Nation/State, Nationalism, and Global Violence
After the excesses of fascism in World War II and the inter-ethnic conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia, it became axiomatic for postmodernist thinkers to condemn the nation and its corollary terms, “nationalism” and “nation-state,” as the classic evils of modern industrial society. The nation-state, its reality if not its concept, has become a kind of malignant paradox if not a sinister conundrum. It is often linked to violence and the terror of “ethnic cleansing.” Despite this the United Nations and the interstate system of nation-states still function as seemingly viable institutions of everyday life. After September 11, 2001, the U.S. nation-state is evolving into a besieged “homeland,” hence the zealous enforcement of “national security” measures. How do we explain these seemingly paradoxical trends?
Let us review the inventory of charges made against the nation-state and its cognate concepts. Typically described in normative terms as a vital necessity of modern life, the nation-state emerged after the breakup of the medieval Christian empire. It has employed violence to accomplish questionable ends—colonial annexation of territories, conquest of markets, systematic extermination of natives. Its disciplinary apparatuses for war and pacification are indicted for committing unprecedented barbarism. Examples of disasters are the extermination of indigenous peoples in colonized territories by “civilizing” nations, the Nazi genocide of Jews and inferiorized populations, and most recently “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, Ruwanda, Sri Lanka, and so on. Pursuing a line of thought elaborated by Elie Kedourie, Partha Chatterjee, and others, Alfred Cobban (1994) asserted a widely shared view that the theory of nationalism has proved to be one of the most potent agencies of destruction in the modern world. In certain cases, nationalism mobilized by states competing against other states has become synonymous with totalitarianism and fascism. Charles Tilly (1975), Michael Howard (1991), and Anthony Smith (1979) all concur in the opinion that war and the military machine are principal determinants in the shaping of nation states. In The Nation-State and Violence, Anthony Giddens defines nationalism as “the cultural sensibility of sovereignty” (note the fusion of culture and politics) that unleashes administrative power within a clearly demarcated territory, “the bounded nation-state” (1985: 219). Although it is allegedly becoming obsolete under the pressure of globalization (for qualifications, see Sassen  ), the nation-state is considered by “legal modernists” (Berman 1995) as the prime source of violence against citizens and entire peoples.
Postmodernist critiques of the nation (often sutured with the colonialist/imperialist state) locate the evil in its ideological nature. This primarily concerns the nation as the source of identity for modern individuals via citizenship or national belonging (Taylor 1999), converting natal filiation (kinship) into political affiliation. Identity implies definition by negation, inclusion based on exclusion underwritten by a positivist logic of representation (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991). But these critiques seem to forget that the nation is chiefly a creation of the modern capitalist state, that is, a historical artifice or invention. As Giovanni Arrighi observes, the Settlement of Westphalia which ended the Thirty-Year War marked the “reorganization of political space in the interest of capital accumulation” and signaled “the birth, not just of the modern inter-state system but also of capitalism as a world-system” (1993: 162). Under this imperialist world system, Nikolai Bukharin reminds us, “the state power sucks in almost all branches of production; it not only maintains the general conditions of the exploitative process; the state more and more becomes a direct exploiter, organizing and directing production as a collective capitalist” (Callinicos 1982: 205).
It is a truism that nation and its corollary problematique, nationalism, presupposes the imperative of hierarchization and asymmetry of power in a political economy of general exchange. The prime commodity exchanged is now labor-power. Founded on socially constructed myths or traditions, the nation is posited by its proponents as a normal state of affairs used to legitimize the control and domination of one group over others. Such ideology has to be demystified and exposed as contingent on the changing grid of social relations; that is, on how domination by force is legitimized via the state. Pierre Bourdieu’s reformulation of Max Weber’s formula of the state as the agency monopolizing the legitimate use of physical and symbolic violence over a definite territory/population may be useful here: “The state is the culmination of a process of concentration of different species of capital; capital of physical force or instruments of coercion (army, police), economic capital, cultural or (better) informational capital, and symbolic capital. It is this concentration as such which constitutes the state as the holder of a sort of metacapital granting power over other species of capital and over their holders” (1998: 41-42).
This meta-capital, more precisely statist capital (Bourdieu 1991; 1992) enables the dominant class to articulate the field of national identity, the habitus of national belonging, to reinforce the prevailing ownership/allocation of economic and symbolic capital. A critique of essentialist nationalism, or its expression in “bodily beliefs,” passions and dispositions that make up the habitus of racism, cannot succeed unless it enables “the transformation of the conditions of the production and transformation of dispositions (Bourdieu 2000: 180), conditions which are social constructs or artifacts resulting from historical struggles.
This heuristic notion of the state as distinguished from the nation in the field of social power eludes postcolonial thinking. Postcolonial theory claims to expose the artificial and arbitrary nature of the nation: “This myth of nationhood, masked by ideology, perpetuates nationalism, in which specific identifiers are employed to create exclusive and homogeneous conceptions of national traditions” (Ashcroft et al 1998, 150). Such signifiers of homogeneity not only fail to represent the diversity of the actual “nation” or body politic, but also serves to impose the interests of a section of the community as the general interest. One example is the imposition of “Englishness” on the heterogeneous constituencies of the United Kingdom after World War II, as Stuart Hall (1997) recently pointed out. But this is not all. In the effort to make this universalizing intent prevail, the instrumentalities of state power–the military and police, religious and educational institutions, judiciary and legal apparatuses–are deployed. Hence, from this orthodox postcolonial stance, the nation-state and its ideology of nationalism are alleged to have become the chief source of violence and conflict since the French Revolution.
