Europa & die Welt Leben & Arbeiten Progressive Mehrheit Debattenbeitrag

Beyond liberal guilt and the culturalist trap – making use of a new grand narrative of migration



Migratory movements inherit an energy widely ignored in western immigration societies. Progressive policies should develop a new, resource oriented migration narrative and a reorientation of policies on intercultural opening and enlarging individual rights and participation.


The resource of the migration narrative

Migration has always been a constitutive part of modern societies. Cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin could not be conceived without their legacy of migration. The drive, the energy and the fascination of the urban realm is strongly related to migratory movements. In fact, most Western European societies are societies of immigration. In large European cities often half of the population looks back on a personal or family related migration experience. And an increasing number of the so called second generation belongs to a new urban middle class with high educational background, strong entrepreneurial spirit and an increasing average income. Recent studies have revealed that educational and economic success in the context of immigration is strongly linked to immigrant’s will for upward social mobility.

To pick up a persistent and often used cliché: Immigrants rarely leave their home countries to live on welfare benefits in the host country. Quite the contrary: their striving for education, social success and recognition is vital and constitutes a strong resource when it comes to overcoming visible and invisible barriers. The will to move up the social ladder is often rooted in the decision to leave home and to migrate into a new and insecure setting. We may call this spirit the social energy of migration. Used in an intelligent manner it is as powerful a resource for migrant families as it is for society. It constitutes a valuable social and cultural capital rooted in a vivid narrative of migration.

It is surprising that this social energy, the cultural capital of migration, has been ignored by most policy makers or political parties in Western Europe. This is even more stunning for social democrats as their identity and self-understanding is essentially build on grand narratives as an instrument for political mobilisation and identification. After all it is the social democrats that can claim ownership for the narrative of the liberation of workers and for women’s emancipation and their striving for social mobility; namely the struggle for social rights of the workers in the late 19th century, the struggle for voting rights for women in the early 20th century, and above all the struggle for post WW II state constitutions built on the idea of protecting the individual from any misuse of state power. In all these struggles social democrats played a decisive, innovative and leading role.

The pioneering spirit of many immigrants of the first and second generation is comparable with the mentality of the Dutch Calvinist entrepreneurs in the 17th century Max Weber described in his “Protestant Ethic”. These hard working businessmen were the pioneers of economic growth and social mobility at the time. Given the affiliation to grand narratives in the social democratic movement it seems a promising strategy to make use of the resource that lies in the migration history of millions of “new” citizens in Europe. This would mean re-inventing the histories of migration from a resource perspective and finding a collective language for the courage and the wit that lies in many individual and collective migration decisions. This narrative could become a source for political mobilisation of both, migrants and non-migrants regardless of their ethnic or cultural background.

Citizenship replaces ethnicity

Migration experiences are universal, trans-ethnic and trans-national. Today’s Western European societies need to take a post-ethnic approach towards the challenge of inclusion. Ethnicity is a concept bound to the idea of multiculturalism prominent in the 1980s. In today’s hyper-diverse societies (a term coined by Steve Vertovec) with changing belongings and multilayered identities, ethnicity appears to be an outdated idea. It doesn’t reflect today’s reality of multiple, sometimes contradicting experiences, belongings and loyalties in people’s lives. Instead the concept of citizenship seems more up-to-date and closer to social reality. It is an inclusive concept that focuses on the enlargement of individual and political participation rights despite differences in cultural or ethnic tradition or habit.

In Germany third country nationals are excluded from the fundamental right to vote even on the local level. In the inner city districts of large German cities like Berlin, Stuttgart, Hamburg or Frankfurt this exclusion hits up to a fifth of the population. Rather than focussing on an alleged clash of cultures or a forced integration of supposed ethnic “ghettos”, policies should concentrate on enlarging the possibilities for political participation. Such an approach leaves aside identity questions or demands for cultural assimilation. It takes the citizen status of anyone living within a political entity for granted. In concrete terms his would mean: naturalisation for third country nationals after a maximum period of five years of residence in the host country, multiple citizenship and voting rights for third country nationals at least on the local level.

Intercultural opening as a key challenge

Western societies are increasingly incoherent, diverse and multiple in shape. This should be the starting point for progressive integration policies. As a consequence the provision of skills to deal with this reality, institutional adaptation and learning seem to be the most urgent challenges for the coming decade.

This means focusing policies on institutional opening with regard to culturally diversity – a proc-ess called intercultural opening in the German context. The policy of intercultural opening is inclusive in its scope; it focuses on institutional knowledge and wisdom in a culturally diverse and socially complex setting. Intercultural opening is not blind towards differences in cultural traditions, languages or habits; however, it shifts the centre of attention away from the allegedly fixed cultural characteristics of the individual. Instead institutions come to the fore. They need to take responsibility for organising a setting in which equal access of all citizens to institutions and their services become possible. This counts among others for schools, universities, childcare, job centres, museums, companies etc..

Differences in cultural habits or religious orientations don’t have to be neglected in this process. But they cannot serve any longer as an excuse for the lack of institutional skill and creativity. This does not mean letting individuals or families of the hook, however, moderating differences and finding individual and pragmatic solutions in culturally diverse settings needs to become one of the most important quality standards of institutional action.

The approach of intercultural opening avoids both, the attitude of liberal guilt and the trap of culturalism. Both run danger of fixing asymmetrical social positions. The former as it focuses on individual “help” rather structural rights. The latter as it explains differences in the social strata by pointing at fixed, natural cultural characteristics of individuals.

In putting the focus on removing institutional barriers intercultural opening instead can be re-garded as a pragmatic starting point of a post-ethnic political programme which focuses on rights and resources in the society of immigration.

Of course one should remain realistic: the hyper-diverse polis is not a sphere free of disagree-ment. Living together in the polis today often enough means conflict and harsh dispute between individual citizens and groups, often without reaching consensus. However, it is this diverse, fascinating, often tiring and conflictual reality that needs to be recognised and taken as a point of departure. Progressive policies should aim at increasing the institutional and individual skills and competences to manoeuvre in this increasingly complex setting – a vision social democrats should endeavour to deliver.