Neither Multiculturalism, nor Nationalism

11. September, 2008

Foto: Kappa Wayfarer

In a context of growing social inequalities, there are more urgent and important tasks than trying to preserve or enforce national or minority culture.

Since the end of the 80’s, contemporary political theory has been experiencing a quarrel between two theoretical streams: multiculturalism and nationalism. The conflict has not been purely speculative. Recent debates in Canada, France or Latvia about multiculturalism, minorities, religious practices, and national identity have given flesh to the dispute.Broadly, multiculturalist and nationalist discourses can be summarized as follows. For multiculturalists, the cultural diversity of a society should be recognized and translated into differentiated policies tuned to different groups. At the extreme, those accommodations can take the form of differentiated rights (linguistic, special representation, territory or self-government). According to nationalists, the cohesion of society depends on the sharing of a common culture, not of any kind, a national one, which serves to sustain solidarity and a sense of communal fate. If multiculturalists claim for the necessity of protecting or/and recognizing the diversity of cultural memberships within a same country, nationalists insist on giving national membership a moral and political primacy. Stated simply, multiculturalists reproach nationalists for trying to reduce the cultural diversity by forcing minorities to integrate into the mainstream national culture, whereas nationalists stress the risk of social disintegration implied by the recognition of cultural diversity.

This article has two objectives. First, it aims to show that multiculturalists and nationalists share the same rationale – the importance of cultural membership for the elaboration of public policies –, even if they do not apply it at the same level (national or sub-national). The very problem with such a rationale is that it fails to prove that cultural membership could be a legitimate concern and inspiring public policies. Moreover, multiculturalists and nationalists are objective allies in the sense that they are interpreting numerous issues in cultural terms.Second, the unconvincing nature of cultural arguments tends to form a compelling case in favor of neutral (or culturally light) public policies. In spite of the emotional and symbolical weight that the notion of culture conveys, the mobilization of nationalist/multiculturalist rhetoric has diverted politicians and electors, in many liberal democracies, from more important issues: socioeconomic inequalities and injustices.

Two Objective Allies

Multiculturalism and nationalism are based upon an identical rationale: culture, or cultural belonging, is a legitimate basis to design public policies and, moreover, is one of the premium objectives of a polity, if not the main. It is so due to the value of culture. People are apprehended through their membership or certain characteristics that they were supposed to possess. Furthermore, those characteristics are considered essential for setting up policies. In one case – multiculturalism – the goal is mainly preservative, in the way that the aim is to preserve cultural diversity as such or a part of it (the minority culture at stake). In the other case, the goal is mainly constructive, in the way that the cultural diversity is the basic material on which it is necessary to apply a cultural blueprint in order to maintain a national identity. To some extent, multicultural policies are policies of cultural preserving, while nationalist ones are policies of cultural designing.

Once summarized, the logic of the argument is to consider that: (1) members (X) of a cultural group (G) – whatever is national or sub-national – share some cultural traits (T); (2) T determine what X are and how they act; (3) T constitute the legitimate basis for the action of institutions. In short, characterizations about what people are lead to postulates on the nature of their interests. From such postulates nationalists and multiculturalists derive moral imperatives about the right attitude that institutions should adopt vis-à-vis them. It is on this very rationale that both multiculturalism and nationalism agree, even if the dispute is about what types of G form a legitimate basis for the design of public policies.

If we put aside the holistic interpretation which conducts to estimate that cultures (national or minority) should be preserved and promoted as such, i.e. as self-sufficient entities, the value of culture can only be founded on the interests of its bearers, apprehended as a whole or individually. Then, the identical structure of the argument for nationalism and multiculturalism is even more obvious.

1. Culture is essential in people’s lives,
2. Institutions should be concerned with what is essential in people’s lives,
3. Institutions should be concerned by cultural membership and, then, should design policies on this basis.

Again, nationalists judge that national culture is essential for diverse reasons. It is the very ground why strong policies of nation building should be pursued. Because individuals have a vital interest in evolving in a lively culture, access to it must be secured and its features promoted. Multiculturalists use the same argument to express the worry that forcing minority members to assimilate in a mainstream culture leads to them having to give up what is essential for them: their minority culture.

Among the difficulties generated by this argument, two are worthwhile to note. The first is related to 1. It can be summarized like this: in a culture, what may be considered as essential for individuals? Even if it is difficult to deny that something like a ‘culture’ is important, or even ‘essential’, for individuals, it is another issue to determine what is precisely essential for them. This importance differs in terms of extension or interpretation. On the one hand, people do not hold the same ‘cultural’ values, traits or characteristics to be essential. On the other hand, even if individuals agree on certain ‘cultural’ features, they often diverge on the understanding of such elements. To sum up, it is far from certain that a ‘culture’ refers to an identical content for every person within a given society or group.

