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Introduction to the special issue: “Solidarity in diverse societies: beyond neoliberal multiculturalism and welfare chauvinism”:

Coping with ‘the progressive’s dilemma’; nationhood, immigration and the welfare state
Comparative Migration Studies20164:4

DOI: 10.1186/s40878-016-0025-z

Received: 19 March 2016

Accepted: 23 March 2016

Published: 20 June 2016

The problem how immigration and welfare states can be reconciled with each other is perhaps more relevant now than ever. High levels of immigration, such as in the current refugee situation in Europe, raise urgent questions about conditions for maintaining the solidarity needed for welfare states. What impact does immigration and the associated rise of cultural diversity have on feelings of belonging and solidarity? How does migration affect the value foundation on which the European welfare states are built? And also the other way around, how do welfare regimes condition immigration policies and political approaches to diversity?

This issue will focus on the role of nationhood and solidarity in reconciling immigration and welfare states. In the lead essay in this volume, the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka, well known for his work on multiculturalism, refers to a ‘progressive’s dilemma’ (see also Banting, 2010) between support for social solidarity and cultural diversity. In the current European context this dilemma seems to be dramatically amplified by pitting advocates of welfare state closure against those of solidarity with refugees. However, the dilemma clearly applies more broadly to various types of migrants, beyond the scope of the current refugee situation. In fact, a potentially contested relationship between migration and welfare states was already discussed in European migration research in the 1980s (Hammar, 1985).

It is a progressive’s dilemma, since it is most pronounced for the broadly liberal left side of the political spectrum that is committed to egalitarian ideas about social justice as well as a relatively open attitude towards migration and migrant integration. Yet is it really a dilemma? Is social solidarity among current citizens irreconcilable with solidarity with newcomers who are worse off? Do multicultural policies of immigrant integration really undermine social cohesion and support for redistribution? These are both normative and empirical questions. No matter how academic scholars answer them, they certainly feel like a dilemma for various progressive parties in Europe, such as the Labour Party in the UK and the SPD in Germany, which have thus far struggled to take a clear position regarding the refugee crisis. The strongest illustration of how the dilemma plays out in the current crisis could be the drastic change of policy by the Swedish coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens in January 2016 from open admission of refugees for permanent settlement to temporary protection, restricted family reunion and turning back undocumented asylum seekers.

The dilemma is clearly not only a theoretical or conceptual one; it manifests itself very clearly in public and political debates on migration. On the one hand, there are anti-immigrant parties and social movements who increasingly combine hostility towards cultural diversity with a rhetoric of social protection for natives. On the other hand, there is an impressive civil society mobilization for solidarity with refugees advocating a welcoming attitude and pleading for multicultural incorporation of these asylum seekers into European societies. The at times fierce polarization in the debate on refugee admission and integration blocks sober consideration of the challenges that lie ahead when welfare regimes that are already under severe economic stress are exposed to unplanned large immigration and exacerbated conflicts over religious and ethnic diversity.

This special issue hosts a conversation between leading scholars from various disciplines and perspectives on the relation between immigration, welfare state, cultural diversity and nationhood. The aim of the issue is not so much to take a specific position or to showcase conclusive empirical research regarding the ‘progressive’s dilemma’, but rather to represent a wide spectrum of views among scholars all of whom take the dilemma seriously even if they disagree about its precise content. The focal point of the discussion is a lead article by Will Kymlicka that takes a clear position regarding the progressive’s dilemma. Subsequently, various scholars reflect on Kymlicka’s contribution in a brief commentary. This debate includes responses from the perspective of comparative study of democracy (Hanspeter Kriesi), sociology of migration (Godfried Engbersen, Adrian Favell), political theory (Rainer Bauböck), political sociology (Irene Bloemraad), multiculturalist theory (Nasar Meer) and cultural anthropology (Nina Glick Schiller). Finally, the special issue also includes a rejoinder to the responses by Will Kymlicka.

Kymlicka’s thesis: the need for ‘multicultural liberal nationalism’

The Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has published extensively on how liberal states ought to deal with cultural diversity. His early work (Kymlicka, 1989, 1995) provided the most influential liberal theory of multiculturalism. In his collaborative research with Keith Banting he argued that policies of multicultural recognition and social redistribution are not necessarily in conflict with each other (Banting & Kymlicka, 2006). His contribution to this special issue extends his argument by considering more broadly how it is possible to institutionalize social solidarity in a redistributive welfare state in contexts of pervasive cultural diversity. Kymlicka’s answer is that it is not enough to rely on power resources of the progressive left in its political struggle with conservative and neoliberal forces. What is instead needed is liberal nation-building.

