Polyculturalism and Self-determination

        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

The present essay reviews in summary form the key ideas for "cultural liberation" and then discusses the consequences of these ideas for the concept of self-determination, specifically national self-determination, in our world and in a good society.

Review of polyculturalism

In previous work I have presented ideas for how ‘cultural communities’ might interact in a good society and presented some thoughts on how these lessons might apply to movements today (Race, Culture and Leftists and Revolutionizing Culture).

The conclusion of Race, Culture and Leftists is as follows:

"Material and political inequalities between individuals and groups are absent in a good society, but cultural and identity differences are not. Neither separation nor assimilation are viable frameworks for cross-cultural interaction. The alternative to these is a ‘polycultural’ framework in which multiple, overlapping identities are recognized and celebrated and minorities are protected not only by constitutional arrangements but also by the development of a ‘common culture’. Institutions can be evaluated on fairness criteria to determine whether they facilitate just, equitable, and polycultural outcomes. The recognition of multiple, overlapping identities and the element of choice individuals have in determining identity can serve to protect individuals from groups, small groups from large groups, and the general interest from narrow interests."

To reiterate a few key points relevant to this essay:

1. There are more universals, more things people have in common, than we often believe, and therefore there are more possibilities for communication across community boundaries than we think;

2. People should have the right to communicate and affiliate freely;

3. Some institutions don’t have free entry and exit and belong to society at large, and these must be representative of all views in society;

4. Other institutions do have free entry and exit and can be under the complete discretion of their members (when they don’t conflict with universal laws, for example against violence or oppression).

Any group of people will have at least a few things in common (humanity at the very least) and that is the basis for a ‘common culture’. Any kind of cultural conflict can be resolved in the space of the ‘common culture’, which should be representative of everyone in it. There is difference, and there are different cultural communities, but these are not sealed, closed systems (and should not be, since sealing them off removes the possibility of protecting their members from internal oppression) and are connected to others through a common culture or multiple common cultures. People can always freely associate with one another and develop culture together in a group of any size. But in a good society people will also be able to seek the protection of society or the common culture, where the dialogue about the good of the whole of society takes place.

Culture does matter… but perhaps not the way you think

For the past ten years or so I have been visiting sites of political and military conflict and writing about these. My hope has always been that I would be able to learn something and present it in a way that might contribute to the peaceful and just resolution of these conflicts.

One thing that occurs to me now is that the ‘cultural’ aspect of conflicts is usually overstated, even when it seems to be the basic aspect. Yes, the struggle of indigenous peoples in the Americas is a cultural one: but the attack on the culture of indigenous people is a strategy rather than an objective. The objectives are the land, resources, and control over people. That is the case in the Israel/Palestine conflict as well: it is often presented as a clash of conflicting nationalities or a clash of cultures or religions. But a more accurate analysis is one where Israel is trying to take the land and expel the people, making efforts to destroy Palestinian society and culture as a means to this end, and the Palestinians are trying to resist this.

I was just in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A perusal of the anthropological literature on that part of the world reveals a great number of different linguistic and ethnic groups that have come into various kinds of conflict, exacerbated by colonial history and institutions not designed for that kind of diversity. But another reading is that it is a struggle for survival in which people are nowhere near able to meet the most basic material needs, because those who make the decisions about their future have no regard for it. Colonialists, dictators, and conquering armies all view their land in terms of what can be extracted from it, even if millions die in the process.

So, what am I saying? That if we solve the economic problem, that the cultural problems will disappear? That culture clashes are actually just a cover story for cold economic interests? Well, partly. I am prepared to prioritize that way. I am prepared to counsel suspicion about seemingly cultural conflicts, and to suggest that economic equality and the achievement of a decent material life for everyone would make a lot of what look like cultural conflicts disappear.

But not all. And that’s partly because even though culture may not be the basis for a lot of conflicts that look like cultural conflicts, culture is more than just a superstructure on an economic base. I’d define culture as the site where communication and group affiliation (or identity, since we’re social creatures whose identity comes from group affiliation) take place. Culture tells us who we are. That means that economic questions, political questions, ethical questions, and questions of sexuality, are all informed by culture.

