Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship



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The Political Economy of Culture


Speaking of economics, at the very heart of Kymlicka’s writings is a question concerning the socio-economic nature of justice. Yet, despite the economics undergirding questions of sovereignty and the topic of minority rights more generally – this subject remains largely unaddressed by Kymlicka. Kymlicka’s emphasis is focused on the national question to the exclusion of critical socio-economic considerations. This leaves his theory weakened and potentially damaging for reaching his sought-after terms of equality between disparate communities. Ostensibly, poverty and racism can be alleviated under Kymlicka’s schema through democratic liberalism and the fair distribution of resources across social groups. Yet Kymlicka focuses on the cultural rather than the economic aspect of distribution and does not examine the connections between cultural poverty and actual poverty. Further, by limiting his discussion to national minorities, he cuts of many groups of impoverished who also lack access to stable and secure culture.

A critical question that must be asked for anyone seeking to implement Kymlicka’s theory is: to what extent should prioritization of culture override other important questions of equitable distribution between citizens? At stake is whether Kymlicka’s definition of access to a stable cultural structure is really necessary to lead the good life. How do we weigh this with other criteria such as economic development? What types of cultural benefits can be supported? Kymlicka aims to show us that culture (or art) needs to be more than just a luxury of the rich. However, the high costs of official bilingualism and institutional separateness may be more than many countries can afford. Gaining a full picture on minority rights and the applicability of Kymlicka’s theory is possible only if we also factor in socio-economics in our assessments.


        1. Nation, Class, and Marshall


Often those whose voices are the loudest are heard the best – and being loud means being empowered enough to have a voice. But what of those other voiceless members of society that are not loud enough to be heard? This is where minority rights come in for Kymlicka. Minority rights must empower, and for Kymlicka empowerment is to be found first and foremost through national rights. Nation, beyond even culture, is the ground for my being, my self-worth and my dignity. My culture is derived from my nation, from my belonging in a community of equals with celebrated traditions and histories. For Kymlicka, the nation-state is the panacea to minority problems, including economic ones. Kymlicka extols the virtues of nationalism and what he believes to be its corollary, the welfare state, for levelling class distinctions and decreasing economic disparities. By absorbing all classes into the “national culture” and cultivating loyalty to this nation as such, the working classes had a way to feel pride and belonging on an equal standing to the higher-ups.

To support this argument, Kymlicka discusses T. H. Marshall’s economic theory, which described how the economically underprivileged in British society in the 20th Century lacked adequate access to social rights, preventing them from taking full advantage of their political rights. Marshall points out how class divisions and poverty removed a great portion of England’s society from full participation in what Kymlicka describes as the common national culture (Marshall’s own words themselves are less national in tone however, and instead focus on “common civilization”) (Kymlicka, 1998c, p. 173). Kymlicka tells us that Marshall pointed out that “to participate actively and responsibly in the political, social and cultural betterment of their community” (Norman & Kymlicka, Citizenship, 2003, pp. 211-2) people must have first had a certain level of socio-economic standing. “Citizenship,” Marshall argues in an oft-quoted passage, “requires a direct sense of community membership based on loyalty to a civilisation that is a common possession” (as cited in Crepaz, 2006, p. 92). Kymlicka echoes this view, believing that the common feeling generated by nationalism is enough to bind together diverse groups, it is the bridge that ultimately brings widely diverse peoples together under one roof and gets them involved and caring about one another.

Building from Marshall’s scheme, Kymlicka states that in today’s societies, it is no longer the lower classes but now sociocultural minorities who lack full participation. Yet even Kymlicka states that Marshall’s theory “does not necessarily work for culturally distinct immigrants,” or for other excluded groups who are marginalized “not because of their socioeconomic status, because of their sociocultural identity – their ‘difference’” (Kymlicka, 1998c, p. 173). For Marshall, class barriers were a result of embedded systems of inequality that were detrimental to the rights of citizenship (which to the contrary were meant to bestow equal rights and duties on all community members). Kymlicka’s theory, in providing national rights to excluded ethnic minorities (belonging to a societal culture) aims to go one step further than Marshall in its attempt to secure citizenship rights. However, this is based on the premise that a sense of common heritage and culture is indeed needed for access to citizenship, and that nationally instituted culture is the best means for providing such citizenship rights.

