08 2011

On the Culturalization of Inequality in Capitalist Democracies

Monika Mokre

Intercultural dialogue figures prominently in contemporary EU cultural politics. According to the website of the European Commission, it is “an ongoing priority of the European Union”[1] and, in fact, it is also mentioned in several recent communications.[2]

It is less easy to find reasons for this priority within EU documents, but maybe it would also seem redundant to many readers if the value of this concept were spelled out. After all, it is commonly agreed that cultural diversity is one of the main challenges for contemporary societies. This challenge is met in different ways by different actors: While the populist right emphasizes problems and enhances cultural prejudices, those promoting intercultural dialogue try to reverse the same kind of discourse to a positive one. But both sides agree on the importance of culture and cultural diversity and can deliver empirical evidence for this importance by describing cultural conflicts, differing values, and tensions between majorities and minorities, and both sides aim at abolishing these problems – by establishing cultural homogeneity or by intercultural dialogue. These aims are legitimated by specific images of wo/man and society and by the assumption that the abolishment of cultural problems would solve many, if not all of the problems of European societies and European citizens.

In this way, discourses on different cultures and problems coming out of their encounters have nowadays replaced older discourses on different races – a category no longer seen as legitimate. This is certainly a positive development – in a normative political sense as well as from a heuristic perspective – as doubtful biologistic understandings have been given up in favor of a focus on societal developments, such as specific traditions, values or institutions.

However, in many respects, the newer term of culture is similar to the older term of race.[3] For one, it frequently implies that cultures can be defined and ascribed in a clear cut way – the term “intercultural” makes this obvious – we are not talking about transcultural developments or about hybridization, but about communication crossing the borders between cultures, and cultures are qualified by their longevity and inflexibility. This “longue histoire” of culture is invoked by the excluding discourse of the populist right and the enlightened and tolerant one of the European Commission:

Long term historical narratives can be more or less plausible, but usually, political discourses do not evoke such continuities out of a historical interest but in order to reach political aims. Thus, the functions of these discourses are of interest here. By juxtaposing the perspective of the populist right, on the one hand, and of the European Commission, on the other, one political function can easily be discerned, namely the search for legitimacy and support for their political projects: The populist right can win the sympathy of those allowed to vote by promising them advantages of excluding those not allowed to vote. And the European Commission needs a positive image of intercultural relations in order to gain sympathy for the multi-national EU polity with free mobility as a central feature. In order to legitimate this polity, intercultural relations have, furthermore, to be at least potentially free of friction and have to provide mutual benefit. Thus, the term “dialogue,” suggesting “communication free of domination” (Juergen Habermas), also has a very clear function here. Hence, by replacing anti-racism with intercultural dialogue, not only has culture superseded biology, but at the same time, we no longer talk about (potential) conflicts or discrimination but about the common aim to develop mutual relations.

These functions of discourses on culture and intercultural dialogue are well known; at this point, however, I would like to go one step further in this analysis. The main argument here is that a definition of conflicts and problems as results of cultural differences can serve as a means to legitimate the nowadays usual, but fundamentally impossible, combination of democracy and capitalism.

Contemporary discourses prefer the term “market society” to “capitalism” – and do so with some reason. “Market society” implies equal relations between sellers and buyers of commodities. The term “capitalism,” however, points toward different structural inequalities within that system. These inequalities – between capitalists and workers, between small scale capitalists and large firms, between permanent and temporary workers, between buyers and sellers, etc. – sit uneasily with a political system based on liberty and equality. But inequalities in economic affluence and social position are an essential and unavoidable part of a capitalist system.

When the issue of such inequalities is broached at all, reasons for them are found outside of the economic system – e.g. in the field of culture. And when inequality is seen as a consequence of cultural differences, it can be solved by cultural means – either by radically separating cultures from each other or by intercultural dialogue. Both methods imply that by dealing with cultural problems, fundamental inequalities within a national or supra-national society can be abolished – and, obviously, both methods ultimately fail in this regard.

However, for the time being, they shift the problem of socio-economic inequality to another playing field, namely that of culture. The popular right profits most from the fact that it only has to assert that national citizens suffering from socio-economic inequality would be better off in a society without migration. As such, a society is, in fact, a pure utopia – or, rather, dystopia – there is, in fact, no threat to those championing these kinds of solutions to have to submit evidence for their efficacy.

The concept of intercultural dialogue, on the other hand, can show real successes in proving its value. Success stories of fruitful encounters, vibrant urban spaces, and mutual understanding fill many pages of the respective EU websites. And, last but not least, individual success stories of migrants show that, in fact, it is possible to overcome inequality between people with different cultural or ethnic backgrounds.

And this is important. It is important in a normative liberal-democratic sense, as such forms of inequality are unjust and would not have occurred if people had to decide on individual success chances “behind a veil of ignorance” (John Rawls) with regard to their own societal position.

