Ideas for an intelligent and progressive integration discourse

Di S. Anne G. Bostanci Lunedì 10 Gennaio 2011 17:25 Stampa
Ideas for an intelligent and progressive integration discourse Foto: Francesca Masia

In Germania il recente dibattito sui temi dell'immigrazione e dell'integrazione ha evidenziato come il discorso su tali politiche non possa girare solo intorno ai contenuti concreti. Al fine di prevenire e contrastare efficacemente le politiche sostenute dalla destra e per costruire un coerente approccio progressista, è dunque necessario sviluppare un concetto di cultura dell’integrazione basato su studi sociali.


The beginnings of serious integration policy in Germany

The public statement by then Home Secretary Otto Schily in 2001 that Germany is indeed an immigration country[i] concluded an era of turning a blind eye. While public discourse had before referred to guest workers who were expected not to overstay their welcome and return ‘home’, it was finally recognised at that point in time that the former expectations had been both unrealistic by historical comparison and inappropriate regarding human social considerations.

This turning point – instigated by the Social Democratic Party of Germany – was the beginning of serious engagement with integration policy in Germany. Even the subsequent conservative-led governments had to face reality. Speaking in the broadest terms – those of the recognition of the necessity to seriously engage with integration policy – the SPD had compelled the political parties of the centre to forge a consensus. However, it is not the aim of this article to discuss how reasonable or successful the current government’s handling of integration policy is and what role the opposition is playing. More importantly, the recent public debate sparked by Sarrazin’s comments flags up one thing in particular; it is that integration policy does not only need tangible and progressive contents, but also has to develop further discursively.

Difficulties in developing discourses on integration further

“We cannot leave the debate on immigration and integration to right-wing populists,” social democratic parties all over Europe have been saying for several years. However, in spite of good ideas and intentions, European social democracy has not yet found a way to effectively counter the simplistic, often contemptuous and inflammatory, slogans of the far right. Yet, it is important to note that this rhetoric usually does not represent majority views – albeit having an intensity that allow it sustained access to some groups (often identified as socially underprivileged and marginalised) and grants it particularly effective publicity.

Indeed, it is difficult to pre-empt and counteract those discourses. It was for this and electoral reasons that it was possible, for instance, that UK governmental and political discourses and actions, including those of the Labour Party, met right-wing dispositions with a sharpened rhetoric (represented by slogans such as ‘Though on immigration’) and the introduction of well-publicised ‘tough’ policies (e.g. the points-based naturalisation system). Fortunately, the recent heated public debate in Germany expresses a legitimate indignation about the fact that such comments as Sarrazin’s claim to arise from the political centre.

But, while this indignation indicates that electoral considerations do not necessarily open the door to ideological relativism, the fundamental problem remains: it is difficult to bring forward a constructive counter argument which allows a comprehensive rejection of right-wing dispositions. The reasons for this are numerous, but can be summarised in one main explanation: political parties of the centre, including the centre left, have not yet managed to effectively use the insight that right-wing theories are often devoid of a rational dimension and achieve their success by exploiting people’s fears and lack of or misinformation. Having identified this, and making use of the heightened public interest, now is the time for another advance by German and, indeed, European Social Democracy.

Where to start?

On the one hand it is a general phenomenon of politics of the centre that the non-rational dimension of politics is often underestimated or deliberately played down. However, it is helpful here to recall that politics is concerned with the distribution of limited resources in society and that conflict and disagreement are therefore unavoidable. As stated by Chantal Mouffe[ii], especially Social Democratic parties, who pursued what they considered a suitable contemporary identity through the ‘Third Way’ or ‘Neue Mitte’, should instead accept the natural existence of strife in politics. Furthermore, with arguments and decisions determined by ideological considerations, an exclusive focus on rational argumentation is mistaken. For if political argumentation was purely rational, it would inevitably lead to the victory of the better argument. As this is not the case, political conflict and disagreement can only be rational to a certain extent. Therefore, non-rational, affective and often impassioned, arguments and preferences also have to play a role. One can see this clearly in the rhetoric of the far right, but this is also the case with other, more moderate political thoughts and opinions. What is necessary is the mobilisation of political enthusiasm for non-extreme policies. This is a possible starting point for Social Democrats across Europe.

On the other hand, people’s fears and lack of or misinformation have to be addressed. Not only the pressing, possibly justified social and economic fears of marginalised groups are at issue here. But also cultural fears, which often derive from a lack of knowledge or interaction. However, here, like in other areas in life, nothing is to be feared, things are only to be understood.[iii] Once understood, cultural differences often do not appear threatening at all. Instead of letting a language of inequality, of a nationally defined validity or invalidity of certain cultures, or even of cultural threat be forced upon them, Social Democrats should develop their own intelligent and progressive discourse on integration.

This does not only include a better comprehension of different cultural forms and recognition of their validity in politics – even though this is often necessary as well. The development of an intelligent, progressive integration discourse starts, at the most fundamental level, with a better understanding of the term culture (and, with it, integration). Driven by the very purpose of facilitating a better understanding of the term, Cultural Studies have become an established field of research within the social sciences over several decades now. It would, therefore, be of use to politics in general, but in particular for Social Democracy whose primary concerns with, of instance, equality are mirrored in this field of study, to take a close look at this field. Cultural studies do not only offer analysis and comparison of different cultures or cultural forms, but also a political potential that should to be taken seriously. Especially in British post-colonial cultural studies concepts of culture have emerged that are not only politically motivated but also combine great analytical insight and practical utility.

