Rethinking Multiculturalism

Due to the kind of occupational disease you develop in my profession (history), I will start with a historical example, which perhaps may illumine some reasons for developing scepticism to strangers.

Swedish immigrants seen as dangerous

They were called people in rags, lousy ones, drifters and professional gangsters, bastards, devils. Who? Swedes in Norway, in the decades around the beginning of the 20th century. Why bastards? Because you had a Norwegian mother and a Swedish father. "Do you see the Swede? Grab his head and ass and peel him!" So they said in Oslo. In the south-eastern border region to Sweden, Ostfold, the local branch of the social-liberal labour movement in 1898 sent a letter to the parliament demanding action to stop or put brakes on the influx of what they called "foreign workers". "Many people who lack honor and respect are streaming in and settle far too easily. They carry evil and they spread evil. And Norwegi-anness is stifled. Some even predict so ill omens, that if a higher bar is not installed to deter needy and bad people from other countries, this shall become the route of the Norwegian people. The intention is not to close the country to good and able workers, but to close out what is bad and this will benefit and secure both Norwegian workers and the people of Norway".

There are examples of this attitude directed against other groups such as East-European Jews. There was a considerable, though I will not say a general, anti-Semitism around 1900 in a country almost without Jews. However, historically Swedes in Norway offer an interesting strategic example if we want to understand scepticism to strangers. From one point of view there were so similar. Their language was easily understood, the dominant religion was Lutheran in both countries, the social structure in the border regions to Norway from where most of them came was similar to eastern Norway. The Swedes looked like Norwegians. Most characteristics ought to guarantee a smooth inclusion and also assimilation. To be true, this was mostly the case. Frequent intermarriage is perhaps the most telling evidence. However, they might also be nicknamed devils or bastards, with no jocular ring to it. In some situations, a very clear demarcation line was drawn.

Conflicts of interests?

Why? As we know, ethnicity is no essence, no inherent or permanent quality in a group. As the anthropologist Fredrik Barth has taught at least me "ethnicity exists when real and or imagined features in a group are ascribed meaning or significance", brought to the forefront of attention. That is, only in some situations were Swedes seen as only "Swedes". In other situations they were workers, mates, comrades or just anybody. And further, according to Barth, this underlining of even minute differences, serves to draw a demarcation line between "them" and "us".

Now, within the more general approach of Barth, i.e. rational actor-oriented transactional analysis, he claims that drawing a border line is done somehow to further interests, for instance in situations when resources are scarce or seen as scarce. When there is competition, there is a need to find criteria that may we used to decide who are to win, who are the worthy winners, so to speak, or more radically who are entitled to enter the game at all.

Attitudes from a rationalist interest perspective

Working men in this period had one fundamental experience of the labour market. Although there was a strong demand for labour power in this period, employment was a scarce and insecure good, underemployment was a chronic ill. This was a pre-Keynesian mental universe. So to speak, it was important not to "use" or "spend" the jobs that existed, to ensure that demand stayed on. One way was to limit access - to women, to unskilled, to the number of apprentices. The socialist labour movement did not want to exclude workers on grounds of nationality. They reasoned from the point of enlightened self-interest. Their newspaper wrote in 1900: "Today you, tomorrow me. If we close foreign workers out, we may be hit by the same fate another time." And their leader, Christian Hatermann Knudsen, argued that a law against immigration as suggested by the social liberals was an expression of "the narrow national-fanatic view that we as socialist never have subscribed to". Instead they wanted all workers to unionise and primacy for the organised workers. The problem was that this presupposed a very high level of union membership. As this was the case only in some branches. Ethnicity was a possible alternative strategy that might be chosen to decide who was to be included, and who to be excluded.

So far the rationalist paradigm of Barth works. It may also help us to understand why Norwegian shopkeepers saw itinerant Jewish peddlers as competitors. And it may to some extent why contemporary Norwegian tax-payers were so concerned with "needy and bad people" from other countries as the social liberals of Østfold phrased it. Nevertheless, if one looks at the cool figures, one gets second thoughts. There simply were not that many Jewish peddlers to constitute a serious commercial challenge. And as to needy and bad - yes, there was an overrepresentation of Swedes among men arrested for drunkenness, among those who received poor relief and a slight overrepresentation among convicts. From the hindsight of a historian one may point out that most Swedes were young working class men, and compared to their Norwegian peers they scored about the same. This does not matter if this was conceived differently among contemporary Norwegians. But it is striking to see how small the financial burdens actually were. Figures are available for a somewhat later date, in the mid-1920s, when expenditures for needy foreigners at most covered 1,7 per mille of the state budget.

