The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History

The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History In her new book, Rita Chin uses historical scholarship to make a timely intervention into the ongoing debate about the place of immigration in European politics. If her historiographical claim is that it is ‘no longer possible to pretend that immigrants and ethnic diversity were irrelevant, or even external, to European history’ (p. 3), her larger political claim is that the popular narrative of the ‘failure’ of an ostensible policy called ‘multiculturalism’ should not be taken at face value. For Chin, the current polarization of the debate on immigration in Europe is in fact the result of decades during which European leaders have consistently chosen policies of deterrence and disavowal. The Crisis of Multiculturalism is a synthetic work that compares three national cases: Great Britain, France and West Germany. Chin also takes occasional glances into parallel developments in the Netherlands—a post-colonial foil to the more familiar cases of Great Britain and France—and Switzerland—the first country to rely extensively on the labour of ‘guest workers’, which has resonances for the more widely studied case of West Germany. The introduction traces the transatlantic history of the term ‘multiculturalism’, which first arrived in Europe in the 1970s as an American import that ‘came with the intensely politicized baggage of US movements for social justice’ while also giving Europeans a way ‘to formulate the first affirmative arguments for social diversity as a core value’ (pp. 17–18). The first chapter surveys post-war migration to Europe from the 1940s through the 1960s, which is to say before the migration of ‘multiculturalism’ as a concept. Political elites have often portrayed Europe as a ‘white’ continent that only became ‘diverse’ after 1945, but Chin shows that this too is a political fiction designed in part to obscure a history of imperial and colonial domination. For example, Jamaican arrivals to the United Kingdom were British citizens who understood themselves as internal migrants, but they have been persistently depicted as foreigners by British politicians. As Britain reneged on its commitments to former imperial subjects, it ‘turned refugees of decolonization into just another group of aliens clamoring for entrance into a more prosperous country’ (p. 71). The second chapter begins with the Europe-wide decision to restrict immigration in the early 1970s and the subsequent development of policies to manage the new arrivals. Officials across Europe consistently sought to keep questions about migration and diversity outside of public debate as they sought to encourage migrants to leave. This led to technocratic policies of population management aptly described as ‘language explicitly designed to drain the politics of human drama and efface the broader stakes’ (p. 83). In the third and fourth chapters, Chin argues that the attempt to efface the existence of diversity set the stage for a backlash in the 1980s as political elites began to embrace a language of incommensurable cultural difference. Because an explicit language of race had been largely delegitimized in post-war Europe, this new politics of difference focused on religious difference, particularly the difference of Islam. Moments like the Salman Rushdie affair and a series of recurrent headscarf controversies in France created a ‘slippage between extremist versions of Islam and Islam as a whole’ (p. 232). The political right and the political left came together to denounce a monolithic ‘Islam’ that has been depicted as uniformly oppressive to the rights of women and sexual minorities. In the final chapter, Chin shows that the idea of ‘multiculturalism’ has come under attack from across the political spectrum since the 1980s. Minority intellectuals have argued that it reproduces flattened and essentialist concepts of minority cultures, while mainstream European politicians from both the left and right now depict it as a kind of Trojan horse that has used the guise of cultural tolerance to allow illiberal Islam and its ‘backwards’ gender norms into Europe. Without a critical analysis of the patterns of racism and xenophobia that continue to exclude immigrant populations from full participation in the polity, the Europe-wide prescription has been what Britain’s David Cameron has called a ‘muscular liberalism’ that will defend European ways of life against the Islamic other. In the epilogue, Chin explicitly frames the book as a scholarly intervention in an ongoing political conversation. The first step to a healthier debate around the ‘social pressures of lived diversity’ (p. 299) must be acknowledgment, Chin argues, stating that ‘it is simply irresponsible for European states to continue to allow significant segments of their populations to be driven by nostalgia for homogeneity’ (p. 303). She explicitly addresses left liberals, arguing that leftists have ceded ground by accepting a zero-sum logic that pits individual freedom, particularly sexual freedom, against cultural pluralism. In the future, she hopes that leftists will balance this more individualist notion of freedom with the ‘more collective and pluralist notions of freedom’ that have historically guided their politics in order to effectively enact meaningful democracy in a multiethnic society (p. 297). Because Chin is writing a synthetic account that relies largely on secondary literature, specialists in migration history will not necessarily be surprised by any of the particular examples addressed here. Nevertheless, the book’s attempt to create a framework for analysing national developments in a European context is useful, particularly as it makes it clear that the consolidation of ‘European integration’ in the late 1980s occurred in relationship to increasingly volatile public debates about immigration. This theme could even be considerably backdated from the 1980s. As Chin notes in passing, Switzerland was the first country to implement a guest worker policy. Her overall argument might further benefit from including the fact that Switzerland was also the first European country where explicitly anti-immigrant politicians enjoyed national electoral success in the form of the National Action Against Overforeignization [Überfremdung] in the late 1960s. The Swiss example was followed by radical right politicians across Europe, and it serves as one example of how Chin overstates her claim that national histories were largely separate before only recently cohering into a single discourse. In fact, each state observed its neighbours’ migration policies closely from the beginning of the post-war period. This dynamic created a kind of negative feedback loop in which concepts like the ‘threshold of tolerance’ became part of a common European vocabulary for thinking about diversity already in the 1960s, well before the explosion of cross-national public discourse around Islam as a threat to liberal values that she identifies as occurring in the late 1980s. Chin’s overall narrative would also benefit from more engagement with the social and economic histories that undergird her intellectual history. The book offers minimal information about the size of the ‘radical demographic transformations’ (p. 4) it charts, and it might have been useful to include a chart or graph to that end. Additionally, although she repeatedly gestures to changing economic conditions, she does not provide very many concrete economic indicators. Because the book’s argument relies largely on elite and official discourses, it is often unclear why the arguments against multiculturalism that Chin lays out so incisively gained adherents when they did. These are minor criticisms that should serve to suggest new directions for research and engagement; they do not detract from Chin’s intellectual achievement, which is to offer a highly readable critical genealogy of the present. The book should find an appreciative audience among historians of twentieth century Europe, advanced undergraduates, and general readers interested in contemporary European politics. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png German History Oxford University Press