What does culture mean? What is integration?

The term culture means something to everyone, but it may mean different things to different people, and only few can comfortably formulate a precise definition. While broad-ranging, from a sociological point of view, a definition would be quite simple: culture is the entirety of the social practices of a society; this includes languages and discourses, spiritual, philosophical, political and economic doctrines and lifestyles, rituals, mentalities, preferences and values, as well as different forms of art and all their specific idiosyncrasies. It is passed on from one generation to the next through education and mere practice. The social unity that results from these cultural practices is often defined nationally, even though there are far more and very different ways to understand the meaning of culture. Again, bringing this down to the most fundamental level of political thought, it is worth noting that the reverse assumption that a nation is defined by its culture is a contingent artefact, too. It is the artefact of nationally defined states’ attempts to create internal coherence, which, in turn, is intended to lend them political legitimacy.

The assumption of coherence of national culture, which is increasingly questionable in today’s globalised world, also carries the assumption that national culture is bounded and unvarying. According to the understandings of cultural studies both these assumptions are mistaken. Here, culture is understood as a collection of practices, which resemble, overlap and differ between different societies. They also continuously, spontaneously or by means of mutual influences, change or enrich each other. This is why Homi Bhabha refers to the ‘impossibility of [cultures’] boundedness’ and their unvarying continuity.[iv] An important consequence of this understanding is that cultural integration (which nowadays is constructed as a much more problematic issue than and/or the sine qua non of other forms, say, economic integration) cannot be a one-sided process. Even though, in the German context, the term itself represents an attempt to transcend the one-sided expectations that the formerly used term assimilation carried, a change in mentalities and discourses has failed to materialise. The main reason for this is that the mutuality inherent in integration policies mainly took the form of government initiatives. As a result, the general (mis)understanding of the meaning or function of culture as bounded and unvarying was allowed to persist. While this applies mainly to the expectation of one-sided ‘integration’ (which would amount to assimilation again), it also explains a certain scepticism within receiving societies vis-à-vis the possibility of the malleability of immigrants’ cultures. Instead it should be clear, that the mutuality in processes of cultural integration affects everybody.

Bhaba’s concept of cultural hybridity[v] helps explain this. It does not refer to an overlap or combination of ostensibly clearly distinguishable, separate cultures. Instead, his concept outlines the fact that by mixing different cultural influences and practices, a variety of new cultural forms are created. In contrast to Bhabha’s reference to such forms as ‘third’ ones, i.e. additional to the previous two, the equation 1 + 1 ≥  3 is preferred here, as the numerical term is easily misunderstood as again numerically limiting. This means that the combination of cultural practices will always lead to more than the sum of the parts combined. For instance the encounter of German and Turkish cultures in Germany will lead to more than clearly defined German, Turkish and German-Turkish cultures. For one thing, neither German nor Turkish culture is uniform. For another the encounter of forms of these cultures will lead to a whole range of new forms of cultural expression rather than a clearly bounded new culture. The same applies, to draw on a non-nationally defined example, to encounters of established cultural forms and youth cultures.


The argument presented here can be summarized as follows: A more educated understanding of culture as unbounded instead of nationally defined and fixed could help centre-left politics to create a more constructive approach to the topic of integration. If the assumption of the possible existence of a bounded and unvarying culture is overcome, a new understanding of integration will be the result. It is not denied here that this breaks with established understandings of the nation state. However, it is questionable whether the nation state can still convincingly construct itself in these terms and also whether it needs to. Instead, Social Democratic parties across Europe may draw on a more realistic understanding of culture and on their traditional focus on equality and solidarity. Such a discourse can be used to reach citizens who disagree with and are disgusted by the current, right-wing dominated discourses on integration. Those citizens do not have a public voice at the moment as progressive opinions and positions are not united in one discourse and therefore cannot be mobilised.

It is obvious that the establishment of a new discourse is not going to be simple. But, if no new, intelligent and progressive ideas on the integration discourse are advanced, European Social Democracy will be faced with exactly the situation they have wanted to prevent all along: right-wing populists setting the terms of integration discourses. It is time that integration becomes a topic of fervent pleas for humanity and solidarity that enable passionate enthusiasm for non-extreme policies and, importantly, political discourses. Therefore, with German and European Social Democrats’ record of recognising the importance of integration policy, they should make use of the current opportunity to push ahead discursively.

Reprinted with the permission of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

[i] A. Geddes (2003) The Politics of Migration and Immigration in Europe, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage Publications (p.88 for the quote of former German Home Secretary Otto Schily).

[ii] C. Mouffe (1998) ‘The Radical Centre: A Politics Without Adversary’ in Soundings, No.9, pp.11-23 (p.13).

[iii] Based on the worldview expressed by the famous natural scientist and Nobel laureate Marie Curie.

[iv] H.K. Bhabha (2002) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge (p.30).

[v] Ibid.


Foto di Francesca Masia

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