Even, or perhaps especially, in contexts characterized by high degrees of diversity and mobility the social construction of inclusive nationhood can create a shared sense of belonging that encourages people from various backgrounds to act together and develop a sense of solidarity. Thus, Kymlicka defines ‘national solidarity’ as a key ‘progressive political resource’ that can be mobilized both for multicultural integration of immigrants and social solidarity in support of redistribution.

Kymlicka rejects thus the common interpretation of the dilemma as involving a choice between particularistic nationalism and ‘universal humanitarianism’ (Kymlicka, 2015, 3, p. 5, p. 10). Instead, he interprets both horns of the dilemma within the framework of an ‘ethics of social membership’ (Kymlicka, p. 4). A sense of community and memberships are key aspects of culturally diverse welfare states that need to be constantly nurtured. It is precisely in this regard that nationhood, as a social construct, can fulfil a key political and democratic function. In Kymlicka’s words, it ‘can operate to stabilize democracy and to build and sustain redistributive welfare states’ (Kymlicka, p. 6).

Yet in a context of pervasive diversity, liberal nationalism cannot be of the thick ethnic variety. It must be inclusive for natives as well as immigrants of all origins and has to recognize diversity as a permanent feature of the nation through multicultural policies. For Kymlicka, the progressive’s dilemma then takes on the following modified form: “We need multiculturalism to make liberal nationalism legitimate, but multiculturalist reforms may weaken the bonds of nationhood and hence its ability to secure stability and solidarity” (Kymlicka, 2015, p. 6).

If this dilemma were an inescapable one, then there would seem to be only two solutions: neoliberal multiculturalism (‘inclusion without solidarity’) or welfare chauvinism (‘solidarity without inclusion’). Kymlicka’s (2015) article rejects, however, these alternatives and argues that multiculturalism does not necessarily lead to an erosion of solidarity (see also Banting & Kymlicka, forthcoming). He believes that there is a third option: ‘inclusive solidarity through a multicultural welfare state’ (p. 8). Moreover, the level of anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be empirically unrelated to the generosity of the welfare system: “[T]he perception of economic burden is an effect of perceptions of cultural otherness, not vice versa” (Kymlicka, 2015). Only multicultural liberal nationalism can therefore, in Kymlicka’s view, secure sufficient solidarity between individuals and groups for stable and democratic welfare states in contexts of large scale immigration and persistent cultural diversity.

Responses from various perspectives

Most of the responses to Kymlicka’s essay share his view that the supposed progressive’s dilemma needs to be critically re-examined. Irene Bloemraad agrees with Kymlicka that the empirical assumptions underlying the dilemma seem to be weak or untested. She shares his assessment that there is no hard empirical evidence that multicultural policies are responsible for, or reinforce, welfare state retrenchment. Rainer Bauböck adds that this does not mean that politicians, and other actors involved in migration policymaking, do not have to cope with the real force of the progressive’s dilemma in political discourse. Hanspeter Kriesi specifies that the dilemma constitutes a very real threat to progressive parties, primarily because the constituencies of these parties generally tend to be weary of multiculturalism. Bauböck argues also that the ‘dilemma’ is actually a ‘trilemma’ between ‘openness for immigration, multicultural inclusion and social redistribution.’ He refers to potential political trade-offs not only between ‘multicultural recognition of diversity and social solidarity, but also between openness for new immigration and solidarity and, finally, even between openness and multicultural integration.’

In his rejoinder, Kymlicka regards these interventions as ‘friendly amendments’. However, there are several themes in this conversation that trigger quite some controversy. One of these is Kymlicka’s liberal nationalism. Adrian Favell questions Kymlicka’s support for solidarity at the national level and his assumed congruence between ‘demos’ and nation. Favell points at the many ‘neo-liberal’ economic developments that have to large extent ‘denationalized capitalism’. These have not generally resulted in corresponding non-national political units, but Favell regards this as a normative problem rather than a fact that progressives should accept or even celebrate. And in the European Union he finds an examples of an emergent post-national citizenship based on freedom of movement and non-discrimination. According to Favell, ‘our ideas of solidarity, as with our ideas of democracy and governance, of rights and sovereignty, all need updating for a world beyond the nationalist multicultural state.’ His sharpest criticism concerns Kymlicka’s attempt to separate a liberal political and social agenda from economic liberalism that generates and sustains the openness of societies for immigration and diversity.

