By David Rieff (Harper’s Magazine, Aug 1993)

The debate over multiculturalism continues, seemingly unstanchable, with Gerald Graff’s Beyond the Culture Wars, Charles Sykes’s A Nation of Victims, and, most valuably, Robert Hughes’s Culture of Complain adding, respectively, to the left, right, and center of an already crowded shelf: Eagleton, Gates, Bromwich, Schlesinger, Paglia, Lehman, D’Souza, Kimball, Bloom, and more. The ongoing arguments about race and gender, the canon and deconstruction, values, victims, and sensitivities represent a growth industry, unlikely to face a downturn anytime soon. Campus life would be emptied of excitement, if not of subject matter, without these debates. For, it seems, there is nothing more bracing, more thrilling, more bedazzling to an academic intellectual–be she or he a neo-conservative, a feminist, or a new historicist–than a struggle that seems to exist, at present anyway, almost purely in the realm of ideas. Here, for once, there,is no competition from the “real world.” Ideas clang against one another like unbuffered neurons, and when the din momentarily subsides, those who deploy them have risked nothing, at least if they’ve achieved tenure.

But what if multiculturalism were not simply an idea, sprung from the minds of intellectuals, but rather a byproduct or corollary of a specific material integument? If intellectual history teaches anything, it is that few theoretical debates, from Aquinas to Foucault, have been simply theoretical. Even allowing for its heightened esotericism, there is no reason to suppose that the advent of multiculturalism is any more separable from the society in which it has arisen than, say, the philosophy of the Enlightenment was from the rapidly secularizing and industrializing world that gave birth to it. The shards of many systems of belief litter every era; it is into an era’s deeper structures that we have to look in order to explain why one set of ideas and mores triumphs and another fades.


Intellectuals, of course, beg to differ, and the attraction of the multiculturalist debate for both the Right and the Left is the way it has been framed–the assumption that what arguments about the canon prove is that here (yes!) we matter. In this legend it is a good thing that intellectuals Right to Left are able to agree that Marxism along with Soviet state Communism died in 1989. For an application if not of the methods of “vulgar” Marxism then at least of those (related) models of understanding that are to be found on the business pages of the better newspapers might produce a rather more grounded sense of what we are talking about when we talk and talk about multiculturalism. Despite the denials and mystifications of the intelligentsia, multiculturalism is a phenomenon with a silent partner: the broad and radical change now taking place within world capitalism.

Self-evidently, it is in the interest of all those who labor in the culture industry to insist that ideas either count more than economic structures or, indeed, are the agents out of which these structures are fashioned. But it is a very American habit as well. There is a sense in which the intellectuals now immersed in the multiculturalism debate are actually returning to the country’s oldest spiritual assumptions embodied by those first cultural critics, the preachers and ministers. It was, after all, the Protestant contention that words really were things: millennial expectations might just bring on the millennium. This is the basis for the assertion of multiculturalism: words define reality. And the neo-conservatives accede to the point, which is why they are so fierce in their opposition to what is going on on campuses these days.

It is an astonishing situation. On the eve of this, the real, not the figurative, millennium, with the Soviet Union a receding memory and the Cuban revolution, that last repository of political romanticism, in its end game, we find the seemingly radical-minded taking refuge not simply in the English and anthropology depart meets but in a deep, pre-Marxist current of interpretation. Behind them the conservatives come capering. And in this rarefied stratosphere the multiculturalist debate, which is without question the central intellectual argument of our moment, is joined–a folie a deux in which one side could not survive without the other.

Those offering seminars in, say, queer studies together with those lambasting such programs in the pages of The New Criterion both overstate and misstate their cases. All insist that the advent of multiculturalism is a critical watershed in American history. And all agree that the debate is a zero-sum game in which either the status quo (call it Western civilization or white male hegemony, according to your taste) will be maintained or some radical new understanding (describe it as justice or barbarism, as you will) will be established. What faith in the power of ideas! As if ours were a culture in which historical memory stretched all the way back to Periclean Athens or the marauding Hyksos. That academics can find crucial the question, posed by Martin Bernal in his book Black Athena, of whether the roots of classical Greek culture were or were not African is almost touching in a society in which most high-school students could not be counted on to name the principal belligerents of World War II.

