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*Note: If you’re interested in the origins of Yugoslav nationalism, which this article touches on, I wrote something on it a while back titled “The Croatian Origins of Yugoslav Nationalism and Pan-Slavism.”


Nationalism has made itself increasingly visible in the past decade. Right-wing nationalist parties are organizing themselves throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and with great success. A new bloc is forming, an alliance of right-wing nationalists made up of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the Hungarian Civil Alliance, the Freedom Party of Austria, and many others. This has placed nationalism squarely at the center of Europe’s current predicament once again.   It seems history is repeating itself but with difference. Eastern Europe once again must come to grips with its national question(s), and must take the corpses out of the closet to ponder once more. A necessary moment of reflection, perhaps, but an all-too-familiar one in lieu of the past century. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of new states, Eastern Europe has been scrambled up once again as it was a century prior. Population politics have returned with new force, and the classical arguments made against them have proved to be all but useless in preventing their rise. The new wave of nationalism is bold, and it makes little natural claims to legitimacy; instead, it is playful, arbitrary, and aware of it. In a post-modern hogwash of competing ideologies, sheer political will triumphs.

I.   The National Question 

The “national question” was one of the prevailing debates within socialist thought in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was also the concern of Western powers who needed to decide how to appease the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europeans without tipping the scale in their own disfavor. Austria-Hungary and the British Empire grew increasingly concerned the so-called “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, and the political fallout of them exiting the southeast European theater. Marxists, however, were one of the few to treat the national question as something other than a case-by-case problem. Liberal scholars treated it as a regional issue, and therefore each respective region had its own “national question,” separate from one another. Of these, there were many – having to do with Poles, Jews, Italian irredentism in Dalmatia, Slavs in Austria-Hungary, Bulgarians, Turks in the Balkans, and many others. Yet, at the time, few of these were understood as being of the same historical trajectory guided by the then-developments of capitalism. They were seen as natural movements which fulfilled a historic promise of community; they were characterized as being previously “repressed, and now they were finally materializing. These nationalist promises were underscored with myths, poetry, and literature. Many of these peoples went through a period of cultural “rediscovery” in the latter-19th century. Languages were codified, and lost cultural artifacts were “found” from which cultural tradition was invented. Remarkably, despite being separately orchestrated to a large extent, these nationalist revivals were occurring at around the same time and in similar patterns.

By the late 19th century, Balkan nationalism became the central question of geopolitics for Europe. For the first time, nationalism and nation-states was viewed as the normative standard for attaining legitimacy in Eastern Europe. The concept of a nation was seen as a natural progression of their respective peoples, and, for them, the prior empires that occupied the Balkans repressed their cultural progress and prevented their peoples from realizing their historical goals. Therefore for Serbian nationalists, to give one example, the creation of the nation-state was seen as the pinnacle of their millennia-long struggle to establish a sovereign space for their peoples. Naturally, this required they determine who was included in this new national identity, and how territory would be parceled between them and other states. The “national question” soon became a central political concern across the Balkans and in all of Eastern Europe.

The argument for the nation-state is that it creates balance and represents parties with distinct cultural interests. The state in this schema is not just an administrative body, but also a cultural guardian, and an assertion of a group’s right to sovereignty and existence. The question that immediately arises when discussing nationalism is: what is the point of divergence between different peoples? Generally speaking, these distinctions are said to be based on blood, religion, or language, and they oftentimes overlap to together form a basal identity.  Yet, the nation-state is a recent development in European history. To have a state, one does not need to necessarily create a nation. As historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, there was a French state before there was anything remotely reminiscent of a “French people” [1]. What developed, however, from these states were nations, and old multi-cultural empires like Austria-Hungary soon led way to smaller, more homogeneous nation-states. These were said to be better representative of their newly-created peoples’ interests. This was the case in Eastern Europe, and the history of empire still weighs heavily on the national question there. The initial wave of national awakening happened post-1848 when liberal nationalism gripped the educated classes who identified as Poles, Croats, Serbs, and others. The respective populations were counted, shuffled around to appease certain demographics, and territories between states became contestable based on its language or culture. I have read scholars treat the history of Eastern European in stages [2] – the first wave until 1914 was anti-imperialist nationalism which had emancipatory potential; what came after was a period of destructive nationalism with violence being committed in Ukraine, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, and elsewhere with the intent of purging perceived foreign elements; and what followed after World War Two was a positive rehabilitation of nationalism. For the Western powers, nationalism was seen as undermining the Soviet Union and was therefore treated in different light in Western and American historiography after World War Two.

However, these are not separate “eras” of nationalism that should be valued irrespective of one another. In his essay Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means, philosopher Slavoj Zizek pushes back against this notion that “healthy” nationalism can be separated from fanaticism and he cites the Yugoslav wars of secession during the 1990s as a reference point. The so-called “good” nationalism of the late 19th century provided the phantasmic structure that allowed for nationalist fantasies to be played out as violently as they did later on. It is the “healthy” nationalism that structures the nationalist fantasy (what Zizek calls the “dirty water”) and maintains its spiritual purity [3]. To decouple these is to effectively de-historicize it, and leaves the national question unresolved. The West distanced itself from Balkan nationalism to escape the “ethnic bug” of sectarian fanaticism, but their soft nationalism is in fact the opposing side of the same, nationalist violence they were viewing during the wars of Yugoslav secession. This is partly why a Western state cannot properly account for the national question, or even resolve it politically: it affirms its presumptions, and tries to decouple the bad nationalism from the good which leaves the phantasmic structure of nationalism still intact. The nation-state deals with the national question through particulars while it is a question of grander, material history which both “soft” and fanatical, ultra-nationalism are implicated in.

Although modern Western politics has painted liberal democracy and nationalism as oppositional forces, their histories are interwoven with one another. They answer fundamentally different questions: while “democracy is the institutional expression of the tenet of self-rule of the people, nationalism addresses the problem of who are ‘the people’” [4].  Therefore, when liberal historians critique the national question they are in effect also critiquing of a fundamental tenet of their own  ideology. By looking into the Balkans, the Westerner finds solace in their own neutral “soft” nationalism, but they are looking at their own reflection; they are us, and vice-versa. The brazen nationalist politics and violence in the Balkans is merely a replay of the original, national question that Westerners needed to resolve centuries prior. And it was them, too, that created their own homogeneous space, and excluded others, all in the context of liberalism. French philosopher Étienne Balibar, in a 1999 lecture in Thessaloniki, Greece remarked that:

The fate of European identity as a whole is being played out in Yugoslavia and more generally in the Balkans. Europe has two options… either [it] will recognize in the Balkan situation not a monstrosity grafted to its breast, a pathological ‘after-effect’ of underdevelopment or of communism, but rather an image… of its own history, and will undertake to confront it and resolve it and thus to put itself into question and transform itself [5].