Kymlicka himself acknowledges that the “integration” of classes on the part of nationalism has not been entirely effective. Indeed, in a language which is itself remarkably elitist, he describes how the “high-culture” of the elite is juxtaposed against the “popular culture” of the working classes. In Kymlicka’s own words:

Whatever the motives, the development of the welfare state has been quite successful in integrating the working classes into national languages, cultures and loyalties throughout the western democracies. To be sure, there are still many class differences between the popular culture of the masses and the high culture of the well-off. The affluent are more likely to prefer tennis to wrestling; or to read newspapers rather than tabloids. But…[the] core national culture bears the imprint of all classes: while it involves exposing working-class children to the high culture of the elites, it also involves exposing upper-class children to the popular culture of the masses (2003, p. 269).

This narrative itself is remarkably privileged, White and Male, and use of the term, “high-culture of the well-off” further indicates the presence of a ruling social group.151

Kymlicka uses Marshall’s theory as a springboard to show how national integration and redistribution went hand in hand to give citizens a feeling of solidarity. Marshall himself however, was less optimistic than Kymlicka about the correlation of nationalism and the reduction of class boundaries. Marshall states that nationalism and common identity did not provide a remedy to the ills of class society. In his words, “growing national consciousness…[and] a sense of community membership and common heritage did not have any material effect on class structure and social inequality,” (Marshall, 1998, pp. 105-6) for the masses still were bereft of a truly participatory government and “effective political power” was beyond their reach. As he says,

It raised the floor-level in the basement of the social edifice, and perhaps made it more hygienic than it was before. But it remained a basement, and the upper stories of the building were unaffected (Marshall, 1998, p. 104)

Status and empowerment were solutions outside the purview of national identity; instead, Marshall attributes social integration to the rise of mass production and a decrease in the gap between skilled and unskilled labourers. Marshall says that material affects, more than “sentiment and patriotism”, are what weaved together the newly egalitarian society and eroded class barriers (Marshall, 1998, p. 107).

Indeed, nationalism can hardly be seen as an economic panacea for the poor. This is particularly true with respect to the minority groups with whom Kymlicka is primarily concerned, and who within the nation are deemed, either by themselves or by the majority, to be outside the “historical [intergenerational] community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture” (Kymlicka, 1995, pp. 11, 18). Indeed, Kymlicka himself suggests as much, that it is precisely a minorities’ lack of identification with the dominant national culture (and common possession of distinct history, territory and language) that leads to their continued disenfranchisement and diminished ability for meaningful participation in the social and political life of the community. Separate minority rights for national groups moves the ball to another court, but it does not end the game.

Adorno offers a scathing criticism of the “latest phase of class society” and its “elimination of difference from the identity of the masses”, which he describes as a having something of a Lethean affect by making us forget our continuing class division and extreme power divides (2003, p. 96). To the contrary, Adorno opines that “the division of society into exploiters and exploited, not only continues unabated but is increasing in coercion and solidity…Membership in the same class by now means translates into equality of interests and action” (2003, p. 96). Accompanying this breakdown of difference, Adorno points out towards mass society’s tendencies towards monopolies and fascism, offering a grim assessment of the offerings of modernity for class.

Parekh takes issue with Kymlicka’s contention that national identity leads to redistribution. He cites the Thatcher government as one that created a strong nationalist identity in Britain but whose “militaristic and individualistic terms” resulted in the country being behind “the Falklands war and the virtues of free enterprise [more] than about redistribution and social cooperation” (Parekh, 1999, p. 315). Redistribution owes much more to strong “social conscience”, or of emancipation struggles of the impoverished, than arising from a shared national identity says Parekh, which in his view plays at most a minimal role (1999, p. 315). It may conversely be argued that national rights, insofar as they maintain and reify boundaries, may actually inhibit fair redistribution.