Anatomy of Violence
Mainstream social science regards violence as a species of force which violates, breaks, or destroys a normative state of affairs. It is coercion tout court. Violence is often used to designate force devoid of legitimacy or legally sanctioned authority. Should violence as an expression of physical force always be justified by political reason in order to be meaningful and therefore acceptable? If such a force is used by a state, an inherited political organ legitimized by “the people” or “the nation,” should we not distinguish between state-defined purposes and in what specific way nationalist ideologies or nation-making mechanisms are involved in those state actions? State violence and assertion of national identity need not be automatically conflated so as to implicate nationalism–whose nationalism?– in all class/state actions in every historical period. It would ignore the historically specific “field of power” (in Bourdieu’s sense) in which symbolic capital is deployed in the interests of those who monopolize statist capital. Devoid of such specification, postcolonialists tend to indulge in an absolutist censure of nation-state power bereft of intentionality–in other words, power is reduced to violence construed as merely physical force akin to tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and so on.
Violence, properly construed, signifies a political force that demands dialectical triangulation in order to grasp how nation and state are implicated in it. We might use, at this juncture, Hannah Arendt’s (1970) distinction between “power” as the socially sanctioned ability to act in concert, “force” as the “energy released by physical or social movements,” “authority” as a property that elicits obedience without coercion, and “violence” as the instrumental use of implements to multiply natural strength. Arendt notes how violence is often conflated with the power of government, but this is a mistake. The power of the state really depends on whether its commands are obeyed by its army or police forces who wield the instruments of violence; thus, “where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use….Everything depends on the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to laws, to rulers, to institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent” from the citizenry (1970: 49; see also Benjamin 1978). In what sense is the nation or the symbolic capital of nationalism utilized as an instrument of violence or a means for legitimizing state power?
A materialist historicization of the phenomenon of nationalism is needed to determine the complicity of individual states in specific outbreaks of violence. Postcolonial criticism supposedly abhors totalization or generalization. But postcolonialists like Homi Bhabha (1990) resort to a questionable use of the versatile performativity of language to ascribe a semiotic indeterminacy to all nationalitarian projects, reducing the multifarious narratives of nations/peoples to a formulaic paradigm of hybridity and syncretism. Bhabha’s absolutization of contingency and local knowledge derived from Foucault, especially the dogma of singularity attached to the “event” as “the reversal of a relationship of forces” (Foucault 1984; see Ebert 1996), rules out the sedimented potency of traditions, the counter-memory of popular-democratic revolts, and the structuring impact of habitus in regions and localities deemed crucial in undermining colonial authority. While postcolonialists (Bhabha 1999) seek to expose the doubled or supplementary nature of the national sign in order to open a critical space to alter the communal values of the dominant culture and to allow “the people” to negotiate other possibilities in their placing between object and subject status, they eliminate outright the nation-form as a possible vehicle for popular struggles. The subalterns are forbidden to speak their own collective ethos of insurgency in their ethnic idioms. While the state has “governmentalized” power relations, analysis of the nation-state cannot exhaust the political economy of power-knowledge (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982; Lemert and Gillan 1982). History is reduced to the ambiguities of aleatory occurrences immanent in the arbitrary play of textualities. This move rules out systematic critique and political intervention. The social field of contending determinate forces represented by political parties and diverse organizations cannot be conceived at all in the face of unintelligible singularities defying the mediating categories of class, nation, race, gender, and so on.
In this light, what makes the postcolonialist argument flawed becomes clear in its non-referential semiotics (more on this later) and a kind of non-sequitur reasoning justified by a general deconstructive, post-structuralist rationality. It is perhaps easy to expose the contingent nature of the nation once its historical condition of possibility is pointed out. But it is more difficult to argue that once its socially contrived scaffolding is revealed, then the nation-state and its capacity to mobilize and apply the means of violence can be restricted if not curtailed. Exposing the artificiality of the nation is not the same as delegitimizing the violence of the state or the political authority of the classes and groups manifest in juridical institutions and state bureaucracy.
We can pose this question at this point: Can one seriously claim that once the British state is shown to rest on the myth of the Magna Carta or the United States government on the covenant of the Founding Fathers to uphold the interests of every citizen–except of course African slaves and other non-white peoples, then one has undermined the power of the British or American nation-state? Not that this is an otiose, wrong-headed task. Debunking has been the classic move of those protesting against an unjust status quo purporting to be the natural and normal condition for everyone. But it should not be mistaken as a substitute for the actual organized resistance of the oppressed and exploited multitudes.