Furthermore, culture is not the sole dimension that is ‘essential’ for people. Speaking strictly about memberships and commitments, individual identities are not univocal. Like spider webs, they form constellations of memberships and commitments which are vaguely, or not at all, cultural: familial, professional, spiritual, and recreational. The multidimensional aspect of identities challenges directly the monolithic image advocated by nationalists and multiculturalists of an identity reduced to its cultural dimension (under the national or minority form). One can consider that all aspects that I have just evoked are, in fact, cultural. But, in doing so, the notion of culture loses its clarity because it can be used to identify or to refer to almost everything and, by consequence, anything. If the culture embraces all, or almost, that is human, it becomes even more complicated to consider it as a relatively unified ensemble. The plurality of its perceptions and interpretations pump dramatically up.

The questions of the limits and the interpretations of the culture are not of minor importance since cultural policies take a chance to impose a cultural conformity to individuals who could disagree (and, in general, do) on the meaning given to their cultural identity. The bias towards the enforcement of a hypothetical cultural authenticity is another characteristic shared by nationalism and multiculturalism. In other words, in order to enforce a national identity or minority rights, institutions should generally delimit strictly what should be promoted or receive the protection of the Law. The very subtle and complex interactions that define identities, memberships and commitments are then fixed in forms that are supposed to conform to the authentic cultural blueprint.

The second main difficulty refers to 2. There are a lot of cases where things that are important, even essential for people fall outside legitimate state concerns. In fact, it depends on the way that people lead their life and on their own way to rank their objectives. Allowing the government to intervene in all ‘essential’ matters can quickly appear as problematic. In fact, it is the characteristic of a totalitarian regime. For example, settling a family with a person that we love is ‘essential’ for most of us. However, it does not imply that the state has a legitimate interest to intervene directly in our private life to secure our intimate achievements. The premise that something like ‘culture’ is essential to individuals fails to prove that institutions are legitimate to draw policies on that ground. Even if we accept 1 (and I have just presented reasons to be careful with the first premise), there is no necessary link between 1 and 2.

One way to answer to those objections is to affirm, firstly, that institutions are legitimate to intervene in people’s lives when it comes to common interests and, secondly, that culture (cultural membership or identity in fact) is one of them. Again, such an argument presupposes there is only one interpretation of a certain ‘culture’ that can prevail for everyone. Such a presumption is highly debatable, especially in a context marked by pluralism of interests, interpretations about, not only cultural, but also religious, moral and political matters. In fact, the question is about the type of commonality at stake. Within culture, what is of common interest and, so, justify the intervention of the government? Do people share a common interest in defending one (nationalism) or (several) cultural patterns? Or, do they have a common interest in living their lives according to their own interpretation of culture, religion etc. if it does not represent harm for other people?

This questioning can be translated at the state level. Actually, it could be possible to state, in the case of nationalism, that without a common culture, there would be a high risk to attend to a decrease of solidarity, even a social implosion. The argument consists to affirm the necessity of possessing some very substantive grounds between citizens in order to maintain high levels of fidelity towards institutions, which are supposed to be the gatekeepers of the ‘culture’. In that sense, securing an access to a common culture is necessary in order to preserve the stability of the society. The culture plays then an instrumental role. It is not defended for itself, but for what it permits. Without entering into details, it is worthwhile to note that, if the goal is to preserve civil peace, then imposing a cultural agenda, or even reducing numerous social problems to problems related to cultural differences, tends to increase mutual defiance among citizens and generate strong levels of distrust. It is so precisely due to the pluralism experienced by liberal democracies.

In conclusion, recourse to culture as an argument in both nationalist and multiculturalist ways seems to create serious difficulties. I believe that these difficulties are important enough to try to lower the importance of culture in our public debates. This conviction is not simply the consequence of a negative standing point that limits itself to criticize culturalist arguments. It is also fueled by a second conviction: most of problems that are presented as cultural ones are, in fact, socioeconomic.

Let’s talk about equality

Some conclusions are emerging from what precedes. In particular, one deserves to be highlighted. Numerous issues are presented as cultural ones. In all countries, political discourse present questions of citizenship, immigration, religion, and ethnicity as questions of cultural differences. Again, for nationalists, all this advocates for the promotion and enforcement of one commitment – to national culture – that will prevent social atomization. For multiculturalists, those questions prove the necessity to recognize, respect and value cultural differences. The point is that a majority of those cases are not about culture at all.

For instance, there are debates about political measures needed by migratory fluxes. Nationalists pretend that migrants should integrate into the mainstream culture through the acquisition of national values and practices. Multiculturalists argue that migrants have a right to be recognized as possessing a specific culture that deserves respect and recognition. The two positions miss the point. The issue is not about how to ease the integration in a culture, but in society at large for people who, in general, suffer from several disadvantages (low levels of language proficiency and education, lack of material resources and social networking, discriminations…). The challenge is to offer them fair opportunities in order to join the labor market. It has nothing to do with stripping them off of their ‘culture’ and dress them in new ‘cultural’ clothes that would correspond to the image that some politicians or intellectuals have of a hypothetic authentic culture. It has also nothing to do with promoting their minority culture. The priority should be to provide migrants with adequate knowledge of the state language to function properly in society.