Nationalism plays out again and again, repeating with difference, but continues to  reproduce itself because the problems underlying it remain unresolved. We are currently witnessing the new wave of right-wing nationalist politics in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It repeats because the question of nationalism has yet to be properly answered. Instead, distance has been created between its particular symptoms. When nationalism is treated solely by its particulars, with individual national histories, the assumed distance that is said to exist between each nationalist narrative ends up reproducing the same ambiguity and contradictions continuously – the “dirty water” of nationalism, the perceived good in it, and all the rest.

II.   Ambiguous Spaces

Nation and the VillageLiberal historiographers have naturalized the process of nationalism into a linear, homogeneous trajectory. On the ground, it was a different story and one of sectarianism, negotiation, and forced assimilation. The tension comes from the nature of the nation-state itself, and how it determines who are its “people.” Given that the majority in Eastern Europe and the Balkans were peasants, this oftentimes involved a communication between the upper-classes of their respective societies and the peasant base. Keely Stauter-Halsted in The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 uses the region of Galicia as an allegory for other nationalist projects of the time. The creation of nationalism generally took a similar form among all peasant Slavs and others living in Eastern Europe. There needed to be a unified, nationalist front among all classes of the people in question, but this involved correcting the grey areas, regions where nationalist identity was not so clear. These regions were plentiful because the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe oftentimes had a multiplicity of allegiances. Keely Stauter-Halsted calls these “nested identities,” and they oftentimes overlapped. How these people identify, she writes, was based on many different allegiances, and their most immediate one was their local community and dialect. For Austrian Poles, their allegiances were multifold: many had their own nested identities that they clung to including the Austrian state and the Catholic Church [6]. For the peasant living under the rule of an empire in Eastern Europe, the nationalist project involved evoking all of these interwoven identities that rested on “regional, extra-regional, and social attachments” [7]. The goal was to channel them into one cohesive vision that could be adopted as an organizing principle for the new nation-state. Previously, these old, pre-modern identities were not channeled into a particular politics; they only denoted specific kinds of allegiances, and provided social organization on some basic, intelligible level whether it be Catholicism or allegiance to the emperor. And because these identities overlapped, there was intelligibility between them and this made them ripe for appropriation by nationalist politics.

In Galicia, the peasant elite increasingly began articulating the public agenda as the “welfare of the nation” by the late-19th century [8]. However, for the elites and their upper-class allies, the “nation” denoted a much different concept than how it was understood by the majority of the population, the peasantry. Galicia is just a microcosm of a greater process that occurred in Eastern Europe in the latter-half of the 19th century where elites began a long and sustained entry into peasant cultural life, and were constantly negotiating their “patriotic message” with their respective peasant audiences [9]. For many of these peasants, these interactions gave them a glimpse of what would be characterized as modern, civic life, but yet they “still remained rooted in the rituals, customs, and beliefs of ‘premodern’ agricultural communities” [10]. The goal of the educated nationalists was therefore to appropriate many of these images into vague references, and use it to “camouflage the heterogeneous nature of national identity” [11]. Therefore, the most significant rift in early-developing nationalist consciousness was on class lines between the elites and the peasant class. Soon, the discourse they used merged despite being interpreted differently by each class. One such example, Keely Stauter-Halsted writes, was the annual celebration of the 1791 Polish Constitution: for the upper-class, the day signified an “opposition to foreign rule,” but for the peasants it was a time for “staging agrarian rituals around maypoles in the countryside” [12]. The peasants negotiated the meaning of the national vision with their elite counterparts. They rooted them in village traditions and this provided them a basis why they could now associate with the new national character. It became familiar to them. Peasant nationalism spread from village to village, discussed in pubs and local events, and constantly vied for legitimacy among other competing subcultures. And in a “discursive sleight of hand,” elites in Austrian Poland performed peasant folk culture and in their writings spoke of a natural, nationalist consciousness forming; their historiography was one of triumph of a homogeneous group of Poles reaching their true identity [13]. They spoke little of the struggle present on the local level, and the discussions had, and the “nested identities” constantly conflicting with each other. Instead, nationalist historiography was about homogeneous movement forward, and the educated class narrativized peasant nationalism into a justification for sovereignty and a new state of affairs. As the peasants were determining the “nation” on a local level, the elite class was codifying these developments into a clear, historical trajectory.

Many ambiguous spaces existed in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century which became battlegrounds for nationalist politics. Galicia is just one of many. In Jeremy King’s text Budweisers into Czechs and Germans, he writes of the contested space in Southern Bohemia where “for at least seven centuries, [there were] at least three ethnic groups: the Czech majority, a strong German minority, and… a less numerous but nonetheless influential Jewish minority” [14]. It was only “the ninetieth and twentieth century that elevated these relations… to a relationship among modern nations” [15]. King quotes Jörg Hoensch in History of Bohemia in pointing out that German-ness was based not only in culture or religion, but also in perceived common history. The wars of liberation against Napoleon captured the German historical experience, but “it gripped few Germans in Bohemia” [16]. Historiographies of Austria-Hungary, and specifically even Bohemia, have been mostly national histories instead of histories of nationalism. Ethnicity, here, then becomes a predecessor to nations, and nationalism is the outgrowth of natural, ethnic divisions. However, ethnic groups are not “historical antecedents but national products” – and some, like historian Gary Cohen, have gone as far as to argue that, in the case of Czechs and Germans, “socioeconomic standing accounted better than did ethnicity for how residents became national” [17]. Oftentimes, nationalism was adopted by Austria-Hungarian minorities to aspire to political primacy, and it was through political will that Croats, Czechs, and others were able to naturalize their respective nationalisms. They needed to be interpolated as a separate group by an authority, and Austria-Hungary adopted ethnic splits as mode of politics which ultimately undermined its legitimacy.

