Why was the Left trapped into Multiculturalism?

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.

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