It is not superfluous here to counsel ourselves again: the weapon of criticism, as Marx once said, needs to be reinforced by the principled criticism of weapons. If we want to guard against committing the essentialist dogmatism of the imperial nationalists, we need a historicizing strategy of ascertaining how force–the energy of social collectivities–turns into violence for the creation or destruction of social orders and singular life-forms. The sovereignty struggle of aboriginal groups has become a crucible for testing solidarity or betrayal. Understood as embodying “the pathos of an elemental force,” the insurrectionary movements of indigenes have been deemed the source of a dynamic primordial energy that feeds “the legal Modernist composite of primitivism and experimentalism,” a fusion of “radical discontinuity and reciprocal facilitation” (Berman 1995, 238). But the American Indians (as well as the native Hawai’ians) are asserting a communal right to lands they have been dispossessed of; their struggles for self-determination, coeval with the rise of the imperial nation-state, belong to a kind of “modernity” not comprehended by postcolonial doctrine.
The question of the violence of the nation-state thus hinges on the linkage between the two categories, “nation” and “state.” A prior distinction perhaps needs to be made between “nation” and “society” since these two are often muddled in postcolonial discourse. While the former “may be ordered, the [latter] orders itself” (Brown 1986). Most historical accounts remind us that the modern nation-state has a beginning–and consequently, it is often forgotten–and an ending. But the analytic and structural distinction between the referents of nation (local groups, community, domicile or belonging) and state (Bourdieu’s meta-capital, governance, machinery of sanctioning laws, disciplinary codes, military) is often elided because the force of nationalism is often conflated with the violence of the state apparatuses, an error compounded by ignoring the social classes involved in each sphere. This is the lesson of Marx and Lenin’s necessary discrimination between oppressor and oppressed nations–a nation that oppresses another cannot really claim to be free. Often the symptom of this fundamental error is indexed by the formula of counterpointing the state to civil society, obfuscating the symbiosis and synergy between them. This error may be traced partly to the Hobbesian conflation of state and society in order to regulate the anarchy of the market and of brutish individualism violating civil contracts (Ollman 1993).
Mapping Nation Forms
Before dealing with how society was nationalized, it may be useful to recall the metaphysics of the origin of the nation elaborated in Ernest Renan’s 1882 lecture, “What is a nation?” This may be considered one of the originary locus of nationalism (in Europe, at least) conceived as a primitivist revolt against the centralized authority of modernizing industrial states. Renan’s idea of the nation as a kind of total destiny finds resonance in Max Weber’s praise of the state’s capacity to impart meaning to death, the state as a “purposefully constructed, functionally specific machine” (Poggi 1978: 101) which appeals to and mobilizes nationalist sentiments. While Renan emphasized a community founded on acts of sacrifice and their memorialization, this focus does not abolish the fact that the rise of the merchant bourgeoisie marked the start of the entrenchment of national boundaries first drawn in the age of monarchical absolutism. The establishment of the market coincided with the introduction of taxation, customs, tariffs, etc., punctuated by the assertion of linguistic distinctions among the inhabitants of Europe. Karl Polanyi’s thesis of The Great Transformation (1957) urges us to attend to the complexities in the evolution of the nation-state in the world system of commodity exchange. We also need to take into account Ernest Gellner’s (1983) argument that cultural and linguistic homogeneity has served from the outset as a functional imperative for states administering a commodity-centered economy and its class-determining division of social labor.
A more empirically nuanced explanation for how society was nationalized is provided by Etienne Balibar. Starting from the premise that the world-economy is a system of constraints, not a self-regulating invariant system (as academic globalization theory would have it), subject to the unpredictable dialectic of its internal contradictions, Balibar describes how the privileged status of the nation form “derives from the fact that, locally, that form made it possible (at least for an entire historical period) for struggles between heterogeneous classes to be controlled and for not only a ‘capitalist class’ but the bourgeoisies proper to emerge from these—state bourgeoisies both capable of political, economic and cultural hegemony and produced by that hegemony” (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991: 90). Thus, to resolve the internal contradictions, the bourgeoisie restructured the state in the national form. This nationalized state intervened (according to Balibar and Wallerstein) “in the very reproduction of the economy and particularly in the formation of individuals,” whereby individuals of all classes were subordinated “to their status as citizens of the nation-state, to the fact of their being ‘nationals.’ The key term in this narrative of nationalization is “hegemony,” in this instance capitalist hegemony (domination by consent) based on the formal nationalization of citizenship.
This function of hegemony, now realized through the sublimation of class contradictions in the nation form, is ignored by postcolonial theory. Postcolonialists subscribe to a post-structuralist hermeneutic of nationalism as a primordial destabilizing force devoid of rationality. And so while the shaping of the nation-state in the centuries of profound social upheavals did not follow a transparent linear trajectory–we have only to remember the untypical origins of the German and Italian nation-states, not to speak of the often intractable nationalist mobilizations in Greece, Turkey, and the colonized regions—that is not enough reason to ascribe an intrinsic negativity or belligerency to the nation as such. States may rise and fall, as the absolute monarchs and dynasties did, but sentiments and practices constituting the nation follow another rhythm or temporality not easily dissolved into the vicissitudes of the modern expansive state. Nor does this mean that nations, whether in the North or the South, exert a stabilizing and conservative influence on social movements working for radical changes in the distribution of power and resources.
What seems obvious at this point is that the effects of state violence, or the consequences of the instrumental application of force (following Arendt), cannot be judged as damaging or healthy as such without defining clearly the actors/agents involved, the purposes or ends of state activity, and the social field of forces in their dialectical interaction at specific historical conjunctures and epochs. Otherwise, jingoist, white-supremacist nationalism may be lumped with struggles for genuine national autonomy or sovereignty on the ground that both invoke the “nation.”
