape’, and about the social cost of ‘multiculturalism’.

The pleasure of nightmares

The possibility to fashion ‘proof’ of ‘who they are and what they do’ from a surfeit of media sources, images, ‘facts’ and information, and the racist legitimation structure provided by the idea of a failed experiment and remedial new reality, poses several challenges for anti-racist responses. In his recent book Alter-Politics, Ghassan Hage argues that

While racists have happily moved from one form of racism to another, caring little about logical contradictions, inconsistencies and discrepancies in their argumentations, too many anti-racist academics spend an inordinate amount of time trying to judge racists on precisely such grounds. In a classical case of what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘projecting into the object one’s relation to the object’, they criticize racists as if the racists are fellow academics with whom they are having disagreements in a tutorial room about how to interpret reality. The performativity of racist statements and more obviously racist practices, which is what is most important to the racists themselves, is given far less attention than needed. Instead the racists’ greatest sins are made to be interpretative/intellectual ones. They are accused of being bad thinkers, they are ‘essentialists’, they deviate from ‘classical’ biological racism, or they are making false statements about reality that the anti-racist academics can empirically correct by highlighting a lot of statistical data that proves them incorrect: ‘No, there aren’t that many asylum seekers trying to get into the country’ or ‘No there are no ghettoes here. Look at the demographic data’ types argumentation’ (20).

Hage’s point is not that fact-checking and empirical research have no value, but rather that a dependence on the idea that rational engagement will dissipate the irrationality of racism is to misunderstand racism politically. This lack of attention to the ‘performativity’ of racism was evident in the decision of the Meillä on Unelma rally to provide a platform to Matias Turkkila, a key actor in the push to bed down these ‘crisis’ discourses in Finnish public culture. Here it is necessary, without taking away from the heartening response to the event, to be directly critical. This decision amounted to a form of political narcissism, a self-regarding insistence on polishing the purity of ‘our values’ over and above any strategic analysis of how the radical right-wing ideology of the True Finns functions, and the vulnerability of the platform provided by ‘dialogue’ to very predictable forms of appropriation.

Even allowing for contextual differences, it is clear that the kind of ‘discursive labour’ around racism engaged in by the right-wing in Finland has been encountered, and countered, elsewhere. The story of multicultural failure is one such repertoire, so getting to grips with its political utility, beyond its empirical leakiness or historical inaccuracy, is important. For the sake of brevity in a blog post, let me reprise the story fairly bluntly.

Insisting on the failure of multiculturalism is like the relationship break-up cliché – it’s not you, it’s me. It was an experiment, definitely naïve and probably too generous, and it generated unintended consequences. The problematic subjects of multiculturalism have proven to be too problematic, and the regime of tolerance and relativism that facilitated the development of ‘problem areas’ and ‘problem cultures’ has to be undone.

The story of multiculturalism’s death reduces complex social, cultural and political issues to the symbolic field of culturalist politics. The diagnosis is of too much culture of the wrong kind, while also offering a prognosis in the form of comforting sovereignty – we created this problem, so we can undo it, with enough culture of the right kind. Therefore the alibi of multicultural failure justifies the return of hierarchies of legitimate belonging. As we know, the hallmark of so-called ‘new racism’ was the strategic disavowal of (racial) hierarchy and an insistence on the radical incommensurability of cultural differences. In a European landscape held to be full of examples of too much culture of the wrong kind, and where too much tolerance is to blame, then zero tolerance for problematic differences is justified – as is regularly heard from Finnish commentators, we have to concede that some ‘cultures’ are just better.

In contexts such as Finland, the nightmare always occurs at two minutes to midnight, where ‘we’ are verging on multicultural crisis but with just enough time to avert it by learning the lessons of elsewhere. In this logic, a key recited truth involves the spatialization of multicultural failure: think of how East Helsinki is framed as a proto-Malmö, a future example of the parallel societies, problemområden, dish cities, parallelsamfund, territoires perdus de la République – take your pick – that ‘we know’ exist elsewhere, and in which repressive and often hostile ways of life are held to be germinated. The actual social realities of these areas makes very little impact on the potency of the images, as the structure of multicultural crisis licenses racialized imaginaries while legitimating their ‘concerned’ or ‘skeptical’ expression.