Reality is elsewhere. For better or worse (probably both), ours is a culture of consumerism and spectacle, of things and not ideas. Most Americans understand this on some level and are comfortable, even happy, with the fact. Which makes the assumptions embraced by our intellectuals debating multiculturalism–particularly the assumption that words define reality–all the stranger. In a country of Kmarts and “material girls,” what is all this anguish about the canon?

Can conservatives really believe that a few curriculum changes will undermine a system that could not be weakened by the Comintern or the Soviet Black Sea fleet? As for our campus revolutionaries: How can they insist on the emancipatory power of multiculturalism when during the 1980s–the very decade in which multiculturalism became the dominant intellectual current in elite sectors of academia–the conditions of the poor, of working-class women, and of America’s non-white citizens deteriorated dramatically? If multiculturalism is what its proponents claim it is, why has its moment seen the richest 1 percent of Americans grow richer and the deunionization of the American workplace? There is something wrong with this picture.

This is not to say that multiculturalism is unimportant; it is enormously important, just not in the way either its champions or its detractors suppose. Indeed, the curiousness of the situation is that both sides have misconstrued the power of multiculturalism in precisely the same way: as a threat to the capitalist system. In reality, it is nothing of the sort, as becomes clear the moment one stops looking at multiculturalism in ideologized, millenarian terms–as if it were some kind of pure, homegrown manifestation of the Zeitgeist–and instead sees it as perhaps the most salient cultural epiphenomenon of an increasingly globalized capitalist system.

If multiculturalism is understood in such a way, some rather puzzling aspects of the debate begin to make sense. Take the readiness of administrators of Ivy League colleges to accept what is, by any standard, a sweeping overhaul of history, philosophy, and literature curricula. Conservatives tend to deploy their Spengler and attribute this to a failure of will, or to the success of the campus radicals from the Sixties in burrowing their way into academia and imposing their agenda. While it would be naive to imagine that there are not some academics who think they have “infiltrated the Establishment” (and who have retroactively persuaded themselves that that is what they had been doing from graduate school on), one would be credulous indeed to think that the men and women who run universities–many of which are, for all intents and purposes, enormous companies complete with vast real-estate holdings and stock portfolios–do not know a real threat when they see one. The equanimity these university bureaucrats display in the face of multiculturalism is not some cowardly attempt to avoid student demonstrations–let students call for universities to divest themselves of all stocks and bonds rather than of interests in companies doing business in South Africa and they will discover that their deans and trustees are not nearly as conciliatory as they may have seemed. Nor are trustees and provosts reluctantly accepting some radical agenda they lack the will, or ideas, to thwart.

Behind the embrace of multiculturalism among college administrators is the belief that there is no incongruity in simultaneously subsidizing an English department made up of feminists and poststructuralists, a physics department that is up to its eye balls in research grants from the federal government, and an enormous (and enormously profitable) quasi-professional sports establishment, complete with athletes who are students only in the technical sense. Once administrators have decided that the university will be a kind of department store, then each new course offering becomes little more than another product line, and department chairpersons begin to act like the store’s buyers. Why should it matter to the provost if his professional advisers think the institution should start recruiting Chicano-studies experts and let Chaucerians gradually go out of stock? People make decisions like this in corporate America every day; indeed, these are the decisions CEOs are paid to make. There are cultural consequences, to be sure, but the redicals on campus are no more dangerous than a display of Mao caps and jackets would be at Bloomingdale’s.

