I thought it would last my time —

The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far; …

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?…

Philip Larkin, possibly the greatest English-language poet of common feeling of the 20th century, wrote “Going Going” in 1974. In eight stanzas of perfect, plain verse he expresses a view that could have been shared by conservatives and new left alike at the time; that the good life was being consumed by rampant growth, crowding out life.

Unlike earlier poets such as Eliot and Auden, Larkin didn’t take a magisterial view — he expressed the common confusion felt by everyone at a process that appeared autonomous, but universally unwanted. And that confusion is made all the keener by something Larkin later said to an interviewer:

“Oh I adore Mrs Thatcher. At last politics makes sense to me …”

If anyone buried olde Englande, it was of course Margaret T. She enthusiastically approved what Larkin’s next lines describes in horror:

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 cafe;
Their kids are screaming for more —
More houses, more parking allowed,

More caravan sites, more pay.
On the business page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries) …

Larkin was confused about what Thatcher was doing, like many people — Thatcher included. He believed her fantasy vision of “Victorian values” — that once the free market was allowed to rip, an earlier era would pop into being of people who were hardworking and abstemious. What Larkin and Thatcher were horrified by turned out to be the lasting result of her policies — a working class with money in their pockets, the individualism that comes with it, and the lack of interest in prescribed roles that comes with that. The UK is now a lively rambunctious place, compared to, say, France or Sweden. It is also, in comparison to those places, a bit of a craphole, a sump of lager and anger — a shared collective culture worn away, in exchange for the furious world of the raw market.

Yet no matter how obvious this contradiction becomes, conservatives will always trade on the fantasy that you can have both — that the market, globalisation, can be as raw and forceful as you like, without itself damaging shared meaning or some form of consensual existence. When the reality of people’s lives departs from this fantasy to such a degree that it cannot be talked away, a fantasy problem with a fantasy solution must be developed to explain it. In our era that fantasy is expressed by the word “multiculturalism”.

The “multiculturalism” debate will one day be the subject of a thousand dissertations, for any number of reasons — but most particularly because the debate is never about the thing itself. Though it’s true to say there are many meanings to the term “multiculturalism”, as a policy it has a clear enough, highly specific principle — and that is the idea that there are entities called “communities” within Australian society, and that those “communities” are real enough to be represented by peak bodies, who in turn receive substantial state funding, lobbying access, etc.

The idea of internal “communities” implicitly assumes some connections are more meaningful than others — there can be variously a Lebanese-Australian community, a Hindu-Australian community, a Kurdish-Australian community, but not a “left-handed Australian community”.* That seems obvious, but why?

Once people have emigrated, why do we give the common habits of migration everywhere — mutual support, tight-knit groups — the status of a community? Multiculturalism Australian-style — what I’ll call “governmental multiculturalism” — has a paradox at its heart. Designed for a society building itself on waves of migration, and assuming that a new life can be made entire in a new place, it nevertheless recognises that origin and ethnicity has some irreducible claim on our being.

“Governmental multiculturalism” therefore has a terrible secret. Deep down, it can’t believe that it is either good, or even possible to redefine one’s life by the place one is arriving at, rather than the place one has come from. “Governmental multiculturalism” sees the management of identity as one of the key tasks of the state.

This is entirely at variance with earlier philosophies of immigration, in which what was offered by the new world — land, no pogroms, etc, etc — was deemed so defining of itself, so great a liberation that old-world habits were irrelevent. You arrived at Ellis Island, got deloused, had three syllables chopped off your name and went about your way.

The paradox of this old-style “assimilationist” migration was that it created far more separatist multiculturalism than the current process does. In New York in 1920, at the end of the great US immigration period, there were 60 daily newspapers, 15 of them in English. Whole generations went by without learning English. The intra-communal violence was a constant presence, as any memoir of the old “neighbourhoods” relates. The incidents of violence and hostility in Lakemba that Greg Sheridan cites as evidence of the failure of multiculturalism are, of course, simply the tensions that arise when people do not have real control over the immigration process, or over the wider circumstances in which it occurs.