Nations and borders

In Revolutionizing Culture I argued that nationalism had positive and negative aspects, but that the most negative aspect was the idea of an individual’s primary loyalty belonging to the nation:

"What nationalism says is that one of these kinds of communities—usually linguistic or territorial—is the primary kind of community. It says this is who you are, above all. It says the nation is going to be the basis for political life. It is going to be the basis for citizenship—any political power you have, any access to the instruments of a government, comes through your membership in a nation (and specifically a nation-state). It says that the nation has claims to territory, resources, and state power. It says that each individual owes loyalty first and foremost to the national community—often to defend it unto death—before any other loyalty."

A polycultural framework doesn’t accept the idea of a primary loyalty: individuals have multiple affiliations and identities. Depending on the situation, loyalty to family or friends, to one’s own principles, to humanity as a whole, or to the ecosystem, could and should trump linguistic or territorial community. This is not just prescriptive: I believe this is how people make decisions today, and indeed, people who have protected the ‘enemies of the nation’ from mobs or national armies have later been celebrated as heroes.

So, nationalist fantasies of everyone putting the nation first are not the reality. Still, one of the most important social questions, one that determines a person’s life chances perhaps more than anything else in this world, is – what country do I belong to? The best way to have a high life expectancy is to be born in a country that has one, for example. But that is no more a matter for design by individuals, who can’t choose where they are born (although some can immigrate and many try to), than it is for movements, who can’t redraw borders. Movements can, and do, push for open immigration and free movement for working people, which could potentially have a redistributive effect. And, indeed, movements that challenge borders and hierarchies of immigration status are challenging one of the deepest and most irrational aspects of our world.

So even though borders are arbitrary and oppressive, attempts to change them by force have resulted in even worse disaster. In fact one of today’s universally accepted rules is that wars of conquest are unacceptable: would-be conquerors have to hide their intentions.

The consequence of all this is that it makes the idea of national sovereignty or national self-determination sometimes progressive, sometimes not. When it is a defensive argument against redistribution (whether by the rich countries against the poor countries, or rich provinces like Venezuela’s Zulia or Canada’s Alberta against poorer parts of the same country) it is regressive. When it is a defense against economic colonialism, like indigenous resistance to mines that will poison the lands that are the basis for their means of survival, it is progressive. In no circumstances can national self-determination be the basis for a claim to dispossess or conquer some other group. Rwanda doesn’t have the right to control eastern Congo; Israel doesn’t have the right to Palestinian land. In these contexts, stronger borders would be a huge improvement; but on the other hand, "Fortress North America" or "Fortress Europe", strengthening the borders of rich countries against immigration from the poor countries, is basically a racist idea.

Where does that leave us? I think here: even as international solidarity gets more possible and important because communication gets easier, the strategic scale for struggle is still national. We’re stuck with the borders we have. In the rich countries we should struggle to open them to freedom of movement, but the poor countries should have the right to protect their economies. International solidarity is to help peoples exercise their rights to self-determination to win justice in the nation states they’re stuck in, and to reduce inequalities between them.

Some of these struggles are hardly on the table right now. The idea of reparations, or even just recovering money stolen during colonialism and slavery, is violently opposed by the wealthy countries (Haiti’s President Aristide was overthrown in 2004 at least partly for even mentioning the possibility that France pay Haiti back the indemnity that France extracted when Haiti became independent). On the other hand, most of the struggles that are ongoing have to do with some kind of resistance to displacement and the theft and destruction of the community’s means of survival.

A stable and just world is one where people exercise democratic self-determination in countries that aren’t richer or poorer than other countries, and where people can move freely from one place to another. To get to that world, some (poor) countries may need to strengthen their borders for economic reasons. Rich countries may need to weaken theirs, but that is just one possible form redistribution could take – and it is redistribution that is key.

There is tremendous cultural richness and diversity generated by people learning to live in a place, and there would only be more of that if people were able to express and develop that free of poverty and violence.

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