Besides, there is a caustic sense in which multiculturalism is only the most recent manifestation of the diversification and specialization of academic work. About this, administrators and radical professors are of one mind. As a firmly multiculturalist pamphlet, “Speaking for the Humanities,” put the matter a few years ago, “Professionalization makes thought possible.” And since the multiculturalists are firmly convinced that what they are doing is the virtuous empowerment of all the marginalized constituencies in the United States, or some such, they can believe in the syllogism implicit in their enterprise just as easily–namely, that professionalization makes virtue possible.

Virtue, sure … okay. But, more important to global economics, multiculturalism helps to legitimize whole new areas of consumerism. Frankly, culture was always a problem for the marketplace. For one thing, despite the fact that one art form, painting, became extremely valuable as a commodity over the course of the twentieth century, there was always a latent antagonism between an economic system ever more dependent on maximizing growth through increased consumption and a high culture in which the old, the long-cherished, and the irreplaceable were held in higher esteem than the new. Most of the great examples of high culture are, quite literally, artifacts. They can be packaged profitably (the success of the modern museum testifies to this), but they cannot be manufactured to meet rising demand.

Multiculturalism is one way of changing all this. One of its central tenets is to undermine the idea of the masterpiece–of the criterion of quality–as anti-democratic. For the multiculturalist, notions such as “quality” are tainted; their real purpose is to preserve the privileges of a dominant group: in the American context, dead white males. And the multiculturalists are in command–sort of–of a couple of truths: Western culture has excluded many things; art in the traditional sense is anti egalitarian, in that it demands that people judge a given work to be not only subjectively but objectively superior to another. It is the innately hierarchical nature of art, or even, as they used to say, art appreciation, that sets the multiculturalists’ teeth on edge–they are suspicious of hierarchy. For, as they rightly surmise, if there is hierarchy how can there be liberation?

So far, so good, radically speaking. The mistake the multiculturalists make is in imagining that their efforts are in some crucial way bound to undermine the fundamental interests of capitalism. The contrary is surely closer to the truth: the multiculturalist mode is what any smart businessman would prefer. For if all art is,deemed as good as all other art, and, for that matter, if the point of art is not greatness but the production of works of art that reflect the culture and aspirations of various ethnic, sexual, or racial subgroups within a society, then one is in a position to increase supply almost at will in order to meet increases in demand.

Instead of being a rare and costly thing, culture becomes simultaneously a product, like a car–something that can be made new every few years–and an abundant resource, like, well, people. The result is-that the consumption of culture can increasingly come to resemble the consumption of goods. After all, just as one cannot say that a preference for Pepsi is superior to a preference for Dr Pepper, what is euphemistically known as “cultural pluralism” permits a similar abdication of judgment in matters of artistic taste. The rules of the market are soon in full control. If students want to read Alice Walker in a literature class instead of the Iliad, fine. The publishing industry certainly has no qualms. It knows it can market Walker more savvily than it can market the Greeks. At any rate, it is not a case, as conservatives allege, of the student as barbarian. Rather, it is a case of the student as customer. And in our society–and, increasingly, most societies–the customer is always right.

Universities do not exist in a vacuum. In a society like our own, where the images of popular culture are far more widespread and easily grasped than those of high art, it should come as no surprise that these images have made their way onto the campus as well. To be sure, the academic study of a pop star like Madonna comes kitted out in the arcane rhetoric of academic feminism and under the rubric of some new university subspecialty like “cultural studies.” But the underlying reality is that the professors who teach this stuff, however much they have convinced themselves that they are using popular culture for their own emancipatory ends, have fallen just as completely under its sway as any other citizen. Camille Paglia is, in this instance anyway, more honest than most when she claims to be like Madonna. She’s a professor who would prefer to be a pop star. Her colleagues like to imagine that they are revolutionaries who can harness the energies of pop music to their own political ends, but deep down they want to be stars, too.

