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This article is a preview from the Spring 2019 edition of New Humanist

What to do about nationalism and national identity has become a key question of our age: is the current nationalist backlash on view in many parts of the world a sign that the concepts are unfit for the 21st century? Or have we, in fact, mistakenly allowed them to crumble away? Resolving this question is becoming all the more urgent, as the resurgence of nationalist politics threatens to shade into something much worse.

For many of us, the shock lies not simply in the way nationalism has reappeared – its “death” having been, in many ways, a cornerstone of the liberal notion of “progress” – but in the virulence of its discourse, and the polarising effect it has had on culture. Complexity itself seems under threat, which is precisely why there’s an urgent need to unpack and explore the terms of the debate.

These disputed concepts have informed the work of the French philosopher Étienne Balibar for over 50 years. Particularly important is the issue of how a nation-state defines itself, and what the effects are on populations within and outside it – as well as those within who fail to fit the definition of belonging. Balibar, born in Burgundy in 1942, first came to prominence as a student of Louis Althusser, a Marxist philosopher who had a major influence on the 20th-century intellectual current of structuralism, which holds that human culture and individual behaviour can be primarily explained by underlying systems and structures. While the scope of Balibar’s work has increased dramatically – drawing in geopolitics, questions of race and racism, of violence, of the secular against the religious, and questions of the family and pedagogy – Althusser’s ideas continue to hold a vital place in his philosophy.

Of particular importance here is Althusser’s view of how ideology – systems of ideas that make certain ways of behaving or thinking, such as dividing the world’s population into discrete national identities like British or Chilean or Malaysian, seem natural and common-sense – actually works. Marxism had long struggled (and continues to struggle) with the idea of “false consciousness”: the notion that working people in capitalist society are misled into believing the ideology of the ruling class. This process hides the true relationship between classes, the argument goes, so the oppressed act against their own best interests. But to take only one objection to this claim: if false consciousness exists, then what is “true” consciousness? By what standard is it measured? And by whom?

For many Marxists, there was a real world hidden behind ideology which could in theory be perceived. Althusser argued instead that all individuals have an “imaginary” relationship to reality, in that we all make sense of the world via images of it we hold in our heads. Different ideologies, then, are different representations of this relationship. They do not hide reality from us so much as shape the way we imagine the world to be.

Althusser identified two key generators of any given ideology. On the one hand there are “repressive state apparatuses” – the armed forces and the police – which, through mental and physical coercion, maintain order within a political system. On the other, there are “ideological state apparatuses” – educational institutions, media outlets, the churches, family, media, trade unions and social clubs. While the former use force, the latter, which are generally outside formal state control, operate by disseminating ideologies into which an individual is incorporated, and from which she or he fears being ostracised. The nuclear family, tied to the desire for property and the need to work and earn, for instance, is transmuted from a basic requirement of capitalism into a moral requirement. Crucially, ideology is reinforced through its practices – by ritual, conventional behaviour and so forth. (Here Althusser quotes ironically the 16th-century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal: “‘Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.”)

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Balibar takes this analysis and makes it central to his argument about the way in which the great collective identities of nation and race that dominate modern history – and sit at the heart of terrible conflicts – are constructed. In his 1988 essay “The Nation Form: History and Ideology” (from the collection Race, Nation, Class, co-authored by Immanuel Wallerstein and published by Verso), Balibar introduces the idea of “fictive ethnicity”, arguing that:

No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalised, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them are ethnicised – that is represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community, possessing of itself an identity of origins, culture and goals which transcends individuals and social conditions.

This leads to the production of individuals who “belong”, who are regarded as placeable within the scope of, for example, “Britishness”. The obvious corollary of this is the production of individuals who do not belong; who are not entitled to take part in the political community of a nation-state, or access the rights given to its citizens.

Some might object to this claim by saying that ethnic or cultural homogeneity is not only desirable but a necessary basis for a democratic and harmonious society. Balibar’s answer is that “‘peoples’ do not exist naturally any more than races do, either by virtue of their ancestry, a community of culture or pre-existing interests.” Identities, then, are not fixed. They are, to take the subtitle of Balibar and Wallerstein’s book, always “ambiguous identities”. Any nation, if you look at the different groups and communities that it is supposed to include, is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural from the outset.

To maintain fictive ethnicity – the idea that all these people who belong to the nation share the same ethnic identity that others do not – certain “characteristics” must be evoked for “us” to identify with. These are not just alleged physical characteristics but cultural ones such as “myths of origin” (Balibar gives the French Revolution as an example) and other cultural artefacts with which one is supposed to have an “innate” meaningful relationship. George Orwell, for example, proposed just such a connection between the English and “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”. From these characteristics we can then surmise a character – a national character – as though the nation was an individual subject with, as Balibar notes, “an origin and a coherence”. The implication here is also that, despite the mess of history, the formation of a nation is the outcome of a “project”, and those of us who belong represent its “fulfilment”. Our ethnicity could not, the unstated argument goes, have been otherwise.

What’s more, these cultural characteristics are frequently advertised as part of a past that was not only better but is under threat from those who do not share “our” ethnicity, who are not part of “our” project. Balibar’s co-author Wallerstein coins the term “pastness” to identify this phenomenon. In his essay “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity” he writes that pastness is:

. . . a mode by which persons are persuaded to act in the present in ways they might not otherwise act. Pastness is a tool persons use against each other. Pastness is a central element in the socialisation of individuals, in the maintenance of group solidarity, in the establishment of or challenge to social legitimisation. Pastness is therefore pre-eminently a moral phenomenon, therefore a political phenomenon, always a contemporary phenomenon.

