Liberal approaches to difference and the market are not having a good time. The leaders of Germany, France, and England have declared that the politics of difference (multiculturalism) have failed. In deference to the populist right-wing Danish People's Party, Denmark has re-imposed border controls for people coming from Germany and Sweden. Since 2008, one financial crisis after another has rolled over the Eurozone and the US. Most economists saw the root causes in a pure neoliberal ideology. But even in Australia, where the financial crisis never seriously threatened the economy, the end to Indigenous self-determination is loudly called for.
What is the relationship between these assaults on multiculturalism and the crisis of neoliberalism? Any answer to this question depends on how one understands the actual, rather than ideological, liberal politics of difference. While both multicultural approaches to difference and neoliberal approaches to the market seem under assault, multiculturalism and neoliberalism are often seen as antagonistic to one another. Neoliberals are seen as conservative across the board; multiculturalists progressive.
This is not surprising. Multiculturalism indicates how people should ethically treat one another. And underlying this meta-ethics is an ideology about liberalism and liberals: that when it comes to the social world, liberalism is a system and attitude of social and political openness that abhors the unnecessary and irrational harm of others.
Central to neoliberal thinking, on the other hand, is the idea that the market naturally pays people what they are worth – and that bargaining power organized through extant institutional arrangements should have nothing to do with income distribution. But neoliberalism is not merely a set of arrangements among the markets, labor, and state, nor is it merely an older form of laissez-faire capitalism. Neoliberals did not merely wish to free the economy from the Keynesian regulatory state; they wished to free the truth games of capitalism from the confines of the market. They argued, and continue to argue, that the market is not merely one measure of value among others, but should be the general measure of all social activities and values.
From one perspective the tension between multiculturalism and neoliberalism is clear. On the one hand, the politics of multiculturalism seems to be arguing for increasing the ethical practices and values that will have worth in a society. On the other hand, neoliberalism seems to be virulently monological, insisting that all forms of life must be evaluated on the sole basis of capital value. The doyennes of neoliberalism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, were notoriously hostile to alternative social movements. More recently, right-wing Christian fanatics such as Timothy McVeigh and Anders Behring Breivik see "multiculturalism" as a fundamental threat.
For those who understand multiculturalism and neoliberalism to be fundamentally antagonist social forms, the events of 9/11 and 7/7 marked a watershed in their tense détente. Before 9/11, multicultural recognition was in ascendency. Afterwards, a strong anti-multiculturalism emerged, often led by neoliberals. A new language of securitization surfaced around the politics of difference and, in particular, around the specter of the Islamic fanatic. When the market collapsed, an unrestrained neoliberalism was widely blamed. And yet, it was exactly at this moment that leader after leader in Europe agreed that the multicultural experiment had failed.
This standard way of opposing multiculturalism and neoliberalism obscures more than it reveals. First, multiculturalism – and the politics of difference more generally – emerged within and alongside the uneven and contentious emergence of neoliberalism. The 1960s were the apex of a global assault on previous ways in which of liberals treated social and cultural difference. Activists and their theorists claimed that Western arts of caring for the colonized and subaltern were not rectifying human inequalities but creating and entrenching them.
The threat these radical challenges presented to foundational legitimating frameworks of liberalism motivated what I call "late liberalism." Late liberalism is the shape that liberal governmentality took as it responded to these rolling legitimacy crises. In order to save the broad framework of liberalism, liberals accepted the principle that alternative ways of life could be legitimate. And further, they accepted that the diversity of human ways of life represented a good rather than a threat. But accepting this principle of difference allowed liberal governance to reverse the crisis of legitimacy. By accepting the principle that other ways of life enhanced rather than threatened liberal ways of life, the liberal politics of difference simply asked these diverse others to explain their good. In short, liberal states and publics made others justify their inclusion into the new tolerant polity. How was their "culture" different enough to afford recognition and yet not too different to be repugnant?
Difference could not make too much of a difference.
Thus in the United States, we can have an African-American President as long as his identity makes no difference. And we can have a Hispanic-Latino Supreme Court Justice as long as she renounces that her social background and experiences make no difference in her interpretation of the law.
The kinship rather than antagonism between liberal forms of multiculturalism and neoliberalism becomes particularly clear when one understands the disciplinary function of the meta-ethics of multiculturalism and social normativity. Because the ethical imperative to recognize the worth of other ethical-cultural systems is contained within the condition that these different ethical-cultural systems are not repugnant to foundational liberal principles, the deep affective and cognitive normative background of liberalism is protected.
Indeed, these affective backgrounds are what liberals are referring to when they talk about "moral sense" as the limit of cultural difference. This was clearly the case in the 1964 US Supreme Court decision, Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which Justice Potter stated that although he could not define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. His statement could easily be rephrased. He knew a representation was pornography when he felt a particular affect. Likewise with other liberal encounters with difference. What it is felt is not the difference per se but how this difference liquefies what the American philosopher Bernard Williams call "projects": the thick subjective background effects of a life as it has been lived. For Williams these thick subjective backgrounds provide the context of all moral and political calculation. In other words, liberal forms of multiculturalism are as much about building a security wall around liberalism as about scaling the wall to pillage its cities.
Rightist fanatics misunderstand this aspect of liberal difference – or they are listening too much to its self-portrait. While the meta-ethical command is that we should not unnecessarily and irrationally discriminate against other ethical modes of life, liberal forms of multiculturalism have rarely allowed any ethical system to challenge the background conditions of liberalism. And if one is a liberal (broadly speaking), then this function of securitization makes complete sense. After all, Spinoza long ago defined all finite modes – whether the human mind or a particular political formation – strive to persevere in being. The cunning of liberal multiculturalism was that it camouflaged this strategy of persevering as change.
Rather than overturning multiculturalism, then, the legacy of the events of 9/11 and 7/7 – the securitization of civilization, the self-confident assertion of the liberal difference, and the demonization of difference – present us with a aspect of liberal multiculturalism that was always immanent to its politics. The other is good for liberalism as long as it doesn't truly challenge it. Since 9/11 and 7/7 this "other side" of the liberal politics has come racing into the foreground.
But 9/11 and 7/7 are not the only reason: As neoliberalism fails to produce the promise of the good life for increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans, the promise of an alternative – adherence to an all-subsuming Truth – becomes all the more tempting.
Elizabeth Povinelli is Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University.