Identity politics, community, state formation and modernity in Europe and America: Some basic propositions

What does the long arc of human development tell us about the current disarray of liberal societies on both sides of the Atlantic?  Here are a number of observations and propositions that draw upon work by Max Weber, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, Norbert Elias, Johan Goudsblom, Ernest Gellner, William Ophuls, Benedict Anderson and others. My aim is to condense some very basic ‘ground rules’ for thinking about liberal politics in an era of limits.  So first of all, here are some guiding propositions:

  1. For most of human history people lived in small communities attached to particular places. In these basic survival units, the ‘we’ dominated the ‘I’. Individuals literally didn’t understand themselves as the kind of separate egos that every single one of us living in a complex industrial society experiences as a normal frame of reference. As anthropologists discovered, it is very hard for people in modern societies to really understand how people in such pre-modern, we-dominated societies saw the world.

2. Democratic liberal states are synonymous with a ‘society of individuals.’

  • Societies of individuals are not natural. Nor are they universal. They are historically very specific forms that emerged first of all in the process of European state-formation.

3. Nation-state formation is a process that invariably involved/involves the violent suppression of alternative (family, tribe, place, linguistic – based) forms of association and identity.

4. Liberal societies are rarely if ever produced by liberal means. They depend not only upon this ‘original sin’ – but on the continuing (and periodically exercised) monopoly of violence.

5. Failed states in areas such as the Middle East often reflect the failure to complete or even start this coercive process of individualization. There may be a great deal of violence – but it has not been directed towards the creation of a society of individuals.

6. Post-1989, the hubris and naivety of western policy was often to imagine that a society of individuals could be created by diktat, as an effect of the idea itself and without an extended process of coercion. In the absence of such a society of individuals, the institutions of liberal democracy at best provide a gloss for existing power relations between sub-national (tribal, ethnic, religious) we-groupings.

7. In such a situation, as a Chinese student once observed ‘democracy is unfair because big families get more votes’.

8. All forms of citizenship must be exclusive. Citizens are defined by rights and obligations not available to or incumbent upon non-citizens. In western countries, welfare states depend absolutely upon the state’s capacity to limit entitlement. Welfare states are by definition forms of exclusive solidarity. No exclusion, no solidarity, no social compact.

9. Modern citizenship is defined by the subsequent relationship between the imagined or (symbolically consanguineous) community of the nation-state (‘family’) and the individual. Every modern institution is predicated on this dyadic relation between individual and state.

10. Such ‘imagined communities’ (the term is Benedict Anderson’s) are not rooted in empirical truths, nor ethically consistent narratives of social justice. The clue is in the name. They are ‘imagined’. But they work. They function and they are necessary prerequisites for social solidarity.

11. This relationship between citizenship, the imagined national community and individual identity has really significant implications for both the prospects for the European Union and the possibility of progressive politics.

12. States are jealous gods: The EU cannot become a state nor European identity an effective basis for citizenship, without dismantling competing national forms of identity.

13. Within states, social homogeneity makes it easier to secure social cohesion through a social compact i.e. generous redistribution through the fiscal-welfare system. Greater diversity (though good for growth and innovation) makes such a social compact harder to sustain. Fiscal transfers between non-mutually-identifying groups are likely to be seen as less legitimate.

14. Foregrounding class-based politics is more likely to provide the basis for a solidaristic social compact. By drawing attention to unbridgeable differences, the foregrounding of identity politics is likely to undermine a broader social compact.

15. All of this goes a long way to explaining what is going on in both Europe and the United States. In Europe the misadventure of the Eurozone, free movement of labour and the migrant crisis have combined to wrench apart the social compact between citizens and the state, undermining the both the state’s capacity to redistribute through the fiscal-welfare system whilst at the same time blurring the basis of entitlement and the boundary upon which the exclusive solidarity has always been based. With the emergence of identity politics, tensions around the binary basis of citizenship have spilled over into the internal political landscape.

16. In the United States, ethnic and religious diversity and the historical legacy with respect to slavery and colonization, have always weakened the possibility for a redistributive social compact (compare Sweden in the 1970s). But economic crisis combined, the absolute failure of Democratic presidencies to tackle class-based inequality and create an enduring social compact and now with the re-racialization of American politics

And on this basis, what tentative conclusions may be drawn about our present predicament?