In pursuing a historically situated analysis of violence, we need to avoid collapsing the difference between the concept of the “nation-state” and the complex, variegated import of nationalist agendas around the world. Whence originates the will to exclude, to dominate? Philosophically, this has been traced to the dialectical emergence of the communal universal self threatened by the violence of the Other in Hegel’s philosophy. Politically, nationalism has served a practical function. According to Anthony Giddens, “what makes the ‘nation’ integral to the nation-state…is not the existence of sentiments of nationalism but the unification of an administrative apparatus over precisely defined territorial boundaries in a complex of other nation-states” (1987: 172). That is why the rise of nation-states coincided with wars and the establishment of the military bureaucratic machine. From this perspective, the state refers to the political institution with centralized authority and monopoly of coercive agencies coinciding with the rise of global capitalism, while nationalism denotes the diverse configuration of peoples based on the commonality of symbols, beliefs, traditions, and so on.
Mindful of fundamentalist teleologies and moralisms, we need to guard against confusing historical periods and categories. Imagining the nation unified on the basis of secular citizenship and self-representation, as Benedict Anderson (1991) once demonstrated, was only possible when print capitalism arose in conjunction with the expansive state. But that in turn was possible when the trading bourgeoisie developed the means of communication under pressure of market competition and internal exigencies. Moreover, the dissemination of the Bible in different vernaculars did not translate into a monopoly of violence by the national churches. In Latin America, however, the “nation as imagined community” exhibited multiple symptoms of abortive birth, stagnation, and premature decay, precipitated by mutations in the social field in which the violence of the feudal/tributary landlord and slaveholding classes collided with the predatory incursions of mercantile and industrial capitalism (Franco 1997). It is obvious that the sense of national belonging, whether based on clan or tribal customs, language, religion, etc., certainly has a historical origin and localizing motivation different from the emergence of the capitalist state as an agency to rally the populace to serve the needs of the commercial class and the goal of accumulation. The uneven development of the colonized nation-states led by compradors and feudal landlords, dependent formations which have been thoroughly investigated by Samir Amin (1980), Peter Gran (1996), and others, needs to be demarcated from the European metropolitan experience discussed by Balibar, Giddens, and others.
Refusals and Denials
Given the rejection of a materialist analysis of the contradictions in any social formation, postcolonial critics find themselves utterly at a loss in making coherent sense of nationalism as a historically variegated phenomenon. The reason lies in its adherence to the closure of conventionalist self-referentiality wrongly ascribed to Saussure (Merquior 1986). Whereas, in Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics, signs are not only limited to iconic and symbolic kinds, but also perform indexical functions (reference to an experimentally verifiable world outside discourse), postcolonial theory is locked in the “prison-house of language” and the vertigo of ceaseless interpretation (Sheriff 1989). The community of interpretants disappears (Rochberg-Halton 1986). Representations of the historicity of the nation give way to a Nietzschean will to invent reality as polysemic discourse, a product of enunciatory and performative acts. No wonder the nation becomes culpable of nationalist aggression.
Postcolonial critics resort to a duplicitous if not equivocating stance in regard to nation-centered cultures vis-à-vis diasporic cosmopolitanism (see Appadurai 1994; Mohanty 1994). They perceive nationalism as “an extremely contentious site” in which notions of self-determination and identity collide with notions of domination and exclusion. Such oppositions, however, prove unmanageable indeed if a mechanical idealist perspective is employed. That view in fact leads to an irresolvable muddle in which nation-states as the field of antagonism for the extraction of surplus value (profit) and “free” exchange of commodities also become violent agencies preventing “free” action in a global marketplace that crosses national boundaries. Averse to concrete historical grounding, postcolonialism regards nationalist ideology as the cause of individual and state competition for goods and resources in the “free market,” with this market conceived as a creation of ideology. I cite one postcolonial authority who, in a mode of double-speak, attributes violence to the nation-state on one hand and liberal disposition to the nation on the other:
The complex and powerful operation of the idea of a nation can be seen also in the great twentieth-century phenomenon of global capitalism, where the “free market” between nations, epitomized in the emergence of multinational companies, maintains a complex, problematic relationship with the idea of nations as natural and immutable formations based on shared collective values. Modern nations such as the United States, with their multi-ethnic composition, require the acceptance of an overarching national ideology (in pluribus unum). But global capitalism also requires that the individual be free to act in an economic realm that crosses and nullifies these boundaries and identities (Ashcroft et al, 1998, 151).
First of all, it is misleading and foolish then to label the slogan “one in many” as the U.S. hegemonic ideology. Officially the consensual ideology of the U.S. is neoliberal “democracy” centered on a normative utilitarian individualism with a neoSocial Darwinist orientation. U.S.
”Manifest Destiny” has been refurbished with a global modernizing mission: witness Bosnia, Afghanistan, Colombia, and so on. The doctrine of formal pluralism underwrites an acquisitive or possessive ethos that fits perfectly with mass consumerism and the gospel of the unregulated market. Global finance capital and business finds sanction in this brand of U.S. cosmopolitanism signaled by McDonald, Microsoft/IBM, Broadway musicals, and Hollywood films (McChesney, Wood and Foster 1998).
