Why was the Left trapped into Multiculturalism?

In opinie door Rene Cuperus op 13-06-2011 | 14:38

Tekst: Rene Cuperus

When and why has the left become so culturalist, stressing essentialist notions of identity and the value of frozen group cultures? How come that the left, which was always in the egalitarian-equality business, have become so obsessed with difference, diversity and cultural inequalities? How is it possible that progressive liberals, who are ethical individualists, turn up in the corner of defending collective rights and solid group identities?

When and why has the former Marxist, anti-religious, secular left become so respectful to religion, to Islam in particular, which in its core values and practices is not easily compatible (to put it mildly) with the anti-authoritarian cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the time when the world view of the left-liberals originated? Why did the cosmopolitan anti-patriotic left aggressively taboo and deny the idea of a national identity for European majority cultures (‘England or Holland does not exist’), but at the same time defend aggressively identity politics and ‘multi-cultures’ for non-western minorities?
What went wrong? How did the left get itself trapped into the multicultural debate, a minefield of contradictions, complexities and hypocrisies?

The problem is that this conceptual and ideological mess of multiculturalism is not just an academic question, but has had serious negative consequences for society at large. The misinformed idea and practice of multiculturalism has maximised the disrupting impact of mass migration to the host societies, producing more alienation, populist resentment and xenophobia, than was probably necessary.

Multiculturalism has a two-fold implicit message. A false comforting message to newcomers/migrants: ’you do not have to integrate in or adapt to your new home country’. And a disrupting message to the ’native population’: your ’majority culture’ (Leitkultur) will in the future just be one of many multi-cultures. Both nonsensical messages (what does multiculturalism really mean in metropoles with over 200 ethnicities, cultures and nationalities?) have done much harm to the way in which migration has been received and to the mindset for successful integration in modern, post-industrial democracies.

The real social-democratic question must be: does an approach of multiculturalism lead to more or less full citizenship? Does it lead to less inequality, less unemployment, less segregation, less ghettoization, less crime and school drop out? Or is it totally counterproductive for solving these serious problems of failed integration in our migrant nations? We have to go beyond messy concepts as multiculturalism or interculturalism, looking for every way to foster full and shared citizenship.

This column is based on my contribution to the conference ’European Approaches to Multiculturalism and Integration’, organised by The Smith Institute and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, London Office, Bloomsbury House, 7 June 2011. 

Rene Cuperus is wetenschappelijk medewerker van de Wiardi Beckmanstichting. Hij schrijft columns op de website van Social Europe Journal, een aan de London School of Economics verbonden digitaal tijdschrift. Dit artikel is eerder op die website verschenen en met toestemming van Cuperus ook op Republiek Allochtonië geplaatst.


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Daphne - 14/06/2011 00:54

Well, René, let's divide this up into four segments. One: why did the west forget that their own culture is actually superior to anyone else's?
Look back to say...1945?
You must have picked up along the way that Western societies looked around and wondered what the hell had happened. The European Leitkultur, with its homegrown qualities racism, colonialism, capitalism, anti-semitism, ecological selfdestruction et al was then perceived as maybe being not all that great.
Many people hoped to bring forth a radical change, by giving a critical voice to the victims of the dominant Leitkultur. And infusing the Leitkultur with something fresh: a non-Western perspective. To help us westerners to get rid of at least some of our racism, anti-semitism, need to destroy our planet and subjugate others within a colonial or post-colonial framework.

Secondly: why does multiculturalism perceive people to be members of groups and communities? Maybe because we are? We are members of groups and communities - you are too. Although I know that members of the dominant culture sometimes perceive themselves to be 'neutral', and not 'white', or 'straight', or 'post-christian'. They fill the default position, and are therefore invisible?

But I give you that each individual should have a private space, an individual identity, and an ability to move in and out of identities and identifying groups. That should also make this whole thing more fun.

Now: your third point. Is multiculturalism a hindrance or a help towards citizenship, employment, etc? That depends on all of us. If we build a wall around our citizenship, and define citizenship as a ethnic characteristic, many people will not comply. If we define citizenship within pragmatic legal terms, anyone who complies with our rules can enter our group. Citizenship is really not such an incredible big deal. In a few years time we will all have European citizenship anyway. It's the economic perks of citizenship that lay at the heart of this discussion. So let's talk about those.

And fourth: why is the so-called problem of immigration perceived as being caused by migrants only? Take some historical responsability, people. This has been going on for decades. Don't be a helpless victim of a historical process this country initiated centuries ago. Get rid of your romantic chimera's of the mono-culrual bliss of the migrant-free past. That migrant-free past never existed, and was certainly not a blissful time. If you can't take the fact that you've got islamic neighbours, after they have lived here for over 40 years, maybe you should just get over yourself?
And maybe the social democratic answer should be that everybody will feel much better once they have accepted that the happy hour of nostalgia has passed?

Multiculturalism is reviled and derided in many circles, including your's. But its opposite is as illusory: the mono-cultural Nation State will not return. However much that may pain you. The only way forward is an acceptance that we are, indeed, not all of us alike. Maybe the people in the default position should start thinking about what defines them, without immediately sinking back into the dream of cultural, moral and technological hegemony. That's all in the past now. But you, they, and we, and anyone who is interested, could still enjoy our language and history as a defining tool.