Pastness, based as it is on social function as opposed to truth, is not static. Golden ages are burnished in new ways to suit different ideologies. Memory of Britain’s experience of the Second World War changes from a time of mass killing abroad and harsh deprivation at home that we should avoid repeating to a tonic for the nation that did “us” good and allowed us to display our inherent national character.

As Wallerstein notes, this “pastness” is used to perform three operations. First, it is used to explain “why things are the way they are and shouldn’t be changed.” Second, it is used to explain “why things are the way they are and cannot be changed.” Finally, it is used to explain “why present structures should indeed be superseded in the name of deeper and more ancient, ergo more legitimate social realities.”

These are the go-to manoeuvres of nationalist politics. Pastness has been one of the more malevolent aspects of the Leave campaign in Britain, and it is the “Again” in Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. We are said to be fallen from a past which was “better”; and though the past which was better changes over time, it is still a place to which we should aim to return.

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More than this, as Balibar notes, the establishment of a fictive ethnicity for a nation-state can often lead to the creation of further “pseudo-ethnicities” inside the nation. For instance, “immigrants” is generally used as a catch-all to signify an undifferentiated mass of people that threatens the nation from within. It is not for nothing that the metaphors surrounding it tend to evoke the idea of a disease in the otherwise healthy body of “the people”. By evoking pastness and identifying a group without affiliation to it, blame can be apportioned.

This ideological process is inexhaustible because no individual, social group or nation can ever attain the ideal prescribed. But there’s a further problem: nationalism, with its system of inclusions and exclusions, can never fully coincide with the nation-state as a denoted geographical space. As Balibar writes in his essay “What is a Border?” (published in Politics and the Other Scene, Verso, 2002), these geographical borders only represent one part of a complex set of boundaries that surround the nation-state. Such boundaries are shaped by the wants, needs and histories on either side of them; they mean different things to different people (the border in Ireland being an apt example); and they carry out several different functions at once.

In the essay “Borderland Europe and the Challenge of Migration” Balibar notes that Europe, for example, is:

not a space where borders exist alongside one another but rather on top of one another . . . Europe forms a space within which borders multiply and move incessantly, “chased” from one spot to the other by an unreachable imperative of closure, which leads to its “governance”, resembling a permanent state of emergency.

The recent refugee crisis has exacerbated this sense of disputed borders and the ways in which they are supposedly threatened. While an Amnesty International report from late 2016 showed that of the top ten countries that host refugees six are majority-Muslim, and none are European, the crisis has been framed as a particularly European one: reviving, if it ever went away, the colonial trope of “our” role in civilising the backward. Those seeking asylum are also asked to shed their own “pastness”. In the routine conflation of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, an individual’s identity is washed away, absorbed into a mass. It is, writes Balibar, an economy of “poor residents” being pitted against “poor nomads”.

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In this fixing of identities there is more than an echo of Jean-Paul Sartre’s powerful and disturbing 1945 essay “Anti-Semite and Jew”. Written at breakneck speed, it is an essay of many faults – Sartre did no research into Jewish history or religion, and the Jews in his book are of a piece with the Jews in his life: intellectual, middle-class, assimilated – but the essay nonetheless provides a searing account of the ways that nationalism requires enemies, and invents them accordingly. The anti-Semite, writes, Sartre:

can conceive only of a type of primitive ownership of land based on a veritable magical rapport, in which the thing possessed and its possessor are united by a bond of mystical participation . . . Since the Jew wishes to take France from them, it follows that France must belong to them.

The fictive ethnicity is thus reinforced by myths of origin, coherence, belonging. Or, as the Indian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has pointed out in works such as Nationalism and the Imagination (2010, Chicago University Press), this privileging of one type of ethnicity, apart from everything else “is predicated on reproductive heteronormativity: birthright”. Nationalist ideologies often go hand-in-hand with conservative ideas about gender: the allotted role of women in reproducing and raising new members of the nation, and of men in defending their purity – against, for instance, “Mexican rapists”.
Sartre’s essay expresses his frustration at the imperviousness of those who defend the exclusion of people who do not belong to the nation. They have:

chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons . . . They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

Of course, all nationalisms are particular, and the enemies they choose vary, although I choose an essay on anti-Semitism advisedly, because it shows us exactly where this can lead. But there is, notes Balibar, a “competitive mimicry” in nationalism – both with historical nationalisms and with current versions. Particularly in this global age, nationalist tropes are repeated transnationally. In their rhetoric, Trump and Bolsonaro appeal to the same conceits, mimic each other’s gestures, copy each other’s slogans. As the “enemies” are emptied of their particularity, so the modes of repression and expulsion can be replicated and made general.

Does it still make sense to call this trend “nationalism”, when it apparently moves so easily from country to country? Those uncertain of their place – the “foot soldiers of every populism”, to use Balibar’s term – are often disenfranchised and uncertain in the same way, and thus the same rhetoric mobilises them. It would be wrong to call these movements “nationalist” if by that we simply meant a return to the past. Borders and identities are complex now in new ways.
And yet we have arrived at a point which, Balibar argues, we have seen before: the moment where the exercise of power is not only “violent or powerful or brutal, but is also cruel”. The followers of the cruel participate in strengthening their identity through the complete destruction of others.

Its basis no longer human, this cruel ideology loses its place within humanity. How long this takes, and what damage is done while the cycle is being completed, is an urgent problem for all of us. In the words of one of Balibar’s contemporaries, the philosopher Alain Badiou:

When the state starts being concerned about the legitimacy of people’s identities, it can only mean we’re in a period of darkest reaction, as historical experience has shown . . . This is because an identity-based definition of the population runs up against the fact that, since every population in the world today is composite, heterogenous and multi-faceted, the only reality such a definition will have is a negative one.