Diversity and the problem of belonging
Will Kymlicka in conversation with Chandran Kukathas
In an article in The New Yorker late last year, Hua Hsu wrote about “diversity fatigue,” and the scapegoating of diversity for a slew of cultural failures. The results of a recent Ipsos MORI poll for the BBC would seem to raise that malaise to fear, even hostility. Residents in a majority of the twenty-seven countries polled felt their countries are more divided now than a decade ago, and many blame migration.
In our ever more multicultural world, questions about diversity and social cohesion have coalesced into debates over niqab bans, contentious diaspora histories (see the storm over federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s associations with pro-Khalistan activists), and more. These are questions explored by Will Kymlicka in a recent anthology co-edited with Keith Banting, The Strains of Commitment: The Political Sources of Solidarity in Diverse Societies, published by Oxford University Press. Kymlicka is the Canada Research Chair in political philosophy at Queen’s University, and author of a number of influential texts on citizenship and diversity, including Multiculturalism and the Welfare State (co-edited with Banting) and Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (co-authored with Sue Donaldson).
They are also questions explored by Chandran Kukathas, chair in political theory and professor of government at the London School of Economics, and a well-known scholar in the areas of multiculturalism and liberal thought. His books include The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom and Immigration and Freedom, forthcoming from Princeton University Press next spring.
Kymlicka and Kukathas spoke via email about solidarity and citizenship in an age of mobility.
Chandran Kukathas: Since not all readers will be familiar with your most recent thinking on solidarity, perhaps it would be useful to start with an account from you of how you see the issue.
Will Kymlicka: There’s a widespread belief, among academics and the general public, that in the past thirty or forty years citizens in Western democracies have become more self-centred, and less concerned about the common good or the welfare of others, and so less willing to support the welfare state. Some commentators blame this on the rise of neoliberalism, which has emphasized our role as self-interested market actors rather than as democratic citizens. Other commentators blame it on the striking increase in ethnic, racial, and religious diversity in recent years, driven largely by immigration.
Psychologists tell us that we are more likely to feel solidarity towards, and to make sacrifices for, those who are “like us” or who are “one of us,” and that it is more difficult to feel solidarity towards those who are perceived as “others.” If solidarity is easier to maintain under conditions of ethnic homogeneity, we quickly run into what is often called the “progressive’s dilemma.” This perceived trade-off between diversity and solidarity is tying the left in knots in Europe, and to some extent in North America as well.
Kukathas: You’re right that the Western left is struggling with a dilemma. A commitment to social justice conceived in terms of welfarist redistribution has come up against the claims of diverse cultural groups. Theorists like Brian Barry, who favoured a difference-blind approach, simply concluded “so much the worse for diversity,” implying that people should get over their cultural attachments and join the modern world. The problem, however, is that diversity will not go away because diversity is not an independent variable we can adjust and control.
Ethnicity might be a marker of difference and so a source of diversity, but it is not naturally so. Until the 1970 census in the U.S., “Hispanics” were not an ethnic category, and people from Mexico and Latin America were regarded as white. Political elites competing for power (in democracies and non-democracies) will always be tempted to sow divisions to win support, all too often in the name of solidarity.
Kymlicka: Sure; in some cases, ethnicity becomes politicized because leaders artificially “sow divisions,” but in other cases, people mobilize around ethnicity to address genuine grievances and injustices. Canada was built on the basis of colonialism and racialized definitions of the nation, and this history casts an enormous shadow on our institutions and on our public culture. When Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and racialized minorities mobilize to contest the status quo, this is often a healthy democratic impulse, and a force for greater justice. However, many people naturally worry about how this “politics of difference” impacts on solidarity.
In the past few years here in Canada, we’ve had intense debates about the public funding of religious schools and about whether Muslim women should be able to wear the niqab when taking the citizenship oath. In both cases, part of the anxiety was just old-fashioned xenophobia, but part of it was the feeling that public schools and citizenship ceremonies are important sites of solidarity, and that in these particular sites, the imperatives of multiculturalism may need to be subordinated to the requirements of solidarity. I think that anxiety is misplaced, but I understand it, and it deserves a careful answer, unpacking how diversity and solidarity are connected.
Kukathas: In the introduction to your new book, you write that “in the contemporary context of increasingly diverse societies, we are interested in a solidarity that transcends ethno-religious differences, operates at a societal scale, and has civic, democratic and redistributive dimensions. Such an inclusive solidarity, we contend, is needed to sustain just institutions.”
This sounds very much like the view of a contemporary democratic liberal (on your side of the Atlantic) or socialist (on mine). Given that you are aiming for an inclusive form of solidarity, do you think it would resonate with, say, more conservative people from the so-called red states in the U.S., or with conservatives in the U.K.? Might they not view your version of solidarity as an effort to pull them into a political orbit they have always resisted?
