The Failure of Third World Nationalism
by Lahouari Addi
Many books and essays on nations and nationalism underscore the importance of ethnic and cultural factors, but typically play down the political factor. In my view, however, a nation is first of all the political arrangement of a human collectivity, and this feature has not been emphasized as much as it deserves to be. The failure of postcolonial countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East underlines that the making of a nation rests not only on ethnic, linguistic, and religious self-identity, but also on the formation and consolidation of a public sphere in which citizens have the feeling of participating in the polity and of being integrated into the sphere of the state. Nationalist ideology gives birth to a nation only if that ideology allows the shaping of a public sphere in which the citizen is perceived under the aspect of his universality and not solely under that of his specific cultural identity.
The inability of many Third World nationalisms to ensure political participation satisfactory to the broad majority calls into question the relationship between nationalism and the nation. Social scientists have been too quick to embrace the notion that as soon as a country becomes independent, it constitutes a nation. It may, of course, but most often a nation is the result of a long historical process during which consensual values emerge to furnish grounds for national concord and civil peace. This is not the picture presented today by most Third World countries, where obedience to the central power is secured by force or the threat of force.
We face then a problem of definition. Either all political collectivities are nations insofar as they endow themselves with a central power, or only those that grant their citizens effective participation in the polity truly deserve to be called nations. Properly understood, the idea of the nation is strongly connected to the idea of civil peace, which presupposes that a broad majority freely give their allegiance to the central power and feel that they participate in the polity. If this feeling is not broadly shared, if allegiance flows mainly from fear, it makes little sense to speak of a nation. In this light, most political collectivities in the Third World are still engaged in nation-building, searching for institutions that will ensure allegiance to the central power without resort to methods such as the arrest and torture of opponents, prohibitions of speech, and the like.
The nation, a historical category that first appeared in the modern West, is a collection of individuals with a form of political organization based on a strong sense of participation in the activities of the state. A nation is integrated through institutions that allow participation in the political realm, notably through elections. It is a human collectivity whose particular historical circumstances have endowed it with geographical frontiers that set it apart from its neighbors. It makes use of a political organization that grounds the legitimacy of power, and it establishes rules for the operation and distribution of this power through an administrative hierarchy that is accepted by the members of the collectivity. A nation is a modern political concept for two reasons: it is a collection of free individuals (free vis-à-vis traditional authorities and lineages), and it is a political system that allows these individuals to participate in the power of the state by swearing exclusive political allegiance solely to that state. This effective participation (betokened by universal suffrage in the choice of local and national representatives) that marks a nation is basically different from the fictive participation that obtains in the case of a political community integrated by means of belief in a charismatic leader who claims to "represent" the people.
I start, then, from the premise that a nation is a political community whose political arena has been pacified. The successful pacification of the political arena hinges upon the nature of the competition for power. A political community that changes governments through the shedding of blood is not yet a nation, and neither is one that changes presidents only when one happens to die in office. The use of violence to effect changes of government betrays alack of consensual values within the community, meaning that there are individuals within it who disagree about the very basis of the social bond, and stand ready to kill one another because of this disagreement.
Thus there are today two kinds of political communities: those that have pacified the realm of the political, thereby creating a public sphere, and those that have not and maintain power solely by force. The former are what I call nations. The latter, assuming that they too wish to pacify the political arena, are no more than nations-in-formation. The existence of a pacified political arena does not mean an end to all conflict; rather, it means only that power is not taken by force. News of a military coup against the German chancellor or the British prime minister would he met with disbelief, because the world takes it for granted that in both Germany and Great Britain (outside Northern Ireland, at any rate), the political sphere is pacified. Yet reports of a putsch in Syria or Algeria would arouse little surprise, for in these countries the only way to change the government is by force. Neither Syria nor Algeria, needless to say, has a pacified political arena.
From this vantage point, we can see the problem of the relationship between the concepts of the nation and nationalism. It has long been thought that a nationalist ideology is enough to "make" a nation. Yet nearly all the authoritarian regimes around the world that are currently resisting democratization_and thus hindering their political communities from becoming nations_are the creations of nationalist movements. This is as true for Algeria as for Burma or Iraq. We must focus carefully on the relations among nationalism, the nation, and the public sphere, for serious misunderstandings persist One of the most common is the confusion of nationalist ideology with the nation itself, or the tendency to look upon the former as theexclusive basis of the latter.
Some scholars consider nationalism to be the basis of the nation. Others, conversely, consider the nation to be the cornerstone of nationalism. Both groups link the idea of the nation to that of nationalism, differing only on the precise character of the relationship and on the lines of influence within it. Between them there is something like a dialogue of the deaf. Some scholars think that nationalism is as old as the hills, while others conclude that nations are a strictly modern phenomenon. All of them are right to some degree; their weakness is their shared failure to see that nationalism in and of itself does not create nations, and that nations do not produce nationalism in order to maintain civil concord. On the contrary,
nationalism impedes the building of the nation by serving as a constant source of tensions and conflicts.
The rest of the article - the main part - iis divided into four sections:
- Nationalism as a Source of Division
- The Public Sphere and Nation-Building
- Nation and Forgetting
- Citizenship in Third World Countries
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