But it is also important economically: For a capitalist mode of production, the exclusion of well-educated and capable migrants from adequate professions and positions is a clear waste of human capital, similar to the inefficiency of excluding women from the labor market – an inefficiency that has been abolished to a very high degree by gender policies of the last decades, triggered and implemented no less due to European integration. Thus, inclusion into labor markets irrespective of gender or ethnic/cultural origin enhances, on the one hand, equality, and has, on the other hand, a clear economic function. In this way, it is very much in line with the original aims of European integration for transforming political systems by economic means, i.e. by the promotion of a form of capitalism not limited by national borders and traditional prejudices.

From this perspective, we can understand the rather recent efforts of the European Commission to include a cultural dimension in European integration as a rather consistent continuation of the original project than as a paradigmatic change. An economically successful EU, aiming at the position of the “most successful and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world,”[4] has to do away with some prejudices and outdated traditions. Blue cards for computer specialists from India will not have the desired effect if these Indian specialists are beaten up by hooligans from the nationalist right.

But not all forms of prejudices and inequality are economically counter-productive. Even within a knowledge-based economy, continuously developing its creative and innovative potential, somebody has to take care of the more basic economic and social needs of the population. Somebody has to harvest vegetables and fruit to nourish knowledge and creative workers, and somebody has to take care of children and elderly people while their relatives improve themselves and their economic performance through lifelong learning.

And, obviously, it is good for capitalist profit as well as for the standard of living of the work force when these basic needs are covered at the lowest cost possible. However, we have known since Marx that the costs for labor cannot be lowered limitlessly – not even in the case of labor, which is understood as menial and of low social rank. Wages have to cover the costs of the reproduction of labor, and these costs depend on the average living standard at a specific time.

While Marx included international trade relations in his model and, thus, the possibility of lowering reproduction costs by buying goods from countries with a lower living standard, he did not foresee another solution to this problem, namely people living in a country without being accepted as an official part of the population, and thus, of the labor force. Nowadays, the EU is in the profitable position of having such a labor force at its disposal in the form of informal/irregular labor markets. And this labor force comes at very low costs, as laborers do not have the political means to fight for acceptable wages nor is there an economic need to pay for their costs of reproduction. Economically, it simply does not matter if some of them starve, fall ill, or are sent back – there are enough of them around or waiting behind the borders.

Discourses on this phenomenon do not usually recur to culture or ethnicity. Contemporary forms of slavery are discursively not legitimated by the inferior race or culture of these slaves but by their legal position, respectively, their illegal position. They are illegal, as they entered the EU without permission, thus, we seemingly do not deal with structural and crucial inequality here but with individual status.

But culture (or ethnicity or simply “othering”) comes in through the backdoor. How, after all, can a person be illegal? Not act illegally, but be illegal in her or his existence? This is only possible by a radical and fundamental national (or nationalized European) understanding of individual rights. But such an understanding needs more normative underpinning than a simple law in order to seem legitimate – namely, the underpinning of fundamental otherness, foreignness, which makes it possible to basically define human beings as non-human beings or, at least, as beings without any human rights.

An image of the world as split up by fundamental and unchangeable differences between groups of people (be they defined by race or culture) has been part of our understanding for such a long time that one does not have to spell it out in order to make it effective, and the ambiguity of the term “culture,” between relativist and hierarchical understandings, further contributes to the flexibility of this concept in its usage for inclusion and exclusion, equality or radical inequality.

Intercultural dialogue does not enter our relationship with irregular workers. A dialogue requires a mutual effort from both sides. While you can reasonably expect such an effort in the case of e.g. Indian specialists, irregular workers have, by definition, not made this effort as they have breached our laws, i. e. the values of our culture, by entering our territory. Thus, dialogue is impossible, and super-exploitation does not come into conflict with democratic values.

For those wanting to defend the existing political order in the EU, culture is, thus, a very apt concept, precisely due to its flexibility and ambiguity. Due to these features, it can veil the unavoidable tensions of capitalist democracies. And this necessary ambiguity and flexibility is best preserved by tackling the assumed cultural character of problems by cultural means, i.e. by answering a culturalized problem with culturalized measures.

However, for those who are interested in changing society instead, including its socio-economic structure, then culture, in general and intercultural dialogue in particular, is a rather doubtful starting point.


This text was written during a fellowship on "Culturalization: On the Boom of 'Culture' in Social Diagnoses" at the Institute for Advanced Study Konstanz.

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/culture/our-policy-development/doc2637_en.htm, 2011–07–05

[2] See e.g. the Communication from the Commission on a European agenda for culture in a globalizing world (2007) or the Conclusions of the Council and of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States, meeting within the Council, on the Work Plan for Culture 2011-2014 (2010).

[3] Cf. Raunig, G. (2008), “Die falsche Sanftmut der Kultur. Anmerkungen zur Mitteilung über eine europäische Kulturagenda im Zeichen der Globalisierung,” in: Kulturrisse 01/2008, as well as: Burger, R. (1992), “Die falsche Wärme der Kultur,” in: Wolfgang Müller-Funk (Hg.), Neue Heimaten, Neue Fremden, Wien: Picus, S. pp. 65–77.

[4] Lisbon Strategy, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/summits/lis1_en.htm, 2011–07–06

With support of the Federal Ministry for Arts, Education and Culture, IA/4.



On the Culturalization of Inequality in Capitalist Democracies