It is within this framework that we can comprehend how the ruling bourgeoisie of each sovereign state utilizes nationalist sentiment and the violence of the state apparatuses to impose their will. Consequently, the belief that the nation-state simultaneously prohibits economic freedom and promotes multinational companies actually occludes the source of political and juridical violence–for example, the war against Serbia by the NATO (an expedient coalition of nation-states led by the United States), or the stigmatization of rogue and “terrorist” states (North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan—“the axis of evil”) by the draconian standards of “transnational” capitalism. One can then assert that the most likely source of political violence–and I am speaking of that kind where collective energy and intentionality are involved–is the competitive drive for accumulation in the world market system where the propertied class of each nation-state is the key actor mobilizing its symbolic capital made up of ethnic loyalties and national imaginaries.
We have now moved from the formalistic definition of the nation as a historic construct to the nation as a character in the larger all-encompassing plot of capitalist development and imperial expansion. What role this protagonist has played and will play is now the topic of controversy. It is not enough to simply ascribe to the trading or commercial class the shaping of a new political form, the nation-state, to replace city states, leagues, municipal kingdoms, and oligarchic republics. Why such “imagined communities” should serve as a more efficacious political instrument for the hegemonic bloc of property-owners, is the question which I have already anticipated at the beginning of this essay.
Another approach to our topic is to apply dialectical analysis to the historical record of national sovereignty alluded to earlier. Historians have described the crafting of state power for the new bourgeois nations in Enlightenment philosophy. During the emergence of mercantile capitalism Jean Bodin and Hugo Grotius theorized the sovereignty of the nation as the pivot of centralized authority and coercive power (Bowle 1947). The French Revolution posited the “people,” the universal rights of man, as the foundation of legitimacy for the state. In the passage from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the people as nation, the historical act of constituting the polity as national-popular domain of public life, gradually acquires libidinal cathexis enough to inspire movements of anticolonial liberation across national boundaries. Its influence on the U.S. Constitution as well as on personalities like Sun Yat-Sen, Jose Rizal, and other “third world” radical democrats has given the principle of popular sovereignty a cross-cultural if not universal status (on Filipino nationalism, see San Juan 2000). Within the system of nation-states, for Marxists, “recognition of national rights is an essential condition for international solidarity” (Lowy 1998: 59) in the worldwide fight for socialism and a class-less political order.
Nations thus differ in terms of who controls state-power and for what ends. Capitalist states claim legitimacy in terms of the putative rule of the majority. The universal principle of people’s rights is generally considered to be the basis of state power for the modern nation, “the empowerment, through this bureaucracy, of the interests of the state conceived as an abstraction rather than as a personal fiefdom” (Ashcroft et al 1998, 153). A serious mistake occurs when the nation and its legitimating principle of popular sovereignty becomes confused with the state bureaucracy construed either as an organ transcending the interest of any single class, or as the “executive committee” of the bourgeoisie. A mechanical, not dialectical, method underlies this failure to connect the ideology, politics, and economics of the bourgeois revolution with the supremacy of the propertied class. This quasi-Hegelian interpretation posits the popular will of the post-Renaissance nation-states as the prime motor of world expansion, of 19th-century colonialism. Instead of regarding the West’s”civilizing mission” as a program informed by the gospel of progress via profit-making, postcolonialists consider the ideology of national glory tied to “the unifying signifiers of language and race.”
Ideological justification in actuality precedes and accompanies colonial conquest and domination. Nationalism, the need to superimpose the unifying myth of the imperial nation-state, is not only generated by the bourgeois agenda of controlling and regulating the space of its market, but also by the imperative of seizing markets and resources outside territories and peoples. Nationalism is then interpreted by postcolonial theorists as equivalent to colonialism; the nation is an instrument of imperialist aggrandizement, so that if newly liberated ex-colonies employ nationalist discourse and principles, they will only be replicating the European model whose myths, sentiments, and traditions justified the violent suppression of “internal heterogeneities and differences.” The decolonizing nation is thus pronounced an oxymoron, a rhetorical if not actual impossibility. One example often adduced is Irish cultural nationalism; its culturalist absolutism, in Seamus Deane’s judgment, “has found in postcolonialism the future that it deserves” (1998: 368).
Lacking any historical anchorage, the argument of postcolonial theory generates inconsistencies due to an exorbitant culturalism and the concentration on diffuse power networks inspired by Foucault (Smart 1985). Just as Foucault repudiated Marxism for being an inversion of bourgeois political economy, postcolonialists condemned nationalist thought for adopting the same essentialist, transcendental, objectifying epistemology of Orientalism (Lazarus 1999). Foucault rejects foundationalist historiography but succumbs to the fallacy of equating all questions of law and sovereignty with monarchical absolutism. Gillian Rose has detailed the numerous sophistries in Foucault’s ontology of power in which juridico-discursive concepts are refunctionalized after their negation by his rules of immanence, continual variations, double conditioning, and technical polyvalence of discourse. Foucault regards violence as endemic: “By drawing on a theory of civil society without a theory of the state Foucault does not open up the perspective of myriad powers in place of the conventional sovereign and singular power, he introduces or posits a spurious universal: warfare” (Rose 1984: 200). Foucault’s omnipresent power as a constitutive subject in the Kantian or Husserlian sense (Callinicos 1989), or as Nietzschean power-knowledge causing mischievous mayhem everywhere, finds its resonance in the postcolonial repertoire of mimicry, ambivalence, indeterminacy, as well as in the deconstructive methodology of the Subaltern Studies group (Callinicos 1995). This relativistic perspectivalism which ironically prescribes totalizing schemes can not discriminate between the reactive nationalism of the oppressor and that of the oppressed.
