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Kirill Medvedev // The Welfare State and Multiculturalism: An Ambivalent Legacy

Although all of today’s anti-neoliberal campaigns naturally appeal to the waning achievements of the welfare state, it is clear that neither this phenomenon in its previous form nor the specific ideological and psychological climate in which reflection on the Nazi catastrophe, Europe’s colonial past and the national liberation struggles in the Third World were entangled, will ever return. Certain qualities and contradictions of this system are thus manifested more clearly today, during its collapse, forcing us to reinterpret both the active solidarity demonstrated during the period of the Algerian War and the Vietnam War, and the passive tolerance that has come to the fore during the neoliberal period, a tolerance based rather on the European intelligentsia’s sense of guilt over colonialism and Nazism than on a solidaristic, equally empowered struggle for rights inspired by the universalist project of the sixties. The multiculturalist politics of the coexistence of different cultures and identities has been fully in keeping with this passivity.

Although all of today’s anti-neoliberal campaigns naturally appeal to the waning achievements of the welfare state, it is clear that neither this phenomenon in its previous form nor the specific ideological and psychological climate in which reflection on the Nazi catastrophe, Europe’s colonial past and the national liberation struggles in the Third World were entangled, will ever return. Certain qualities and contradictions of this system are thus manifested more clearly today, during its collapse, forcing us to reinterpret both the active solidarity demonstrated during the period of the Algerian War and the Vietnam War, and the passive tolerance that has come to the fore during the neoliberal period, a tolerance based rather on the European intelligentsia’s sense of guilt over colonialism and Nazism than on a solidaristic, equally empowered struggle for rights inspired by the universalist project of the sixties. The multiculturalist politics of the coexistence of different cultures and identities has been fully in keeping with this passivity.

As an ideology, multiculturalism was not specially devised by the bourgeoisie to divide workers, but emerged naturally within the anti-racist movements, in campaigns for civil rights that demanded the recognition of cultural differences, a recognition in whose absence the struggle for common, egalitarian goals is impossible. Cultural and other “stylistic” differences acquired inherent worth when common goals became more obscure and, later, dissipated altogether, something that definitely played into the hands of the renewed elites. This process, a source of sorrow for leftists, is historically explicable. Something similar happened with postmodernist theories: conceived by the post-war radical intelligentsia as a weapon for subverting traditional “white” and masculine conceptions of the world, they forfeited their own revolutionary sense when the radical movement collapsed. They have rather developed into a new intellectual fashion that irritates activists insofar as it is distant from their everyday practices and in some regard really does function to preserve the status quo.

This ambivalence was also from the outset inherent to the European welfare state. On the one hand, it was the product of the struggle waged by the labor and the leftist movements; on the other, it suited the bourgeoisie to the degree that improving the well-being of workers stimulated the consumer market. As time went by, this ambivalence also came to be reflected in social policy: certain groups of immigrants were consigned to menial jobs, while others were herded into diasporas and thus removed from the institutionalized labor process and the corresponding practices of struggle and solidarity. A relatively small stratum of professional “victims of oppression” emerged, giving rise to the myth about immigrants who “come to our country and live on the dole.” But one way or another a compromise between the economic interests of elites and the moral factor (post-war and post-colonial Europe’s sense of responsibility for its own history) was maintained, and the liberal-leftist ideological project functioned – that is, as long as it had an economic basis.

After the accession of Eastern European countries to the European Union and in light of ceaseless economic crisis, this basis has been gradually disappearing. The essentially fair idea of restorative justice for historically oppressed peoples and minorities has come to be regarded (not without foundation) as an attack on the majority, who suffer from catastrophic economic policies irrespective of cultural and lifestyle distinctions. Rossiiskaya Gazeta reports that only 13% of Lithuanians approve of the Lithuanian government’s payment of compensation to the Jewish community for real estate expropriated by the Nazis during the wartime occupation and nationalized during the Soviet period, as opposed to the 58% who are against such payments. The situation is similar in Latvia, whose politicians, amidst an economic collapse, have in turn demanded compensation from Russia for the years of totalitarian rule. The result of such restorative justice in various countries is the same: a swelling of the ranks of extreme rightist voters and populist attacks on multiculturalism by leading Western European politicians.