For all their writings on power, hegemony, and oppression, the campus multiculturalists seem indifferent to the question of where they fit into the material scheme of things. Perhaps it’s tenure, with its way of shielding the senior staff from the rigors of someone else’s bottom-line thinking. Working for an institution in which neither pay nor promotion is connected to performance, job security is guaranteed (after tenure is attained), and pension arrangements are probably the finest in any industry in the country–no wonder a poststructuralist can easily believe that words are deeds. She or he can afford to. Still, this unwillingness to face up to the connections between multiculturalism and the liberal capitalist world order is strange, considering that so much of the multiculturalists’ intellectual effort has concerned language. It is precisely in words that the most obvious similarities between the capitalist and the multiculturalist enterprises are readily observable.

Are the multiculturalists truly unaware of how closely their treasured catchphrases–“cultural diversity,” “difference,” the need to “do away with boundaries”–resemble the stock phrases of the modern corporation: “product diversification,” “the global marketplace,” and “the boundary-less company”? In a 1990 issue of the new historicists’ most important journal, Representations, the University of Toronto law professor Jennifer Nedelsky wrote of the need to do away with the idea of boundaries, an idea that implies “a separation and opposition that does not capture the complex, fertile, and tension-laden interconnection between self and others.” This is rather typical multicultural theorizing. But how different is it from Larry Hirschhorn and Thomas Gilmore alluding matter-of-factly last year in the Harvard Business Review to the tendency among corporations to replace traditional “vertical hierarchies with horizontal networks”? For many executives, they wrote, “a single metaphor has come to embody this managerial challenge and to capture the kind of organization they want to create: the `corporation without boundaries.'” Now, why is Nedelsky radical? Or, perhaps, why aren’t Hirschhorn and Gilmore?

Obviously, the two pieces had quite different purposes. Nedelsky, a feminist legal scholar, was making a critique of property, whereas Hirschhorn and Gilmore were attempting to describe the problems and potential of this new style of corporate thinking. Nonetheless, the rhetorical similarity between the two visions is astonishing. The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way they view the world. Far from standing in implacable intellectual opposition to each other, both groups see the same racial and gender transformations in the demographic makeup of the United States and of the American work force. That non-white workers will be the key to the twenty-first-century American labor market is a given in most sensible long-range corporate plans. Like the multiculturalists, the business elite is similarly aware of the crucial role of women, and of the need to change the workplace in such a way as to make it more hospitable to them. More generally, both CEOs and Ph.D.’s insist more and more that it is no longer possible to speak in terms of the United States as some fixed, sovereign entity. The world has moved on; capital and labor are mobile; and with each passing year national borders, not to speak of national identities, become less relevant either to consciousness or to commerce.

As usual, it is the business community rather than the multiculturalists who have taken the most radical steps toward acknowledging these new conditions. Surely the academic emphasis on the need to stop dividing the world according to antinomies of self and other is far less daring, for all its millenarian posturing, than the decision of Ted Turner some years ago to ban the use of the word “foreign” from the broadcasts of his Cable,News Network. Businessmen certainly need no lessons from academia on the pitfalls of nationalist feeling. In Hoover’s Handbook of World Business 1993, a reference guide to the 191 most important non U.S. companies, “foreign production” is described as a “quaint term … used for the Toyota plant down the street, or Sony’s ownership of Columbia Pictures.” “At the cash register,” the management consultant Kenichi Ohmae goes on to say, “you don’t care about country of origin or country of residence.”

And, of course, the more astute capitalists and careful observers of them understand perfectly well what the consequences of an assertion like Ohmae’s really are. As the management guru Peter Drucker put it in a recent interview, “Most of what we assume axiomatically no longer kits our reality, lending a surreal air to our work and lives. The world seems to have dissolved into a series of media events that appear either bigger than reality or totally formless.” These are sentences that, without attribution, a reader might well assume were the product of a radical culture critic, some neo-Marcusian, or else a colleague of Professor Nedelsky’s. Instead, of course, they represent the thinking of a man who believes himself to be formulating the rules for the success of capitalism in the twenty-first century.

