This article belongs to the debate » Cultural Majority Rights
24 Februar 2016

Cultural majorities, constitutional essentials, and cosmopolitan citizenship

Liav Orgad’s idea of a two-stage process of the regulation of immigration and access to citizenship in The Cultural Defense of Nations appears sensible and on first sight largely agreeable. But a more careful positioning of the argument regarding democratic theory and sociological understandings of nationalism brings out aspects that problematize some of its key assumptions and that reveal a risk of counter-productivity. In this, the argument might be less original than claimed and the specific version of a liberal theory of cultural defense less fit for socio-culturally complex democratic societies, in particular within the European context. I will briefly touch upon three dimensions that seem to me problematic: the notions of majority culture and cultural defense; the notion of constitutional identity as used in the book; and the problem of constitutional populism.

Majority culture and cultural defense
Orgad argues that democratic theory generally assumes that the majority is “able to take care of itself”, but that recent developments particularly in regard with the influx of migrants are threatening that comfortable assumption. What might result is the “gradual erosion of the majority culture” and the “majority may become ‘needy’ “ (232). Democratic theory is apparently not up to the task of comprehending contemporary developments. The carefully crafted argument regarding the justification of a defense of the majority with regard to access to citizenship is a sensible one, but I am puzzled as to why the whole book presents its theoretical approach as something radically novel. The book is hardly referring to the time-honoured debate in political philosophy between liberalism and communitarianism, even if many of its assumptions come very close to the latter view. While, for instance, Michael Walzer’s work is cited in passing, there is no reference whatsoever to his notion of “liberalism two”. This take on liberalism is in important ways close to the version of cultural majority liberalism that Orgad finds justifiable. Already in the 1990s, Walzer delineated – inter alia in a response to Charles Taylor’s essay “Multiculturalism” – a culturally sensitive form of liberalism (labelled liberalism two, according to Walzer a version that Taylor sustained). Liberalism two “allows for a state committed to the survival and flourishing of a particular nation, culture, or religion, or of a (limited) set of nations, cultures, and religions—so long as the basic rights of citizens who have different commitments or no such commitments at all are protected” (99). And, Walzer continues, “liberals of the second kind […]” “are willing to weigh the importance of certain forms of uniform treatment [in accordance with a strong theory of rights] against the importance of cultural survival, and opt sometimes […] in favor of the latter.” (100) “Most liberal nation-states (think of Norway, France, and the Netherlands as examples) are more like Quebec [defending liberalism two, pb] than Canada [defending liberalism one, which purports to be culturally neutral, pb]. Their governments take an interest in the cultural survival of the majority nation; they don’t claim to be neutral with reference to the language, history, literature, calendar, or even the minor mores of the majority. To all these they accord public recognition and support, with no visible anxiety” (100). I wonder if a more substantial revisiting of the liberal-communitarian debate would still have resulted in the classification of political theory as “ill-equipped to address the challenge of cultural defense policies” (201).

Constitutional identity
The (implicit) communitarian basis of the argument relates to the understanding of national culture that the book lays out. That is to say, as in some versions of communitarianism, national culture is reified, understood as the authentic identity of the ‘permanent majority’, and understood in a largely static, essentialist way. Orgad’s notion of ‘national constitutionalism’ could be understood as closely related to a version of communitarian constitutionalism, emphasizing constitutional essentials, even if not to trivial cultural mores (which is referred to frequently in the book). In ‘national constitutionalism’, it should be accepted by the newcomer to, let us say, Romania, that the Romanian Constitution of 1991 states in article 1 that it is ‘a sovereign, independent, unitary and indivisible National State’ and in article 4 that ‘The State foundation is laid on the unity of the Romanian people’. The Venice Commission has commented on this: “The formulation “unity of the people” in the already existing text is unclear; moreover, it is a rather outdated notion, typical of instruments of the system prevailing in the country prior to its democratic transformation” (Venice Commission 2014). The notion of ‘unitary and indivisible National State’ seems surely a constitutional essential, as a principle of state organization, but is often understood as unnecessarily rigid vis-à-vis non-Romanians, in particular minority cultures, informing long-standing tensions between the Hungarian minority and the Romanian state. In Orgad’s version of liberal theory, this seems to be accepted as part of the majority culture’s right to defend its constitutional essentials, as the ‘way we do things here’. But is it not equally true that an insistence on a majoritarian, ‘patriotic’ understanding of national culture, as essential part of constitutional identity, forms one of the main problems, stimulating intractable and intensifying political conflict? A closed view of national identity is one that is increasingly, as Orgad himself points out, in tension with the growing socio-cultural complexity of societies. What is more, if the essentialist, closed view is taken to the extreme, it might result in intolerant forms of majoritarianism, as witnessed by the emergence of nationalist constitutional projects in Hungary and Poland.

