Diversity – the Republican Perspective

The last twenty years have seen questions of unity and diversity in society posed in many contexts – from the right wing backlash against multiculturalism to some spectacular events such as riots in Paris. Questions of unity and diversity in society result from some big challenges to contemporary political communities:


The international integration of national economies into a world economic framework that is qualitatively different to previous trans-national markets has challenged the sovereignty of nation states. One response has been the development of a raft of regional governance arrangements ranging from the European Union through to more modest regional financial agreements and trade zones. The crucial thing is that these transcend and undermine the sovereignty of the nation state, posing the question of possible post-national arrangements for political community.

Social cohesion

The long term decline in social cohesion in advanced industrialised societies since WWII, registered in measurements of declining social capital and most visible in problems of anomie and rioting, confronts industrialised societies with a qualitatively new challenge to social integration. Rising individualism and falling solidarity have made many commentators and politicians feel that the model of negative liberty-of individual rights-characteristic of liberal politics is not enough to protect the social bond.

Value pluralism

Against the background of the first two challenges, the rightwing backlash against multiculturalism in advanced industrialised countries has made it evident that democratic political communities must work out more compellingly how they socially integrate value-plural, poly-ethnic and multi-faith communities. Concerns about “ethnic ghettos” and “parallel societies” might be based mainly in anxieties, but the existence of these concerns itself speaks to the need for a convincing narrative about how we are to encourage diversity while maintaining unity.

The ascendancy of neoconservatism

These three factors have interacted in some complex ways in the last twenty years, but one of the effects of their interaction has been the ascendancy of neoconservative positions on diversity. In neo-conservative politics and sociology, problems of social cohesion are blamed on value pluralism, and this value pluralism is traced to the existence of a multitude of cultural differences. In other words, the Right has blamed the breakdown in social solidarity on groups whose visible differences make them easy targets.

The neoconservative accommodation of racism involved rejecting the equal opportunity provisions that accompanied multicultural policy, and using the rhetoric of special interests and cultural ghettos. Neoconservatives maintain that: (1) multiculturalism undermines the “Anglo-Celtic core culture” of the Australian state; (2) the logical consequence of multicultural policy is the creation of national minorities in parallel societies; (3) multiculturalism supports group rights and special treatment of individuals on the basis of ethnicity/culture.

The communitarian assumption guiding this sort of thinking is that culturally distinct communities produce individuals who hold values that are potentially or actually in radical conflict with the values generated by other (closed) communities. Neoconservatives maintain that under these conditions, a loose federation between particular communities must fail (because of value conflict). They criticise liberal multicultural policies for supposedly encouraging fragmentation along these lines, and they argue that since liberal tolerance springs from the core culture, the only way to get value consensus and a feeling of national identity is to impose the core culture on immigrant groups.[1]

The defence of liberal multiculturalism

Against this rightwing backlash, the Left’s responses to questions of social cohesion and value pluralism have been reactively framed as a defence of liberal positions against the neoconservative critique – defences of a set of institutions and policies that were framed within the terms of liberal political philosophy.[2]

I believe that the most cogent philosophical statement of liberal multiculturalism is provided by Will Kymlicka.[3] His position is based on some things that I agree with, such as the centrality of moral autonomy and the importance of value pluralism. However, Kymlicka holds that the state forms around an ethno-cultural nucleus, or “core culture,” that continues to influence public life in that country.

Accordingly, the liberal seeks ways to ameliorate the situation of minority cultures, through, for instance, protecting minorities from discrimination and exempting minorities from the public culture-e.g. head-dress requirements, holidays, etc.[4].. Kymlicka says that it is not in principle unjust for “core,” or majority,
cultures to demand that cultural minorities abandon the social institutions that support their distinctive cultural forms. But he then adds that conditions of material disadvantage make it more reasonable for cultural minorities to demand, not just the right of individuals to continue cultural practices from the country of origin, but also that the state support institutions that sustain these practices from generation to generation.[5] Kymlicka acknowledges that social solidarity depends on value consensus plus national identity and that this model of “ethnic mosaic” or loose federation does not supply this sort of normative bond.

An inadequate response

I think that the Left, because of an anxiety that any departure from liberal political discourse on the question of multicultural society will open the gates for the racists, has failed to think boldly about this question and failed to provide an adequate
response to both neoconservatism and the liberal multiculturalist framework.

The problem is not the fact of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society. Immigrants are not the problem. The problem is the “top-up” model proposed by liberal thinkers like Kymlicka, and, in my view, defended as the default position by the Left. By “top-up” model, I mean a model that does not eliminate advantage, but ameliorates disadvantage. I mean a policy that does not address the problem of the core culture laying claim to democratic institutions – as if they were its possession – but instead accepts this situation as a given and seeks to redress the problems that it causes for minority cultures.

What the Left needs is a powerful and compelling political philosophy of democratic government and egalitarian society-not acceptance of a position that regards some inequalities as cast in stone. It is high time for the Left to develop a bold vision capable of responding to questions about the national identity, republican politics, indigenous reconciliation and cultural diversity-in other words, a vision of a better

This is the question that is central to this paper:

What sorts of normative bond-of value consensus and national identity-would promote this vision of a better society?

An adequate answer to this question needs a conception of social solidarity capable of sustaining social cohesion and value pluralism. But there’s the rub. For both the liberal and the neoconservative, there is a strong tension between social cohesion and value pluralism. In the neoconservative case, it is built into the communitarian assumptions of the position. More alarmingly, the liberal position-at least, on Kymlicka’s statement of it-shares enough of these assumptions to be a worry.  The only way out is if it can be established that value-consensus can rest on universal principles and that mutual recognition can transcend particular cultural horizons.