The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History

German History , Volume Advance Article – Mar 28, 2018

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
ISSN
0266-3554
eISSN
1477-089X
D.O.I.
10.1093/gerhis/ghy022
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

In her new book, Rita Chin uses historical scholarship to make a timely intervention into the ongoing debate about the place of immigration in European politics. If her historiographical claim is that it is ‘no longer possible to pretend that immigrants and ethnic diversity were irrelevant, or even external, to European history’ (p. 3), her larger political claim is that the popular narrative of the ‘failure’ of an ostensible policy called ‘multiculturalism’ should not be taken at face value. For Chin, the current polarization of the debate on immigration in Europe is in fact the result of decades during which European leaders have consistently chosen policies of deterrence and disavowal. The Crisis of Multiculturalism is a synthetic work that compares three national cases: Great Britain, France and West Germany. Chin also takes occasional glances into parallel developments in the Netherlands—a post-colonial foil to the more familiar cases of Great Britain and France—and Switzerland—the first country to rely extensively on the labour of ‘guest workers’, which has resonances for the more widely studied case of West Germany. The introduction traces the transatlantic history of the term ‘multiculturalism’, which first arrived in Europe in the 1970s as an American import that ‘came with the intensely politicized baggage of US movements for social justice’ while also giving Europeans a way ‘to formulate the first affirmative arguments for social diversity as a core value’ (pp. 17–18). The first chapter surveys post-war migration to Europe from the 1940s through the 1960s, which is to say before the migration of ‘multiculturalism’ as a concept. Political elites have often portrayed Europe as a ‘white’ continent that only became ‘diverse’ after 1945, but Chin shows that this too is a political fiction designed in part to obscure a history of imperial and colonial domination. For example, Jamaican arrivals to the United Kingdom were British citizens who understood themselves as internal migrants, but they have been persistently depicted as foreigners by British politicians. As Britain reneged on its commitments to former imperial subjects, it ‘turned refugees of decolonization into just another group of aliens clamoring for entrance into a more prosperous country’ (p. 71). The second chapter begins with the Europe-wide decision to restrict immigration in the early 1970s and the subsequent development of policies to manage the new arrivals. Officials across Europe consistently sought to keep questions about migration and diversity outside of public debate as they sought to encourage migrants to leave. This led to technocratic policies of population management aptly described as ‘language explicitly designed to drain the politics of human drama and efface the broader stakes’ (p. 83). In the third and fourth chapters, Chin argues that the attempt to efface the existence of diversity set the stage for a backlash in the 1980s as political elites began to embrace a language of incommensurable cultural difference. Because an explicit language of race had been largely delegitimized in post-war Europe, this new politics of difference focused on religious difference, particularly the difference of Islam. Moments like the Salman Rushdie affair and a series of recurrent headscarf controversies in France created a ‘slippage between extremist versions of Islam and Islam as a whole’ (p. 232). The political right and the political left came together to denounce a monolithic ‘Islam’ that has been depicted as uniformly oppressive to the rights of women and sexual minorities. In the final chapter, Chin shows that the idea of ‘multiculturalism’ has come under attack from across the political spectrum since the 1980s. Minority intellectuals have argued that it reproduces flattened and essentialist concepts of minority cultures, while mainstream European politicians from both the left and right now depict it as a kind of Trojan horse that has used the