It is interesting to see how to language of multiculturalism has changed in the past two decades. I was watching AfD supporters on BBC Newsnight talking about social cohesion and group-differentiated rights for the majority, which is under a perceived threat from migrants.
On the other hand the multiculturalists of the 90s and early 2000s were arguing for group-differentiated rights for minorities, depending on their type (national minorities, immigrant groups and indigenous people) in order to ensure equal participation and access to rights. On the other side of the multiculturalists were the universalists who said that basic rights should be available to all without ‘discrimination’ to ensure social cohesion.
The motives of the universalists were different from those of the far-right. They saw group-differentiated rights as dangerous for they would fragment society and pose a threat to the welfare state or even disrupt class struggle by fragmenting the working class. The universalists got it wrong. Equality of opportunity is lost in structures tailored to the needs and profile of the majority. Some extra support and guarantees are needed for the minorities who are almost by definition excluded — socially, economically, politically.
Now the far-right has appropriated the universalist argument stripping it from its egalitarian origins and twisting it with the language of group-differentiated rights based on fake news. The universalist argument is used to justify social exclusion. Let me explain. The far-right want to continue with business as usual: states that are serving the interests and catering to the needs of majority societal cultures. But they now see themselves as a minority under threat; a false perception fueled by fake news. This false perception of dominant cultures as minorities makes them argue for special rights to enable them to preserve their culture, having finally accepted that modern states are not monocultural.
Though the language and motives of the far-right and the universalists are different, the political outcomes are similar (intended by the former, unintended by the latter), namely the exclusion of minorities by biased structures that only accommodate the dominant culture.
Which leads to the role of the state. Whereas the universalists wanted a level playing field with a neutral state indifferent to ones culture, the far-right, much as they vilify the state, they want it active in serving their interests.
Where does this leave the rest of us? Once we accept that the state is not and can never be neutral, the issue at hand becomes what policies (group-differentiated rights) are needed to ensure that all members of the society have equal access to the opportunities available. But this should not be the same multiculturalist argument of the 90s. Our diverse, interconnected world is much different now. Whereas in the 90s individual identities were all grouped under the umbrella of culture, now individuals are more clearly bearers of multiple identities. These multiple identities transcend geographical, cultural and class limits, with individuals having loyalties that move across these boundaries and which are even competing with each other.
To manage the chaos we need to incorporate cultural rights into general welfare policies. For if we accept that these policies are in place to offset inequalities we cannot but accept that cultural identity in culturally-biased states is itself a source of inequality.
There are no elegant solutions here. But we need to understand the political argument that the far-right is making: they want to extend the bias of advanced western states further to their favour at the expense of diversity and equality.
Obviously I don’t find their vision attractive, far from it. But they are gaining ground, especially as the adverse consequences of the financial crisis are prolonged for decades to come. The question is what the rest of us are going to do about it. I don’t think there is a way to reverse this trend without an overhaul of the status quo, which has seen the destruction of the middle class and the worsening of the lives of working class people across the world, which itself has given rise to populists and saviours of sorts.