De Fabel van de illegaal 62, January/February 2004

Author: Eric Krebbers

Not coming to the rescue of multiculturalism

It is by now "politically correct" in the Netherlands to be against multiculturalism. Everyday politicians and opinion leaders are bashing the "the completely failed multicultural society", as they call it. They want to force refugees and immigrants to "integrate", and internalize "the Dutch language and culture". This attack is clearly motivated by racism. But should the radical Left defend multiculturalism because of that?

A few years ago the multicultural ideology was still central to mainstream politics. Policy makers, opinion makers, the professional middleclass and worried civilians could almost all be considered multiculturalists. Central to multiculturalism is the "recognition of the cultural diversity" of the Netherlands. Other "national cultures" should be respected as much as possible. And different habits and traditions of immigrants should be seen in their "cultural context" and therefore not be condemned to quickly. On the pretext of "unity in diversity" immigrants should be given their own place in society in order to save "their own culture". Also measures should be taken to help immigrants socially and economically. In this context there's sometimes also talk of the problem of Dutch racism. The positive and optimistic image of multiculturalism, back then, depended for a large part on its firm disapproval of racism and the organized extreme Right.


When we look at society, our political vision mostly determines what we see. The radical Left, of course, first and foremost sees capitalist, patriarchal and racist power relations that have to be fought. Multiculturalists, on the other hand, mostly want to see a lot of "national cultures" that differ a lot from each other, and which should all be saved if possible. Thinking in "cultures" and their accessory "peoples" is a nationalist political choice. Like nationalism, multiculturalism also suppresses the awareness of power relations within these alleged "peoples" and the oppressive practices within these alleged "national cultures". Actually "peoples" and "national cultures" are nothing but imaginations promoted by people in power who want to undermine the Left struggle against oppression. "National cultures" and the multicultural society only exist as a product of all continuous activities aimed at "saving" those "cultures".

Especially immigrants and refugees are being addressed in connection with their "national culture". They are supposed to see themselves in the first place as representatives of some or another "national culture". They should all hand over that one special "national culture" - and not some other - to their children, for instance by special lessons in "their own language". All immigrant and refugee behavior is supposedly guided by "their culture". In this way the "Moroccan culture" supposedly determines the behavior of boys whose parents or even grandparents have left Morocco long ago. Also, immigrants and refugees are supposed to especially aid members of "their own cultural community". Even those immigrants and refugees, who regarded the "culture" in "their own country" to be too restrictive and fled to the Netherlands to escape it, are here being glued to "their culture" again by multiculturalists. For the government always recognizes and sponsors the most conservative immigrant and refugee organizations which supposedly best represent "the original cultures" of the countries of origin. Organizations based on more progressive ideas would supposedly not be "authentically" enough "culturally". In that way the government affirms the unequal power relations within immigrant and refugee communities and weakens the position of workers, women and minorities. The government for instance regularly meets with imams and mosque leaders as if they represent all immigrants and refugees from Turkey and Morocco.

New Right

Although their protests against the extreme Right are mostly sincere, multiculturalists do share with the extreme Right the central idea that all people are determined by and belong in "their own culture". The new Right current within the extreme Right movement even made "culture" their central concept. The new Right and multiculturalism both see the world first and foremost as covered with a colorful blanket of numerous "unique cultures". "We must strive for the conservation of a most diversified multicultural world as possible, accepting the absolute equality of all cultures", says Luc Pauwels, the most important ideologist of the Flemish extreme Right party Vlaams Blok.(1) "In the multicultural vision there's no room for universal human rights like those of the French revolutionaries. Instead, it should be recognized that people are predestined - by historical, geographical and many other factors to live in different places, to uphold their own traditions and rituals, and to use different moral codes and languages."

The most important difference with the multiculturalists is that, although Pauwels favors a multicultural world, he is against multicultural states. "No roots without land, no culture without roots. Every identity is threatened with assimilation and disappearance if one separates it from territoriality", Pauwels thinks. And different "cultures" next to each other in one country would automatically lead to civil war or dictatorship, according to Pauwels. Most multiculturalists, on the other hand, are in favor of a dialogue between the alleged "national cultures" in one country, and against Pauwel's apartheid or separatism. Also, the new Right wants to promote "the own culture", but because of "the right to diversity" it does not want to force it upon other "peoples". According to Pauwels that would be "cultural imperialism". Multiculturalists on the other hand very seldom explicitly refer to their "own national culture". But through their one sided and paternalistic focus on "ethnic minorities" and "their cultures" they implicitly define themselves as the starting point, as normal.

Spring rolls

Also because they could count on the warm support of the conservative elites of immigrant communities, multiculturalism remained an interesting ideology for the Dutch political elite for a long time. Multiculturalism creates separate communities centered around different "cultures". That resembles the model that dominated Dutch society since the beginning of the twentieth century and which was very effective against radical resistance. The working class was in this way kept divided and each part was ruled by the elites of their own community (catholic, protestant, socialist and other). That made solidarity difficult and organizing counter power from below virtually impossible.

Multiculturalism also comes in very handy when advertising the exploitation and exclusion of worker migrants. Multiculturalists always stress how much worker migrants and refugees add to "our" economy and "the cultural live". They tell moving stories of hardworking Turks cleaning "our" toilets, of artistic Africans crafting such beautiful art for "us" and the Vietnamese spoiling "us" with their spring rolls. Multiculturalism likes to ascribe certain "cultural" capacities to every population group. Much less interested are the multiculturalists in immigrants or refugees who cannot, or who are not allowed to, make themselves useful for "our economy". These people shouldn't count on support from the multiculturalists when they are for instance threatened with deportation. Although multiculturalists do protest against extreme Right racism, they never do so against the racism of the state or the deportation machine.


By the end of the nineties the growing racism and the dominance of the Right led to the elite dropping multiculturalism. The multicultural nationalism that promotes "every group its own culture" got traded in for a conservative nationalism with its forced assimilation policy. Immigrants and refugees are being pressured more and more to embrace conservative and capitalist norms and values considered to be "the Dutch culture". This development occurs simultaneously with the need at the top to find a black sheep to focus on in these times of economic problems.

The current Right criticism on the multicultural society always contains hardly hidden racism against immigrants, refugees and Islam. Although the radical left also has a lot of criticism on multiculturalism, it is not very wise to start attacking it right now. It is better to fight racism, without defending multiculturalism. For the radical Left should not get involved in the thinking in terms of "cultures". Or be seduced to classifying humans in "cultures" or "peoples". Or pleading for dialogues between "cultures", whatever that may be. Nor striving for "cultural conservation". But also not for a "cosmopolitan culture". Instead of looking at "cultures" for the causes of all kinds of injustices, the radical Left should simply focus its attention on unequal power relations and fight them.