The fantasy of the anti-multiculturalists is that once there was a society in which everyone who arrived assimilated immediately, and then multiculturalist social engineers came along and turned the country into enclaves. Quite aside from the real conflict that that fantasy ignores — anti-Chinese feeling, anti-Semitism, anti-Italian violence was all a part of pre-WWII Australia — it fails to acknowledge that a change in quantity created a change in the way things occurred.

The idea that “governmental multiculturalism” was an end for which mass immigration was the means is the implicit argument of right-wing anti-multiculturalists — and the reverse of the truth. “Governmental multiculturalism” was a process of managing difference, through the canonising of “communities”, and the idea of reciprocal respect. The end was large-scale immigration, agreed on by both political parties, against the wishes of a great many of their supporters.

To a man and woman, the right-wing “anti-multiculturalists” are pro-globalisation, and the flexible labour market the policy was designed to manage. They want east Asian immigrants for business purposes, they want Indian students, and they want the freedom to take people from wherever as needed. They know that a great deal of their supporters want practically no immigration whatsoever, and that the very thing that separates the public from the right-wing elite who present themselves as their representatives is whether you control the labour flow, or are part of it.

The one thing the Australian public will never be presented with is the real choice — do you want genuine community control over immigration policy, levels and source (a process that would generate an answer liked by neither left nor right)? If you want to limit the number and source of immigration, will you accept the possible loss of revenue, business, trade that arises from it? If additional training is needed to fill skills gaps, would you pay higher taxes? And so on.

Sheridan’s piece on an alleged extremist Muslim culture in Lakemba was spectacularly cowardly and delusional in many ways — not least his damnation of Lakemba because that was where “the retaliators against the Cronulla riots came from”. Apparently, the Cronulla rioters themselves came from outer space, because there would appear to be no white violence in Australia.

And in denouncing Muslim schools he is very keen not to look at the nexus of such “community” power — non-selective immigration, plus section 112 of the constitution (freedom of religion) plus state-aid to religious schools with arm’s length supervision of their curricula.

Who gave religious schools such power? Why it was Bob Santamaria, Sheridan’s old mentor, who ensured that the imams can run their schools as they see fit, just as the Christian Brothers did generations ago — though of course any child at a Muslim school is at much less risk of serious s-xual abuse than is a child at a Catholic school run by a male religious order. Sheridan’s mea culpa piece on multiculturalism is really an argument for selective immigration, by culture and race — he just doesn’t have the courage to say so.

The dirty secret is that most Australians — though they troop out and dutifully vote for one of two major parties every three years on pain of legal sanction — have a politics that does not map onto either party, and has elements of left and right: they favour far more publicly owned enterprises than either party will offer, but many also want an immigration policy that veers towards nativism (even among non-Anglo-Celtics). They favour protectionism, but they also want the consumer lifestyle a globalised economy offers.

Neither party can afford to put these questions on the table — because they would involve such a recombination of politics that the stability of each party would be threatened. So instead they offer myths that purport to offer Australians the best of both worlds. For the Coalition, it’s the serpent of multiculturalism; for Labor, it’s increasingly “extremism”, which now means ideas, or argument, of any sort, from either left or right, or any sort of post-medulla reflection on one’s own condition or challenges.

This stuff will go around and around, until someone, in either major party, has the courage to break from it, and start putting the questions more starkly, as choices between irreconcilable options. Everyone is frustrated and bored sh-tless by these non-debates that never mean what they say, and that never address the issues they purport to, but both parties are happy to circle the drain together, in the last gurgling of Howard’s culture wars, and with the same lament as Larkin:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Five years later, Larkin would vote for Thatcher — and she would take “England” further into the EU (EC as was), dissolving the country more dramatically than any PM before or since. The fantasies of her supporters would remain undimmed, as will those of the Bolts, Sheridans and Gillards. When it all comes apart, there won’t be much that anyone recognises.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey