March 04, 2008

Ethnonationalism and its Discontents (Part I)

Jerry Muller’s essay in Foreign Affairs on the enduring power of the rather redundantly named ethnic nationalism (or “€œethnonationalism”€ as he calls it) makes a number of important observations about the phenomenon, but tends to confuse things by the end of his piece, mixing “€œethnonationalism”€ with the problems of religious communalism and cultural diversity and by endorsing arguments for partition that, if taken literally, would unleash at least a century of chaos and misery across Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.  Noting the distaste in which many Americans, or more accurately Americanists, hold the idea of such nationalism and the fashionable understanding of ethnic identity as a social and cultural construct, Muller makes a valuable contribution in emphasizing the political significance of ethnonationalism in the modern world and points the way forward for understanding how we can reconcile the existence of resurgent ethnonationalism with the closing of the modern age and the weakening of the nation-state.

It cannot be stated often enough that a constructed identity, even though it is at least partly constructed, nonetheless becomes very real and meaningful to its adherents. Muller draws attention to this point in his conclusion. Once something is constructed, it exists. In debunking essentialist myths of the Urvolk or arguments for the continuity of unvarying national characteristics across millennia, modern academics believe they have revealed constructed identities to be absurdly subjective, but in fact they have simply described how people create the cultures and nations to which they and their posterity belong. If movements of national “€œawakening”€ are not exactly the “€œrebirths”€ nationalists claim them to be, neither are they inventions out of thin air”€”nationalist movements always drawing on historical precedents and pre-existing cultural material. 

This construction doesn”€™t free people from their prior obligations and identities, at least not without a major struggle, nor can any people actually dissociate itself from its past. This is the great fiction of any national exceptionalism that sees a new nation as somehow “€œunfettered”€ by history or beginning anew. Even though they aspired to a classical ideal of Hellenism in their liberal contempt for the middle ages, the early Greek nationalists could never fully deny the legacy of Byzantium that defined them as a people. For the purposes of stressing national continuity, every modern European nationalist has had to pay some homage to his pre-modern, Christian ancestors who identified themselves by their religion or their civic identity.

Where what Muller calls “€œcivic nationalism”€ tries to “€œtranscend”€ ethnic differences, or devalue them to the point of irrelevance, “€œethnonationalism”€ assumes that these are significant and, if not absolutely permanent, unlikely to disappear in the future. It is, of course, an open secret that such nationalism has advanced alongside democratization in most of the places it has taken root, and where it has flourished outside of democratic politics, it has arisen in direct competition against liberal and democratic regimes that were promoting their own nationalisms. The history of European nationalism is conventionally dated to the French Revolution, which led to the eruption of an aggressive liberal nationalism that married universalist, liberating pretensions with a desire for national preeminence. It was particularly under the assault of the armies of the Revolution and Napoleon and in reaction to the preaching of liberal universalism that local patriots in central Europe began to emphasize both ethnic and cultural difference in defiance of the hitherto culturally dominant French. International and universal ideologies, especially when advanced by a foreign army, have had a tendency to provoke a resistance that comes to define itself in nationalist terms.

In this way, ethnonationalism has been intensifying as globalization has advanced. The legitimate fear over losing national sovereignty as a result of globalist policies drives the strengthening of ethnonationalism, especially within multi-ethnic states where the potential for fragmentation from within without the framework of the nation-state is much greater. For example, in Bolivia, Aymara tribal-ethnic identity has been combined with a powerful socialist and protectionist reaction against neoliberal trade policies, which has in turn provoked open talk of the secession of the predominantly white eastern provinces. Throughout Latin America, there is a growing movement for empowering the indigenous majorities, which outside observers routinely misread simply as a passing “€œpopulist”€ backlash (not paying attention to which kind of people this populism is supposed to appeal. “€œEthnonationalism”€ has likewise gained still more from the global proliferation of democratic procedures, which place a premium on “€œidentity politics,”€ a phrase often misleadingly limited to minority grievances when, in fact, it refers to all mass democratic politics. Tribally and ethnically divided states necessarily become more divided along these lines once democratic elections politicize these differences: as you might expect in this world, cultural and ethnic difference takes on much greater salience when the status and power of a community is at stake. As the recent strife between Luos and Kikuyus in Kenya has reminded us, ethnic and tribal identities are going to become only more relevant the more modern, democratic and globalized countries around the world become. 

“€œEthnonationalism”€ is not a throwback, but is rather the shape of things to come.

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