Rejection of the political economy of structured power relations leads to untenable and spurious interpretations of the historical process. Because they disregard the historical evolution of the nation-state discussed by Balibar, Anderson, Smith (1971), among others, postcolonial critics uphold the sphere of culture as the decisive force in configuring social formations. Not that culture is irrelevant in explaining political antagonisms. Rather, it is erroneous when such antagonisms are translated into nothing but the tensions of amorphous cultural differences. The dogma of cultural difference (for Charles Taylor, the need and demand for recognition in a modern politics of identity) becomes then the key to explaining subalternity, racism, and class exploitation in subordinated, neocolonized formations. Ambivalence, hybridity, and ludic interstitiality become privileged signifiers over against homogenizing symbols and indices whose “authority of cultural synthesis” is the target of attack. Biopolitics, disciplinary regimes of power/knowledge, and discursive performances serve as the primary foci of analysis over against the practices of “localized materialism” and a demonized economistic reductionism.
The limits of fetishisizing culture in postcolonial theory can be illustrated briefly. The most flagrant evidence of the constrained parameters of the postcolonial diagnosis may be found in its construal of racist ideology as “the construction and naturalization of an unequal form of intercultural relations” (Ashcroft et al 1998, 46). If racism occurs only or chiefly on the level of “intercultural relations,” from this constricted optic, the other parts of a given social formation (political, economic) become superfluous and marginal. Politics is then reduced to an epiphenomenal manifestation of discourse and instrumentalized language-games.
In the fashionable discourse of postcolonialists, dependent nations and the nationalism of neocolonized peoples are charged for being complicit with the conduct of Western colonialism and its Enlightenment metanarrative. They become anathema to deconstructionists hostile to any emancipatory project in the “third world” inspired by egalitarian, socialist goals. This is the reason why postcolonial critics have a difficult time dealing with Frantz Fanon (1961) and his engagement with decolonizing mass violence as a strategic response of people of color to the inhumane violence of occupying settlers and pillagers. Fanon’s invocation of a nation-making principle is the direct antithesis to any culturalist syndrome, in fact an antidote to it, because he emphasizes the organic integration of cultural action with a popular-democratic program of subverting colonialism. Discourse and power are articulated by Fanon in the dialectics of practice inscribed in the specific historical conditions of their effectivity. Fanon’s theory of national liberation proves itself a true “concrete universal” in that it incorporates via a dialectical sublation the richness of the particulars embodied in the Algerian revolution and generalized in the revolt of the impoverished majority, “the wretched of the earth.”
Given this historicizing method, Fanon refuses any demarcation of culture from politics and economics. Liberation is always tied to the question of property relations, the social division of labor, and the process of social reproduction—all these transvalued by the imperative of the radical transformation of colonial relations and its Manichean subterfuge. Opposed to Fanon’s denunciation of “abstract populism,” Bhabha and others (e.g., Said 1993) fetishize an abstract “people” located in diasporic flux and borderline spaces. Such recuperation of colonial hegemony via a “third space” or contrapuntal passage of negotiation reveals the comprador character of postcolonial theories of translation and cultural exchange. Transcultural syncretism devised to abolish the nation substitutes for anti-imperialist revolution a modus vivendi of opportunist compromises.
National liberation and social justice via class struggle are interdependent. As Leopoldo Marmora observes, “While classes, in order to become predominant, have to constitute themselves as national classes, the nation arises from class struggle” (1984, 113). This is why, for Marx and Engels, the proletariat in bondage to capital does not have a country—unless it has constituted itself as the nation through the ordeals of class war: “Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat is at first a national struggle,” a fight for hegemonic leadership (1968: 22). The popular-democratic aspiration for self-determination contains both national and social dimensions. This also enables us to grasp the objective significance invested in Gramsci’s ideal of the national-popular: proletarian hegemony as the national collective will of the people built from alliances, compromises, affiliations, and pedagogical sharing of national conditions and traditions—the people, not the bourgeoisie, become the nation (Forgacs 1993; Wertheim 1974).
For analytic purposes, we need to ascertain the distinction between the state as an instrument of class interest and the nation/people as the matrix of emergent sovereignty. The authority of the bourgeois state as regulative juridical organ and administrative apparatus with a monopoly of coercive force derives from its historical origin in enforcing individual, civic rights of freedom against the absolutist monarchy. National identity is thus used by the state to legitimize its actions within a delimited territory in the process of commanding the mobilization and coordination of policy (Held 1992). Formally structured as a Rechststaat, the bourgeois nation-state functions to insure the self-reproduction of capital through market forces and the continuous commodification of labor power (Jessop 1982). Fanon understands that anti-colonial insurgency challenges the global conditions guaranteeing valorization and realization of capital, conditions in which the internationalization and nationalization of the circuits of capital are enforced by the bloc of capitalist nation-states and its hegemony over the planet.