Nation takes precedence over other marginalized groups


Kymlicka’s focus when speaking about minority rights is on “the sort of ‘multiculturalism’ which arises from national and ethnic differences,” and excludes other marginalized groups such as women, gays and lesbians, the poor, etc. (1995, p. 18). Yet as Walker says, Kymlicka’s main argument is focusing on the disadvantages due to lack of access to secure cultural traditions on the part of ethnic minorities, but this “sense of cultural precariousness is a very widespread sensation in the late twentieth century,” affecting not only minorities but also the mainstream as well (1999, pp. 145-7). If Kymlicka’s argument is correct, says Walker, then not only minority groups but all of us living in these times of globalization face loss of access to secure culture (and hence freedom – if we accept Kymlicka’s argument that culture is the foundation of our choice). If this is the case, then why limit our focus on giving access to culture merely to national groups?

Walker points out that rather than national minorities, “those who are most vulnerable to the ills of cultural deprivation are the persistently poor” (1999, p. 157). Poverty plays a large role in exclusion and lack of access to societal institutions, “not just political parties and trade unions, but even such everyday institutions as banks, hospitals, department stores, and museums” (Walker, Modernity and Cultural Vulnerability: Should Ethnicity Be Priviledged?, 1999, p. 157). The poor, due to their low social standing and difficult material situations face the greatest barriers to inclusion in the political and social systems, as such, Walker says that “if one’s goal is to address the moral difficulties involved with cultural deprivation, then the focus of analysis should be placed on issues of class” (1999, p. 158). Kymlicka’s primary focus on national groups is too limited to address the wider ramifications of the erosion of cultural patterns and traditions and poverty’s role in exclusion – even cultural exclusion. As Brian Walker says, by focusing on the needs of national minorities and instituting societal cultures, the value of culture for choice is forsaken in place of what Walker calls “in essence an argument advocating ethnic hegemony,” (1999, p. 151) marking a hefty internal conflict at the heart of Kymlicka’s theory.

Kymlicka however does in fact recognize the systemic injustices that are bound up with majoritarian politics and our democratic societies. He recognizes that governance, thus far, has largely been top-down, and decided by majorities to the exclusion of significant minority communities. Kymlicka uses Dworkin’s resource egalitarianism schema to back his argument for group rights, for minority groups says Kymlicka, are unable to access the same strings and pulls within the society to secure their cultural environment and therefore require additional rights to secure this for them. Why? Because culture is more than just a good, it is the ground of our good itself, and thus all our economic preferences can in fact be seen to be rooted in this pre-existing cultural fabric in which we exist. Lack of this cultural fabric means that we simply do not have enough yarn to spin our web of desires or weave the lives we want to life, in short our economic choices are circumscribed by the majority’s cultural preferences. However, Walker’s critique is still an important one for our consideration; although Kymlicka’s theory touches on systemic injustices towards certain groups in the society, by limiting it to a national discourse, he isolates some of the most fragile and at risk communities from receiving group recognition and equality, not to mention access to cultural choices.

Without looking at economic conditions, there is no way to gauge properly whether minority rights actually lead to equalisation or whether they lead to injustices. It is not easy to determine, but only through addressing the socio-economic conditions of group relations can we determine whether our correctives truly are correctives, or whether they will only contribute to already long-standing inequalities.


Nation-building is bound up with maintaining unequal power relations


In his positive stance on nationalism, Kymlicka overlooks the ways in which national identity itself may not only be non-neutral with regard to economic disparities, but may actually reinforce them. I refer here to what Charles Tilly terms "durable categorical inequality" (2005, p. 200), referring to the advantages accrued by organized differences from classification systems such as nation, ethnicity, community, religion, gender, race, etc. Categories themselves, says Tilly, do not create inequalities but only difference. “Inequality however occurs when transactions across a categorical boundary (e.g., male-female) a) regularly yield net advantages to people on one side of the boundary and also b) reproduce the boundary” (2005, p. 200). While Kymlicka’s theory advocates reproducing (and indeed reifying) group boundaries, it does however try to work against yielding net advantages to the majority by insisting on the importance of giving greater jurisdiction and powers to the minority group.

Nevertheless, Kymlicka’s methods focus on symbolic not on economic solutions. In examining how the boundaries which he studies (between minority/majority, societal cultures) arose and have been maintained, Kymlicka takes a purely cultural perspective (histories and languages, and to a lesser extent rootedness in a particular territory). He should begin to further look at the socio-economic side of the growth those same identities (such as uneven power relations, economic advantages accruing to territorial possession and cultural dominance, and the ways which these boundaries have reinforced economic and social marginalization). Although Kymlicka points out how multiculturalism cannot be reduced to “mere symbolism” (2007, p. 82), in effect his own theory must begin to go much further.