Assuming for a moment, the continuing viability of liberal growth societies:

  1. Identity politics is killing the left, making liberal pluralism untenable, undermining the legitimacy of the redistributive social compact and opening up opportunities for right wing populists to develop an agenda around welfare and a different kind of social compact. It is having this effect because it inevitably draws a ring around and validates intermediate we-groupings that contravene the relationship between state and individual.
  2. A discourse of ‘white privilege’ can only create an essential division – because it relates to a historical narrative of ‘sins of fathers’. Its embrace on campus gives a misleading impression of its effects and consequences in society – because, by definition, it makes a solidaristic cross-class, cross-racial imagined community impossible.
  • Black pride, must evoke white pride.
  • Scottish nationalism, pushed far enough will evoke English nationalism – such that the ‘Barnett formula’ that secures disproportionate fiscal transfers between southern England and Scotland (‘we are all British after all’), breaks down (‘why are English taxpayers funding Scottish unemployment?’) .

3. Class politics has a more muted impact in this regard because class identity is not essential and can in principle bring the great mass of the population into a symbolically consanguineous national family (as in 1970s Sweden or Norway).

4. But we also need to ensure social-cohesion and national ‘we identities’. The multiculturalist world of infinitely spiralling differences and identities – has either failed or is becoming frail, and certainly continues to undermine our collective capacities to solve problems and look after each other. This is because collective action problems hinge on trust, confidence and mutual understanding.

5. At the very least, this implies that for a social compact to function, there needs to be universal access to a common language. Left-liberal unease with coercive link between social citizenship and language learning fails to recognise the sociological basis of solidarity in mutual identification. The latter is not a rational choice made by ethically progressive (or not) individuals. It is a pre-cognitive affective-emotional function of culture and psychology. Separate language groups are incompatible with the society of individuals.

Breaking with the assumption of business as usual and recognising biophysical limits to growth, the background assumption of a society of individuals – and therefore the functioning of liberal /democratic societies – becomes problematic.

6. Left/liberal progressives and free market conservatives understand the world in terms of a series of binary oppositions between left/right, market/state. Problems of ecology and the resurgent small ‘c’ conservative understanding of community, sufficiency and virtue (e.g. associated with the social catholic tradition of Distributism) open up all sorts of different possibilities and combinations. The left has been much slower in recognising these possibilities than the right.

7. You can’t have everything. Finger-pointing, ad hominem attacks on identifiable baddies, obscure the need for very difficult trade-offs, compromises and wicked tensions. So for instance:

  • There is a real tension between the exclusive solidarity of a national society of individuals on the one hand, and diversity and mass migration on the other.
  • There is equally a tension between the fiscal transfers that underpin the social compact of capitalist welfare states (and so social cohesion and political stability) and the integrity of the biosphere.
  • Migration and diversity promote growth: bad for the environment/good for social cohesion.
  • Conditions of greater diversity require greater social expenditures to secure social cohesion (e.g. 250 languages spoken in London, require enormous expenditures in translation services to secure a minimally functioning legal system in which individuals are equal under the law).

8 .In an ecologically-constrained post-capitalist world, we probably need less state and more community, less corporate monopoly and more small scale, place-bound livelihood, less global Market and more local markets.

9. But this intimates a real tension with the society of individuals as local, place, familial and community affiliations disrupt the unitary relation between individual and state.

10. A viable future is likely to be more communitarian: We need less emphasis on rights and more on obligations. Individuals can’t and shouldn’t escape from the duty of care to each other, to families, to communities, to children – but that care can’t be routinely outsourced to either the market or the state. A viable future will involve much more breaking bread, reciprocity and mutual obligation – but much less expansion of welfare services provided by the state. The expansion of childcare, social services, disability services – can’t be guaranteed, should not be expected and certainly should not become the over-arching focus for progressive politics. If gender equality in both the labour market and the household, are priorities, we need to find other ways to secure these objectives – ways that don’t lean so heavily on fiscal transfers from a growing economy.

11. Spirituality and re-enchantment are vital for any kind of sane relationship with the biosphere. The individualization and rationalization of motivation and behaviour have been a hallmark of modernity. But an economy and society premised upon preference seeking individual rationality provide little basis for self-restraint. It is an open question as to whether re-discovering the technics of ritual, embracing the narrative of ‘Big History’ and finding some positive way to accommodate cognitive dissonance, the ‘re-enchantment of the world’ can be reconciled with a broadly scientific worldview.