Rainer Bauböck also questions this focus on the nation-state. He is critical of Kymlicka’s belief that ‘liberal nationalism’ will promote a form of inclusive solidarity. Kymlicka himself warns that nationhood becomes exclusionary when it is foregrounded, but Bauböck sees a contradiction here: If nationalism is really necessary for supporting social solidarity then it must be mobilized and cannot be kept in the background. Bauböck suggests that the tasks of accommodating cultural diversity and of mobilizing social solidarity need not necessarily be bundled together in the same political unit (the multicultural nation-state) but could be distributed between local, national and supranational polities. According to Bauböck, ‘nation-states are less and less capable of controlling their own political agendas while they exercise at the same time far too much control over the agendas of substate polities as well as supranational unions of states that are better suited to address problems that nation-states cannot deal with adequately.’ While he acknowledges that redistributive welfare regimes can best be established at the national level, he suggests that cities are better equipped than nation-states to maintain an inclusive sense of (local) belonging in highly diverse societies.

Nina Glick Schiller contends that while Kymlicka addresses the critique of methodological nationalism (Wimmer & Glick Schiller, 2002) in his article he does not adequately respond to it. Starting from a historical conjunctural analysis Glick Schiller warns that most European welfare states evolved in a context where nationalism served to justify the extraction of value from colonies, migrants and minorities rather than as a source of inclusive solidarity. As an alternative to the ties of nationhood, Glick Schiller proposes the notion of ‘sociabilities’, which refers to how people in their everyday lives build all sorts of social relations based on ‘shared interests, emotions, and aspirations within a range of settings.’ In order to develop more inclusive solidarity promoting ‘cosmopolitan sociabilities’ could lead to a greater toleration of difference. In his rejoinder, Kymlicka responds that a welfare state demands much more than people ‘living together like neighbours.’ Social justice in redistributive welfare states is for him a much more demanding ideal that still needs national solidarity as a motivational resource. According to Kymlicka, ‘social justice, at least as understood within the social-democratic/liberal-egalitarian tradition, requires not just the civilities and hospitalities of everyday life, but a commitment to building a society of equals, which in turn requires active state measures to address unchosen disadvantages in people’s life chances.’

Another challenge to Kymlicka’s optimism about inclusive solidarity is raised by Irene Bloemraad who emphasizes that welfare regimes also build on notions of ‘deservingness’ that relate entitlements to contributions. Does liberal multicultural nationalism help to overcome perceptions that certain groups of immigrants are undeserving because they rely on welfare without contributing to it? A thin and enlarged conception of liberal nationhood does not seem to answer the question who deserves to belong to a redistributive welfare state that may generate its own modes of exclusion. According to Bloemraad, critics of multiculturalism ‘claim that the welfare state shouldn’t support groups or individuals who choose not to contribute (rather than who face structural problems), people who only ‘take’ rather than give (undermining reciprocity norms), and those who just don’t have the right civic values (thus driving adoption of coercive and more homogenizing civic integration policies). ‘Bloemraad’s critique resonates also with current European debates on the alleged magnet effect of the more generous and universalistic welfare systems for asylum seekers.

Nasar Meer makes a similar point when he examines attitudes towards redistribution in Britain and argues that perceptions of shared identity are only one among several criteria that go into evaluations of ‘deservingness’. Meer’s general argument is that the progressive’s dilemma may be based on over-simplified and misleading conceptions of social solidarity. Accepting it as a social fact blinds us ‘because transnational forces (such as globalization) and domestic forces (such as devolution) affect social welfare delivery in ways that have very little to do with shared identity’. According to Meer, the notion of solidarity should always be put in a broader political-economic perspective, which implies some distance from Kymlicka’s liberal culturalist approach.