Consequently, whatever is demanded in the name of ‘integration’ politics can never be unreasonable, as it is necessary rehabilitation for the excesses that went before. Close the borders. Filter people into good and bad immigrants. Perhaps signal the value of diversity, but filter that into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ diversity also. Make them integrate into ‘our way’ of life and values (a way of life that only takes shape when defined against them). And so it turns out that the break-up cliché is actually ‘it’s not us, it’s you’ – we tried, you failed, and that which was previously taboo, including that which was often regarded as racism, may be uncomfortable, but it is probably true, and that ‘uncomfortable truth’ cannot be denied.

This is the structure of legitimation that Immonen attempted to tap into. Yet he ended up presenting an opportunity to organize antiracist responses because he pushed this narrative too far, peddling a dreamscape fully cleansed of the ‘nightmare’ rather than one that is simply reformed and ‘integrated’. The marked trace of fascism exceeded the accepted codes for doing contemporary racism, and sounded too too much like the bad racisms of the past. The challenge now is to move from spontaneous opposition to such overt expression, to sustained antiracist mobilization that confronts the suite of ways in which ‘multicultural-looking’ people are pointed at in Finland (as elsewhere) and made subject to the recurring, racializing question; ”what do we do about them, about these problems?’


  1. 2005, Penguin Books.
  2. Titley, Gavan (2013) The called a war and someone came. Nordic Journal of Migration Research. Vol. 3(4) 216-224.
  3. Robin, Corey (2011) The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Oxford University Press
  4. Lentin, Alana & Gavan Titley (2011) The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age. London, Zed Books.
  5. See Pathak, P. 2008. ‘Making a case for Multiculture: From the “politics of piety” to the politics of the Secular?’ Theory, Culture & Society 25(5): 123-141
  6. See Phillips, Anne  & Sawitri Saharso, 2008. ‘The rights of women and the crisis of multiculturalism‘ (Guest editorial), Ethnicities, 8 (3). pp. 2-12
  7. Shohat, E. & R. Stam. 2003. ‘Introduction’ in Shohat & Stam ed. Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality, and Transnational Media.
  8. Kundnani, Arun (2007) The End of Tolerance. London: Pluto Books
  9. Elliot, Anthony. & C. Lemert. (2006). The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization, p. 137. London: Routledge
  10. Hewitt, Roger. (2005). White Backlash and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Oxford University Press.
  11. Hage Ghassan (1998) White Nation. Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Sydney: Pluto
  12. See Fekete, Liz 2009. A Suitable Enemy. Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe. London: Pluto
  13. Grillo, R. 2007. ‘An excess of alterity? Debating difference in a multicultural society’ Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 30(6): 979-998
  14. Prins, B. 2002. ‘The nerve to break taboos: new realism in the Dutch discourse on multicultural- ism’, Journal of International Migration and Integration, 3(3/4): 363– 80.
  15. Vasta, E. 2007. ‘From ethnic minorities to ethnic majority policy: Multiculturalism and the shift to assimilationism in the Netherlands. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30(5): 713-740
  16. Fassin, D. 2008. ‘Compassion and repression. The moral economy of immigration policies in France’, in J. Xavier Inda and R. Rosaldo (eds), The Anthropology of Globalization, Oxford: Blackwell.
  17. Goldberg, D. 2009. The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Wiley Blackwell.
  18.  Vertovec, S. & and S. Wessendorf. (eds.) 2010. The Multiculturalism Backlash: European Discourses, Policies and Practices. London: Routledge.
  19. Andrejevic Mark (2013) Info-Glut: How Too Much Information is Changing the Way We Think and Know. Cambridge: Polity.
  20. Hage Ghassan (2015) Alter-politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination. Melbourne University Press.