We can resolve the initial paradox of the nation, a Janus-faced phenomenon (Nairn 1977), by considering the following historical background. The idea of state-initiated violence (as opposed to communal ethnic-motivated violence) performs a heuristic role in the task of historicizing any existing state authority and questioning the peaceful normalcy of the status quo. The prevailing social order is then exposed as artificial and contingent; what is deemed normal or natural reveals itself as an instrument of partial interests. But the relative permanence of certain institutional bodies and their effects need to be acknowledged in calculating political strategies. The long duration of collective and individual memories exerts its influence through the mediation of what Bourdieu (1993) calls “habitus” and its activation in various fields of social transactions.
The space of the nation is always a field of conflict among social blocs for hegemony. We begin to understand that the state’s hierarchical structure is made possible because of the institutionalized violence that privileges the hegemony (moral and intellectual leadership crafted via negotiating compromises) of a bloc of classes over competing blocs and their alternative programs. Hegemony is always underwritten by coercion (open or covert, subtle or crude) in varying proportions and contingencies. The demarcated territory claimed by a state in rivalry with other states becomes for Weber one major pretext for the state monopoly of legitimate violence in order to defend private property and promote the overseas interests of the domestic business class (Krader 1968). Historically the nation form, as mentioned earlier, becomes a vehicle for unifying classes and groups under bourgeois hegemony.
Retrospective and Inventory
The classical Marxist view of violence rejects the utopian idealization as well as the mechanical calculation of means-ends that vitiates the logic of Blanquist and Sorelian conceptions of social change (Sorel 1908; 1972). Marx disavowed utopian socialism in favor of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie through a combination of violent and peaceful means depending on the ever-changing alignment of forces. Instrumentalism is subordinated to a narrative of emancipation from class bondage. The objective of emancipating labor associated with the nation/people requires the exposure of commodity-fetishism and the ideology of equal exchange of values in the market. Reification and alienation in social relations account for the bourgeois state’s ascendancy. Where the state bureaucracy supporting the bourgeoisie and the standing army do not dominate the state apparatus completely (a rare case) or has been weakened, as in the case of the monarchy and the Russian bourgeoisie at the time of the 1917 Revolution, the working class might attain their goal of liberation by peaceful means; but in most cases, “the lever of the revolution will have to be force” harnessed by the masses in solidarity, unified by a program of abolishing the entire class system and its foundation.
Based on their historical inquiries, Marx and Engels understood the role of violence as the midwife in the birth of a new social order within the old framework of the nation-state. In his later years Engels speculated that with the changes in the ideological situation of the classes in any national territory, “a real victory of an insurrection over the military in street fighting is one of the rarest exceptions.” In an unusual historic conjuncture, however, the Bolshevik revolution mobilized mass strikes and thus disproved Engels. Nevertheless, Marx’s “analytical universality,” to use John Dunn’s (1979: 78) phrase, remains valid in deploying the concept of totality to comprehend the nexus of state, class and nation. We can rehearse here the issues that need to be examined from the viewpoint of totality: Was Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” an imposition of state violence, or the coercive rule of the people against the class enemy? If it is an instrumental means of the new proletarian state, did it implicate the nation? Is violence here both structured into the state system of apparatuses and inscribed in the collective agency of the working masses cognized as the nation? Is the political authority invoked by the proletarian state embodied in the class interest of all those exploited by capital (in both periphery and center) ascendant over all?
Marxists critical of the Leninist interpretation denounce the use of state violence as an anarchist deviation, an arbitrary application of force. They affirm instead the law-governed historical process that will inevitably transform capitalism into socialism, mainly through the spontaneous development of the productive forces, whatever the subjective intentions of the political protagonists involved. Such fatalism, however, rules out the intervention of a class-for-itself freed from ideological blinders and uniting all the oppressed with its moral-intellectual leadership, the cardinal axiom of socialist revolution (Lukacs 2000).
I think the most persuasive Marxist exposition on the role of violence in socialist revolution is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror (1947). Merleau-Ponty displaces the problematic of means-ends by locating revolutionary action in the praxis of the proletariat already at work in history: “The proletariat is both an objective factor of political economy and a system of subjective awareness, or rather a style of coexistence at once fact and value, in which the logic of history joins the forces of labor and the authentic experience of human life” (1969: 126-127). Revolutionary violence arising from social contradictions acquires legitimacy by the commitment of humans in a common situation, fighting injustice and daily exploitation within the national space, for a humanist future already being realized in the totality of historical acts.
Neoliberal thinkers for their part reject violence as an end in itself while accepting the brutalizing force of the market as normal and natural. Nor do they heed the cry of victims already doomed by the structure of their situation. This is epitomized by legal scholars who contend that primordial nationalist claims should be regulated by autonomous international law, “the domain of the metajuridique” (Berman 1995). By identifying nationalism as a primitive elemental force outside the jurisdiction of positive law, the legal expert claims to be receptive to its experimental creativity so that new administrative techniques can be devised to regulate the destabilization of Europe–and, for that matter, its colonial empires–by “separatist nationalisms.” The aim is to pacify the subalternized classes by juridical and culturalist prophylactic.