Another theme in the discussion concerns contemporary changes in the nature of migration and diversity and in the politics of migration. Hanspeter Kriesi confirms the political reality of the progressive’s dilemma in much stronger terms than Kymlicka. Both conceptual logic and the reality of the politics of migration suggest, according to Kriesi, that there is a fourth alternative to ‘neoliberal multiculturalism’, ‘welfare chauvinism’ and Kymlicka’s ‘multicultural nationalism’. This is the ‘nationalist neoliberalism’ (exclusion without solidarity), adopted by some European populist parties. Kymlicka’s third option ‘solidarity with inclusion’ has indeed been the choice for many progressive parties linked to a change in their constituencies. From traditional working class parties, most of these parties have shifted up towards more middle-class parties. However, this does not solve but rather bypass the progressive’s dilemma, as it does not alter the perception amongst traditional working class constituencies that there is a trade off between solidarity and immigration.

Godfried Engbersen addresses instead the changing nature of migration and diversity from a sociological perspective. In his view, Kymlicka’s defence of multicultural liberal nationalism as a resource for inclusive solidarity defies what he describes as the emergent reality of ‘superdiversity’ and ‘liquid mobility.’ Superdiversity refers to a situation where diversity has in itself become so diversified that one can no longer speak of specific groups. Liquid mobility means that patterns of mobility have become more diverse and flexible, including temporary as well as permanent forms as well as many types in between. Instead of newcomers arriving and settling in one particular country and being included into the welfare state where they develop a ‘multicultural liberal nationalist’ sense of belonging, Engbersen sees the development of a segmented welfare state in which social rights are increasingly differentiated. In his rejoinder, Kymlicka he distances himself from the idea of liquid mobility. He claims that in reality many migrants still settle permanently. He goes on to argue that the current shift from multicultural to civic integrationist policies is not at all about how to deal with the reality of liquid mobility; rather it is about allocating the burdens for integration to individual migrants rather than society, which undermines the very idea of multicultural nationhood.

Finally, some of the comments discuss to what extent Kymlicka’s thesis would be specific to the Canadian case. Here, Bloemraad argues that ‘multicultural nationalism’ in Canada also evolved after decades of immigration and cultural conflict. She adds that similar conflicts may accompany the road towards multicultural nationalism in Europe as well. Meer, reflecting in particular on the UK case, adds that a better historical understanding is required of how ‘inclusive solidarity’ emerges within specific (national) settings. For instance, rather than asking how diversity shapes the welfare state (and immigration policies), Meer turns the question around and asks how welfare states may have shaped diversity in society as well; the UK being a case in point where the colonial policies of the past had a key impact on immigration to the UK.

Conclusions: a modest consensus and a lack of alternative visions

A debate like this one cannot aim at either normative consensus or irrefutable empirical evidence supporting a specific view of the relation between immigration, welfare states and nationhood. Rather, this issue provided a platform for one of the key debates in migration studies but also in the public and political sphere more generally. From this discussion, several points of convergence but also divergence did emerge. First of all, there seems to be some agreement that the progressive’s dilemma should not so much be considered as empirically grounded in social facts but should be taken seriously as a political reality. Whereas comparative empirical research shows that levels of redistribution, immigration and cultural diversity seem to vary rather independently from each other, most authors in this special issue agree that trade-offs between them are generally assumed in political discourse and drive the stances of political parties, movements and voters that provide in turn inputs for democratic policy making.

Such a political interpretation of the progressive’s dilemma allows to take it seriously while at the same time accounting for a lot of contingency with regard to how it plays out in different states and regional contexts. Studying the progressive’s dilemma from a political perspective can, however, mean taking one of two contrasting attitudes. A realist approach will consider the politicized trade-offs as facts that are just as hard as if they were grounded in general social laws. A normative perspective can instead challenge them by invoking a conception of solidarity and political community that defies the dilemma. This is precisely what Kymlicka does. From his normative perspective welfare chauvinism and neoliberalism are both morally unacceptable. The question of whether liberal nationalism can reconcile the core values of social justice and openness for immigration and cultural diversity is partly a normative and partly an empirical one. Is liberal nationalism a coherent and morally compelling ideal? And if so, can this ideal still be realized in an increasingly interdependent and globalized world? The jury is still out on both questions. Kymlicka’s spirited defence of affirmative answers to them has triggered some sceptical responses by his interlocutors. But comprehensive alternative visions how to resolve the progressive’s political dilemma have yet to be developed.


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Authors’ Affiliations

Social and Political Theory at the European University Institute
Public Policy & Politics at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam


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