III.   The National Question after World War One

In the years following World War One, two concepts were pushed in tandem: minority rights and forced deportations. Eric D. Weitz in From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions speaks of this development as a transition between the old model of Vienna to the new Paris system. Whereas the Vienna system of states was based on dynastic legacy and sovereignty, the new post-WW1 system had a new geopolitical configuration where each state was a representative of its own homogeneous ethnic space. This distinction was made on two major points: (1) the confounding of ethnicity, nationalism, and sovereignty and (2) “the development of the civilizing mission into a comprehensive program” to boost the numbers of the nation so that it can bee seen as a legitimate state [18]. In the summer of 1919, the Allies needed to deal with a different national question emerging in Eastern Europe with the dissolution of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires. The logic of self-determination forced a response, and two solutions emerged: “populations could either be protected or removed” [19]. A population could derive rights from its numbers alone, and the relationship between nationalist violence and the protection of minorities in Europe parallel each other in 20th century history. Weitz specifically writes of the Greek-Bulgarian exchange promulgated by the then Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos. In 1913, he proposed “the notion of moving around hundreds of thousands of people to create homogenous states” so that the political lines were drawn in the “exact accordance… or approximate accordance… [of the] limits of their ethnical domain.” From this, the “Society of Nations [would] be created” [20].

Bulgaria

Nationalist politics in Eastern Europe soon turned against its neighbors as they struggled to define who their “people” were and came to a head on the eve of World War One. This is a propagandized postcard of that time illustrated by Alexander Bozhinov (Александър Божинов). The postcard depicts a satirical caricature of Bulgarian soldier hanging Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and French enemy soldiers like laundry.

The Western response to the national question after World War One was to naturalize these relationships between nation-states through legal means. It created international, rights-based protections for minorities, while also allowing for states to determine their own homogeneous spaces. This proved politically unstable as many of the newly-created Eastern European nations had heterogeneous populations and the influx of refugees from Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere created an international policy of minority protection by the League of Nations which soon became unenforceable by the 1930s because of sheer numbers.  There was a large influx of stateless people who, without belonging to a nation-state, effectively had no rights. Through peace treaties, Western powers attempted to regulate peoples in Eastern Europe by offering a model of minority rights. The old nation-states of the West were themselves, though, unable to grapple with the problem of minority status in their own liberal states, and it remained “even more doubtful whether it could be imported in an area which lacked the very conditions for the rise of nation-states” [21].

From the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, there was a belt of mixed populations [22]. In Latvia, a quarter of the population was a minority ethnic group; twenty percent were minorities in Lithuania; in Czechoslovakia, a quarter was German; and within the borders of Poland, only 70% were ethnically considered Polish [23]. Some regions became ethnically ambiguous, such as Czech Silesia, Transylvania, and Macedonia which was a contested space between Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks [24]. In the West, identification transitioned from religious identity to cultural affiliation and citizenship after the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th century; however, Eastern Europe maintained a religious-national consciousness, where Catholic Poles could differentiate themselves from Protestant Germans or Orthodox Russians. These relationships were intensified after World War One, but the conflict between these groups had been present in peasant life in the region for at least a century. Economic stratification soon took on the form of these identities where Estonian and Latvian peasants worked for German barons, or Ukrainian minorities worked for Polish lords [25]. The slippage between class and nationality became the instigator of pogroms where these two concepts confounded to spark violence. The 1907 peasant revolts in Moldavia began as an anti-Semitic riot in the northern part of the region before expanding into protests against the land-owning class more broadly. Other identities were recuperated into class antagonisms as ethnic conflicts took on a class dimension but played themselves out as nationalist violence.

IV.   The Current Wave of Population Politics

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the national question has once again reappeared in Eastern Europe after the lid was kept on it for decades. It was not as if during Soviet occupation such questions were not asked, but nationalist politics were effectively frozen for decades. Much had changed during this time, however. After World War Two, the border between Western and Eastern Europe effectively “shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East” [26]. Now, they are independent states, and these perceived wrongs could be corrected.  Since the 90s, questions of nationalism have thawed in Eastern Europe and have once again entered popular discourse. The old, nationalist population politics of the late 19th and early 20th century have reappeared, yet now they come as alarmist and dire because of perceived cultural loss. The national question was left unresolved, and has now reappeared with ressentiment. The current wave has been instigated by reasons other than ones that pushed it during the turn of the 20th century. Russian diaspora politics has been revitalized by Russian nationalism and its reach is felt in Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, and other ex-Soviet states that still have sizable Russian minorities. Diaspora politics more generally have become a crucial political tool for ruling powers in Eastern Europe especially in light of falling birthrates post-1989. Croatia, for example, used diaspora politics in the 1990s to grant ethnic Croats living abroad in Bosnia and elsewhere proper citizenship and voting right – ultimately, pushing the Croatian nationalist party HDZ over the edge and to victory [27]. In 1999, the right-wing coalition in Poland reached out to ethnic Poles in Ukraine and Lithuania through citizenship and immigration policy to spur tourism, investment, and economic growth [28]. This new wave of Eastern European nationalism based on diasporic kin has created a “cross-border [network] of interdependent and patronage between homeland states and diaspora elites” while also increasing the potential of “inter-ethnic tensions” [29]. Kinship on ethnic ground forges ties within communities and minorities of other nation-states which ultimately empowers secessionist politics. The political ramifications of diaspora politics are strongly felt in Macedonia and Kosovo where the national question has led to cultural disputes over historical narratives and whether a region that is significantly Albanian is justified in being allowed to join Albania [30].

In the early 20th century, nationalism was justified by empiricism and perceived natural difference. It was made into a science, and it could be scrutinized as such. Now, however, we have reached a different form of nationalism – one which, increasingly, cannot be discredited by the mere fact that it is arbitrary. The mono-ideology of Sovietism has collapsed, and many individual nationalist ideologies have come to reclaim their place of power. We live today in a world of relativistic difference, of many competing narratives, none of which are deemed “correct.” Post-modernism provides coverage for all of these previously bastardized ideologies — nationalists, ethnic purists, traditionalists, etc., because it raises the floor for all of them. They are all fighting on the same turf, because post-modernism privileges none of them. The only aspect that makes nationalism “real” is its political will. This is even demonstrated in an old Slavic myth about Vladimir the Great. It is said that in the year 987, Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the world to pick one for his people. Islam was undesirable because of its taboos on alcohol and pork; Jews had lost Jerusalem, and therefore they were God’s abandoned children; and Catholicism was too dull (surprisingly). He settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity because its festivals had a phantasmic quality… “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth” [31]. The choice was arbitrary, but it was the historical precedent thereafter that linked Orthodoxy with the Russian ethnicity. How could one argue against an identity when its adherents recognize its arbitrariness? Within this nationalist fantasy lies something deeper that cannot be accounted for with reason alone.

