Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

Identity and the Nation-State – Once More With Feeling

“…if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” - E.M. Forster

Dani Rodrik has a good post over at Project Syndicate arguing for the continued relevance of the nation state. He argues that despite the current prominence of international and super-national economic and political institutions, and despite levels of inter-cultural communication beyond the most fevered dreams of Johannes Gutenberg, the nation state remains the locus of political, economic and cultural buck stoppage. The Daily Dish‘s Zack Beauchamp felt that Rodrik gave unduly short shrift to the arguments of cosmopolitan thinkers – specifically Peter Singer and Amartya Sen – who see the emergence of an ethical consciousness and identity space that is truly global. Since much of Rodrik’s argument boils down to these issues – the nation state remains the central site of politics because it continues to hold the strongest claim on peoples’ ethical allegiance – it’s not a peripheral critique. And indeed, given the unprecedented thickness of political, economic, social and cultural networks that bypass the nodes of the nation state, there’s likely something to the notion that global ethical duties and even regional and global identities are more strongly felt by more people more of the time than has historically been the case. Countering my recent point about identity being strong enough to compel mutual sacrifice, Zack noted the ubiquity of NGOs dedicated to human flourishing across borders, extant pressure for humanitarian economic and military interventions around the world, and an increasing sense of the globalized consequences of problems like climate change.

Still, while Rodrik might give cosmopolitans short shrift in his piece, his overall point stands. Sen, for all his undeniable brilliance, ignores crucial realities in Identity and Violence. Yes, identities are fluid, and at least partly the result of iterative choices made by both individuals and societies. And yes, in an objective sense, reducing people to the sum stereotypes of any particular ascriptive identity is absurd. Much of the power of the modern state, though, stems from its capacity to inculcate and reproduce identities that people feel with particular intensity, as well as to leverage those identities to compel mutual sacrifice. Charitable giving, service with NGOs, humanitarian interventions; all are important instantiations of a globalized ethics that acknowledge the moral worth of people across borders. They are fundamentally different, though, from state-directed sacrifices in the form of taxation, labor and military service. The former acknowledge a general (and fairly diffuse) ethical duty toward others. The latter acknowledge the right of an institutionally-defined in-group to compel sacrifice from its constituent members. To use a pre-national example, the Crusades were premised on the notion that the institution of the Catholic Church had the right to direct thousands of people across “Christendom” to take up arms on behalf of a plot of land with which none of them were intimately familiar. In the modern era, the state has taken this role, developing mechanisms of solidarity that require regular and intense sacrifice from citizens, extracted by both implicit and explicit force. To riff off Carl Schmitt, the state remains the locus of primary identity in the extreme case, when for reasons of material scarcity or threat of violence, the rank ordering of identity is crucial. That may not be true everywhere (think of Yugoslavia), but it still applies for the great mass of humanity, and I’m not convinced that the globalizing trends of recent decades have fundamentally changed the dynamic. Indeed, at least in some instances, the cultural dissonance globalization engenders may strengthen parochial identity by reaction.

The cosmopolitan view of identity falls most egregiously short in its unwillingness to deal with the importance of conflict in deepening the connection people feel to their various identities. David Berreby argues in Us and Them: The Science of Identity that we understand our identities in entirely oppositional terms, even when such oppositions aren’t imbued with conscious animus. The modern state, with its capacity to combine physical coercion with an extraordinarily wide array of formally and informally-attached institutions of ideational reproduction (national education, national law, national media, national politics, national parks, national museums) is in a unique position to mediate those oppositions. Furthermore, given the enduring power of national identity, the incentives for political elites to exploit those oppositions for temporary gain will likely remain strong. Identity is, in some sense, the trump card of the nation state. Unless and until post-national institutions or ethical constructs can lay consistently and sufficiently strong claims on people’s identity to take primacy when it really matters, reports of the nation-state’s death will remain exaggerated.

Picture: Anti-Huguenot propaganda from 16th Century France. The Wars of Religion were a crucial mechanism through which early-modern political elites were able to mobilize mass constituencies and build contemporary national identities. 

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