In his book “Liberalism, Community, and Culture” prior to developing his theory on “societal cultures” and his version of liberal nationalism, Kymlicka offered a much more nuanced assessment on the issues of power relations, economic injustice, as well as a more solid endorsement of liberal neutrality. As he says, “justice requires that people’s circumstances be evaluated, not only in terms of income, but also in terms of power relations” (1989, p. 95). He spends a great deal of time exploring the ways that society’s institutions are unfair, embedding “assumptions of women’s inferiority”, as well as discussing issues of other minority groups such as homosexuals and he voiced concern in knowing “what institutions and practices would constitute the best non-sexist [or otherwise biased] spelling out of the ideals underlying the principle of neutral concern” (Kymlicka, 1989, p. 92). Yet, discussion of such multiple spheres of oppression vis-à-vis the state recede from view in his later works where the national question comes to the fore and begins to trump his earlier concerns about the role of society’s institutions and practices in perpetuating inequalities.

Culture and Economics must go Hand in Hand


As Peled and Brunner rightly point out, cultural protectionism may actually disempower minorities, leaving them rich in culture but poor in autonomy (2000, p. 82). Isolated minority groups when separated from the rest of society may fail to gain the knowledge that would help them to advance or integrate in the surrounding society, and the wider modern world. By limiting them to a narrow cultural scope, it may effectively cut them off from a source of opportunities for growth and exchange, being ill-equipped with “cultural currencies” needed outside the “narrow confines” of their cultural group (Peled & Brunner, 2000, p. 82). Take for example, the circumstances of some traditionally accepted minorities in the United States, which have special exemptions from education, which in turn prevents these members from effectively modernizing. In certain cases, what may be seen as a privilege of culture can be a drawback in terms of socio-economic standing. The ability of the minority to find work and higher education may be limited due to their lack of training or proficiency in the majority language. As Peled and Brunner say, “certain situations of cultural autonomy may function as a form of economic and cultural segregation” (2000, p. 83). Or in other words, ethnocentric or cultural biases in economies, centred not on liberal premise of all are equal but on insularity between cultures.

Peled and Brunner criticize Kymlicka for his otherworldliness, the lack of realism in his theories due to his siphoning of the question of group rights into national or ethnic rights alone (Peled & Brunner, 2000). By ignoring other important marginalised groups, such as lower social classes and urban neighbourhoods, he in effect is turning a blind eye towards some of the most fundamental challenges facing minority groups, which suffer not only from cultural deprivation, but more tragically from “economic exploitation and deprivation” (2000, p. 81). They argue that Kymlicka’s theory fails to provide a coherent strategy for evaluating cultural rights claims, and that only by “interrelating economy and culture” can one give a just assessment about whether cultural rights in fact empower those whom they are meant to assist (Peled & Brunner, 2000, p. 82).

Further, Kymlicka’s theory does not examine how the national identification can actually foster systemic inequalities beyond national and cultural identifications. The East Germans for example, do not see themselves as a separate national group in Kymlicka’s sense of a “societal culture”: one that has separate historic roots, language, or other ethnic/cultural separateness from the rest of Germans. Although the circumstances of their history are different from West Germans, those separate and different histories are intertwined and rooted together. The issue at state in East Germany is not one of nationalism, but of economic inequalities and unequal opportunities within a single – but historically divided, “nation”. For such situations, Kymlicka’s theory may in future be tailored along economic lines to provide an answer.