The Eastern European attachment to nationalism has many origins, but in the current era, it is characterized by cultural anxiety over declining status and the precarity of workers in Eastern Europe. This instability necessitates a need for community, one which is satisfied by nationalism. If nationalism cannot be accounted for by reason alone, then we must diagnose the forces that push individuals into these categories. In their precarity, nationalism provides community. Although arbitrary, there are clear historical trajectories that underscore nationalism as an ideology and grant it an actually-existing justification. And even when Vladimir the Great was choosing a religion for his people, a political calculation was made amidst it all. It was not only that Orthodoxy was aesthetically beautiful for him, but Byzantine impressed him as a political system and as a power. It was geopolitically beneficial for Orthodoxy to be pinned to Russian identity, and the historical forces placed its peoples into this constructed category. Although nationalism now requires no “objective” narrative to derive legitimacy, the material conditions ultimately provide that narrative. History thus pushes us and provides the actually-existing justification for narratives that would have previously been unfounded. The social forces are too great to be undermined by their arbitrariness, for what makes Russian nationalism any less arbitrary than Western liberalism? Any criticism of Eastern European nationalism on these grounds ultimately ends up reflecting back the arbitrary construction of Western nation-states. The national question, thus, cannot be resolved by appealing to its Western reflection; the creation of rights-based politics and protections during the 20th century merely naturalized nationalism’s historical trend, and tried to decouple “soft” nationalism from its true, fanatical base. Instead, ethnic and national categories must be decoupled from their socioeconomic origins; it is only by addressing the precarity of modern labor, and the anxiety it brings, can the community be rehabilitated beyond just nationalism.

***

[1]  Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), Chapter II, 80–81.
[2] Yugoslav scholars oftentimes rehabilitated nationalist anti-imperialist struggle against the Austria-Hungarians by describing it as “good nationalism.” For a more concrete example, I cite Thomas T. Hammond’s article Nationalism and National Minorities in Eastern Europe in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1966), on pages 9-31 who makes this exact argument.
[3] Slavoj Zizek. Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means (InterCommunications, 18: 1997).
[4]  Pavel Barša, “Ethnocultural Justice in East European States and the Case of the Czech Roma” in Can Liberal Pluralism Be Exported?: Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe (Oxford University Press: 2002), 243.
[5] Tanja Petrovic. Thinking Europe without Thinking: Neo-colonial Discourse on and in the Western Balkans. (Eurozine: 2007). Web: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-09-22-petrovic-en.html
[6] Keely Stauter-Halsted writes that even well into the beginning of the 20th century, there were still Poles who resisted the nation-state and still referred to themselves as the “emperor’s people.”
[7] Keely Stauter-Halsted. The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 (Cornell University Press: 2004), 8.
[8] Ibid., 3.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 5.
[14] Jeremy King. Budweisers into Czechs and Germans (Princeton University Press: 2002), 6.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 9.
[18] Eric D. Weitz. From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions. (American Historical Review: December, 2008), 1315.
[19] Ibid., 1329.
[20] Ibid., 1335.
[21] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1st edition: 1973), 268.
[22] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 270.
[23] Ivan T. Berend. Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II (University of California Press: 2001), 43.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., 45.
[26] Milan Kundera. The Tragedy of Central Europe. (New York Review of Books Volume 31, Number 7: 1984), 1.
[27] Myra A. Waterbury. From Irredentism to Diaspora Politics: States and Transborder Ethnic Groups in Eastern
Europe (Center for Global Studies: July, 2009), 4.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 7.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Marvin Kalb. Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press: 2015), ch. 4.

propNationalism works within a unique niche in contemporary society. It is constantly romanticized by its proponents, described as both necessary and natural, despite having to reinvent itself with every new epoch. Nationalism prides itself on its continuity, but it is constantly changing the means with which it defines itself. In a symbolic gesture, nationalism “mediates the past with the future, while providing an effective dimension for the present” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 255). It gives the appearance of historical resemblance in a reality that is actually ever-changing and fluid. The Enlightenment and Romanticist literary movements have played their part in developing national consciousness by describing nationalism as eternal, static, and even “infinite.” Ironically, it is because of the ordinariness of capitalist standardization that nationalism found its sincerest and most passionate supporters. The fact that nationalism rose during a time of emerging economic automation and science is no coincidence – National consciousness had to be created as a means to cope with the turbulent alienation of modernity.

I. Essentialism Is Inseparable from Nationalism

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

This stamp from 1964 is meant to commemorate the nationalist icon, JFK. He is honored with a depiction of the eternal flame.

The eternal flame is the distinctive marker of national honor. It is used to respect those who died for their homeland, or to venerate political figures of national importance. The “eternal” in this fiery symbol is an all-encompassing depiction of the nation-state; the nation is conceived as immaterial, unique, and timeless by its most fanatical believers and oftentimes heightened to quasi-religious proportions. This line of rhetoric is characteristic of a philosophical position which dates back to Greek Antiquity – essentialism. Essentialists posit that there exists an objective, core quality to a particular person or group that is inherent in their very being. Therefore, essentialism is also an a priori claim on human nature.  This philosophy can take on different forms. It can function within an individualistic framework where attributes are assumed for an individual based on how they can be characterized more generally (race, gender, etc.). Ethno-nationalism derives its power from an essentialist position, arguing that their particular group constitutes a natural identity and one that has a greater historical narrative they are destined to complete. It is the position that “nations are natural, organic, quasi-eternal entities” rather than products of historical forces (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). Essentialist nationalism is thus the position that the individual is second to the community and therefore owes allegiance to the nation.

6a00d83451cdc869e20120a8b4166c970bVirtually all of nationalism functions as essentialist in how it conceives itself. The concept of “the nation” rests on four major ideas that Benedict Anderson in the introduction to his book Imagined Communities outlines. Firstly, the nation is imagined. It is imagined because, although conceiving of themselves as a group, “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (Anderson, 15). Secondly, the nation is limited. Each national group has finite boundaries with which it defines itself. Anderson makes an effort to clarify this distinction by arguing that “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation…” (Anderson, 16). In other words, nationalism is by its very design limited in scope; Nationalists does not seek the expansion of all people within its borders. Instead, they value most those that culturally qualify as their own.  Thirdly, moving forward, the nation is sovereign. Nationalism requires a state to enforce itself or else it falls into obscurity, which is why the “nation” and “state” are so deeply intertwined. And finally, fourthly, the nation is a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 16). It is why individuals die for their nation – they conceive of themselves as inseparable from it and are therefore willing to be slaughtered for the state. Such actions, although sometimes full of valor, are motivated by imagination.

Ironically, the more passionate nationalism is, the more it discredits itself as an ideology by turning to violent means to achieve an imagined vision. As Josep Llobera writes, “in the long run, the history of Western Europe is the history of the qualified failure of the so called nation-state” (Tonkin, McDonald, Chapman, 248). However, despite the atrocities committed in its name, nationalism relentlessly survives with each decade. Nations amass popular credibility and power through two means – by creating the “Other” and the myth. In order for nationalism to take root, it must first differentiate itself from other groups or individuals that are unlike it. Commonalities are formed within a particular group – be it cultural, religious, or political – and eventually synthesized, popularized, and normalized and made natural in contrast to the “Other.”

