GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 18, 2015

Nationalist Cybernetics

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:09 pm

A large part of the problem with victimary thinking is that it, like any tyranny, prevents the system from receiving the feedback it needs. The more things that can’t be said, the more things people are thinking but hardly anyone knows they are thinking—but they go on thinking it and when they act on it, everyone is surprised—and the response is usually to clamp down more forcefully on that mode of expression. At the same time, there are always things that shouldn’t be said, things that, if said, create alienation and thereby generate a new kind of silence and blocking of information channels. A good way of distinguishing among political systems might be in terms of which provide, or can be designed so as to provide, sufficient feedback from the margins. Liberal democracy no longer seems to do that, perhaps because it is neither very liberal nor very democratic.


This is in large part because liberal democracy has anathematized nationalism. There is certainly a spectrum of nations, from those forged artificially out of diverse ethnicities subjected to a single regime to more natural nations that really are more like a collection of interrelated tribes. In any case, a nation defines itself by its external others—allies, enemies, would-be subjugators—and its internal others (often defined in conjunction with the establishment of external others)—those of a minority ethnicity, religion, ties to other countries, etc. Nationalism cannot be defined other than by othering, which is why it so horrifies the victimocracy; indeed, nationalism is perhaps the original sin against which the victimary defines itself. If 20 million people in widely dispersed and overlapping communities come to view themselves as like each other and loyal to each other in a way they aren’t like and loyal to anyone else, it is inevitable that those likenesses and loyalties will be more densely concentrated amongst and across some communities and sub-communities than others. In other words, some will be more genuinely representative of the nation than others.


Nations, in their modern form, began as national markets and to a great extent remain that, despite the vast globalization of markets—at the very least, most of our daily exchanges are with our fellow countrymen. They also, even in autocracies, presuppose at least some form of equality among citizens. In other words, they embody universal principles in exclusionary ways, modeled, especially in their promise of eternity and redemption, on the Israelite national community portrayed in the Bible (an argument I owe to David Goldman, aka “Spengler”). The exclusionary structure penetrates the nation itself, as I have just suggested, while the universality of exchange and citizenship moderates that structure. Insofar as a nation considers itself more civilized than its neighbors, it must put its exclusionary, or discriminatory, practices before the interest in spreading the principles of the market and citizenship. If it doesn’t, outsiders claiming to belong in the national community will exploit those principles while sapping them of substance, which is the “quantum” of civilizational discipline constitutive of the nation. The more a civilized nation dwells among other civilized nations, the more markets can be freed of exclusionary practices, and the more the rigors of citizenship can be relaxed.


Nationalism is highly unpredictable and therefore risky and therefore particularly frightening in a world comprised of delicate balancing acts between widely disparate international forces and crisis prone economic systems. But for this very reason it is superior to any other political form in generating information and feedback regarding the relations between center and margins. Nationalism certainly disallows identification with another nation, and the boundaries between explicit and implicit identification can never be drawn once and for all, but the insistent repetition of phrases like “for the good of the nation” “my nation above all” channels discourse into the oscillation between the civilizing tendencies of exchange and citizenship and the more barbaric, because belligerent, distinction between self and other.


The real problem with nationalism today is that it is ugly, according to contemporary political esthetics. It includes by excluding, even if the exclusions need not be violent. The exclusions based on the principle that the other is not me is, in fact, more limited and less violent than exclusions based on the other’s being on the wrong side of some putatively universal principle, but it deprives us of that quintessentially modern promise of final reconciliation. Nationalism works according to stereotypes: the representative national character (expressed through propaganda but also through consumption patterns and mass entertainment) is a stereotype, and the various margins are stereotyped, sometimes viciously. This is unbearable for those raised in a “victimhood” culture—indeed, even those committed to a “dignity” culture tend to flinch when presented with overt stereotypes. The question, then, is whether stereotyped minorities can bring themselves to resist the temptation to parade their dishonor before the all embracing post-dignity government and demand reparations. (I think that big government is a post-nationalist phenomenon, because relations between a dominant majority and minorities capable of leveraging their own sources of power are self-regulating; it is the attempt to stifle such processes that requires the heavy hand of government.) The alternative is to turn the stereotypes, which, of course, always misfit or mis-take their object, into sources of information by flouting the expectations and double binds they establish. This, no doubt, puts an added burden on the minorities, but it is now possible to see that even greater burdens might result from insisting upon an untrammeled minoritarian culture. And there are pleasures in marginality—the pleasure of being able to lapse into a certain kind of spectatorship before some political battles; the pleasure of, through solidarity and the insights of what W.E.B. called “double consciousness” and Hannah Arendt called, in relation to Jewish marginality, the “conscious pariah,” cultivating fields of culture left fallow by members of the majority; among others. We can perhaps learn enough from history to resist some of the virulent—racialized, imperialist, ideological—forms of nationalism while there can, of course, be no guarantees. Indeed, accepting the primacy of nationalism as a principle of social organization involves surrendering the fantasies of institutional guarantees providing by the transnationalisms based on universal rights and international institutions.


First of all, though, let’s see how many people can learn how not to flinch at the ugliness.

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