The National Limits of Diversity

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It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged among progressives that cultural diversity demands we look beyond the nation-state. National communities, so the argument goes, can no longer provide a convincing basis for political membership. Perhaps they once did, when nation-states could be conceived of as homogeneous communities, where citizens’ political and cultural identities were one and the same. But how can nationality – with all of its cultural baggage – be a common source of identity in a multicultural society?

Alongside this is another piece of progressive conventional wisdom: the idea that there is self-evident merit in valuing cultural diversity. Who among progressives doesn’t like diversity? Anyone who dares pose questions about diversity risks condemnation for being an assimilationist, an ideological relic of the 1950s and 60s.

Let us, for a moment, set aside shibboleths and return to first principles. For too long, progressives in Australia have failed to make the case for diversity, and have been content instead to cast all invocations of national identity as merely dog-whistling. The departure of John Howard from the prime ministership shouldn’t fool us into believing that arguments about diversity are over or that progressive conventional wisdom has prevailed. Important questions about culture and belonging remain and will persist for decades to come. But if there are to be questions progressives should ask, they are not ones such as “Why are there still racists in Australia who can’t accept that we live in a global age?” Rather they should be, “Into what kind of community must we belong as citizens?”, and, indeed, “What end must diversity serve?” These are the questions to which I shall offer a brief response.

First, cultural diversity. Progressives, when they bother to make a positive case for diversity, frequently appeal to three arguments. The most frequently invoked is the lifestyle and choice argument: dragon dances, souvlaki and kebabs enrich our culture such that everyone has an expanded set of options within which to live their lives. Others emphasise the need for society to offer recognition to the authentic identities of ethnic or cultural minorities – that valuing diversity is the only way that everyone in society, including minorities, can realise self-respect. Others still argue that the case for diversity rests upon its economic benefits – over the last three decades, government policy on immigration has been strongly influenced by ideas about “productive diversity” – immigrants are understood foremost as an input to economic efficiency.

There are problems with each of these arguments when they are pursued in and of themselves. The lifestyle argument ends up trivialising diversity, implying that we should value minority cultures only in so far as they can enrich ours. The authenticity argument can end up giving minorities a licence to live in self-enclosed communities in order to realise their cultural integrity, encouraging what Amartya Sen calls “plural monoculturalism”. As for the economic argument, it is difficult to put an accurate numerical value on the contribution of immigrants to a national economy, since the economic benefits of cultural diversity are frequently intangible or are realised over the long run.

In making the case for diversity, progressives need to place the three foregoing arguments in context. If we must value diversity – if we should, that is, endorse a policy of multiculturalism in which the expression of cultural identity is considered a right - we must do so as part of a coherent integration policy. Diversity, in other words, must serve the ends of citizenship. The expression of cultural diversity means very little if it is not understood as part of a broader social justice agenda that seeks to ensure all Australians, regardless of their background, receive a fair go.

Our conversation about diversity would do well with a dose of “Back to the future”,  or, more accurately, “Look at the documents”. Many progressives have failed to do  their homework (although the Right, too, has been guilty of this). Under the impression that multiculturalism must mean celebrating a world of difference, as  part of some cosmopolitan utopia, progressives often fail to realise that Australian multiculturalism has always been expressed as a civic rather than a cultural ideal.

Indeed, official statements of multicultural policy in Australia have valued diversity only to the extent that it promotes individual autonomy, and to the extent that it is grounded in common civic values. In this respect, Australian multiculturalism has been very different from the multiculturalism practised elsewhere. In the UK, for instance, multiculturalism was a policy defined by an ideal of a “federation of communities”, of groups living side by side but not necessarily interacting with each other. In the USA, multiculturalism has been concerned solely with issues of ethnocentric representation and portrayals of the Other in school curricula. But in Australia, multiculturalism as a policy has been defined firmly in terms of the rights and responsibilities of Australian citizenship. Consider multiculturalism’s most  emphatic and detailed official statement, the 1989 blueprint National Agenda for a  Multicultural Australia (from which all subsequent statements have derived).  There, multiculturalism was defined in no uncertain terms as something conferring a right on individual citizens to express their cultural identity, but balanced by an obligation to accept the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language and equality of the sexes. Our  multiculturalism has, in other words, always had a citizenship test built into it, even  if this has been ignored by many on both Left and Right.

Which brings us to the other question to be asked – that of community. It has become fashionable in recent years to believe that citizenship must somehow be divorced from any sense of national identity. If there must be an entity into which citizens of diverse cultural backgrounds must be integrated, it is a political community – but one stripped of any cultural content. If we were to try putting this into intellectual context, progressive currents have been charged by German  philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s proposal of “constitutional patriotism”. Political membership, according to Habermas, must be defined in terms of the universalistic norms, values and procedures of a liberal democratic culture. As Habermas argues, “the identity of the political community … is primarily anchored in the political culture and not on an ethical-cultural form of life as a whole”.

Yet integration seems impracticable if we insist on separating political culture from cultural forms of life. This is because any meaningful patriotism (constitutional or otherwise) seems only to be possible when citizens in a political community are able to see themselves as part of a “people” who can consider the polity as something that is “theirs”. Put another way, the identification patriotic citizens have with their political institutions is dependent on a “pre-political” sense of community. But for a particular political culture to manifest the liberal principles needed for constitutional patriotism, the political community in question needs to be already strong and well-integrated.

This is where the post-national argument runs into a dead end. Ultimately, the  States that come nearest to an idea of a well-integrated community are those  underpinned by a trans-generational political community. These are communities in which political identities are also historical identities capable of motivating thick loyalties. In this imperfect world of nation-states in which we live, any meaningful citizenship must be underpinned by a nation.

Such reminders about diversity and the nation may cause some discomfort for  progressives. So be it. It does little good to build castles in the air. If we are to value diversity, let us value difference for the sake of integrating all Australians into a community of citizens defined by shared civic values and a historical tradition built around a common public culture. And rather than regarding nationhood as merely an artefact of racism, progressives should seek to reclaim national values for liberal ends. There is far too much at stake to abandon national citizenship in the name of cosmopolitan sensibility.