Year XXXY, 1993, Number 3 - Page 143
Interdependence and Cultural Identity
The problems posed by the presence of communities with different cultural characteristics within the same state have become increasingly important in political debate in recent years. Three processes in particular highlight such problems: European unification, mass emigration from Third World countries to industrialised ones, and the explosion of nationalism in Eastern Europe. In each of these contexts the problem of multiculturalism is posed in different terms and requires differing political solutions and conceptual revisions.
In the framework of European unification, multiculturalism is experienced by many as a problem of the defence or promotion of presumed national, regional or cultural “identities”. One of the recurring themes of the anti-European propaganda of the British government, and of many groups making up France’s “anti-Maastricht” political line-up is that European political unification threatens to impinge on national “identities”. With the defence provided by current state sovereignties suppressed, these would run the risk of being reduced to an indistinct blend, along the lines of American society.
But the cultural “identity” issue is also at the heart of concerns expressed by many regional movements. In an opposite perspective, these movements see in European unification a framework which would allow them to liberate spontaneous (“ethnic”) cultural “identities” from the suffocating oppression of the nations, which are perceived of as the products of the forced imposition of artificial cultural “identities”. In the most radical form of this way of thinking, the importance attributed to regional “identities” is so all-encompassing as to induce some to assert that the process of European unification should result in the birth of a “Europe of the regions”; that is, a federal state which would suppress the national level and have regions as its sole constituent members.
In both cases, the use of the term “identity” suggests the idea that belonging to a single, clearly delimited, cultural entity (the former national, the latter regional) is one of the essential factors, if not the essential factor, defining every individual’s personality. Clearly, on the basis of this supposition, the objective of European federal unification will be accepted or rejected depending on whether it reinforces or weakens such a profound and exclusive bond.
Yet, in reality, the term “identity” used with this connotation is ambiguous and misleading. Culture, meant as the complex collection of values, institutions, behaviours and languages that make up the contents and instruments of the communicative aspect of human action is, by nature, universal. It is certainly true that until now the existence of geographical, linguistic and socio-economic barriers (increasingly thin, however) to communication have isolated many of its manifestations from each other, causing them to assume mutually incompatible and incomprehensible forms, and thereby legitimising the use in particular situations of the plural, “cultures”. Yet the intrinsically universal nature of culture is made plain when the fall of barriers dispels misunderstandings and overcomes incompatibilities. Culture, then, is enriched by communication, while becoming increasingly impoverished the more it is suffocated by the restriction of the space in which communication takes place. For this reason, nowadays, communicating in French or German puts those able to do so in a culturally privileged position with respect to those who can communicate only in Slovenian or Latvian. Hence, bilinguists are definitely advantaged compared to mono-linguists. Similarly, the gradual spread of English as the universal lingua franca is an essential tool for the cultural advancement of mankind. For this reason, finally, growing interdependence on a world level now gives humanity an opportunity for cultural enrichment which was never available to past generations.
This is not to deny that every community of cultural communication of a certain size, and the European one in particular, is characterised by the existence of different styles and languages, which allow its expressions to be situated in time and space. Yet multiple styles and languages in no way compromise cultural unity; on the contrary they are destined to enrich the intensity of communication and promote creative originality. This is normally forgotten since the diversity of expression in European culture has been artificially exacerbated in the past by national states, and burdened with political values, with the aim of manipulating it in pursuit of power political objectives. From this was born the inauspicious idea of nationalism and now its barbaric degeneration, micronationalism.
The argument as to whether federalism hinders or promotes one or other of the cultural “identities”, interpreted as exclusive membership of a linguistic or traditional community, is therefore irrelevant since it is based on a concept which belongs to the world of nationalism. In reality European federal unification would create the conditions both for maximising the worth of the highest cultural expressions of the national phase of the continent’s history, starting with the great literary languages, and for a great flowering of literary, artistic and scientific creativity at the regional and local levels. But it would do so precisely because, by demystifying the idea of the nation (and, a fortiori, that of the micronation) as source for legitimising power, it would challenge the concept of “identity” itself as linked to a closed and exclusive group, making it an inherent prerogative of the individual. In this way the “European identity” will result in the consciousness of Europeans to belong above all to the human race, and hence to be completely free in choosing their personal cultural path in the wake of a historical tradition that provides everyone with models and tools of unequalled worth and variety.
All this clearly does not diminish the fact that federalism can only take root in a society which is profoundly diversified (provided that it is in the framework of a strongly cohesive single community of communication). But the origins of this diversification of society should not be sought in the existence of a multiplicity of nations or “ethnicities” that are closed within the exclusive cult of their own uniqueness, but in territorial diversity, just as this has been and continues to be shaped through the action of people in history. The prime criterion which legitimises federalism is that of the realisation of the right of individuals to face and resolve the ever-changing problems on which their quality of life depends within the territorial limits in which these problems arise, and through decision-making structures which allow the exercise of self-government at the corresponding levels – starting at the privileged level of the city, passing up through the larger ones of the region and the nation, up to the continental and planetary ones. Federalism, then, is the political and institutional formula which enables local communities (and only secondarily the more remote level of the region) to become the framework in which the universal value of democracy is primarily and most concretely manifested, and from which emanates the upward process of forming the popular will. It remains true that in a dynamic federal society the diversity of problems to be dealt with by the various territorial levels translates into different expressions of cultural life, or is even identified with such differentiation. Yet this difference of expressions, while remaining faithful to the past and respecting historical continuity, enriches through reciprocal communication in an evolutionary process which causes universal aspects to emerge from each of these expressions.