Kymlicka: I’ve often been told that whereas progressives believe in “claiming rights,” conservatives believe in “cultivating responsibilities.” If so, then our project actually falls closer to the conservative end. Our aim in this volume is not to identify what rights citizens can claim, but rather how a society can cultivate a sense of mutual obligation and mutual concern. It’s true that the word “solidarity” is often associated with the social democratic left, but we could have equally called it a sense of “collective responsibility” or “mutual commitment,” which would fit comfortably in the lexicon of most conservatives. There may be a few hard-core social Darwinists who believe that “greed is good,” and that people should sink or swim without any help from their fellow citizens. But those are few and far between. Most conservatives share the idea that a good society requires a sense of solidarity.
Our particular focus on reconciling solidarity with diversity, however, does reflect a more specific progressive commitment. Some cultural conservatives view immigrants as posing a cultural threat to a traditional Canadian (or Dutch or German) way of life, and so for that reason alone would prefer to reduce immigration and to insist that immigrants assimilate. Progressives, by contrast, are torn: They think immigrants have a right to be different, as a matter of justice, but worry about its impact on solidarity.
Kukathas: I think I’m more on the side of the progressives here, though I’d be happier to identify as a liberal. As a liberal I don’t have much time for either the “greed is good” or the “let them sink or swim” (or “eat cake”!) perspectives on the world. We are cooperative, social beings, and market relations are just one form of social cooperation. The question, however, is how should one think about the boundaries of cooperation? John Rawls famously asked us to think about society as a scheme of social cooperation. But society here means a national community, as I understand Rawls—and I think also you, Will. Without wishing to deny the actual significance of the national community, I regard it as something of less ethical significance than you do. The rise of the state has seen it subsume other forms of social cooperation (including forms of governance) and seek to foster a kind of national solidarity to secure its legitimacy and ensure compliance. I can see why states might care about building solidarity, but I’m not sure why we should.
Indeed, I think the state’s demand for national solidarity threatens to corrupt or undermine other, more valuable, forms of social cooperation. In nineteenth-century America, for example, the standard for determining whether or not someone was a “native” was usually the local community’s judgment as to whether he or she had lived in the area and had participated in the life of the society and been recognized as such. Residence was normally sufficient to earn one entitlements to assistance in times of distress, access to public hospitals, and other forms of welfare.
Federal efforts to enforce a national identity came into conflict with the wishes of communities, and sometimes states, to regard immigrants as members by virtue of their actual absorption (assimilation) into society. I think we are seeing this same tension in evidence in the current scandal over the attempted deportation of British people who migrated from the Caribbean (the so-called Windrush generation). The state demands one standard of (national) solidarity, but communities around the country have come to the defence of those facing deportation saying that the national standard is wrong.
Kymlicka: The role of nationhood in solidarity is indeed the most vexing issue, and the contributors to our volume disagree (vehemently!) about what we gain or lose by tying solidarity to nationhood. In my view, we need a division of moral labour. We owe certain things to people simply because they are human beings. It would be wrong to torture someone, or to experiment on them, no matter what their citizenship. These are universal human rights, rooted in humanitarianism.
But there are other claims that are rooted in membership. We owe certain things to people because we are members of a shared society, governed by shared social norms, and so share in the burdens and benefits of upholding this shared society. It would be wrong to torture a visiting tourist to Canada, but it is not wrong to deny the vote to a tourist. The right to vote in Canadian elections is a membership right, not a universal humanitarian right. Much of the welfare state is similarly tied to membership. We have a humanitarian obligation to provide emergency health care to a tourist who has a heart attack, but we don’t have a duty to provide a hip replacement or job training to tourists. These are membership rights.
If we accept this distinction between universal humanitarian rights and membership rights, the question then is how do we determine the boundaries of membership? In the modern world, the answer is nationhood. We imagine Canada as a national community, and insofar as immigrants want access to membership rights, we invite (and indeed require) them to join that national community, by learning one of its official languages, studying its history and institutions, and swearing loyalty to its national constitution.
Kukathas: I’d like to ask why the nation-state is the right level at which membership most matters—and that the most important goods should be regulated or provided by Germany, say, rather than Berlin. It cannot be population size, since Berlin, with a population of 3.5 million is larger than ninety-eight of the world’s nation-states. It seems improbable that it is territory, since countries range in extent from Russia and Canada at one extreme to various Pacific Islands at the other. And I’m not sure it will do to appeal to history, which will tell us how we got to where we are now but does not tell us where we should go. (Some think it does, but they all seem to be marching in different directions!)
All in all, my sense is that your claim is that the nation-state is the right administrative unit and that we should therefore make sure that people are attached to it. I’m querying both aspects of that claim.