The republican perspective

From the republican perspective, outlined by thinkers of the Frankfurt School such as Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, politics is not just a question of negotiating particular interests through the aggregation of preferences in voting and protecting negative liberties from government interference. Nor is democratic citizenship just a question of a schedule of rights and duties, together with some social provisions, designed to compensate for structural inequalities. Politics is central to the development of social solidarity and the formation of moral identity.

In the active exercise of democratic citizenship through political participation in public life, individuals express their mutual dependence, beyond the bounds of communal particularisms. The republican perspective sees this as a two-way street. The mutual dependence of citizens compels the recognition relations of particular
(minority or majority) communities to accommodate increasingly universal practices of respect and increasingly society-wide conceptions of the social contribution of individuals. At the same time, the public culture must accommodate the different perceptions of value that individuals bring to their relationships with one another-the public culture must act as the medium for cultural dialogue. This process will be blocked by any identification of the public culture, or the democratic institutions of the nation state, with the culture of any one group-even the majority.

From this perspective, social solidarity arises from society-wide forms of mutual recognition and expresses a value consensus that forms the common good. However, this value consensus must not be understood as substantive agreement on a particular value that acts as the highest good for all members of a political community. The sort of republicanism that I am advocating is not a variant of communitarianism.

The common good that I am talking about can be understood as consensus on the principled agreements built into an institutionalised form of public life: in other words, the consensus is on the institutions that make democratic politics possible.

Like Kymlicka, Habermas and Honneth think that democratic citizenship is a crucial medium of social integration. But unlike the liberal position, this perspective does not call for the acceptance of some de facto inequalities-centrally, of the privileged cultural position of the majority in relation to the democratic institutions of the nation state-as beyond redress. This is because the view that I am advocating does not believe that cultural communities somehow extrude democratic institutions as expressions of particular values. It rejects the supposedly organic relation between state and culture, and promotes a theory of the struggle for recognition and the view that the state is partisan in the promotion of the common good.

Struggle for recognition

Democratic institutions, we all know, are the result of long struggles for rights and recognition by the marginalised within, for instance, European culture. Less obviously, but no less crucially, these institutions are supported by cultural understandings, moral principles and forms of identity that had to be struggled for just as vigorously. What basis is there for the complacent belief that the cultural forms constellated around Britain have, upon arrival in Australia, reached the terminus of their process of universalisation and now need not evolve any further? None, I suggest. Indeed, the ways that a supposed Anglo-Celtic core culture have been marshalled rhetorically in the service of discrimination suggest that there is a lot more work to do.

Promotion of the common good

The key is the public culture-the medium for inter-group relations and the transmission belt for relations between groups and the state. On normative grounds of considerations of autonomy, this public culture must not be the possession of any one cultural/religious group-otherwise, it is an imposition on all of the rest of the society, that is, a violation of autonomy.

However, the state is not just a loose federation-it is the expression of a principled consensus that can only arise in the public culture that regulates civil society. The only way to avoid value-particularism in the state-and therefore arbitrariness that would potentially violate the right of individuals to form reasonable conceptions of the good life-is if this state is both secular and universal. This entails that (1) the public culture must also be universal; and (2) the particular features of the local value communities that exist within this general political community must not be incompatible with the public culture-for instance, pre-modern communalisms and religious fundamentalism, totalitarian politics and ethnic holisms are ruled out.

A cosmopolitan public culture

German Muslim Bassam Tibi has proposed in the European context the idea of modernity as the European Leitkultur (leading culture, or principled framework) for supporting cultural and religious diversity within a strong form of social solidarity that would seek to integrate immigrants as democratic citizens “of the heart, not just of the passport”. For Tibi, there is a stark choice: either integration within the evolving framework of a principled cosmopolitan identity that is open to inter-cultural dialogue, or what he calls “multi-cultural-value-denial,” a form of communitarian federation that will only provide a screen for the political Right (both the neo-fascists and the Islamic fundamentalists). “The values needed for a core culture are those of modernity: democracy, secularism, the Enlightenment, human rights and civil society,” Tibi proposes, which would provide the principled framework for cultural diversity.[6].

Integration would be a two way street according to this republican conception. Rather than advocating group rights beyond minority protections[7], special forms of representation and group exemptions from the public culture,the Left should stand for cosmopolitanism:

  • A non-ethnic and secular republican state with a strong modern (universal) public culture, and a legal framework that supports individual autonomy through minority protections (anti-discrimination, equal opportunity); and
  • The transformation of ethnic-particular cultural communities, including especially the “Anglo-Celtic core culture,” through their progressive opening to the universalising dynamics of cultural rationalisation, as fostered by the public culture as medium for intercultural dialogue.

This would mean social solidarity mobilised through democratic citizenship, supported by the full range of legal, civil and social rights, as the political expression of a cosmopolitan identity, rejecting group-differentiated citizenship, and linked to a constitutional patriotism as the medium for social solidarity.

[1] That Australian multicultural policy does not do the things that the neoconservatives accuse it of is beside the point here – but see The Times Will Suit Them for a rebuttal of some of the Right’s arguments.

[2] Of course, the defences of multiculturalism provided by thinkers on the Left have taken a lot of forms, and many of these people would not consider themselves liberals (for instance, many defend multiculturalism from a perspective informed by post-structuralist philosophies of difference) – but these have been defences of a set of institutions and policies that were framed within the terms of liberal political philosophy.

[3] Kymlicka, W Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 1995).

[4] Kymlicka, page 114.

[5] Kymlicka, page 99.

[6] Bassam Tibi, Europa Ohne Identität? Leitkultur oder Wertbeliebigkeit (Second Revised Edition) (Bonn: BTB Verlag, 2003), p. 154.

[7] Especially entitlements to protect cultures and religions that cannot “compete in the cultural marketplace”