Multiculturalism is an experiment that might fail

By Lorenzo

Multiculturalism has become a sacred marker of progressivism: one absolutely has to be in favour of multiculturalism, or one is not a good person. A person seriously critical of (let alone hostile to) multiculturalism is, in fact, outside the moral pale.

There are deep problems with this. First is defining what one means by multiculturalism–there are quite a wide range of possible meanings. It can cover a rather wider range in possible approaches than the alternative of assimilation (which can come in various versions itself). Assimilation seeks to have migrants conform to the culture of the residents so that their norms and expectations come to fall within existing patterns. This means that existing institutions and patterns of behaviour can continue with minimum disruption. Obviously this makes migration much less threatening and disruptive to the existing citizens.

Compared to assimilation, multiculturalism makes rather less requirements on migrants to adapt to the society they are moving to and rather more requirements on the existing citizens to adapt to migrants coming in. The expected, indeed extolled result, is for a far wider spread of norms and expectations to become the pattern of the society, which is much more likely to significantly alter how existing institutions, policies and patterns of behaviour operate. Obviously, this is likely to be much more disruptive and potentially threatening to current citizens. In effect, multiculturalism lowers the costs of migration to immigrants but raises them for the existing citizens. In the longer run, there are issues about whether the effect will be to reduce the benefits and functioning of the society which made it an attractive destination in the first place. (NB: Australia is an exception to much of this post, largely for reasons discussed in the previous post.)

This points to the second problem with using multiculturalism as being the only morally acceptable approach–that any policy regime has upsides and downsides: in the realm of public policy, there are no complete solutions, there are only trade-offs.

If adherence to a policy regime becomes a marker of elementary moral decency then the ability to look critically at that policy–to identify and attempt to deal with its inevitable downsides–is greatly damaged. Not least, because we enter into the realm of “wicked facts”: things which are true, or are likely to be true, or could become true, but cannot be uttered in morally decent company. It is the standard problem with sacredness: by creating an absolutely trumping Virtue, it ends up being hostile to facts, function and freedom.

Looking at history, there are basically three ways a multicultural order can operate.

Imperial order

The first is what we might call an imperial order. Empires are almost always multicultural polities. There is a dominant group which rules over other groups with different cultures: the dominant group maintains order and manages interactions between the groups under its rule. A classic version of imperial order multiculturalism is the millet system of the Ottoman Empire.

Empires can last for centuries, but they always eventually come apart and the modern era has been particularly unkind to imperial structures.

The pressures of modernity and the adoption of new political forms can destabilise an existing order. The Ottoman millet system was based solidly on Muslim dominance, and was de-stabilised by Western attempts to push equal treatment before the law (leading to the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s) and then the adoption of Turkish nationalism.  The combination of these two impulses, plus the stress of the Great War, lead to the ArmenianPontic-Greek and Assyrian genocides and the recurring difficulties with Turkey’s large Kurdish minority.

Contesting tribalism

The second we might call contesting tribalism. The political order is a constant struggle between tribal/identity groups. If electoral politics are the go in such a polity, one ends up with people voting for appalling candidates because, if the other side wins, their tribe is cut out of the goodies.

Hillary Clinton’s now infamous remark about a “basket of deplorables” says “not of our tribe” while The Donald’s campaign gets a great deal of its fervour from people who feel alienated from the people and processes that make decisions in their society.

But multi-identity polities falling apart nastily has been something of a recurring pattern–notably in the Lebanese Civil War and the break up of Yugoslavia. The troubles of Sri Lanka came out of the adoption of Sinhalese chauvinism as a political strategy. The Lebanese state survives only because it functions so minimally.

Forge a common identity

One of the buzz-words in historical studies is ethnogenesis: the creating of ethnic identities. Ethnic identities are not given for all time: they are created and evolve. Often they are created from quite disparate groups. In 1910, there was no “Palestinian people”. Now, there most certainly is.

The British Empire attempted to create an overarching identity of British subject, and, in the British Isles, a notion of British patriotism: one might be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Orkney but one was first and foremost British.

Building patriotism–identification with a common polity–is often an attempt to over-ride various competing particularist loyalties, notably nationalism–identification with an ethnic group conceived as a political project. Anyone can get with the project of patriotism: nationalism, not so much.

The Roman Empire used the notion of Roman citizen as a way of creating an encompassing identity. In the C19th, the United States quite deliberately set out with its public school systems, and a heroic national historical narrative, to “build Americans”.