guise of cultural tolerance to allow illiberal Islam and its ‘backwards’ gender norms into Europe. Without a critical analysis of the patterns of racism and xenophobia that continue to exclude immigrant populations from full participation in the polity, the Europe-wide prescription has been what Britain’s David Cameron has called a ‘muscular liberalism’ that will defend European ways of life against the Islamic other. In the epilogue, Chin explicitly frames the book as a scholarly intervention in an ongoing political conversation. The first step to a healthier debate around the ‘social pressures of lived diversity’ (p. 299) must be acknowledgment, Chin argues, stating that ‘it is simply irresponsible for European states to continue to allow significant segments of their populations to be driven by nostalgia for homogeneity’ (p. 303). She explicitly addresses left liberals, arguing that leftists have ceded ground by accepting a zero-sum logic that pits individual freedom, particularly sexual freedom, against cultural pluralism. In the future, she hopes that leftists will balance this more individualist notion of freedom with the ‘more collective and pluralist notions of freedom’ that have historically guided their politics in order to effectively enact meaningful democracy in a multiethnic society (p. 297). Because Chin is writing a synthetic account that relies largely on secondary literature, specialists in migration history will not necessarily be surprised by any of the particular examples addressed here. Nevertheless, the book’s attempt to create a framework for analysing national developments in a European context is useful, particularly as it makes it clear that the consolidation of ‘European integration’ in the late 1980s occurred in relationship to increasingly volatile public debates about immigration. This theme could even be considerably backdated from the 1980s. As Chin notes in passing, Switzerland was the first country to implement a guest worker policy. Her overall argument might further benefit from including the fact that Switzerland was also the first European country where explicitly anti-immigrant politicians enjoyed national electoral success in the form of the National Action Against Overforeignization [Überfremdung] in the late 1960s. The Swiss example was followed by radical right politicians across Europe, and it serves as one example of how Chin overstates her claim that national histories were largely separate before only recently cohering into a single discourse. In fact, each state observed its neighbours’ migration policies closely from the beginning of the post-war period. This dynamic created a kind of negative feedback loop in which concepts like the ‘threshold of tolerance’ became part of a common European vocabulary for thinking about diversity already in the 1960s, well before the explosion of cross-national public discourse around Islam as a threat to liberal values that she identifies as occurring in the late 1980s. Chin’s overall narrative would also benefit from more engagement with the social and economic histories that undergird her intellectual history. The book offers minimal information about the size of the ‘radical demographic transformations’ (p. 4) it charts, and it might have been useful to include a chart or graph to that end. Additionally, although she repeatedly gestures to changing economic conditions, she does not provide very many concrete economic indicators. Because the book’s argument relies largely on elite and official discourses, it is often unclear why the arguments against multiculturalism that Chin lays out so incisively gained adherents when they did. These are minor criticisms that should serve to suggest new directions for research and engagement; they do not detract from Chin’s intellectual achievement, which is to offer a highly readable critical genealogy of the present. The book should find an appreciative audience among historians of twentieth century Europe, advanced undergraduates, and general readers interested in contemporary European politics. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.

Journal

German HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 28, 2018

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