Immigration as modern society evil

This leads me to think that something else, along with rational self-interest , was at play. If we look at those who publicly were most vociferous about the dangers of immigration, we find these amongst two groups. First, the old educational elite, who in these years were surpassed by and lost their traditional lead to the industrial and business bourgeoisie. Secondly, the new counter-elite academics with a rural background. Relatively they were on the move upwards, but they also harboured a lot of frustrated social mobility. To both groups foreigners became a peg on which they could hang their aggression and explanation. As they were so active in the media of the day, their interpretations were widely spread. These nationalistic or ethnicist interpretations were challenged by class interpretations, but the labour movement was at that time not hegemonic. These writers found the roots of the evil in various aspects of the emerging modern society : capital and market economy, secularism and rationality, materialism and hedonism, women's liberation and feminism, industrialisation and the formation of a proletariat, urbanisation and formation of big cities. Oslo at the time, had a quarter of a million inhabitants. In all these phenomena foreigners were over-represented, and Jews seemed to represent the quintessence of modern society: capitalism, proletariat, big cities, mobility, cosmopolitanism.

More generally stated, immigrants became a Sinnbild, as they say in German, a symbol of the great societal changes that took place in the decades around 1900. People at the time experienced a transformation from a peasant society to an industrial capitalist market society, from a rural society to at least one big city, from traditional and religious legitimatisation to a modernity ruled more by instrumental rationality, from a fairly subaltern population to a self-conscious working class, from a localistic society towards a more anonymous mass society. Many people did not like or did not understand these transformations. Immigrants became a scapegoat which offered a condensed universal explanation both to real and imagined.

Does this have any bearing on the present situation?

Women coping better than men

I think we somehow are undergoing a similar transformation, from industrial capitalism to information and service capitalism, and although there is much modish exaggeration involved in the discourse of globalisation, there is in some respects a new stage of internationalisation.

These transformations have brought forth its winners and its losers. There are rising segments linked to the information economy: symbol analysts, technocrats, capital owners, And there are those who, so to speak, are left behind: pensioners, young men who one generation back might expect well paid, secure, respected and socially integrating jobs as industrial workers, Their habitus is ill fitted to the demands in the education system and the new jobs. They loose out also to women who seem to cope better. While women, particularly those with post general school education and jobs in the public sector, have chosen a kind of left position politically, unskilled men in the private sector have swung to the right. The data on elections are quite clear in this respect. Now, this is no inherent feature in young working men, historically they have been mobilised on quite different agendas.

The void of the New Left

How may we understand this? To me it seems that many people today have good and fair reasons to be discontented; be it because of job insecurity, low wages, fear of violence in the city or bitterness over social privileges among the elite. Particularly among young men there are several who find no satisfactory alternative in the new education system and economy. How may they interpret their situation?

We all need interpretations of the world, an image of the world, which may be more or less systematic and explicit, but nevertheless helps us to sort out our impressions and endow them with coherence and meaning. Previously the labour movement, as it rose to ascendancy from WWI and onwards, expressed such an image to their members and followers. It presented to people a world with social differences and a goal to eradicate or radically diminish these differences. The new Labour in Norway as well as in Britain has left the image of a world with social classes. And it left a void behind. Or more correctly, many among those who traditionally adhered to the party, do not feel that there is a place for them in the new, "smart", "modern" technocratic world view.

Where do they go? As I said, men, particularly two groups, old and young, low- skilled male workers, have turned to the extreme right. In Norway, the so called "Progressive Party (FRP)". Although the party has played down the more blatant racism and anti-immigration agitation of old, there is always a kind of subtext in their messages. The previous local chairman in Oslo stated that: "During WWII we were invaded militarily, those we got out of the country by combined efforts, the "invasion" that we experience today we shall never get out of the country. I dream of a Norway for Norwegians once more, a country not flooded by immigration". Terms like "nationality", "foreign culture", and even "ethnicity" or "immigrant" serve more or less as a sign, somehow signifying people who look physically different. It symbolizes what used to be called "race". And although geneticists tell us that scientifically this is a nonsensical concept, most people still think in these terms.

Working class does not mean racist

Does this mean that working class people are racists when they vote for this party? My answer is no, not necessarily. Such views exist. But only a small group are ingrained racists in the sense that they intensely and systemically claim that those who look and speak differently are totally different and inferior. But, in a situation where many have actual problems and reasonable cause to be discontented, a situation where the labour movement has left explanations based on contradictions in society, where the new Labour no longer is able to or desires to give men and women new meaningful interpretations, there is room for new images.

"Immigration" and "immigrants" become a formula-like explanation, a lightning conductor, a scape-goat. As mentioned, Jews and even Swedes played such a role way back. The early German socialist leader August Bebel stated this precisely, if somewhat arrogantly: "Anti-Semittismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle" (anti-Semitism is the socialism of the stupid guys). Anti-Sernitism that existed as an undercurrent was challenged and beaten by a socialist way of thinking. Today immigrants become the target of a similar, real, but misplaced social discontent. They are blamed for problems: unemployment, the housing situation etc, that are created by quite other forces in society.

If the interpretation offered here holds some truth, this means that it is not sufficient to combat racism or scepticism against strangers through education. What is needed is an interpretation of the world and a policy addressing the interests of those who have been left behind by new Labour.

- By professor Knut Kjelstadli