Who owns what you do?

Here’s James Mensch, who’s a Canadian professor of Philosophy, writing at openDemocracy:

Those who fear solidarity’s exclusionary tendencies generally focus on the solidarities based on our past, that is, on our inherited situations of race, language, culture, and religion. Those who proclaim its benefits see solidarity in terms of our working with others to achieve common solutions to common problems such as global warming. Here the focus is on what we want to achieve politically, that is, on the future that we seek to collectively realise. Identity in this instance is not a matter of what the past gives us, but is rather provided by our working with others for a common goal. This identity is political rather than natural. … Being a member of a state with its universal rights and political obligations, that is, being a citizen as opposed to a member of a racial or linguistic group is sufficient for this type of identity.

No one, of course, lives completely in the past or the future. Thus, our identities (and corresponding senses of solidarity) are never so neatly defined. Our collective actions are informed by the past. Without it, we have no experiential or moral basis for acting. But they are also determined by the future, that is, by the goals that we want to achieve.

Only by being concrete can we be attentive to multiple solidarities we are actually engaged in. Our different situations of race, language, religion, and cultural preference involve us in differing networks of solidarity. These, unless artificially suppressed, provide a natural system of checks and balances within the solidarity that is based on the past

And here’s Rochenko responding to Mensch:

Once you have acknowledged particularity or diversity, and postulated that their forms provide the ‘checks and balances’ to the possibility of exclusionary violence rooted in past divisions, there is nowhere to go. Mainly because trying to go anywhere else would be too risky: reasoning about the general interest that unites all the particular interests risks doing violence to some of the particulars.

The problem is that refusing to go this extra step towards the idea of a general interest automatically does violence to the particulars: by freezing them as abstract particularities, it denies them a transformative future … Only by attempting to articulate what actually unites particular forms of identity in a political project can they have a future.

Nationalism, as a form of solidarity, is therefore not always regressive. Richard Phillips writes in this month’s issue of Planet magazine … that the resurgence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism can represent not the desire to tear loose from the UK a residuum of ethnic and lingustic identity, but a path towards a new internationalism. … Solidarity is once again an attempt to challenge the social totality, to build a genuinely international community, based on the unhealed divisions within the nation-state, based on the legacy of colonialism, based on the continued triumph of those who have always written history. In the form of the abstract particular (linguistic identity, the legalistic promotion of Welsh etc.), this new nationalism risks becoming another tool by which political elites retain their hold on power, and closing off the future. But national self-determination also generates a new enthusiasm for returning to the basic political question: how do we want to live?

I was pleased to see that last paragraph, as by the time I reached “automatically does violence to the particulars” I was flashing back to a book review I wrote a few years ago that, uncouthly, backed ethnic nationalism over civic ditto. (It was partly a Michael Ignatieff thing; if he’s for it I’m usually against.) And by the time I got to that last sentence I was already thinking, this is why I’m still interested in Welsh nationalism, and why Irish blogs like Splintered and Cedar Lounge seem so important – revolutionary socialism is always partly utopian, but when you’re trying to build a new nation you have to think about how people are actually going to live together. But I guess you’ll have to take my word for that part.

Great minds, anyway. And here’s that review, which appeared in the May 2000 issue of Red Pepper. I was quite surprised with how the argument turned out – not unpleasantly, though.

Edward Mortimer and Robert Fine (eds.), People, nation and state: the meaning of ethnicity and nationalism (I.B. Tauris, £12.95)

In this collection thirteen writers on nationalism, ranging from Michael Ignatieff to Danilo Türk, grapple with the resurgence of the ‘national question’. On the whole they like what they see. Neil MacCormick argues that “individuals may have as one among their most significant contexts some national identity”; therefore “the members of a nation are as such and in principle entitled to effective organs of political self-government.” Nationalism, however, takes symbolic and ‘ethnic’ as well as rational ‘civic’ forms; moreover, not every nationality can have its own state. Hence multiculturalism is a must: “the national identity of a community should be so defined that it includes all its citizens and makes it possible for them to identify with it”, writes Bhikhu Parekh. Civic nationalism stands above and validates the multiple ethnic nationalisms of its citizens. Ultimately this is an ethical programme: Robert Fine quotes Ignatieff envisaging the nation as “a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”

This consensus hides an unresolved contradiction between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ nationalism. Ignatieff endorses the desire of “the subjugated minority” for a nation state, only to argue that “civic contractualism is the only possible basis for … national solidarity and social cohesion”. Presumably once this is achieved minorities have no need for full-blown ethnic nationalism: if your nation’s governed by the right kind of state, the most you can aim for is civic-minded reformism and the celebration of cultural diversity. There is a whiff of the End of History about this.

Other contributors are more sceptical. Olivier Roy stresses the plural nature of ‘ethnic’ identity, which operates at national, sub-national and supra-national levels: the same person may identify as a French Algerian, a Kabyle, an Arab or a Muslim. Africanist Terence Ranger presents evidence suggesting that ‘ethnicity’ itself is a relatively recent invention. On the other side of the equation, Fine queries the merits of state nationalism: “Civic nationalism offers … an emotive source of political cohesion … But it also engenders faith in the state rather than critical reflection, and a sidelining of social questions”. This recalls MacCormick’s formulation, prompting the question of how national identity relates to such other “significant contexts” as gender, sexual orientation or (whisper it) class.

Notably, Fine is also the only contributor to ask what liberal nationalism has to offer “the homeless pariah who refuses, or is refused, participation in national communities”. Many of the arguments here seem tailored to the more clear-cut ‘national questions’ – Türk’s Slovenia, say, or MacCormick’s Scotland. Harder cases – Kosovar Albanians, the Romani minority of Kosova, Kosovar Romani asylum-seekers in Britain – would require a deeper analysis of culture, rights and power. This might start by treating ‘ethnic’ self-assertion as a positive value rather than a malign throwback, complementing it not with the liberal self-congratulation of ‘civic nationalism’ but with the fundamental humanist demands of democracy and social justice – demands which know no country and have no end.



  1. Posted 31 January 2008 at 14:10 | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks, Phil. And thanks for posting the review. What I know of Fine’s stuff on this topic I find quite congenial (and what I find congenial in it seems to stem from his readings of Marx and Hegel; I reviewed his book on Hegel, Marx and Arendt for the BHSGB a while back).

  2. Posted 31 January 2008 at 14:56 | Permalink | Reply

    There’s a HSGB? Blimey.
    All I know about Hegel comes from reading some Charles Taylor when I was writing my MA dissertation (on Guy Debord); he struck me as simultaneously more interesting, more reactionary and madder than I’d realised. I did discover that Debord had either misunderstood or systematically misrepresented the idea of Aufhebung, which should be worth a footnote somewhere.

  3. Posted 11 February 2008 at 13:05 | Permalink | Reply

    I hear what you say about the utopianism thing, Phil. I often think us socialists generally avoid expounding our vision of the new society out of fear of being tarred with the utopian brush. But we do need the vision thing because a list of demands talking about £10 an hour minimum wages and full trade union rights don’t sound particularly inspiring.

  4. Phil
    Posted 11 February 2008 at 22:13 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil – oh, absolutely. I’m far more at home in utopian anti-just-about-everything-currently-in-existence radicalism than in anything that looks likely to deliver results. It’s just nice to be reminded sometimes that there are these other people out there, and you’re always going to have to live with them.

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