It is worth emphasising that in the future European federation the border regions, which the national state in the past condemned to a peripheral role and to a permanent crisis of identity, will assume vital importance. These same regions, within a new state structure created from the overcoming of the old borders, and no longer founded on the national principle, are destined to lose their peripheral role and assume one of hinges between societies and cultural expressions that are opening up to each other, and hence to become places of particularly intense cultural vitality. The bi- or multi-linguism which usually characterises such regions, and which in the national framework deprives them of a precise “identity”, often making them pockets of cultural underdevelopment, will transform them into privileged areas for encountering, and comparing, different cultural expressions. They will be the concrete negation of the idea of the nation as a closed entity, hostile towards anything outside of itself, and in this respect will be the terrain of choice for developing the consciousness of the universal vocation of the European identity.
The problem posed by the juxtaposition of communities from different and distant geographical origins, due to mass migration, which occurs particularly in large European and American cities, is of a different nature. On both sides of the Atlantic this phenomenon is taking on alarming proportions. It raises issues different to those brought to light by the presence in Europe of multiple expressions of a single community of cultural communication. The national or ethnic differences in Europe are a factor of richness, and continue to represent a problem only because they have been artificially burdened with political significance by nation state ideology, or by its degenerate offshoot micronationalism. The phenomenon taking place in the large cities of the industrialised world is rather that of the close co-habitation of groups of people who originate from areas of civilisations that are still very different from each other, and which are oriented towards values that are fundamentally different and, in extreme expressions, incompatible. The problems of co-habitation which derive from this are more serious, since they have real roots, not just ideological ones.
The survival of the state is guaranteed by the existence of a minimum of social consensus. And this can not be developed unless certain basic values are shared by the vast majority of the population. It is crucial to appreciate that in large Western cities (which represent the vital nerve centres of the political communities they belong to) the number and size of groups whose religious and cultural traditions deriving from their countries of origin make it difficult to adopt (at least in the short-term) the principles on which co-habitation in their host countries is based, is on the rise. It is useless pointing out that the dramatic consequence of this forced proximity is violence, often provoked by fanatic fringe groups of the indigenous population. Moreover the phenomenon of mass migration cannot be halted, except in the very long-term perspective of a substantial equalisation of degrees of economic development in all regions of the world. Nor would it be acceptable, given it were possible, that this phenomenon be halted by force in the name of the incompatibility of the host country’s culture with that of the populations providing the majority of immigrants, if it is true that culture is intrinsically universal, and that the incompatibility of some of its manifestations is due solely to isolation and a lack of communication.
Clearly mass immigration must be quantitatively regulated, and managed in a humane and reasonable fashion so as to mitigate its potential for violence. But for this to happen, it is vital that the fundamental diversity between “cultures” is not accepted as a natural and permanent fact, in the name of that completely arbitrary interpretation of tolerance which is cultural relativism. This attitude is called political correctness in the US, and consists of accepting the impossibility of communication between the “cultures” of different foreign communities which have immigrated recently or a long time ago, so as to encourage rather than overcome it. To be politically correct one must believe, or pretend to believe, that the values to which different “cultures” are oriented are all equally legitimate, even if incompatible, and that the value of truth itself should be subordinated to the need to give equal cultural “dignity” to every community. In the US this has led to the aberration of altering college and university curricula on the basis of students’ racial origins. The result is to create squalid cultural ghettoes, and even to accept, in the name of tolerance, the systematic falsification of history. It should be stressed that this attitude, in practice, by confirming a priori the impossibility of dialogue between different communities, promotes in its turn violence. It contributes to consolidating society’s segmentation into closed communities (particularly in large cities), which consequently tend to perpetuate, and even exacerbate, differences and reciprocal incompatibilities.
When incompatibility invests weighty moral principles and attitudes essential for the ordered management of civilised co-habitation, this raises the problem of the limits of tolerance. It must be clear that immigration will only continue peacefully and be of benefit also for receiving states if they (always encouraging dialogue and favouring the contributions of other cultural traditions) are able however to impose on everybody respect for the universal values of liberty, equality, justice and the rule of law, which (even if only partially achieved in fact) are the foundations of political and juridical civilisation in the Western world, and of Europe in particular, and which are by nature universal in as much as they represent the presupposition of dialogue, and hence of tolerance itself. It is a fact that when the foundations of co-habitation are challenged, employing the legitimate violence of the state is the only alternative to the explosion of the wild violence of individuals, and the renunciation of the former in the name of cultural relativism is an explicit encouragement to the exercise of the latter.
