The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom

The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom

The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom

The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom


In his major new work Chandran Kukathas offers, for the first time, a book-length treatment of this controversial and influential theory of minority rights. The author argues that the free society should not be seen as a hierarchy of superior and subordinate authorities but an archipelago of competing and overlapping jurisdictions. The idea of a liberal archipelago is defended as one which supplies us with a better metaphor of the free society than do older notions such as the body politic, or the ship of state. In challenging most of the existing theories of the multicultural society and answering his past critics, Kukathas has produced the book that no one with an interest in multiculturalism can afford to ignore.


The origins of this book lie in the prejudices of its author. And since this is a political work, it may prove not only interesting but also helpful to the curious reader to know what these are.

This is a philosophical work about how to respond politically to cultural diversity. My interest in such matters was sparked by family experience. Growing up as a Jaffna Tamil in Malaysia in the 1960s I was told that, as members of a non-indigenous race, we would not receive the same opportunities as Malays: the bumi putra or 'sons of the soil'. This struck me as unfair, not only because I had been born a Malaysian, to parents (and two grandparents) themselves born on the Malay peninsula, but also because I could not go anywhere in the world and be a 'son of the soil'; not even to Jaffna, since the Tamils, having lived on Ceylon for only a thousand years, were regarded as Johnny-come-latelies there as well. Since that was how my father saw things too, he tried, unsuccessfully, to migrate and then (like many of his relatives) to educate his children abroad. And so I ended up in Australia, while my sisters found themselves in other parts of the world.

It would be wrong to present this as a hard-luck story. For the most part, luck has tended to be on my side. But the family's experiences have always been an important touchstone for my reflections on the politics of ethnicity. Perhaps it is the source of my long-held dislike for ethnic labelling, and for ethnic politics generally. For it seemed to me that it made us think of ourselves as people with a grievance, and think of others as people who were our exploiters—without doing much to make life fairer or relations with other peoples any happier.

In Australia, however, as things turned out, the issue that most caught my attention was the struggle of Aboriginal people for land rights, for recognition, and redress for past injustice. My thinking was greatly influenced by Stewart Harris, a journalist who worked for the Times of London and, later, the Canberra Times, and whose writings, activism, and example, persuaded me that Aboriginal people had a powerful moral claim both to regain some of the land they had lost, and to have the freedom to live as they wished, rather than be assimilated into Australian society. I thus found myself hostile to ideas of affirmative action, group rights, and ethnic politics, but at the same time deeply convinced of the legitimacy of the claims of a particular ethnic group whose recent history was one of enormous injustice and suffering.

It would be wrong to suggest that an early appreciation of this inconsistency led immediately to deeper philosophical reflection on the issues dealt

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