II. The Creation of the “Other”

In order for an ethno-national state to affirm itself, it first has to make clear what it is not. This process of differentiation is crucial in the development of nationalism since it distinguishes the “nation” from those that are outside it, and thus creates an imagined community for its people to follow. However, imagined communities are not created in a vacuum; there must be particular historical forces at play in order for a group to conceive of themselves, collectively, with one national identity. Take the case of Catalan nationalism – it emerged as a result of regional repression, an ineffective Spanish state, industrialization, romantic literature, and a strong Catholic base (Tonkin et. all 250, 251, 252). The final differentiating factor is, ultimately, language which is arguably “the symbol and the lively expression of the personality of [the] people” (Conversi, 55). Catalan nationalism and its history provide us with many sources on how the intelligentsia made an effort to differentiate Catalans from other Spaniards. The dichotomy of being “Catalan” and “not-Catalan” is an important one, since the whole purpose of its nationalist project was to create an “irrefutable and indestructible Catalan personality” (Conversi, 55). Thus, the creation of Catalan nationalism involved the creation of core values and language as a means to differentiate Catalan as a legitimate nationality. And such was not just the case in Catalonia, but for all nationalist movements that sought validity in the post-Enlightenment era.

III. The Myth of Nationalism

The creation of nationalist myths goes hand-in-hand with differentiating the nation from others. The myth functions as a unique starting point for national consciousness – it inspires and creates a common story of origin for all the people in its supposed jurisdiction. The need for myths is apparent in virtually all nationalist movements. For Croatians, they found national solidarity by identifying themselves as the cultural ancestors of the historic Illyrians who lived in the Balkans around 5th century B.C. In another case, the Scottish Highlands created their own nationalist myth by distinguishing themselves from Irish culture. As Hugh Trevor-Roper writes in The Invention of Tradition:

It occurred in three stages. First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original, and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by historic Lowland Scotland… (Hobsbawm, 16).

scot5In an effort to forge a national identity, the Scottish intelligentsia told stories of Scotts resisting Roman armies, called Irish-influenced ballads their own, and even popularized their own non-Irish traditional garb by the 18th century (Hobsbawm, 17, 19). This was done all in efforts to differentiate themselves from Ireland, who they felt culturally overshadowed the Highlands.

The creation of myths is the imaginative potential of nationalist projects. The sheer literary talent of piecing together a coherent (although fictitious) narrative was a product of 18th century Romanticism. Eventually, these tales became ingrained in the culture from which they sprung; the myths began to be taken as true, as if they had a life of their own. These stories’ main purpose was to establish a grander narrative which grounds the community in core values and common history. Thus, myths are a necessary component of any nationalist project – they reinvigorate a community to stand on its own, distinguishes them as unique, and ultimately gives them a reason to take up arms to defend their imagined history.

IV. Inventing Traditions

Thus far, we have discussed the steady progression of nationalist development. First, it begins by taking an essentialist position on a group’s origin. From here, differentiation begins by defining the particular group separate from the “Other.” It is then that the creation of “myths” arises in order to justify collective consciousness and action.  Once a national identity is established, it becomes the responsibility of the state and/or the people to maintain it.

Structures and codes of behavior are usually maintained through invented traditions, by using repetition and appealing to continuity with the past.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines this phenomenon in the opening pages of The Invention of Tradition:

‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past (Hobsbawm, 1).

Invented traditions function as the maintainers of state power. They are constructed with the intent of making the custom appear “historic” or “natural.” Such was the case for the British Monarchy, which was forced to reinvent itself in the late 19th century amidst an educated, growing middle-class. However, this process was not easy and required many failures on part of the ruling class to perfect its rituals. David Cannadine in chapter four of The Invention of Tradition writes, “For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco” (Hobsbawm, 117). This was because royal ceremonies in Great Britain before the mid-19th century were historically done behind closed doors, rather than as public spectacles (Hobsbawm, 116). With the rise of liberalism, the British monarchy had to create a ceremonial tradition that would quell the public’s animosity towards the Crown. They exacted it to a science – appealing to tradition, populism, and the myth of their necessity as an institution. Soon, the British royal family became the living embodiment of national pride, whose “traditions” live on to this day.

However, when a hegemonic imperialist power invents traditions, these changes have ramifications far outside its nationalist borders. The British Empire also imposed these traditions on its colonies, in an effort to naturalize their exploitation and justify their expansionism. It is not a coincidence that the rise of the British monarchy’s symbolic power, starting in the late 19th century, was directly around the time of it colonizing Africa. The same process of “inventing tradition” would be applied to Africa to make them submissive to Anglo-Saxon power. Terence Ranger writes in chapter 6 of The Invention of Tradition:

But serviceable as the monarchial ideology was to the British, it was not enough to provide the theory or justify the structures of colonial governance on the spot. Since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social, and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans (Hobsbawm, 212).

A hierarchy was enforced in Africa which placed “white” as the ideal amongst the people living there. The watchful eye of Anglo-Saxon officials became symbolic of the African peoples’ position in relation to British power and was justified through appeals to nature and history. With this also came justifications from Protestant theology – the mantra was that it was the white man’s burden that the British have taken upon themselves, out of benevolence, just to help these people succeed. This, however, could not be farther from the truth.

A British ceremony commemorating Ado’s Kingdom assimilation into greater British Nigeria [1897 – 1899]. It was through these rituals that the British empire created traditions and assumed dominance. They did it by creating a spectacle.

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British imperial power expanded its power by forcing groups to assimilate into their empire with the threat of force. In this photo, British colonial administrators meet with Nigerian representatives.

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The British Royalty, starting in the late 19th century, began to rely on aesthetics and ritual to enforce their necessity. In an age of growing democratization, the royalty needed to stay relevant by making each of their actions a symbolic event. The coronation stood, above all else, a symbolic representation of the passing of imperial power. The above photo is a postcard meant to endorse national pride from 1911.

are-we-afraid-no

“Are We Afraid? No!” is a jingoistic British postcard from WW1. The five pups represent the best of Britain’s colonial territories (i.e. Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa). The exact year of the postcard is unknown.

poster

This is a french poster by the Mouvement Anti-Apartheid (also known as the Campagne Anti-OutSpan or C.O.A). The group was founded in 1975 and supported the African National Congress and the struggle against apartheid. This was part of its first campaign to boycott Outspan oranges from South Africa in an attempt to destroy the Western hegemony in Africa.

