The Failure of Multiculturalism and the Necessity of Democracy

Truthout needs your support to produce grassroots journalism and disseminate conscientious visions for a brighter future. Contribute now by clicking here.

Social practices that best deliver multiculturalism are those that at the same time may be regarded as enactments of democratic enfranchisement, the very thing that should inform the heart of the multicultural project.

This past summer, I spoke on a panel on the question of multiculturalism in Europe. This topic seemed especially urgent, not only because of Anders Behring Breivik’s horrific killing spree in Norway – which he stated was in large part motivated by his hatred of multiculturalism – but also because the leaders of three major western nations had recently declared the “failure of multiculturalism.”

Trying to make sense of the declaration of multiculturalism’s “failure,” I turned A. O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction, which concisely puts forward three theses used by reactionary rhetoric: “According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy…. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to make a dent.” Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that “the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.”

To read more articles by David Palumbo-Liu and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

Each of these three theses is evident in the pronouncements on multiculturalism’s “failure”: Policies undertaken to advance a multicultural spirit have perversely only made things worse; multiculturalism is futile – it will not and cannot reach its goals, and in the effort to make something out of this doomed project, the harm to the thing that we most cherish – our national identity – will be enormous. And it was in the spirit of this sort of rhetoric that we heard Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron all proclaim the “failure of multiculturalism.”

No matter that each had their specific, local, reasons for uttering this judgment; each of them then could evoke the need to exercise what Cameron called “muscular liberalism” to step into the field of failure and inject some needed realism into their national agendas. For each, this new activist “liberalism” would stop the state’s pampering of minorities, its forced indulgence of their jealous hold onto their particularities and forcibly integrate them into the national social, political and cultural body. It was not really even about “their own good” anymore – it was now legitimate to focus rather on the common good of “the Nation.”

Let’s look at two issues hidden behind this idea of multiculturalism’s reputed failure. By bringing them to the foreground, we can add a crucial dimension to our understanding of possible routes to “success.” First – race. Clearly, not all “cultures” are in need of being integrated in a “muscular” way. It is those cultures whose members are most conspicuously marked by racial difference or notably different religious or cultural practices that are considered to be most reticent to join the national body, and in need of extra help. In the EU, this had to specifically target Muslims. The fact that their marginalization was brought about in large part by longstanding practices enabled by racial and religious distinctions should not be lost on us. Second – democracy. The very existence of a national form demands practices of segmentation and exclusion, for creating particular channels and locations for the integration of diverse peoples, and differentially shaping their ability to participate in the democratic life of the nation. Multi-“culturalism” can never erase the racist segmentation of some populations off from the core; it is doomed to fail because it cannot alone overcome a much broader and deeper set of issues that exceed the “cultural.” But this does not mean we should abandon its ethos – rather it means that we need to get a firmer grip on reality. Most important is the issue of democratic citizenship: “Integration” is not a mechanical process, simply “presence” in the core society means little if there is not actual political enfranchisement and the ability and resources to represent and advocate one’s point of view.

In order to grasp the larger picture and understand better the relation between multiculturalism and democracy, we need to scale up to a more global level, and a deeper historical frame, to recover the traces of the long histories that have maintained the racial divide, and to see as well how new demands for enfranchisement have been rebutted or rechanneled for an equally long time. In other words, today’s “failure” should be placed at the feet of something other than recalcitrant minorities or “flabby” liberalism.

The conference convened at the Paris UNESCO center. As we were at that particular locale, I decided that it would be more than appropriate to revisit one of its foundational documents: the 1950 Statement on Race. In 1948 the UN Social and Economic Council [assigned] UNESCO the task of “defining ‘race’ to support the assertion that racism was morally unacceptable, and unsupported by science.”1

The 1950 Statement begins simply and empathically: “Scientists have reached general agreement in recognizing that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species.”2 It argues that “the unity of mankind from both the biological and social viewpoints is the main thing. To recognize this and to act accordingly is the first requirement of modern man.” The statement’s final point is equally crucial: “All normal human beings are capable of learning to share a common life, to understand the nature of mutual service and reciprocity, and to respect social obligations and contracts.” The 1950 Statement can thus be credited with propounding – in an international document presented on the world stage – a strong statement on equality.

The 1967 Statement on Racism takes these elements, but transforms the context from post-war to postcolonial, and empathically draws the connection between race and democracy. The first sentence begins, “‘All men are born free and equal both in dignity and in rights.’ This universally proclaimed democratic principle stands in jeopardy whenever political, economic, social and cultural inequalities affect human group relations. A particularly striking obstacle to the recognition of equal dignity for all is racism [emphasis added].”

The panel looks out into the contemporary world to see the effects of historical racism (sadly, more than 40 years later, things seem the same): “The social and economic causes of racial prejudice are particularly observed in settler societies wherein are found conditions of great disparity of power and property, in certain urban areas where there have emerged ghettoes in which individuals are deprived of equal access to employment, housing, political participation, education and the administration of justice, and in many societies where social and economic tasks which are deemed contrary to the ethics or beneath the dignity of its members are assigned to a group of different origins who are derided, blamed and punished for taking on these tasks.”

We can trace the trajectory mapped out by the 1950 and the 1967 statements – the emphasis shifting from an optimistic argument for equal dignity and mankind’s “plasticity” in learning new ways of perceiving racial identity and difference, to an acknowledgment of the obdurate, concrete manifestations of racism in the political, social and economic lives of people – the abiding results of conquest, enslavement and colonialism. But one more piece of the historical puzzle needs to be put in place before we can see why and how today’s “multiculturalism” has failed to fulfill its role of primary “integrator” for the nation. It is because, as I see it, for multiculturalism to work, we have to move beyond “tolerance” to practical integration into democratic participation. It was in the late ’60s and early ’70s that the latter was thought to be problematic precisely because the influx of “others” was too great.