Nancy Fraser, for example, insists on the need to combine recognition with redistribution strategies. Tying identity politics with socio-economics, she says we must challenge ourselves to develop a “critical theory of recognition, one which identifies and defends only those version of the cultural politics of difference that can be coherently combined with the social politics of equality” (Fraser, 1995, p. 69). Balancing recognition and redistribution however, is not always so easy. Fraser provides examples of a number of cases, laying them out along the redistribution-recognition spectrum. Those that fall towards the middle of the spectrum, such as gender and race groups, face the most difficult situation of combined both political-economic inequalities as well as cultural de-valuation (Fraser, 1995, p. 78). Deciding on how to address both aspects of oppression is not easy, for often redistribution and recognition are at “cross-purposes” with one another, whereas recognition claims tend towards group differentiation, “affirmation”, redistribution claims have a tendency to do the reverse, “deconstruction” (Fraser, 1995, pp. 74, 87). In Fraser’s view, the current simplistic approach in the US to “mainstream multiculturalism” wed to the “liberal welfare state” is miserably failing and ultimately “generating perverse effects” (1995, p. 93)152. Instead, Fraser argues that these issues be situated “in [a] larger field of multiple, intersecting struggles against multiple, intersecting injustices” (Fraser, 1995, p. 92). She recommends that we must take a more nuanced stance towards these issues, and provide more tailored solutions aimed at minimizing conflicts and creating conditions of justice and equality.


Which takes precedence – cultural rights or economic ones?


If the cultural continuity of my national community is so essential to my human freedom as Kymlicka says it is, then what happens when the pursuance of my culture will impoverish others, or lead to my own impoverishment? To put it succinctly, do cultural rights trump economic rights? How do we gauge when we give one over the other. Certainly, cultural and economic rights need not be in a zero-sum position. Indeed, in his book Multiculturalism and the Welfare State, Kymlicka along with his co-authors provide empirical evidence to confute unverified claims that either the introduction of multiculturalism policies (MCPs) or increases in cultural heterogeneity counteract redistribution (in the form of a robust welfare state) (Banting, Johnston, Kymlicka, & Soroka, 2006). Kymlicka should more closely consider the economic variable involved in the recognition strategies he proposes, which I contend must form a part of any policy-making decisions to be taken.

Bannerji makes a useful distinction in two forms of multiculturalism which focus our attention not only on the need for grassroots mobilization that challenge the status quo, but also emphasizes the critical aspect of socio-economic considerations behind multiculturalism policies. Bannerji argues, however that the “politicization of culture” seems to have overtaken the liberal political agenda, relinquishing its “former obligation to issues of class and labor-capital relations” (2003, p. 35). Bannerji describes a split between two forms of multiculturalism. The multiculturalism promoted by communitarians such as Taylor, and inscribed in the Canadian political process for example, are what he calls “multiculturalism from above” (Bannerji, 2003, p. 35). Yet instead of challenging the dominant cultural hegemony, these policies ‘otherize’ (or in Bannerji’s words “rope-in” (2003, p. 37)) ethnic minorities, perpetuate the dominant hegemony, and leave minority groups “seeking recognition from the dominant hegemonic core” (2003, p. 44).

Alternatively, there is a different form of multiculturalism he hopes can overcome old racisms and colonial mentality, which he calls “popular multiculturalism” or “multiculturalism from below” (Bannerji, 2003, p. 36). Contrary to “multiculturalism from above”, this multiculturalism aims at equality (on every level) and is “in-formed with an historical awareness and rejection of socio-economic and political inequalities and marginalizations and therefore challenges cultural marginalization as well” (Bannerji, 2003, p. 36). Marion Young similarly points out the need for challenging marginalization in our societies, as she says, "both a working-class based politics and a group differentiated politics are necessary in mobilizations and programmes to undermine oppression and promote social justice in group differentiated societies” (1995, p. 156). Indeed they can support one another.

Bannerji, in a sleight to Charles Taylor’s “politics of recognition”, says that “Taylor may find this incredible, but many of us – the multicultural others – are not seeking recognition from him” (2003, p. 44). That is not to say, says Bannerji, that minorities do not welcome increased tolerance and mutual respect, as well as growing concern for others that “will nurture the unoppressive social selves of individuals” (2003, p. 44). Before there can be mutual respect, says Bannerji, there must be equality. “Identity is a delicate plant. It cannot grow in the shadow of power, in a deprived social soil” (Bannerji, 2003, p. 44) The bottom line is that economic rights need also to be secured before cultural rights can be ultimately fulfilled, and that cultural rights cannot be understood if separated from economic and power considerations. Lacey puts the challenge nicely,

Much work, practical and theoretical, analytical and imaginative, needs to be done if the notions of neutrality, rights equality, justice are to be understood in their racially, sexually and otherwise oppressively patterned reality, and if they are to be reconstructed in a way which promises the genuine accommodation of different forms of life, different subjectivities (2002, p. 37).

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