The Coming of Multiculturalism

on August 7, 2010

As we plow our way through this hot and dismal summer of 2010, the democracy vision is collapsing about our ears.

It’s not so much that we’ve ceased to believe in the core values of democracy as that we’ve grown disillusioned with the ability of our supposedly democratic system to uphold those values. By almost any measure, we Americans are less free and equal now than we were a generation ago, and have far less control over our own government.

At the same time, our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have undercut our faith that Western-style democracy is a universal human norm which can be exported as easily as blue jeans and Coca-Cola. Perhaps the clearest lesson of those two misbegotten wars is that a system of free elections and majority rule — though adequate to resolve the minor differences of opinion that arise in a relatively homogeneous society — only creates turmoil when applied to the power struggles of well-organized and heavily armed minorities.

Even worse, that same kind of turmoil could lie in the future of the United States — where our increasing cultural diversity is already giving rise to seemingly irreconcilable tensions — unless we can develop a more flexible way of operating.

But that’s only one of several structural problem with our current system. Another arises from the fact that the democracy vision still retains many of the hierarchical attitudes that it was originally designed to eliminate. Power is exerted in a top-down manner, and elected officials readily become arrogant, high-handed, and detached from the people they claim to represent.

Neither liberal tinkering with the mechanisms of government nor conservative attempts to reduce the size and complexity of government have proved to be an effective response to this problem. Our complex modern world demands a complex and far-reaching system of government — but that government needs to be both more horizontal and more open to feedback than has ever been the case.

And a third problem with democracy is that it has never been applicable on the international level. International affairs continue to be managed through a mixture of improvisation and raw force, with occasional support from well-intentioned but unrepresentative bodies like the United Nations.

For all those reasons, a successor to the democracy vision is desperately needed. And that successor, which has already been developing for over 70 years, is what I have been calling the multiculturalism vision.

Nothing is going to change overnight, of course. If the example of the 1960’s is any guide, I suspect that we’re heading into a period when people will simply wash their hands of the crisis of democracy, plunging instead into a holism-based counterculture and pursuing fixes to our urgent environmental problems.

Meanwhile multiculturalism will be developing in the background — as holism was during the 60’s — working out the moral arguments and practical methodologies for organizing a diverse society in an even more diverse world.

At the present moment, multiculturalism is as fragmented as holism was around 1964-65, when it would not have been readily apparent to anyone that the nascent environmental movement shared its alternative, non-mechanistic view of the world with surf music and The Lord of the Rings.

In much the same way, the politically contentious aspects of multiculturalism are only the most visible component of a larger vision — which may well demand a more inclusive name as its full scope becomes apparent over the next several years. Until then, perhaps the best place to look for clues as to the nature of that larger vision is not in the present moment but back where it all started, in the 1930’s.

I’ve written previously about two factors which led up to the sudden crystallization of the multiculturalism vision in 1936-39. The first was a dawning recognition that democracy had a nasty habit of riding roughshod over the rights of minorities — a point that had been driven home at the very peak of the democracy-based counterculture of the 1910’s, both by a wave of lynchings and by the abuses of the Sedition Act during World War I.

The second factor was the influence of the emerging chaos vision, which in the 1920’s and early 30’s sparked a realization that the homogenizing tendencies of democracy might have a negative effect on individuality and self-expression.

But by the late 30’s, there was also a third factor in play. That was the holism vision, which was in the process of developing its own central concepts, especially the idea of an ecosystem as a community of varied species operating in harmony. Translated from nature to human societies, this model suggested that it should be possible for unique individuals and minority groups to join together in communities which neither suppressed their uniqueness nor demonized their differences.

Three examples from 1936-39 can serve to give a sense of this new dynamic.

One person who got the message early was the prototypical community organizer, Saul Alinsky. In 1936, he left his job as a criminologist with the state of Illinois to found a citizen reform group which brought together a number of previously antagonistic ethnic minorities to work at arresting the deterioration of their Chicago neighborhood.

But there were also more middle-class expressions of that same ideal of community, often displaying clear affinities with the concepts of early 20th century proto-holists like Patrick Geddes. In 1939, for example, Alexei’s parents were among a group of professors at Michigan State College who, after having formed a food co-op, purchased forty acres of land and began an ultimately unsuccessful project to build a complex of seven houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — each with a unique floor plan — surrounding a small communal farm.

And these ideals also appear in science fiction stories of the period, such as John W. Campbell’s influential novelet “Forgetfulness” (1937), in which humans of the remote future have abandoned their towering machine cities to live in clusters of small domes nestled among the trees and cultivate the powers of the mind.

Taken together, these three examples suggest that what underlies the multiculturalism vision is not merely a concern for social justice, but a radically new image of the structure of society. I suggested previously that this change can be seen as a shift from vertical to horizontal — but it’s more complicated than that.

Every socially-based vision appears to be founded upon an abstract, easily visualized model of social relationships. In the aristocracy vision of classical and medieval times, for example, this was a simple two-tier model, with the aristocrats on the top and the peasants on the bottom

In the more elaborate hierarchy vision, which was dominant from about 1500 until the early 1800’s, the basic division between rulers and ruled was retained, but society was visualized in the form of a pyramid, with the king at the pinnacle and his divinely-ordained authority flowing downward through a branching structure of officials and institutions.

When the democracy vision came along, it rejected the top-down model of god-given authority that had been common to both aristocracy and hierarchy. But instead of the pyramid image being junked completely, it was merely reinterpreted. Authority was now seen as arising from the people and flowing upward — but power continued to flow from the top down.

As a result, even in a democracy, the officials at the top still wield almost unlimited coercive power, while the individual citizens remain weak and isolated. This limitation may be the greatest weakness of the democracy vision.

One consequence of the “inverted” pyramid as an image of society is a lack of autonomous non-governmental institutions through which individuals can act in concert with one another to formulate and carry out policies.

Instead, we have a variety of pressure groups — labor unions, protest movements, single-issue organizations — which have no real power of their own but operate by attempting to muscle the formal institutions of government into meeting their demands.

Because they depend on raw political clout, these groups even at best provide little room for subtlety or flexibility. At worst, they tend to replicate the inverted pyramid model of government, becoming vehicles for self-aggrandizing leaders who make important decisions in company with other top-level leaders to the exclusion of the rank-and-file.

What’s more, in recent years these political groups have become increasingly unable to compete with the influence of powerful corporations — which themselves follow an even more extreme form of pyramidal organization, being controlled by powerful executives who are unaccountable to either employees or shareholders.

In sharp contrast to all of this, the multiculturalism vision is built on a model which has no up-down axis of any kind but is radial in nature — like an extended version of that unfulfilled Wright project of my in-laws. It can perhaps best be visualized as a relationship map consisting of a set of colored circles of various sizes connected by criss-crossing lines.

In a system oriented towards that model, social groups and individuals are free to form a flexible and ever-evolving web of relationships with one another, unconstrained by any kind of central authority.

The internet is the most successful contemporary example of this kind of radial structure, and as multiculturalism continues to emerge, the example of the net will inevitably be drawn upon for new social and governmental institutions.

But the transition will not be easy or painless. Some of the more flexible institutions of democracy will make the leap to a new way of operating, but others will dig in and grow ever more repressive as the democracy vision itself collapses. The resulting conflict will be one of the defining features of the next decade — and will not be fully settled for several decades more.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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