“Multiculturalism” is wrong. Well at least according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This rather bold stance even out did the popularity of the Chilean Miners release in this week’s news. Surprise surprise, The Daily Telegraph, that bastion of free thoughtless provocative Conservatism thoroughly agreed with the German Chancellor. Nothing new there however. The DT has been staunchly against multiculturalism since the media stone age of litho type set printing presses!

Chancellor Merkel’s rather shocking statement comes as no surprise, not because what is now being uttered is truth but because it is highly questionable. Contemporary policy on cultures, difference and intolerance/tolerance in Germany has been a highly problematic issue. In another way, the statement that “multiculturalism” is wrong also requires some kind of political and historical contextualisation. It is simple, if not inevitable that the media taking such a statement would make it into one of the most controversial sound bytes of the year from any politician. However Merkel, in making such a statement was aiming her critique firmly at what she considers to be a failed approach on the part of previous governments in Germany, largely Social Democrat and Green, who had a different approach to the issue.

Germany had in bygone decades constructed a ‘guest-worker’ system. From 1955 until 1973, over one million guest workers, in German defined as “Gastarbeiter” arrived, mostly from Italy, Spain, Turkey and Greece. The system was just cheap labour from communities and countries where people where forced to migrate due to economics or political persecution in order to fill specific gaps in the German industrial labour market. Many countries emulated this kind of guest worker system. It was seen as an alleged safe way to profit from a cheap labour source but also protect a sense of national identity by making the guest-workers temporary.

But it went terribly wrong because the guest workers had children, and despite efforts by the German state to repatriate specific communities, such as Turkish people in the early 1980’s, settlement, permanence albeit problematic, had begun to happen. Even to this day, many second generation ‘offspring’ of guest-workers are not full German citizens. This issue was viewed as highly contentious by various EU Equality Commissions who view through a succession of directives, guest worker systems as hostile, divisive and exploitative.

Guest worker systems exist in other countries as well, only they are not so blatant. Cyprus has similar utilitarian policies towards 3-country non-EU nationals such as Sri Lankan and Philippinos, who are allowed to live and work for a limited amount of time and only in certain usually domestic jobs.

Many economies use immigrant workforces as a source for systems of hyper exploitation. Specific communities are used as cheap labour to fill roles which indigenous workforces either no longer want to do or have become too expense to hire in or a combination of both.

The biggest problem with any guest worker system is its illusion of temporality. The second generations, who grew up in schools rife with racially fuelled hostility, from peers and teachers, and organised racist groupings across Europe, demanded much more. These children of immigrants, me included demanded not to be called immigrants. Something began to change. Right across the European Union, but at different points in time, and in different contexts, next generations demanded much more rights, equality and respect.

This is the whole generation of people that Chancellor Merkel is trying to address. Where I think Merkel has gone wrong is a shallow understanding of what culture means. This is nothing new as politicians often adopt positions that are populist when in fact people are pulled in so many different directions and yes, culture and identity are complicated lived experience that require much more sensitivity and awareness.

Its easy for example to view this as a clash of two cultures, as some weak hearted sociologists began to declare in the early to mid-1970’s attributing the blame solely on immigrant families and their alleged inability to adapt. But hardly any one of these theorists ever stopped to consider if those hard working, largely super exploited first generations were ever welcomed to adapt or whether they with this incomplete sense of identity that was often quiet conservative, retrospective but never integrational in vision or political inclination.

‘Inglan is a Bitch’ LKJ once declared, with no intent or offence meant to worldly sisterhood. And from the viewpoint of the Caribbean first generation worker, ‘workin pon the undergroun’ in the narrative, this experience was wholly accurate. The poem became an anthem on the Black British working class experience. It resonated with an authenticity never heard before through poetry let alone the mainstream media.

At the same time, politicians like Merkel, Blair, Thatcher, Sarkozy and any one else I forgot to mention have never really understood what a term like multiculturalism can mean. I am not saying they don’t know what they are talking about just that politicians always have a habit of seeing and placing things in such linear ways with the intention of playing on populist sentiments.

At the same time this notion of simplicity is dominant throughout society. The idea that communities based on concepts such as ethnicity and race are always clearly demarcated took shape and form – largely as an extension of the colonial setting and post-colonial contexts. We all believed this hype and somehow started to believe that to be some one you had to be an essentialist at heart.

From my own experiences being Cypriot meant one spoke only Greek had arranged marriages and listened to one type of music blared out repetitiously on a ‘community/private/commercial’ station like London Greek Radio. As a result within each mythical ethnic and racial community across Europe people defined and were defined in many ways against their will. Whereas every day culture, in its lived sense, as a diverse range of factors was much richer, challenging and more than anything aesthetically charged.

The former colonial mind set of divide and rule now found itself moving to inner cities and country suburbs. We differentiated and were differentiated. We were included and excluded, in a societal and community sense. Nationalism, the evil curse that had set us apart and been largely responsible for bringing many people intro conflict became the yard stick for defining multiculturalism.

This is no way is an attack on the concept, as I believe in multiculturalism and try to practice it in teaching and through creative works. But my sense and sensibility is different because to be fully multicultural requires in my mind a rejection of nationalist discourse. That’s where multiculturalism went totally wrong. It became more about dividing people when we should have all been united under one common civil state with equal access for every one. You have your Greek radio station, you have your Turkish one, and this one is the Black station, this one is Asian. And most of these became just as exclusivist as the BBC because they only played music if it fitted often absolutist notions of music. In fact from my experience it was far easier trying to get played on the Beeb by John ‘riP’ Peel or Andy Kershaw than it was on London Greek Radio. In fact it’s the same today. And this should not be taken to mean I am against community based radio stations, far from it, I am for them, but only if they include, unify and reflect diversity.

So when some one says do away with multiculturalism we should be asking what they mean by that? It’s easy stigmatize and blame but much more difficult to substantiate. Merkel’s comments should be analysed in their context. There is a real need to understand them beyond being an exaggerated sound byte. At the same time, trying to gain political capital on this issue is a risky game for the German Chancellor to play. On reflection and as most of us heard it, as a sound byte, Merkel’s statement could have been lifted from any speech by former British PM Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s. What was it called back then, The New Right! Evidently we are witness to a constructed shift to a greater sense of nationalism and nation complex syndrome. Look no further than the fake re-enacted Tea Parties in the USA. It is easy in this kind of climate to be impressed, to be duped, to be fooled and to go along with this new yet old flowing sense of conservatism, but doing so, without any critique, or depth is way to dangerous and politically naive. Merkel’s sound byte may write history in much the same way when Enoch made that famous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, even though this was not her intention and even though Powell never actually said the phrase in the firts place. It’s simple to be simple on these issues and tempting to seek populist remedies but identity as a shared, lived experience is far more complicated and challenging, and the need for a more comprehensive understanding is necessary now more than ever.

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