This becomes patently clear as we move from the broad international body of the United Nations and the mandate of UNESCO to foster education, science and culture, to a specific consortium that emerged in the 1970s, just a few years after the 1967 Statement on Racism. The Trilateral Commission was originally created in 1973 “to bring together experienced leaders within the private sector to discuss issues of global concern at a time when communication and cooperation between Europe, North America and Asia were lacking.” One of its very first publications was entitled, “The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission.”3 Whereas the US contributor to this report is most well-known for his “clash of civilization” and bizarre anti-immigrant writings, Samuel Huntington in this earlier document reveals a deep skepticism with the basic notion of democracy, which we assume was the thing to be guarded against civilizational antagonisms:

The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, the challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private institutions, politics, the government bureaucracy and the military service. People no longer felt the same obligation to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character or talents…. Each group claimed its right to participate equally – in the decision which affected itself….

This increase in political participation is “primarily the result of the increased salience which citizens perceive politics to have for their own immediate concerns.

So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t this precisely the picture of a robust democratic society? Not exactly, for this vigor is largely made up of minority voices and viewpoints demanding attention to their particular needs. This put pressure on the political institutions of the state: “In the United States, the strength of democracy poses a problem for the governability of democracy…. We have come to recognize that there are potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy. Democracy will have a longer life if it has a more balanced existence.”

Indeed, turning to the essay by the French representative and chief author for this volume, we find Michel Crozier making the same points, albeit from a western European perspective:

The vague and persistent feeling that democracies have become ungovernable has been growing steadily in Western Europe…. The European political systems are overloaded with participants and demands, and they have increasing difficulty in mastering the very complexity which is the natural result of their economic growth and political development…. There are a number of interrelated reasons for this situation. First of all, social and economic developments have made it possible for a great many more groups and interests to coalesce. Second, the information explosion has made it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the traditional distance that was deemed necessary to govern. Third, the democratic ethos makes it difficult to prevent access and restrict information, while the persistence of the bureaucratic processes, which had been associated with the traditional governing systems, makes it impossible to handle them at a low enough level…. Citizens make incompatible claims. Because they press for more action to meet the problems they have to face, they require more social control.

I recognize the difference in our historical situations; nevertheless the ideological contradictions abide, and directly inform the “failure” of multiculturalism. For if new sources of labor were required in Europe after the Second World War, and if that demand, along with the effects of decolonization, the fall of socialist states – and, since 9/11 – the specter of international terrorism have called forth the need to mobilize notions of republicanism and integration anew, then at one and the same time, the issues of overcapacity, the conceptual (if not real) threat of excessive equality, and the notion that some peoples from some cultures could not, or would not, be integrated, and that the “Information Age” threatened to create the possibility of more people not only knowing more things, but using that knowledge to exercise their democratic rights, all had to be revisited. Indeed, Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy all argued that it was the intolerant, non-compliant “others” that held too jealously to their “customs” or, much worse, tried to impose them violently on others in one virulent form or another, that made any attempt at multiculturalism wrong-headed and destructive.

However, such claims simply went against fact. Not only were actually existing state policies significantly working, but equally important, ordinary people were actually working out “integrative” measures themselves at the local level. Consider the Searching for Neighbors project taking place in Hungary, Germany, Italy and Austria, which investigated the “tension between the top-down and bottom-up, between policy and practice,” and examined not only the failures but also the successes of state and local policies in the internal borderlands of cities. Likewise, UNESCO’s “International Coalition of Cities Against Racism” moves from the nation-state level to connections across the world between cities, each with their own particular situations but each also committed to a global initiative against racism. This sort of project gives the idea of a “global” city a new valence as it recognizes precisely the historical issues already embedded in the 1950 and 1967 statements and others, but also the new conditions of the contemporary world. Finally, a Dec. 4, 2008 article in The Economist, “When Town halls turn to Mecca,” reports on municipal measures to create spaces for Muslim practices: “In the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, where the dominant culture is that of Morocco, a circular from the district authorities reminds residents not to kill animals at home. It invites them to a ‘temporary abbatoir’ that will function for 48 hours in a council garage. Molenbeek is one of four areas in Brussels which have set up makeshift slaughterhouses…. In places like Molenbeek, a few miles away from the European Union’s main institutions, talk of the continent’s transformation into Eurabia doesn’t sound absurd…. Yet talk of civilizational war in Europe’s cobblestoned streets is out of line in one respect: It understates the ability of democratic politics, especially local politics, to adapt to new social phenomena.” Considering these cases, and many more, it becomes clear that “multiculturalism” has not failed entirely; it is practiced in all sorts of formal and informal ways to good effect. These successes thus refute both the declarations of its wholesale “failure” and the alibi that declaration provides to shut down the spirit and practice of multiculturalism. We would do better to strategically recognize exactly what works and why.

Now one obvious and important criticism of my promotion of such practices is that it might take pressure off the state to enact such things. But I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. Rather, such initiatives at the local, informal and semi-formal level can be exercises in democracy with a small “d,” but with immediate and local effects. This does not mean we give up political action on a national level, but that we come to understand better the capacities and will at that level, and respond accordingly. Whether multiculturalism succeeds or fails is directly linked to the achievability of democracy.

Anthony Q. Hazard, Jr. “A Racialized Deconstruction? Ashley Montagu and the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race.” Transforming Anthropology 19:2 (2011): 176

Four Statements on the Race Question. Paris: UNESCO, 1969

Michel Crozier ed., The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 7. All further citations are to this volume.