Tolerance, then, is only really such when exercised in the framework of respect for the fundamental rules of co-habitation, and hence when it favours dialogue between groups heralding profoundly different cultural traditions, and their progressive assimilation in the context of real territorially-based communities. Federalism, the fully-developed expression of democracy, is after all founded on the basic core of the local community. And for the latter to be a real community, it must not recognise barriers within itself that render dialogue between people impossible, and thereby the formation of a common will. This, it should be repeated, does not mean the suppression of diversity, which is the essential presupposition of dialogue, but its elevation through the liberation of individuals, in their irrepressible originality, from the oppression of all tribal memberships.
The rebirth of nationalism in Eastern Europe has been accompanied by the hateful oppression of the national minorities which exist inside all European states, but which are particularly numerous in Eastern and Central Europe. This has caused the problem of their protection to re-establish itself on the political agenda.
The right of minorities to be protected will clearly be a fundamental freedom for as long as the existence of the nation-state is envisaged. Yet in an age when the European federal unification project has become a real political issue, the basic nature of the problem has changed. Nowadays, protecting minorities is no longer the issue, but instead altering the political framework such that their existence as minorities is brought to an end. The oppression of minorities, in one form or another, is an unavoidable characteristic of the nation-state. For as long as the legitimacy of political power is based on the identification of state with nation, the simple existence of one or more groups which do not possess the linguistic, religious or other characteristics by which the dominant nation’s “identity” is defined, represents a denial of the state’s legitimacy. It is hence inevitable that the nation-state, depending on the circumstances and the degree of civilisation of its politicians, will try to assimilate by force or segregate, or even eradicate (ethnic cleansing underway in ex-Yugoslavia) internal national minorities. And the minorities themselves remain prisoners of this logic, which pushes them to struggle to alter the political framework in such a way as to become themselves intolerant and oppressive majorities, following the example of those whose dominion they try to escape (ex-Yugoslavia is once again an example, as well as many ex-Soviet states). This problem is currently toned down in certain regions of Western Europe, such as South Tyrol: but this occurs because there exists the perception that the national state is in terminal decline within the framework of European unification. If the opposite impression were to spread (that the European unification process had been halted), the problem would resurface with all its explosive potential.
Federalism is the overcoming of the national principle as the basis for legitimising the state. Hence, in a fully-evolved federal state the problem of minorities ceases to exist, since no cultural feature which distinguishes one group from another, starting with language, is laden with any political significance at all; in this way no population group is seen as, or sees itself as, a minority. Thus, it once again emerges that in the framework of common membership of the human race, and thus of a common capacity to communicate, the only politically significant difference in a fully evolved federal state is that which distinguishes every single person from all others. In a fully-evolved federal state, then, the political opinions of citizens are never predetermined by their membership of a community which they have not chosen, but to which they belong by birth. On the contrary they are the result of reflection, and a decision which is completely free from conditioning based on ethnic provenance.
There remains the fact that in today’s reality the problem of minorities exists even in federal states. The example of Canada, currently shaken by a serious institutional crisis generated by Quebec’s separatist movement, serves to illustrate the problem in general. It is true that it would be fundamentally incorrect in this case to regard the French majority in Quebec as an oppressed minority. Yet apart from this obvious point, there remains the basic consideration that the currently-existing federal states represent an imperfect realisation of federalism, in as much as they were born by historical accident and not by the conscious negation of the nation as the legitimising principle of the state, as will be the case for the European federation.
It is also worth remembering that the freedom to speak a minority language, which is at the heart of the minority problem, is not just a negative liberty, but one which comprises the right to receive an education and to have dealings with the public administration in one’s own tongue. This particular aspect implies measures to be taken by the political powers and can cause problems even in a federal structure. However, these difficulties appear in mitigated form in a solid federal structure as normal matters of political debate; and moreover only as long as the institutional structure of the federal state is thought of in the bipolar terms of the American tradition. In post-industrial Europe the federal state will be unable to avoid being articulated on several self-governing levels, and will have its core in the local community, which will tend to assume, in the context of growing economic and cultural development, an ever greater number of functions. In this way every single community, even small ones, established within a state (or region) which speaks a different language, will be able to guarantee its members education and administration in their own language within the framework of its self-governing powers.
Yet, aside from these considerations, it should not be forgotten that once language is stripped of its political significance, and hence the language of the majority ceases to be seen as a tool of oppression in all areas where different languages are spoken, multi-linguism (which is people’s natural tendency) will naturally expand. In particular, the use of English as a lingua franca will spread. Indeed, already in many Dutch, Flemish and Scandinavian universities, lectures are held in English without students feeling that their own national (or regional and local) “identities” are thereby endangered.
The solution of the minorities problem currently depends on the outcome of the historic confrontation between nationalism and federalism. As long as Europe and, beyond Europe, the world, continues to be divided into nation-states, the problem of minorities will continue to exist, regardless of how much their right to be protected is proclaimed in resolutions and asserted in international conventions. The federalists, who make the struggle against the nation-state their exclusive political commitment, should not allow themselves to become involved in these rhetorical exercises. They must be conscious of the fact that proclaiming the right of minorities to be protected without pointing up the existence of the national state as the cause of their oppression, and without struggling for its overcoming, represents a recognition of its legitimacy and hence contributes to perpetuating the problem rather than starting to solve it.