As I have noted above in dealing with Fanon’s work, the nature of violence in the process of decolonization cannot be grasped by such dualistic metaphysics epitomized in the binarism of passion-versus-law. What is needed is the application of a historical materialist critique to the complex problem of national self-determination (as already envisaged by Merleau-Ponty and others). Revolutionaries like Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, despite their differences, stress the combination of knowledge and practice in analyzing the balance of political forces. They contend that class struggle is a form of knowledge/action, the civil strife of political groups, which can synthesize wars of position (legal, peaceful reforms) and the war of maneuver (organized frontal assault by armed masses, to use Gramsci’s terminology) in the transformation of social relations in any particular nation.
What needs to be stressed here is the philosophical underpinning of the struggle for recognition and recovery of dignity. It invokes clearly the Hegelian paradigm of the relation between lord and bondsman in The Phenomenology of Mind. In this struggle, the possibility of violence mediates the individual’s discovery of his finite and limited existence, his vulnerability, and his need for community. Piotr Hoffman’s gloss underlines the Hegelian motif of freedom as risk: “Violence …is the necessary condition of my emergence as a universal, communal being…for I can find common ground with the other only insofar as both of us can endure the mortal danger of the struggle and can thus think independently of a blind attachment to our particular selves” (1989, 145). Since the nation evokes sacrifice (Renan), the warrior’s death on the battlefield (Weber), honor (Sorel), self-transcendence, destiny, the state seeks to mobilize such nation-centered feelings and emotions to legitimize itself as a wider, more inclusive, and less artificial reality to attain its own accumulative goals. This metaphysical speculation needs the necessary interrogation of critique (Benhabib 1986). It needs to be qualified by specifying the state as a bourgeois “meta-capital” which supervises “the violent domination of men by men through the private possession of social capital” (Caudwell 191971, 110).
Beyond the simplistic formulas of postcolonial thought, the nationalist struggle for recognition impelling anticolonial revolts displays a contentious, even recalcitrant, complexity. We also need to estimate the weight of other variables such as the uneven development of the world system of nation-states as a whole, the interaction of various fields of power (Bourdieu’s meta-capital vis-à-vis symbolic capital in each formation), and the vicissitudes of the post-Cold War accumulation crisis. In any case, whatever the moral puzzles entailed by the manifold genealogies of the nation-state, it is clear that a dogmatic pacifism is no answer to an effective comprehension of the real world and grass-roots intervention in it. Given the continued existence of nation-states amidst the almost unchallenged power of transnational corporations and the bloc of rich nation-states led by the current world-hegemon (the United States), can we choose between a “just” and an “unjust” war when nuclear weapons that can destroy the whole planet are involved? Violence on such a scale obviously requires the dialectical transcendence of the system of nation-states, of states administered by historically decadent and moribund classes, in the interest of planetary justice and survival (Meszaros 2001).
Overall, the question of violence cannot be answered within the framework of the Realpolitik of the past but only within the framework of nation-states living in mutual reciprocity. Causality, however, has to be ascertained and responsibility assigned even if the nation is construed as “an interpretive construct” (Arnason 1990: 230). My view is that the action of the propertied classes using the various state organs for the legalized expropriation of unpaid labor (surplus value) of millions of people around the planet is the crux of the problem. Precisely because of corporate globalizing, James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer cogently explain, “it is impossible to conceive of the expansion and deepening involvement of multinational banks and corporations without the prior political, military and economic intervention of the nation-state” (2001: 54). If nations have been manipulated by states dominated by possessive/acquisitive blocs that have undertaken and continue to undertake imperial conquests ostensibly for humanitarian goals, then the future of humanity and the entire ecosystem can be insured only by eliminating those institutions and practices that are the source of material and symbolic violence inflicted on their citizens by these states.
To be sure, the “New World Order” policed by “homeland” patriots cannot be changed by scholastic postcolonialism. I propose that we reappropriate the internationalist horizon of a revolutionary Marxism which has so far been confused with its multiple national-bureaucratic counterfeits. Michael Lowy’s advocacy may help cure the intellectual pessimism that paralyzes the optimism of the will of those fighting the relentless commodification of the planet:
Marxism has the advantage of a universalistic and critical position, in contrast to the passions and intoxications of nationalist mythology. On the condition, however, that this universalism does not remain abstract, grounded on the simple negation of national particularity, but becomes a true “concrete universal” (Hegel), able to incorporate, under the form of a dialectical Aufhebung, all the richness of the particular….For Marxism, the most important universal value is the liberation of human beings from all forms of oppression, domination, alienation and degradation. This is a utopian universality, in opposition to the ideological ones, which apologetically present the Western status quo as being the accomplished universal human culture, the end of history, the realization of the absolute spirit. Only a critical universality of this kind, looking towards an emancipated future, is able to overcome shortsighted nationalisms, narrow culturalisms, and ethnocentrisms (2000: 10-11).
It is appropriate to add here Rosa Luxemburg’s insistence that “no nation is free whose national existence is based upon the enslavement of another people…. So long as capitalist states exist, i.e., so long as imperialistic world policies determine and regulate the inner and the outer life of a nation, there an be no ‘national self-determination’ either in war or in peace” (1976: 290). Within such a framework, the nation-form, and its surrogates, can then be reconstituted and/or superseded in order to insure that the new social arrangements will not generate opportunities for profit-motivated state violence to recur. That revolutionary transformation will surely render obsolete all postcolonial speculations on the withering of the nation, much less the nation-state, in a world where transnational finance governs almost absolutely but, we hope, not permanently.
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