It is probably true that the phrase “think globally, act locally” began as a slogan of the environmental move meet. But its adoption, by companies ranging from Time Warner to AT&T, should tell us something about what the real ideological applications are. The products based on a version of this new global paradigm are already being introduced. AT&T recently unveiled a foreign-language phone service within the United States that enables visitors to prepay for international news, weather reports, and currency exchange information in a number of languages.

The multiculturalists may pride themselves on posing a fundamental threat to what Professor Henry Giroux has called “the hegemonic notion that Eurocentric culture is superior to other cultures and traditions by virtue of its canonical status as a universal measure of Western civilization.” But the reality is that no serious player in the business world has anything but the most vestigial or sentimental interest in Western civilization, as it is roughly understood by campus radicals and conservatives alike. What each side’s argument fails to take into account is that capitalism is the bull in the china shop of human history. The market economy, now global in scale, is by its nature corrosive of all established hierarchies and certainties, up to arid including–in a world now more than 50 percent non-white and in which the most promising markets lie in Asia–white racism and male domination. If any group has embraced the rallying cry “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go,” it is the world business elite. One can go further. Just as the late Irving Howe, taxed by a radical heckler during the late Sixties, could reply confidently that he would be a radical long after his interlocutor had become a dentist, the chances are that the business world will be multicultural long after some new fad has gripped academia. Because, for businessmen, something more is at stake than ideas. Eurocentrism makes no economic sense in a world where, within twenty-five years, the combined gross national product of East Asia will likely be larger than Europe’s and twice that of the United States. In such a world, the notion of the primacy of Western culture will only be an impediment to the chief goal of every company: the maximization of profits.

Obviously, business leaders have become multiculturalists out of these perceived necessities: they are hardly motivated by the altruism or righteous anger that informs the views of the academic multiculturalists. But this does not make their commitment to multiculturalism any less complete. What the campus radicals–and the neo-cons too, for that matter–have failed to recognize is how cold a place the market is, and how radically it has changed over the past thirty years. In the days when a globalized economy largely meant an economy of plantations, as it did in the nineteenth century, or later, when companies set up subsidiaries abroad but had no interest in globally integrating their operations, identifying with the nation-state made sense most of the time–the consumers were Western in taste and locale. But now there are few industries in which long term planning on the basis of national identity makes sense. Indeed, only multinational, which is to say multicultural, approaches seem sound.

There is no business establishment anymore that is committed, in Giroux’s simpleminded phrase, to hegemonic notions of European superiority. In an era when the greatest single financial power to have emerged on the globe is non-white Japan, such a stance would be folly. Our corporate masters are reaming to eat sushi like everyone else. This does not mean that Tokyo will replace New York as the center of capitalism in the same way that New York replaced London or London replaced Amsterdam. To the contrary, the model of center versus periphery becomes ever more outmoded in our multicentered world economy. It was valid only as long as the difficulty in communications made one single center necessary. Now, with fiber optics and the rest of the communications revolution, it is hard to say just where the center is anymore, or if we even need one. Moreover, the increasing interpenetration of various national capitalisms, and the fact that it is perfectly possible now to have a multinational with headquarters in San Francisco, strategic partners in Dortmund and Osaka, factories in Baja California Norte and the Dominican Republic, and a back office in the west of Ireland, means that all notions of definable borders give way to notions of flow and reciprocity.

At the same time, the decline of the good-paying working-class job and the consequent estrangement of the rich from the poor, after a century of the two groups having grown culturally (because economically) closer together, means that it is just as likely that, say, a financial broker from New York would feel more commonality with a broker from Tokyo than he or she would with someone from Harlem or the South Bronx. The collapse of borders, far from being the liberating event that the academic multiculturalists have envisaged, has brought about the multiculturalism of the market, not the multiculturalism of justice. And if there is a mystery about all this, it is that so many people could have expected a different, more “enlightened” outcome.