These approaches can bleed into each other. The Christian Roman Empire attempted to create a common Christian identity–leading to oppression of Jews and debilitating theological strife. The Russian Empire attempted to Russify its subjects (which mostly failed).

About that democracy thing

Of the three–imperial ordercontesting tribalism and common identity–the only successfully democratic option, and a viable one if various institutions support the effort, is the creation of an over-arching common identity. This does not involve eliminating cultural and other identities, but building a shared identity over the top.

Some form of patriotism is not an optional extra in a functioning democracy, it is a necessary element. If sufficient people do not identify in certain crucial respects more with their polity of residence than with identities which either link them with conflicts and perspectives outside the polity, or which profoundly divide them from other groups within the polity, one cannot have effective common policies, just variations on identity-spoil systems. Especially if folk are “locked into” subsidiary identities conceived as requiring political loyalty, so are not open to common persuasion or participation.

A certain adherence to common norms and common expectations is necessary to have a common language of politics and effective commonality in policy. (If one wanted to identify a single reason why indigenous policy in Australia has been so problematic, it is not being based in any serious sense on dealing with very deep differences in expectations about social interactions that paloeolithic-foraging cultures have from farming-commercial cultures.)

At the core of the problem with progressivist multiculturalism is that it, in effect, wants to be an imperial order–having a globalising elite “managing” the various ethnic and identity groups under its sway–while pretending (although the pretence is getting thinner and thinner) to adhere to democratic norms. (Liberal norms, notably freedom of speech and opinion, are increasingly on the discard pile.)

Imperial-globalising multiculturalism presumes that the bulk of the existing citizens are happy to be treated as colonised peons in what is ostensibly their own country. Including being sold a multiculturalism that means people must change to suit the newcomers, adherence to internationalising structures with dubious democratic credentials, associated judicial activism and their “betters” ruling various concerns and issues illegitimate. As various referendum and election results are demonstrating, not so much.

Even as an exercise in promoting economic growth, a migration policy which assumes that the “right sort” of multiculturalism will solve any difficulties will not be successful if it is driving locals, particularly the higher skill locals, away.

In particular, it is not going to improve a society by turning a high trust society into a low trust one. (Such as increased risk of violent death or, more mundanely, shifting to having security guards at swimming pools.)

As the multicultural-imperium option pretends not to be actually imperial, and is operating in democratic polities, it cannot overtly trade protection for acceptance of dominance in the normal imperial style. The result is that it is going for its own (rather strange due to progressivist pieties) version of Russification or Roman Christianisation, whereby folk constantly state the wonders of diversity (the overarching ideological identity), yet repeatedly pathologise diversity (the imperial project)–being hostile to cognitive diversity, treating diversity in social outcomes as presumptively illegitimate and trying to flatten out moral nuance in favour of narratives whose surface patina of sophistication hides a deep (somewhat Manichaean) underlying simplicity.

All of this based on the idea that if everyone just agrees with whatever is the current set of progressivist pieties (they keep changing), then all will be fine. Which is a fraud and a delusion, as ideas that everyone agrees with fail as status-markers, so the moral envelope must be continually pushed (transgender toilets anyone?), to keep the distinguishing sense of superior status going.

Worse, as the progressive concept of multiculturalism explicitly involves pushing specific favoured identities as the basis of political action–and non-favoured ones as repositories of blame–it actively encourages the former groups to focus their identity and action in the designated groups (and people within to try and capture being the “authentic” leaders of such) while also inevitably encouraging retreat into counter-identities among those designated as repositories of blame. The notion that such identity politics is something that only “nice” people will play is nonsense on stilts. But if your entire political strategy rests on creating repositories of blame, that is how it will play out. The post-modern identity progressivists have projected their own obsessions with racial/national identity onto others so successfully, that they are managing to revive them.

Moreover, an identity or loyalty which is a repository of blame cannot effectively be a repository of achievement. The existing cultural and political identities are seen, not merely as being enriched by multiculturalism, but of being redeemed by them, for these historical states and cultures are portrayed as bearing both historical guilt (racism! colonialism! imperialism! slavery!) and current sinfulness (racism! homophobia! islamophobia! sexism! rape culture!). All of which adds to the disorientation and alienation, as to be stripped of any sense of embedded achievement is to be stripped of frameworks of expectation and hope. Folk come to associate multiculturalism and immigration (quite correctly) with identity-progressivism’s systematic attack on their own polity and identity. Which then makes migration in particular much more threatening than it needs to be.