The British Crown is an especially relevant example of invented traditions. Because its influence was so widespread, Anglo-Saxon culture permeates and invents itself as “natural” even to this day. Still, Great Britain aside, virtually all nationalist state projects appeal to a type of invented tradition to maintain itself and make its institutions seem “natural” – be it the caste system in India, or the romanticizing of the Founding Fathers in the United States, or even the appeal to the Roman Empire in fascist Italy under the rule of Mussolini. All of these invented traditions appeal to supposed “historical continuity” and attempt to make a narrative to justify its institutional power. Invented traditions are the means with which nationalism maintains itself as relevant and necessary with each passing generation.

V. Popularizing the Nation

The spread of nationalism goes hand-in-hand with its invented traditions. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities outlines a few historical patterns which explains how virtually all nationalist movements popularized themselves. Much of it has to do with “print capitalism,” which was the commodification and mass-production of texts. It ultimately led to a codified language, a “national” language, and extinguished any dialects that previously existed locally. The rise of print capitalism was a steady process, but it eventually grew to encapsulate every aspect of life. Anderson notes, “at least 20,000,000 books had already been printed by 1500… if manuscript knowledge was scarce and arcane lore, print knowledge lived by reproducibility and dissemination” (Anderson, 37). In turn, the print expansion also brought with it a level of greater community, one which extended far beyond kinship and familial ties. It molded a type of national consciousness, a collective identity, by standardizing the means of communication. Therefore, the birth of nationalism can very much be associated with the birth of capitalism and their development is intertwined.

Far beyond print capitalism, other historical factors merged to further solidify nationalism in public consciousness. The spread of the newspaper connected previously unrelated social phenomenon into an implicitly greater narrative, which eventually led to nationalism. Anderson writes:

In this way, the newspaper… quite naturally, even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops, and prices belonged (Anderson, 62).

Along with the newspaper, the homogenization of time with the steady adoption of the Gregorian calendar created “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time” which fits nicely into nationalist narratives of continuity. All of these factors – propagated through print capitalism – led to a kind of philological revolution, while also creating a common measurement of time, which allowed for the birth of the collective consciousness that would become nationalism.

VI. Conclusion and Final Remarks

Nationalism derives its prowess from essentialism, myths, and differentiation. It popularizes itself through print, through national language, and through common narratives for the future. And finally, it cements its dominance through repetition and invented traditions. The nuances of how nations individually created their sense of pride are invariably unique, mostly due to differences in relative power, but the general way nationalism is conceived is virtually the same in every historical situation.

Although nationalism is derived from invented traditions and mythological imagination, this does not delegitimize its potential as a political force. Nationalism has proved to be one of the most dynamic phenomena in history, constantly re-inventing itself with each generation. Although as a rule, nationalism is an imaginative community, it has its uses in fighting hegemonic power and re-vitalizing exploited peoples. As Stuart Hall writes in Culture, Globalization, and the World System: “I do not know an example of any group or category of the people of the margins, of the locals, who have been able to mobilize themselves, socially, culturally, economically, politically… who have not gone through some such series of moments in order to resist their exclusion, their marginalization” (King, 53). It for this reason that nationalism cannot be discarded purely on the basis of being imaginative – it has the potential to be a necessary counter to dominant power, and has revitalized marginalized people throughout the world, especially in the post-colonial era. As a means, nationalism is a sound anti-imperialist platform, but it still fails to provide an end. The historic end-goal of nationalism is the victory of the particular nation. What this end entails is potentially open to reactionary violence, and even political manipulation, which has been the case for the much of modern history. Nationalism breeds competition; It may function as a means to liberate a group, but it fails to provide a proper end.

***

– Tonkin, Elizabeth. McDonald, Maryon. Chapman, Malcolm. History and Ethnicity. Routledge, 1989. New York. pp. 247 – 261. Print.

– Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso Books, 1983. London. Print.

– Conversi, Daniele. Ethics and Racial Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. Routledge, 1990. pp. 50 – 70. Print.

– Hobsbawm, Eric. Ranger, Terrance. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1983. New York. Print.

–  King, Anthony D. Culture, Globalization, and the World System. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Minneapolis. Print.

Jacques Derrida by Pablo Secca

Jacques Derrida

Mentioning Jacques Derrida makes some academic’s ears spike up. Derrida is known to be notoriously wordy, painfully dense, and riddled with jargon in anything he writes. Regardless of the difficulties, he manages to reveal patterns in Western thought that dominate discourse. One particular trend, however, forms the crux of his criticisms — the binary system.

Throughout Western thought, arguments have been presented in dichotomies. Socrates framed his philosophy through discussion by conversing with another party which would argue the objecting point. With the work of philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, we have given this a title. Dialectics, as it’s called, consists of a thesis and an antithesis with the hope of producing a synthesis. This triad has become the basis of our argumentative Western society.

Dialectics-12

However, the influence of the dialectic process goes much further than argumentation. The dichotomy has become so strong that we presumably view all ideology and ideas within a binary. These binaries can be either contradictory (dialectic) or supplementary to each other, but are always opposite in meaning. And one is always seen as more important than the other. Western binaries tend to be, as a rule, hierarchical and unequal. For Derrida, these relationships are important to understand to fully grasp theory or texts. It is equally important to undermine — or deconstruct — these relationships and maybe even, in some cases, try to break their authority to reach a grander conclusion.

Let’s take, for a moment, the actual binaries and their content.

B versus A

Whereas is superior to A.

Good  ¦ Bad

Mind  ¦ Body

Reality ¦ Appearance

Self ¦ Other

Speech ¦ Writing

Man ¦ Woman

White ¦ People of Color

Bourgeois ¦ Proletariat 

These binary distinctions are based on institutional conceptions. Taken a step further, we can examine their relationship. “A” is supplementary to the dominate “B.” Noted literary critic Barbara Johnson explains this relationship in an essay titled “Writing” from Critical Terms for Literary Study.

A is added to B.

A substitutes for B.

A is a superfluous addition to B.

A makes up for the absence of B.

A usurps the place of B.

A makes up for B’s deficiency.

A corrupts the purity of B.

A is necessary to that B can be restored.

A is an accident alienating B from itself.

A is that without which B would be lost.

A is that through which B is lost.

A is a danger to B.

A is a remedy to B.

A’s fallacious charm seduces one away from B.

A can never satisfy the desire for B.

A protects against direct encounter with B.