One thought on “Identity politics, community, state formation and modernity in Europe and America: Some basic propositions

  1. re: “A discourse of ‘white privilege’ can only create an essential division – because it relates to a historical narrative of ‘sins of fathers’. Its embrace on campus gives a misleading impression of its effects and consequences in society – because, by definition, it makes a solidaristic cross-class, cross-racial imagined community impossible.”

    I disagree, in part… I agree that focusing on identity politics with a simplistic binary orientation is dooming us all. However, dismissing the critique “white privilege” out of hand (rather than the lazy use of such concepts from guilty feeling liberals amongst us) threatens to gloss over the importance of acknowledging white privilege exists. I can accept that it does without melting 😉 and inviting others to consider the following:

    Rather than relating to the “historical sins of fathers”, identifying white privilege simply asks one to acknowledge the historic benefits “white” folks have reaped on the backs of people of colour- especially indigenous peoples in the North American context. It calls out the lie of “meritocracy” and asks folks to look at ways we continue to prioritize white middle class experiences as the yard stick and white middle class voices as the “experts”. It asks us to acknowledge that “white” people and people of colour move through space and interact with authority in entirely different ways.

    While such discourse used to shut down and have folks fall in line may indeed make cross-class, cross-racial imagined community impossible, a responsible and well informed discourse of “white privilege” is a necessary first step for recognizing historical injustices and how they create an unlevel playing field.

    Additionally, such a discourse allows for the shifting from the assumed homogeneity of the Canadian experience as a “white” one that has for centuries dominated our discourse. I agree that it is perhaps more accurately a class-privilege in some regards. A perspective from Harsha Walia:

    “(we must) challenge white middle class feminism that has marginalized grassroots women of colour leadership and suggested that our issues are not what real feminism is about.”

    Another perspective that helps to give some meaning to this concept of white privilege – from a doctoral thesis in 2015 by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis:'Arcangelis_Carol_Lynne_201511_PhD_thesis.pdf

    “Influenced by, and contributing to, the racist, colonialist and classist discourses of their time, Euro-American feminists sought entrance into modernity based on white male subject terms. Indigenous scholars’ critiques of contemporary encounters with white women/feminists, demonstrate the legacy of these origins—the primacy that mainstream white feminist theories still give to the white female subject and gender-based oppression and the concomitant erasure of the Indigenous woman subject, both recipes for problematic praxis.
    Indigenous women have rebuked the mainstream women’s movement for not having made ongoing colonialism, Indigenous women’s issues and/or white settler women’s complicity in oppressive structures central to their analyses.”

    and one last exploration from friend and colleague Desmond Cole “Why We Must Talk About White Privilege”:

    “The simplest way of explaining what white privilege means is to point out this basic fact: white Torontonians are not singled out or stereotyped for their perceived race or ethnicity. White privilege is the flip side of racism: if those of us deemed to be “visible minorities” suffer discrimination, white privilege speaks to the corresponding people who, whether or not they realize it, gain advantage from this dynamic. Systemic racism does not just have countless victims, but beneficiaries as well.

    White privilege does not mean all white people are born into automatic money or power, and it does not mean that white people, whether or not they have these things, intend to benefit from racism. It means that they cannot help but benefit from it, because it is built into our culture. It means white people are free from the systemic bias, suspicion, and low expectations that racialized people must endure every day. It means that when a criminal has white skin, his actions are never connected to his race, while a criminal perceived as a brown-skinned Muslim inspires hatred and suspicion of other brown-skinned Muslims. It means that white people are not de facto representatives of their race.

    White privilege means no one suggests that a white person who fails is a disgrace to all white people, as Desmond Brown said about former TDSB director Chris Spence, the black educator who admitted to plagiarism. It means that if someone does make such a racist contention, a major newspaper like the Toronto Star will dismiss it as nonsense instead of publishing it. White privilege means that whiteness is not taken to be a defining feature of an individual’s humanity, and therefore does not need to be pointed out or discussed.”

    I can own and acknowledge I have benefitted from white privilege, and work with Desmond Cole cross

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