There is no question that the kinds of change multiculturalism entails will transform the relationships between whites and non-whites and between men and women. The point, however, is that such changes, far from being a threat to capitalism, are, given the demographic facts of our age, an economic necessity. To insist upon this point is neither to underestimate the effects this renegotiation of so many of our basic assumptions will have nor to dismiss the benefits that will accrue to many women and non-whites able to participate fully in the world capitalist economy in positions of power for the first time. In this, the rise of multicultural capitalism is comparable to abolitionism: the slaves were freed when the abolitionists could count on the support of economic interests in the North, for which an economy based on slavery was an impediment to the future economic well-being of the United States. It was industrial civilization, not justice, that the hardheaded plutocrats of New York and New England were interested in furthering. And until they were convinced that their own interests were at stake, all the oratory of Frederick Douglass, Henry Ward Beecher, and their colleagues was for naught. After they were convinced, this same oratory seemed to sweep all before it. Marxists used to call such interactions “base” and “superstructure,” but like so much of what is valuable about Marxist theory, this idea–which is sardonic and clear-eyed, not sentimental and uplifting–seems out of favor with academic multiculturalists, for all their professed respect for the Marxist “tradition.”

But then campus radicalism is awfully selective anyway. Its talk is long on race and gender, short on class. And that is probably just as well, since the market economy, ready though it may be to admit blacks and women, is hardly likely to sign its own death warrant by accepting a radical revision of class relations. Were such proposals to be seriously advanced, on campus or elsewhere, the multiculturalists would soon discover just how tough capitalism can be when its real, as opposed to its sentimental, interests are threatened. But that is the beauty of the academic multiculturalists’ approach: they can appear to be radical and can feel themselves to be radical, but they can advance a program that, stripped of its adorning rhetoric, is little more than a demand for inclusion, for a piece of the capitalist pie. And capitalism is not only increasingly willing but increasingly eager to let in women, blacks, gays, and any other marginalized group. Eureka, more customers!

One can respect the multiculturalist project from a capitalist or a reformist point of view, just as long as one does not confuse it with the attack on power that so many of its proponents claim it to be. Were women and blacks represented proportionately at the top of corporate America, this would not change the nature of class distinctions one iota–which is precisely why capitalism is in no sense seriously opposed to the multicultural “project” in American cultural and intellectual life. Conservatives who imagine otherwise should spend less time reading Commentary and the rest and more time reading Barron’s and Fortune. It was, in fact, a 1991 cover story in Fortune that summed up what is really going on in American business these days. The featured story was called “Gay in Corporate America: What It’s Like and How Business Attitudes Are Changing,” and was a sympathetic account of gay executives. Another story in the same issue, less glossily packaged, told the other side of capitalism’s new politics of inclusion. It was titled “The Battle over Benefits,” and concerned the need to cut back, in the name of corporate health and wealth, the medical and pension plans of employees (You won’t find that article on any reading list in “cultural studies.”)

In the last twenty-five years, it has become possible to discover just how supple capitalism has become) Everything is commodifiable, even Afrocentrism (there is money being made on all the Kinte cloths and Kwanza paraphernalia that are the rage among certain segments of the black community, and not only the black community), bilingualism (currently the hottest growth market in publishing is Spanish-language children’s books), and the other “multicultural” tendencies in American society that conservatives fear so desperately. It turns out that when Hollywood signs up black directors such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, or Mario Van Peebles to make movies, those movies make money–not as much as exploitation films like Terminator 3, perhaps, but money just the same. Meanwhile, economic relationships go on as they have always gone on. And if the inclusion of new voices and constituencies signifies anything, it is not that capitalism is coming to an end but that it is getting its (latest) second wind.

This is not to say that multiculturalism is to blame for these economic trends. That would be as gross a mystification as the idea that its teachings will transform the world for the better. But there is less to the doctrine than meets the eye. Multiculturalism is many things, but the one thing it is not is the idea that will save us or bring justice to the world. Such hopes can only confuse in this time when, far from standing on the point of its redemption, our society–this multicultural, global, increasingly nonwhite and non-European society–is steadily becoming less democratic, less just, and more impoverished.



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