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Multiculturalism and postmodernity

a challenge to our political structures


GER MENNENS 5 August 2011

Open Democracy

Mono-cultural nationalism can no longer provide us with the national identities we need. The formation of multi-cultural civic identities requires a new way of drawing our political maps.

Multiculturalism demands a politics of recognition. It implies that the cultural identity of ethnic and national minorities should be recognized, and that these minority cultures should have specific rights in order to express and maintain their culture. Therefore, politics and culture should not be two separate spheres. In multiculturalism, politics actively interferes in culture. In liberalism, however, culture and politics are seen as separated. The liberal principle of benign neglect means that the State should hold a neutral position when it comes to culture. “Culture” belongs exclusively to private life. Charles Taylor rightly states that this principle is untenable, since both State and politics are always culturally embedded. Politics itself is a cultural practice, in which norms and values play an important role. Therefore culture cannot exclusively belong to private life: culture is also a part of the political arena, there is no line between politics and culture. This is a postmodernist conception of the relationship between such categories as society, arts, science, and politics.

Postmodernism problematizes the existence of fixed borders between categories that are traditionally seen as strictly separated. Take, for instance, the sharp distinction between science and politics. Science is always performed through the eyes of individuals who hold certain values and norms, and therefore cannot be unbiased. The categories are no longer separated but have become hybrid.

Max Weber argued that politics is in an isolated world of rational top-down decision-making, which exclusively belongs to the political sector. Through legal procedures within an efficient and effective bureaucracy, policy provides blueprints which are then applied ready-made to a distinct and separate sector: society. But this rational view of the machinery of bureaucracy, the cause and effect of its rules and regulations, no longer works. It is not possible to make blueprints centrally and top-down. Nowadays, in order to win support for your blueprints, for rules and regulations, negotiations are needed within a broad field of interest groups. Several actors who have concerns in a specific policy area will demand to have a place at the negotiating table. Policy measures will only win that support if the actors feel that they can influence the outcome of the policies that affect them. So, the blueprints are being constructed bottom-up as well. In this middle range of meso-politics, the outcome of any given blueprint is no longer a fixed product, but rather changes in the enactment. Political goals are no longer reached through modernist rationality, they are reached through participation. This is a network of actors, who all have their own goals, and who deal and negotiate in order to reach compromises. In this postmodern world we see society and politics as intermixed, just as in our multicultural world we see that culture and politics are intermixed. The politics of multiculturalism requires this network approach.

The concept of postmodernity is part of a normative theory relating to empirical reality. Latour’s ‘we have never been modern’ is a statement that is descriptive as well as prescriptive. Multiculturalism can succeed in states that have postmodern network societies. But it will not work in states that are still stuck with modernist top-down decision-making governments. There is a strong connection between multiculturalism and postmodernism. Both, as practice and as norm, reject totalizing and universal concepts, and instead recognise difference and pluralism. Both reject Platonic absolutism and embrace relativism.

Enlightenment concepts of rationalism, centralism and monoculture have to be replaced by notions of diffusion,negotiation and diversity in order to make multiculturalism work successfully. In modernism, national identity presupposes nationalism and vice versa. Nineteenth century nationalism, as an aspect of modernity, went hand in hand with nation-building and drew on the Enlightenment notion that states can be engineered. In these days, notions of nation-building around a group identity are being replaced by notions of globalisation, individualism and diffusion. In Canada, nationalism and national identity are not the same, because there is no official ethnic or national majority group. This does not mean that there are no majority identity groups within Canada, but that Canadian politics has explicitly opted for not choosing one ethnic group as dominant. This is one example, a model, of how to make multiculturalism work. Canadian nationalism celebrates diversity, minority languages and minority cultures. The Canadian identity is officially multicultural. Multiculturalism in Canada articulates the ideology of a non-nation.

Given that postmodernity is a condition for successful multiculturalism, states that largely rely on party-democracies will have difficulty in adapting to multiculturalism, and fostering a politics of multiculturalism. Party democracies still make a strict modernistic distinction between culture (society) and politics. In the field of decision-making, politics has a monopoly. Policy exclusively belongs in the hands of those who are members of, or who belong to, specific political parties. Societal actors do not participate in politics and are excluded. Decision-making is not understood as taking place within a network of actors; it is imposed from the top down upon society in general, with a political party as the central actor.

Only a strong civic culture within society can break this division between politics and society. A meso-political level is needed in order to create successful multiculturalism: ethnic and many other minorities within a strong civic society can then become actors that take part in the processes of decision-making. In this way, blueprints for society are co-created with support from all the actors within this network, without any cultural group finding themselves completely excluded.

Party democracies, however, rely on the notion that they can engineer societies rationally top down, without letting all identity groups participate. States are becoming more and more diverse through processes of globalisation and immigration, yet party democracies still act according to the principles of the Enlightenment as professed in modernism. With the move away from mono-ethnic nationalism, we must reshape the political system.

Territorial autonomy, or decentralisation, if well designed, is one way to ensure the involvement of minorities in the network of decision-making. Such politics can be adapted to multi-ethnic and multi-national states in which minority groups are geographically concentrated. In case such groups are not geographically concentrated, a system should be designed according to the model of 'grand coalitions', a system of policy-making in which all identity groups have representatives inside government. 



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