The modern state has been characterized by Bikhu Parekh as “a historically unique mode of defining and relating its members”, to each other “as an association of individuals. It abstracts away their class, ethnicity, religion, social status and so forth, and unites them in terms of their subscription to a common system of authority…To be a citizen is to transcend one’s ethnic, religious and other particularities…Because their socially generated differences are abstracted away, citizens are homogenized and related to the state in an identical manner‟. It was liberalism that worked out the place and status of the individual, his or her relationship as a citizen to the state, and the rights and obligations this enjoined. Because of its abstraction of the individual, liberalism is popularly assumed to be culturally “neutral” and therefore the best way of accommodating cultural and religious diversity.
Liberals commonly arrogate a monopoly on tolerance and open-mindedness. They justify this on the basis of their theorization of the distinction between public and private spheres in which the rules of the public sphere are clear and which enable the individual to hold whatever views he or she likes as long as they do not break those rules. Similarly, an individual can, within the private sphere and domestic space, have any number of cultural affiliations, and perform any number of practices. Since these have no bearing on their relationship to the state or their public performance as citizens, they are perfectly at liberty to continue with them providing, once again, that they do not break the law as formulated by the society of citizens as a whole.
However, if we look a little closer, we find that liberalism is neither culturally “neutral” nor is it able to provide a sufficient vocabulary or philosophical framework through which to resolve cultural differences. For one thing, liberalism finds it extremely difficult to account for culture at all. The individual, abstracted out of any form of cultural affiliation, is related directly to the state. To this way of thinking, culture is a secondary matter.
Liberalism is therefore not able to account for the importance individuals may place on aspects of their culture, an importance which at times may not seem rational at all. In part, this is due to the rather idealist notion within liberalism that the individual is a free-floating rational entity that transcends its particular environment and for whom history, tradition and culture are no more than raw material to be used instrumentally for the pursuance of his or her self-defined interests. It does not recognise that the individual is embedded in a culture through which he or she is able to construct the meaning of the world which they inhabit and of the “identity” that constitutes their selfhood. It is precisely because of this that liberalism is, in fact, ill-equipped to mediate cultural difference because it provides no mechanisms by which to understand why or how those differences might be important and worth cherishing.
For another thing, although in theory liberalism sees only the relationship between the state and the individual as mediated through the law as important, in practice it does need to ground itself in a culture for the law cannot be an abstract body of doctrines but rather must reflect the values and sensibilities of those who create and adhere to it. In other words, the making of laws “presupposes a shared body of values amongst the state’s population such that the authority of the law is recognized as being generally valid.” The liberal concept of citizenship is not therefore merely a politico-legal concept but also a cultural one. Historically, nationalism has provided the cultural glue that binds together the liberal theory of state, that fastens the individual to the state. This is why it has been said that all liberals are, in fact, “liberal nationalists‟, whether they admit it or not.
As I have already stated, liberalism has, historically and theoretically, been at the root of the assimilationist doctrine of cultural relations. Religion – as well as other forms of cultural affiliation – were seen as a problem precisely because they threatened to provide alternative foci of loyalty to that of the nation state, or alternative assessments of the body of values which underwrite its authority. This potential disturbance to the stability of the state and its laws is what underlies the assimilationist demand for cultural homogeneity as a corollary to legal equality.
Recently, however, some liberal theorists have attempted to account for cultural diversity whilst still preserving the spirit of liberalism by rejecting the doctrine of assimilation. They have done so by going back to liberalism’s first principles, which posit a distinction between the public and private realms. Within the terms of this framework, the public sphere consists of the state and civil society. John Rawls has advocated acceptance of cultural diversity in the public sphere so long as it is confined to certain areas of civil society and other „non-political‟ branches of the state. The one aspect of the public sphere that must remain reserved for liberalism is what he terms the “political realm‟. His liberalism is accordingly thinned down to the bare minimum necessary to conduct political but not necessarily any other form of life – those can be lived according to the cultural preoccupations of individuals. However, this kind of political liberalism merely reduces the more comprehensive assimilationism of previous liberal thought to a narrower, politically defined assimilation into liberal values which become the only legitimate and acceptable standard by which to conduct political life.
Again, this might have been sufficient were it not for the rather awkward fact that since politics involves the contestation and regulation of different forces within society, and since such forces must be culturally embedded, politics necessarily invokes culture and involves the negotiation of or conflict between the values they articulate. Rawls’s political liberalism once again overlooks the fact that liberalism is itself a culture with its own set of values that are not necessarily those of everyone else. To reserve the political realm for this culture is to put all non-liberal cultures at a significant political disadvantage.
This kind of displaced assimilation generally goes by the name, nowadays, of integration. This is the kind of integration advocated by the current political consensus. It accepts “plurality” but demands that ethnic and religious minorities in turn accept British “norms and values”. It never quite specifies what these are but the structure of the demand makes it clear that, first, there is a set of British “norms and values”, and secondly, that in order to participate fully in the British “way of life” people of other cultures, faiths or traditions must give moral priority to British “values” over and above their own.