These observations are not absolute. Different Western binaries express different relationships with each other; these are not applicable to all, but each of the examples given can fit into a few of these criteria outlined.

We have established the fact that Western dichotomies can take on two forms: contradictory (dialectic) or supplementary. Generally, discussions tend to be dialectical while the binaries in individual ideologies tend to be supplementary. This trend in Western thought is crucial in understanding the nature of discourse and its development. Particularly in the United States, most political speak is phrased as two sides to an argument. The outcome of argumentation is generally one of the following three scenarios — no conclusion is made, one side is proved correct, or a fusion of both opinions. It would be a insult to call American politics dialectic in nature, since a synthesis is seldom reached, but the binary of opinion is still present. This creates the illusion of two options and the constant regurgitation of the “lesser of two evils” argument in every aspect of American politics. Of course, European politics is not two-party centered. However, the Western binary still applies. Seldom is the dialogue expanded beyond the back-and-forth format of mindless debate and bickering.

Perhaps it is time to expand the periphery. The endless “debate teams” on high school campuses, the lecturing model of education, is based on a two-person argument. Inherently competitive, it usually demands one party to be deemed victor in “beating” his opponent during a debate. In education, the victor is clear — the instructor is the power in charge of mediating opinion and presenting information. During formal debate, the victor is decided through vulgar verbal exercises. Whatever the case may be, dialogue has institutionally become synonymous with debate and heated competition which is a perversion of what it actually means.

2617765Dialogics is concept conceived by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. It is seen as a methodology of dialogue that goes beyond dialectics. Rather than dialectics, where once ideology competes with another, dialogics is an alternative mode of discussion where many different ideas exist in the same space. There is no ideological closure afterwards and is aimed at progressing thought rather than resolving a contradiction. Bakhtin makes the argument that all thought is inherently dialogical. Nobody speaks in a vacuum — your language is based on what was said prior and the reaction it may create. Thereby, language is dynamic and perpetually redescribing the world. From this he concludes that dialogics has always existed as a phenomenon of speech.

What can we create from a model of dialogical discourse? We can create cooperative learning environments. We can destroy hierarchy relationships in public forums and education. However, dialogics is not a substitute for a dialectic process of dialogue. They have different uses. The issue is, however, that we have given debate precedence. Likewise, we have given these restricting binaries precedence. The aim of dialogue is not a cut-and-throat solution. It is for the facilitation of free thought and new ideas. It is a space where prejudice is suspended and where individually freely converse. And the need for such a discussion model becomes more and more apparent as we realize that a standardized education model of lecturing is not a satisfactory one.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a beautiful dialogical art where the audience becomes drama and enter the play themselves, rather than sitting as spectators.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a beautiful dialogical method where the audience becomes the drama and enters the play themselves, rather than sitting as spectators.

Fear is profitable. After all, what better way to oil the gears of the military-industrial complex and accumulate wealth than with a frightening slogan?  Better yet, have it be a frightening slogan that portrays those that disagree as weak and worthy of scorn. In Western society, it has become more and more prevalent, since the economic crisis of ’08, to portray minorities as scapegoats.

Generally speaking, the historical precedent is one that sadly works similarly every time. During recessionary periods, fingers are pointed. Groups are targeted. And it happens because it is convenient. It is easy. It is easy to characterize the “Other” in society as vile for political gains, since they lack the social power to fight back. As the majority in the society scramble to reclaim all they have lost economically, they begin to find solace in blaming others rather than the system that produced it. This same phenomenon has reproduced itself not only the United States, but in virtually every Western society since the Great Recession of 2008.

In Europe, the crises of debt and unemployment has allowed for a frightening increase in nationalism. Nostalgia for fascism in Greece finds its face in the Golden Dawn party. Xenophobia voices are vulgarly heard through France’s third largest party, National Front, and through Germany’s National Democratic Party. In Hungary, the Jobbik party has risen to become the third largest party through Hungarian irredentism and anti-Semitism. Even in the United States, minorities are denigrated as being “moochers” as the right insists on tighter immigration regulations and cuts to social safety nets. If the economy is of greatest importance, then why do we keep allowing racist “culture wars” to dominate politics? At the most critical point, when people have everything to lose and nothing to gain, the individuals with actual solutions begin to scramble and watch as people repeatedly choose nationalist strongmen over economic sustenance.

The problem lies in ideology. Westerners are very coddled and institutionalized in a way that makes them coalesce to authoritarian power. A right-wing deviation from the normal political speak is not all that much of a radical bent compared to left-wing calls for economic fairness and institutional overhauls. For one, Western people take pride in their judicial system and police force, claiming it to be symbolic of genuine integrity. In the United States, the military is always superimposed with patriotism and honor — and going against the grain is seen as foolishly “un-American.” The institutions that uphold these spheres of power craft in the population a feeling of trust. This trust is easily mended and oftentimes exploited. And all of this is strengthened and solidified through rhetoric. Contradictory slogans equating militarism with freedom is commonplace, at least in American politics. Naturally, this is used as political bait; if you attack the militarization of the world through American power, you must despise democracy and liberty despite it being anything but. The cognitive dissonance is so blatant, but yet it goes uncontested in the American mind and it serves to fester right-wing politics. Western politics has a predisposition to be right-wing politics.

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

Sigmund Freud, upon publishing his seminal work The Interpretations of Dreams, postulated that dreams aim to fulfill two main functions. For one, they work to at preserve the individual in slumber. And secondly, dreams function as a means of ‘wish fulfillment’ in which we involuntarily attempt to solve conflicts of the Self.

Now, with the help of technology that peer deep into the mechanisms of our consciousness, Freud’s initial theories — that dreams function as a mental relaxer that allows us to sleep — has been largely put aside. It is now known that during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, dreams can happen five to six times a night [1]. Despite these findings however, dreams can still function as intermediaries between our subconscious and reality. This is perhaps best captured by the chilling story of the ‘Burning Child’ which can found in the aforementioned work by Freud, chapter 7.

“A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child’s body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: “Father, don’t you see that I am burning?” The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle” [2].

What do we make of this? The orthodox interpretation would theorize that the real, the external forces (i.e the bright light from the fire), became too great to ignore and awoke the father from his slumber. Remarkably, however, in this scenario the dream initially functioned as a way to preserve sleep; the father incorporated the burning light  into his subconscious psyche. He prolonged his sleep, by absorbing his external environment, and thus crafted it delicately into the timetable of his dream — represented by the visual of the burning child and his subsequent dark question, “father, don’t you see that I am burning?” Such ways to prolong sleep are relatively ordinary to the average individual; when awoken by a ringing phone or an abrupt sound outside our window, we quickly wish to fall back into slumber, and our quick perception in our momentary awakening is likely to follow us. Likewise, we bring this external disturbance with us and make it one with our dreams. In lay terms, we incorporate the ringing phone or abrupt noise into our dream, and continue to sleep.