Kymlicka: People look around and see that neighbourhoods and cities are often more inclusive than national-level politics, and so conclude that the route to inclusive solidarity is to de-centre the nation and to focus instead on the local. We know that it’s easier for Turkish immigrants in Germany to be accepted as Berliners than to be accepted as Germans, so let’s give up on trying to achieve an inclusive sense of nationhood and let’s focus instead on building inclusive cities. I hear this all the time, on both the right and the left. In my view, it’s deeply problematic. If Turkish Berliners are not accepted as Germans, they will be permanently relegated to second-class citizenship—local citizenship cannot take the place of national citizenship. Moreover, Berlin’s own capacity to promote inclusive integration depends on the background operation of the German welfare state. Local inclusion depends on national level institutions. As one study put it, local initiatives to welcome newcomers “take place on a terrain structured by the silent operations of the national welfare state as a territorial ‘solidarity machine.’ ”
Kukathas: It is a problem if Turkish Berliners, or Turkish immigrants generally, are not accepted as German in a society in which being German is important. I don’t think the solution is to make being German more important, however, because that immediately provokes an inquiry into the question of what makes a German. As for second-class citizenship, that matters only if the importance of citizenship is elevated. I would like to see its significance diminished. Millions of people live in countries without being citizens. This includes Green Card holders in the U.S. and EU citizens resident outside their countries of nationality in Europe.
I think you are quite right about the “national solidarity machines.” That search for solidarity has often been the driving motivation in state-created institutions—though sometimes it is merely to secure the solidarity of the ruling power’s support base. Thus Bismarck introduced health insurance and other forms of mandatory insurance (disability, accident) that led to the German welfare state, largely to undermine support for the socialist parties. Controlling welfare provision was the means to securing solidarity. It was not the case that solidarity was needed to make welfare provision possible.
We now live in a world in which states do provide a range of goods, from health care to education to public transport. But I’m not sure why this means that these goods must be supplied on the basis of membership of a national state. The argument seems to be: We need solidarity so we can continue to supply goods allocated on the basis of membership. If so, perhaps the problem is making supply conditional on membership.
There are many ways of being a part of a society. I am a citizen of Australia (to which I migrated from Malaysia). I live, work, and pay taxes in Britain, of which I am not a citizen. In my first five years here I had the right to work, and access to health care but not to unemployment relief. As a Commonwealth citizen I had the right to vote in all elections, unlike EU citizens resident in Britain, who could vote only in local elections. (Resident students from the Commonwealth are also eligible to vote in the U.K., even if staying for less than a year.) After gaining “indefinite leave to remain,” I acquired the right to stand for public office (including Parliament). Ironically, should I become a British citizen I would lose the right to stand for Parliament in Australia (but not Britain) because of dual nationality. So what exactly is membership? Is there a determinate set of rights that must go with it? Or is it highly variable—as social and political reality seems to suggest?
Kymlicka: Steve Vertovec coined the term “super-diversity” to capture the reality you’re describing. Our societies are increasingly diverse not only in terms of people’s origins, but also in terms of their legal statuses, with innumerable gradations in between mere tourists and full citizens. Commentators often say that we no longer live in an “age of migration”—in which people uproot themselves from one country and permanently settle in another—but in an “age of mobility,” in which many people keep moving, accumulating a range of legal statuses in different countries, each with varying degrees of (in)security or (im)permanence.
Confronted with this reality, many commentators argue that a nation-centric model of membership is no longer viable. Nationhood, we’re told, may have worked for an age of migration, but not an age of mobility. I’m skeptical. For one thing, people have been predicting the death of nationhood due to globalization and mobility for a century now. In any event, what is the alternative? One option is a radical “open borders” cosmopolitanism in which we view everyone as a “citizen of the world,” with the right to move freely, and to take all of our economic, political, and social rights with us. All of us would have an equal right to live, and to be a citizen, anywhere on the globe.
I know you’ve defended open borders, Chandran, but I think this is a political non-starter. Recent events confirm that most people value collective self-determination: they want to govern themselves and their territory, including regulating who enters their territory.
Kukathas: I’ll address the open borders question in a moment. But first I’d like to say that as someone who’s skeptical about the ideal of citizenship I’d rather see a world in which we’d all have greater freedom to live and work anywhere on the globe and not be a citizen. A Mexican seasonal worker moving to California to pick fruit would find it no more difficult than would a college student in Toronto returning home to Alberta or travelling in Europe for the summer. Tying rights to work or reside more strongly to citizenship seems like, at best, an unnecessary complication. I’m even more skeptical about the ideal of collective self-determination, which I’d like to come back to.
Kymlicka: I suspect we have a deeper disagreement here about democracy: democracy rests on the idea of the rule of “the people” who are seen as having the right to govern themselves and their territory. Democracy therefore requires a sense of “peoplehood”—a sense amongst members that they form a stable and enduring society tied to a particular territory. A world of (mobile) persons without (stable) peoples is not, I think, feasible or attractive. In the Canadian case, a further complication is that many of those who would enter through open borders would settle on unceded Indigenous lands. Open borders contradicts not just Canadian self-determination but also Indigenous self-determination.