In that respect, bilingual education for children and adults, for example, must not aim at preserving or promoting any kind of culture. Mastering the state language is ‘just’ (but it is an ambitious assignment) the key that opens larger perspectives to individuals, allowing them to find their place in and contribute to the life of the society at large. If we consider the ‘common interest’ of guaranteeing social stability, there is no better insurance against antisocial behaviors than institutions that ostensibly and efficiently secure a decent life to their citizens. In modern societies marked, for 30 years, by a constant increase of social and economic inequalities, the major objective should be more to get closer to an ideal of equal opportunities and fair resources distribution than to be obsessed by any kind of ethno-cultural justice or nation-building.

In 2005, riots in French suburbs were often analyzed as tumults inflamed by Muslim fundamentalism or as a reaction of a minority against cultural imperialism. But, in fact, they were socioeconomic. On one hand, apprehending them as a collision of cultures, or a problem of cultural integration, leads to divide society between the ‘good’ assimilated citizens and the ‘bad’ ones. On the other hand, thinking that a simple recognition of the diversity of ‘cultures’, and maybe some differentiated policies based on cultural membership, the state will be able to solve the problem and to lessen tensions represents an important error. The reverse is more likely to happen. Without ambitious redistributive policies, the tensions and malaises will not disappear. On the contrary, by validating discourses about the recognition of cultural diversity or integration into a mainstream culture, institutions take the chance of turning the problem as really cultural. People who are suffering from discriminations and socioeconomic injustices will be tempted to develop a marginal culture, exaggerate what they perceived to be their differences with the mainstream society.

The excessive focus on cultural membership is for sure the main bias of contemporary political theory and practice. Adding to the tendency to rely on stereotypes, it downplays the importance that equality of resources. If a state should have one justification, it will be the following: guarantee everyone the opportunity to realize her conception of the good life without jeopardizing such capacity for other people. The problem with arguments discussed here is the necessary link between cultural membership and equality does not appear clearly. Furthermore, by being concerned with cultural membership, institutions give the impression of trying to enforce or preserve cultural authenticity, i.e. to be more concerned with identity shaping than with securing decent standard of living to their citizens.

The excessive focus on cultural membership can be interpreted as the cause of the decline of concern for equality. Another manner to look at the problem is to consider the crisis of public finances and, more generally, of the welfare state, which started thirty years ago, as the cause of it. In some extent, the focus on culture is somewhat a rational response from officials as well as public side. Facing a state with scarce resources, citizens tend to adopt alternative strategies to obtain an access them. The use of cultural arguments opens to individuals another source of legitimacy, especially if they are able to prove that they belong to a group radically different from the rest of the society. Subsequently, a part of the game is to accentuate differences in order to comfort claims and to obtain more than competitors. On its own, governments can be very tempted to set up multicultural policies, recognize cultural diversity, mainly in a very formal manner (textbooks, advertisements, positive discrimination, quotas…), subsidy some ‘cultural’ (often folkloric) events in order to divert people attention from conditions of living which are nowadays stagnant or deteriorating (pensions, inflation, social insurance, minimum wages, quality of public health care services, shortage of qualified human resources in education).

This is the dynamic of multiculturalism, but the logic applies also to nationalism. By insisting on national identity, values, practices and symbols, state institutions obscure the fact that solidarity, civility, and social stability depend more on institutions socioeconomic performance than on their ability to force the adhesion to a national identity characterized by some hypothetical clearly-defined features. By providing people with opportunities of leading a decent life and realizing their conception of the good, institutions would give them a powerful incentive to adhere to the collective project that sustains such opportunities. On the opposite, by reminding them that they do not fit with the national canon, that they should integrate into the national ‘culture’, that they are different and that difference is problematic, institutions encourage high levels of distrust, political apathy and ‘antisocial’ behavior.

It is the very reason why legitimate concerns are to be raised against the obsession for cultural identity that animates nationalist and multiculturalist discourses. In fine, ‘culture’ should not count so much at the political level than it counts nowadays. In a context of growing inequalities, it is possible to defend the idea that there are more urgent and important tasks than trying to preserve or enforce something like national or minority culture. As a result, politicians and intellectuals should worry less about cultural preservation, diversity or membership, and more about rights and resources equality. If the role of intellectuals is to shed a critical light on institutions, practices and discourses, then there is a space for different ideas. If we consider than the prime objective of institutions is to guarantee to each citizen resources needed to follow her conception of a good life, then there is a room for a political position that is neither multiculturalist, nor nationalist. raksts

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