If truth be told, one would very much like to oppose this entire mess with a utopian stance utterly bereft of historical complexes and grudges. And we really do need our own “end of history,” our own utopian post-history in which there is no longer any historical guilt, no one owes anyone anything, everyone is equal, and together they build a new world on the ruins of capitalism. Of course, to apply this post-history to the current period without reservations would be dangerous: we would end up with the libertarian myth of the equality of all people as individuals, as potentially equal actors in the market exchange right now. But in fact we know that no equality exists. We know that the past and present of colonialism, imperialism and the global division of labor weigh like chains on the majority of the earth’s inhabitants, and that all the hopes that the march of liberal capitalism would break these chains were not and could not be realized. However, if this is our only basis, then some will be doomed to the endless reproduction of complexes over the imperial and colonial past; others, to pathological reactionary pride for the very same reasons; while still others will be condemned to reprising minoritarian stances. And all these groups will certainly appeal to the state, which in turn will divide and rule, guided by its new corporate interests.

So in parting with the welfare state as an imperfect form of the common good, all of us (both those who still hope to restore the state’s progressive role in defending the majority’s interests, and those who believe this is fundamentally impossible, pointing to the neoliberal ruination of European social democracy as the latest example) still have to contemplate a new project of the universal, a new universalist model no longer based either on common industrial practices or the passively shared “European values” of tolerance and multiculturalism.

History continues, and that is why I personally find the post-historical utopia I have mentioned above necessary. There will be no end to history as long as two of humanity’s qualities as a species, qualities that emerged at the dawn of its history, during the phase of its separation from the animal world, continue to play out within this history, interacting, colliding, and seeking abolition or compromise: the will to self-determination, on the one hand, and the will to overcome alienation through solidarity, mutual aid, and collective social creativity, on the other. These impulses also determine the development of any particular tradition. The struggle of individual and community for self-determination gives rise to culture’s progressive, emancipatory, universal and outwardly directed aspect. On the contrary, the struggle of one or another group to assume, solidify and preserve power gives rise to the closed, local form of culture expressed in ceremony and ritual. So the fact that under certain historical circumstances and within specific communities the complex, multivalent content of any spiritual culture can result in, say, the oppression of women or minorities (incidentally, homophobia was imported by colonialists as a then-“European value” to many peoples unfamiliar with it) should not of course confuse us, driving us into this multiculturalist trap for fear of encroaching on someone’s cultural identity. This absolutization of cultural differences is certainly a negative legacy of multiculturalism: if any and all differences must be accepted and tolerated, then when certain differences become intolerable, cultural disparities are easily transformed into a “clash of civilizations” and so forth.

 

The stereotyped opposition between the mutually exclusive stances of “liberal” tolerance and “leftist” solidarity is unlikely to be of aid here, for solidarity as a basic egalitarian value, tolerance of differences, and the self-determination of the community in whose ranks the individual counts herself are things that are inextricably, dynamically connected. While laying claim to a universalist vision and believing that the struggle against economic alienation affects everyone and everything, we can never get away from the need to recognize ourselves in terms of our own community, stratum, and culture. While insisting on solidarity as a basic egalitarian value, we cannot avoid the need to tolerate, respect and recognize differences. The communal memory of oppression, humiliation and persecution – the memory that people have learned to preserve and foster in the post-war and post-colonial west – is something we need not in order to absolutize differences and turn them into a factor of business, but in order to liberate ourselves from them, to do something that seems even more difficult than it did forty years ago – to make the breakthrough into a common future.

 

Kirill Medvedev is a poet and translator, founder of Free Marxist Publishing House, member of Russian Socialist Movement (ex. Vpered) lives in Moscow

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