The deeper problem is that open-borders cosmopolitanism has a one-dimensional theory of solidarity. It has an ethic of universal humanitarianism, which may get you respect for basic human rights and duties of rescue, but a just society is about more than this. Social justice is about the mutual concern we have as members of a shared society, and rests on some image of a decent, good, or just society and of the sort of egalitarian relations that should characterize it. Insofar as modern societies have created a decent home for their citizens, it is because they have (bounded) membership rights layered on top of (universal) humanitarian rights.
Cosmopolitans hope that if we stop distinguishing members from non-members, the result will be to level up: we’ll extend to non-members the social rights we currently limit to members. But I think the result would be to level down. We’ll treat everyone as if they are just visitors who are passing through, owed certain basic human rights but not any stronger duties of social justice.
Kukathas: I agree that the nation-state is not going to disappear anytime soon, and should it ever do so it will not be because we’ve collectively decided to do away with it—so I’m not proposing that we try. I also agree that open borders is a non-starter in a world in which a country like Australia is ready to spend billions of dollars to keep a few hundred refugees in detention camps in the Pacific, just to secure its borders against people who have legitimate claims to asylum. I would settle for a lot less than open borders! I have also come to think that the notion of “open borders” is under-theorized. (I’ve addressed this matter at some length in Immigration and Freedom.)
I would, however, argue for more open borders once we’ve properly considered what this might mean. One thing it certainly does not mean is that anyone is entitled to move anywhere and take up residence on any territory regardless of the laws of the jurisdiction or the interests of others. (Present possession or even legal title do not give people absolute rights but neither does it mean that existing norms should count for nothing. People moving to Canada in a world of more open borders should not expect that this means being able to settle on Indigenous territory any more than they could occupy downtown Toronto—or Canadians could settle on land already governed by Native peoples.)
I’m ready to acknowledge that states have the right as a matter of international law to make their own laws and determine for themselves how open or closed their borders will be. My suggestion is that there is nothing inconsistent about opening up one’s borders and remaining as self-determining as before. And there are good reasons to have a world in which those borders are more open.
The idea that border control is a matter of self-determination itself needs much more careful scrutiny. The management of migration is now a highly regulated exercise in international cooperation, with a heavy dose of realpolitik. In signing up for immigration control, citizens are not enhancing their participation in an exercise in self-determination but giving up more power to an international structure that involves a host of actors, from multinational agencies such as Frontex to Sudanese warlords co-opted into efforts to prevent migrant outflows (for a price).
In the end, I’m more skeptical still about cosmopolitanism. Though I consider myself to be a cosmopolitan and, were it not for my good fortune in finding jobs around the world, a vagabond, I think of that as merely another form of cultural particularity.
Kymlicka: I agree entirely that borders should be more open to immigrants and refugees. I regularly get emails from alt-right types accusing me of being a race traitor for supporting higher immigration. But the question remains: What are the conditions under which we can maintain both high immigration and a robust welfare state in which people have a sense of mutual responsibility? And the case we make in the book is that this depends on inculcating an ethic of membership tied to inclusive and multicultural ideas of nationhood. Our choice is not between xenophobic nationalism and unbounded humanitarianism. There is a philosophically coherent and politically viable model of solidarity that inculcates a sense of belonging to the nation, but which acknowledges and valorizes different ways of belonging and contributing to the nation. We see glimpses of this model emerging, fitfully and selectively, in various Western democracies, and we can start to evaluate its successes and failures. It has its risks and limitations, many of which you have identified, but I still think it offers a way forward in these difficult times.
Kukathas: If I could return us then to the question with which I began, is the problem here not that the alt-right types are simply never going to buy into the idea you are proposing: a form of solidarity that is different to theirs? Equally, those who simply wish to enjoy greater mobility and are ready to live as transients, may prefer to have fewer national commitments and not be bothered with the demands of citizenship rather than just neighbourliness. The search for solidarity will be exclusive if it is something substantial, and a disappointment if it is not. I know you are looking for a via media between these extremes, but I fear you are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp.
Kymlicka: This is indeed exactly how I’ve described our project. The populist right wants a world of welfare chauvinism, in which solidarity is maintained but only for the native-born; the cosmopolitan transients (and their corporate employers) want a world of neoliberal multiculturalism that valorizes mobility and diversity within a globalized economy but forgoes the protections of the national welfare state. What I want to defend is inclusive solidarity: a redistributive welfare state that is open to newcomers but tied to ideas of social membership. This may sound like a will-o’-the-wisp, but our volume suggests that it actually has a fair amount of public support, and that well-designed public policies can, in fact, work to sustain and nourish it.