Monday, 7 January 2013

The Canute Effect: Why radical community development might be fighting a losing battle

I recently attended a discussion and debate hosted by the Faiths and Civil Society Unit attached to Goldsmiths’ College. The discussion was with Ted Cantle, author of the so-called ‘Cantle Report’ on Community Cohesion, written in response to the Bradford Race Riots of 2001. The discussion also included Adam Dinham, and Marjorie Mayor, both Professors at Goldsmiths, Jenny Kartupelis, Director of the East of England Faiths Council and Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters.

The main feature was Ted Cantle’s introduction to his latest concept ‘Interculturalism’ whereby rather than seeking for people of different faiths and races to merely peacefully coexist, we should be seeking for them integrate and understand one another. Cultivating interculturalism, it was explained, was important for a number of reasons. This piece will focus on just one of those reasons. Cantle explained that with the end of the cold war, there was no clear ideological opposition to commercialisation or globalisation, but that recently it had emerged that faith groups were perhaps the last bastion of such opposition. Implicitly one of many uses of interculturalism was to improve public understanding of the way that faith groups resist commercialisation and globalisation.

What came next was fascinating. A number of the speakers that followed Cantle suggested that the problem with creating overarching structural ideas like interculturalism is that they are too top-down and so neglect the various ways in which local people resist commercialisation and globalisation. Such structural approaches ended up forming their own oppressions. So Cantle’s approach was too knee-jerk – too strong-handed.

Conversely, what had struck me was how weak Cantle’s response was. When we consider the unprecedented power of global organisations with greater GDPs than many countries, it seems that perhaps only international political bodies and agreements, let alone national bodies, are capable of holding of the forces of commercialisation and globalisation. And yet without an ideological agenda to match the scale of the problem, it is all too easy for these bodies and agreements to collapse under pressure. Just consider the impossibility of achieving global agreements on corporate taxation. National governments tell us that they simply cannot pressure businesses to work in the interests of the common good lest those businesses move elsewhere. We need a new ideological agenda.

In the face of all this, Cantle’s talk of interculturalism seems far too weak. Of course, what Cantle is really suggesting is a sort of compromise. He recognises that a strong top-down ideology might oppress people just as much as do the forces of commercialisation and globalisation and so instead he offers a concept whereby international bodies and governments can work with local groups to stave off these forces together.

Who needs the king anyhow?

It seems to me that those acting aggressive even towards Cantle’s compromise are suffering from what I am describing as the Canute Effect, but which is in fact its opposite. For rather than seeing the wise king’s demonstration that he could not roll back the tide as being a metaphor for the powerlessness of even he, they have taken it to mean that the king must be worthless and so only the people in their various fragmented bodies can roll back the tide.   

Ted Cantle’s ‘Interculturalism: The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on December 11th

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