Constitutional populism
The constitutional projects in Hungary and recently also Poland, which take the defense of the cultural majority as their main objective, are strangely absent in the book. While the multiple threats for the rule of law and illiberal tendencies in particular the Hungarian case have been widely discussed, the identitarian dimensions of Orban’s Fundamental Law and PiS’s constitutional aspirations – in terms of implications for communitarian constitutionalism and constitutional populism – have perhaps been less the object of systematic democratic-theoretical attention. Obviously, Orgad’s argument is nowhere close to defending a full-blown version of constitutional nationalism, but the implications of his theory in terms of ‘constitutional identity’ and ‘constitutional essentials’ remain strongly linked to the national context. When can constitutional essentials be defended on a justifiable basis and when is this not the case? In particular in cases in which constitutional identity is strongly embedded in national identity, cultural pluralism might become compromised. According to Orgad, the argument is ‘more about “us” than about immigrants’ and insists that ‘[r]egulating immigration is a journey into ourselves’ (231), thereby focusing on the ‘cultural defense’ of the majority. An alternative argument would be – inspired by cosmopolitan reasoning, see for instance Gerard Delanty’s view of citizenship in The Cosmopolitan Imagination (2009); of crucial relevance in the European context – that a viable constitutional-democratic project involves a continuous and inclusive journey of renegotiation of the values and principles that hold together a political community, rather than the exclusive defense of a specific, closed national narrative.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Blokker, Paul: Cultural majorities, constitutional essentials, and cosmopolitan citizenship, VerfBlog, 2016/2/24,, DOI: 10.17176/20160224-100536.

One Comment

  1. Frans Alexander Sa 26 Mrz 2016 at 13:21 - Reply

    While I have been agreeing in the comments above with the view that Orgad’s book is a new departure in his defence of majority cultural rights, Paul Blokker thinks that Orgad’s „argument might be less original than claimed.“

    Blokker references Michael Walzer’s work, an article in which he advocated a notion of „liberalism two“, a communitarian liberalism which, in the words of Walzer, „allows for a state committed to the survival and flourishing of a particular nation, culture, or religion, or of a (limited) set of nations, cultures, and religions—so long as the basic rights of citizens who have different commitments or no such commitments at all are protected.“

    But there is a crucial difference between Walzer’s liberalism two and Orgad’s argument. The difference is that Orgad is challenging the standard assumption that the majority can still be “able to take care of itself” in regards, or in the context of mass immigration. Remember, Habermas also advocates for the defence of the majority culture’s constitutional liberalism, but Habermas objects to any notion about immigration posing a threat to this majority culture, and indeed calls for a German nation without any sense of ethnic self-identification.

    Indeed, the very nations Walzer mentions as exhibiting liberalism two, as nations that take „an interest in the cultural survival of the majority nation“, namely, Norway, France, the Netherlands, and the province of Quebec in Canada, are all immigrant nations, are all captured, give and take some variations, by the notion that immigration does not pose a threat to the national culture as long as the state is actively involved in protecting the national culture.

    But Orgad is suggesting, though he is careful not to rock the political correct expectations of academia, that this national culture is indeed threatened by mass immigration and that the state may therefore have to restrict immigration, or choose immigrants that are closer culturally to the national culture.

    It should also be noted that conservatives, or, as they should appropriately be identified, right wing liberals, Republicans in the United States (minus Trump), also advocate strong supports for the national culture without opposing mass immigration.

    Some critics have said that the implications of Orgad’s theory is restriction of immigrants based on ethnic/religious criteria, which they claim are „illiberal“ by definition. But, in my estimation, Orgad’s theory is still too weak a defence of the national cultures of Europe, in his refusal to speak of this national culture in stronger bio-ethnic terms, as I outlined in previous comments.

    Just look at those states Welzer’s mentions, Norway, France, the Netherlands, and the province of Quebec — they are all being threatened culturally no matter how strong they call for assimilation to the national culture and how much the states defend the language, mores, values of the country. It is not only that Muslims have a strong attachment to their own traditions and are unwilling to assimilate beyond what is required to function economically. It is also that all ethnic groups have strong attachments to their ethnicity and ethnicity is a crucial marker of human (and therefore national) identity.

    Liberal theory, as it has been revised since WWII, cannot handle race as a factor in national identification, and academics are disallowed from paying attention to the dynamics of race, and biological and ethnic ties, so they keep repeating the scientifically discredited ideas of Stephen J, Gould, Richard Lewontin and other 1970s writers about how „race is a social construct“. Yet there are now major studies, with the rise of genetic science, pointing to the importance of race-based differences among humans. This research on genetics will grow and grow, and social scientists who keep repeating ideas from the 1970s will sound ever more ideological and not serious enough.

    Blokker’s endorsement of Gerard Delanty’s view of citizenship, that it should be „a continuous and inclusive journey of renegotiation of the values and principles that hold together a political community“ sounds nice in the closed world of academia, but it has little to do with reality, what the science is saying, what is actually happening on the ground as ethnic enclaves keep growing across Europe, etc, etc.

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