It is also raises fairly obvious questions and comebacks. For example, if white folk are so potentially toxic, why do so many people want to live in societies dominated by them? Because, obviously, they aren’t. All this railing about alleged racism in the US in particular comes up against the brute fact that every group does better in the US than where they came from. Even after, in the case of African-Americans, passing through slavery.

Personally, I regard whiteness as having very little to do with Western history: i.e. I regard low levels of melanin as much less significant than progressivists appear to. But the problem with obsessing with racial sins is one ends up reading racial causes into history which simply do not fit. (For example, racism does not cause slavery or imperialism, but both can, in particular circumstances, end up generating racism.)

When one looks at the history of racism in particular, it arises out of interactions between elite politics, moral framings and mass sentiments. Given that those dominating the “commanding heights” of culture nowadays grade folk on opinion (the organising principle of PC being your worth as a person depends on your opinions, hence the increasing rejection of liberal norms that your worth as a person grants you freedom of speech and opinion) and are ostentatiously anti-racist it is not surprising that the evidence is that actual racism is low and declining while people have become more hostile to inter-Party marriage than inter-racial marriage (i.e. opinion bigotry is overtaking racial bigotry precisely because opinion-bigotry is the dominant bigotry among the elites). Though the counter-identity defensive retreat into national (or even racial) identities is giving race and explicitly nationalist (rather than more broadly patriotic) views more of an “in” than they have had in more recent decades.

As much of this progressivism is clearly about status building, the push back from those being continually “dumped” upon actually helps the status game, as it gives so many fellow citizens to feel superior to. The preference for political debates about migration and multiculturalism to go “feral” in such a way is revealed by the hostility to approaches likely to block such outcomes: especially attempts to appeal to concerns and sentiments deemed inherently “wrong” (i.e. held by the morally inferior).

The pushing of multiculturalism as a sacred value ends up in a situation where the adherents to its sacredness cannot see themselves (let alone how they seem to others), cannot see how much they do not see their own citizens and cannot grapple honestly with the genuine difficulties of managing multicultural polities. All of which makes it much more likely multiculturalism will fail, precisely because it is treated as if it cannot (except, of course, if it is not adopted thoroughly enough because, hey, sacred). Sweden is already becoming the country folk can point to about how badly wrong it can all go, though the UK’s Rotherham and other sexual exploitation scandals also provide warning examples.

A policy that cannot be wrong, merely insufficiently adhered to, is actually more vulnerable to failure, not less. It is an “unsinkable” RMS Titanic, adrift among all-too-real icebergs.

To say that this is not going to end well is redundant, because anyone not blinded by the alleged sacredness can see that it is already trending badly in various Western countries and will get worse.


ADDENDA. This interview with an young Iraqi-Australian woman is a good reminder that multiculturalism in Australia is not without its problems either: including police being able to add “it’s their culture” to the list of excuses not to get involved in “domestics”.

FURTHER ADDENDA. This post by Michael Lind includes the following comment on consociational polities:

An alternate model is the institutionalization of permanently distinct ethnic or racial or religious groups, known as “consociational democracy.” In this model, not only individual but also ethnic or religious groups are formally represented in politics and public policy. Versions of consociationalism — guaranteeing numerical representation in national legislatures and other institutions — exist in multi-ethnic Switzerland, post-apartheid South Africa, and the bi-national polities of Canada and Belgium.
Consociational democracy works best where the constituent ethnic groups are relatively stable in numbers. If one group grows more rapidly than the other, or if immigration introduces entirely new groups to the mix, then the delicate compromises of consociational power-sharing tend to break down.

In terms of the ideal types discussed above, such polities are something of a half-way house between contesting tribalism and overarching identity. I would argue that the tendency is to go one way or the other. The Swiss have long since developed an overarching identity, Belgium not so much, Yugoslavia failed. Lebanon was destabilised by the Palestinian influx, Canadian identity appears to be strong enough to incorporate the Quebecois, and South Africa is a case of way too early to tell.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

One Comment

  1. Posted November 13, 2016 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Oup, I see you trotted out your “I-am-not-racist” signal, Thomas Sowell again. He’s so handy because he dresses and speaks well, not like the other nasty darkies.?

    Lorenzo, I think you need a hug. It must be tiring being the only realist left telling it like it is about those disgusting tribes ruining all of it for the rest of us.

    Martin Niemoller had no idea what he was talking about.?

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