However, the story of the burning child is much more radical than Freud’s initial interpretation. Adherent of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, in his essay Freud Lives! gives us quite a different analysis.

Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality [3].

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

This, I feel, is precisely the essence of Freud’s dream scenario. The Real, the psychic dream reality (with a capital ‘r’), usually functions as an escape for the father and as a method to prolong sleep — but, in it, he finds something much more frightening than anything in the material. In it, he finds his son, burning, and the father begins to relive the dark tragedy he had experienced before with his son’s death. Thereby, he awakens to escape into the material reality, in a twist of irony, to run from the nightmare he was experiencing. I would go as far as making the claim that all nightmares, in general, function in such a fashion. Although dreams should function as a means of resolving mental disturbance, nightmares are a common deviation, when the Real becomes unbearably worse than reality. It is in this instance we awake, to escape such terror, to find condolence in reality. The climax of such terror, such as death or immense pain in the Real, results in our awakening, because, comparatively speaking, the dream realm has lost all its luster of escape and has become too frightening.

It in this stripe, we can interpret modern trauma. Trauma has two components: a horrifying external experience and its permanent effect on the Real. This dualism is required in order for real trauma, manifested in post-traumatic stress disorder, to become a psychic issue. An external horror, without effects on the psyche, alters little to noting (aside from perhaps bodily wounds) since it leaves no problematic vestiges on the human psychic condition. Likewise, the hallucinations and squeamish experiences in the Real are a result of the external trauma being relived in the individual’s psyche. This is the case with many suffers of wartime conflict; they experience nightmares since, once they enter the Real, they immediately want to exit it since they begin to relive the horror they witnessed in war. The root of this trauma is parallel to the father’s dream of the burning child — in both, the worst elements of their experiences are being relived, which then results in an inherent desire to escape into the material. Such is the denigrating aspect of trauma which can ultimately result in psychosis, where the individual becomes completely ingrained in the horrific Real and loses touch with the material (i.e he fully succumbs to his hallucinations). We must realize, then, that the issue is not that the horrifying experience occurred  — the issue is that experience follows the individual into the psyche, into his involuntary thoughts, which haunts him beyond his volition. This is what separates real trauma from mere external experience.

The frightening aspect of all of this is that there are key events which precede any trauma, or any form of neurosis and psychosis. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, many events happen well in our crucial youth, and become grained in our consciousness, without our knowing. Manifested in fears and interpretation, they find their beginnings in key times of our development: specifically, early childhood. This is why Freud, and later Lacan, find sexuality to be the root of human development since it is the uniform building block from which human relations stem even in our early beginnings as children. Thereby, trauma requires an extra component before it can truly latch onto the victim and haunt him — it must relate to a fear placed in him prior. Perhaps this is what differentiates between suffers of trauma and those that lie unaffected by horrors; the solution can be found in their upbringing, in their relation to key developmental periods of their lives, and ultimately, to Freud, this finds its natural roots in sexuality.

*** 

Trauma in Freud and Lacan

Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as the New Opium of the Masses where Zizek discusses psychoanalysis. 

The Burning Child

Bernie Madoff — the con, the criminal, the fraud, and the scum of the corporate establishment. These were the titles given to this corrupt financier, but above all, he was said to simply be a “bad egg” in a basket of well-intentioned entrepreneurs and “job creators.”

However, despite these claims, Madoff’s case is not unique. Madoff’s real crime was that he stepped outside the circle of appropriate corporate conduct, whose edge tends to gravitate farther and farther away from lawfulness as income rises. The reality of wealth privilege within the institutions that are publicly seen as ‘just’ is a causality of a system that rewards excess. Most shocking, however, is how the personal endeavors of these individuals clash with their fraudulent actions. Madoff, perhaps, is the epitome of such a phenomenon. Although stealing billions of dollars, he was also a devoted philanthropist. His largest beneficiary was the Picower Foundation, which allocated the funds to organizations such the Boy Scouts of America and the Children’s Aid Society. NY Times reports the funds as:

* 2007 — $23,424,401 (See the 2007 Form 990 filed by the Foundation with the Internal Revenue Service.)
* 2006 — $20,184,183 (See the Form 990.)
* 2005 — $27,662,893 (See the Form 990.)

In total, $958 million was donated to the Picower Foundation.

Other charities were involved, and were almost entirely dependent on Madofff’s funds. As reported by the NY Times, some of them included:

  • $145 million to the Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation
  • $20 million to Tufts University
  • $18 million to the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles
  • $19 million to the Madoff Family Foundation
  • $90 million to the Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization
  • $100 – $125 million to Yeshiva University

These are incredible amounts of money, so abuse comes to no surprise; but is it not an anomaly that the worst white-collar criminal in history was also one of the ‘greatest’ philanthropists, by modern standards? Acting as a perverse indulgence, charity might not be as chivalrous of an act as socially understood. Seen as a mechanism of redemption, this behavior is typical in this category of criminal activity. Bernard Ebbers, convicted in 2005 of similar crimes, showed the same phenomenon, having donated over $100 million dollars to charity over the course of ten years. Corporations are no exception; Enron was also a known giver to charity,

Enron CEO Kenneth Lay exemplified the company’s philanthropy, endowing several professorships at the University of Houston and Rice University, while the company itself was known for its generous gifts to arts groups, scholarship funds, and the Texas Medical Center.

Such behavior, interestingly enough, correlates with the religious attitude seen when the Catholic Church held immense power in Europe during the Middle Ages. In an effort to ‘save’ those in Purgatory, having commited sins on Earth, priests charged individuals sums of money for indulgences, or remissions, to free or limit the time their loved ones would be trapped in this supernatural lingo. Priests, making huge individual profits, attempted to justify their accumulations through Church-sanctioned actions. In effect, they stole with one hand and ‘saved’ with the other.

In a modern twist, corporate crime is looking  for that same metaphysical ‘salvation,’ and they certainly found it in charity. Functioning as an egoist drive, this behavior only highlights the disparity of behavior within certain classes of the social strata. Little rationality can be viewed amongst those that accumulate such large reserves of finance power, as they scramble to find redemption in a sea of fraud and narcissism. It is this crude revelation that illustrates the paradox of corporate conduct — as long as you appear charitable, what is done behind closed doors is forgivable. Or so the twisted mindset goes.

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More info on the “Paradox of Fraud and Philanthropy” 

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