Interests and Roles of Elites in forging National Identity

by Manoj Kumar Mishra    9 December 2018


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Nationalism engenders a sense of distinctive identity and autonomy based on the Enlightenment idea of human freedom that enables people to survive in a modern world in which unpredictable change has become the norm. While, in the medieval world, the feudal states invoked religion and cultural resources to make people servile, the modern state invokes identity in a language of serving people in order to help them attain freedom and happiness. However, the modern states end up in leveraging the dominant sections of the society because the privileged sections of a community cleverly use identity to foster their socio-economic interests by camouflaging private interests under the fig leaf of the Enlightenment ideas of equality,liberty and justice and welfare of the masses.

The difference between the pre-modern and modern state is that the latter derives its legitimacy from people.Nationalism is considered essential to unite people and connect them with the state thereby making the modern state a nation-state. The theoretical traditions inspired by the Enlightenment ideas of human freedom and welfare such as contemporary liberalism, multiculturalism and welfare state nationalism elaborate upon the need of a shared identity, solidarity, recognition, and patriotism for effective governance of people, protection of human freedom and promotion of human welfare. However, many scholars like F.W. Riggs, E. Gellner, S. Huntington, Breuilly, and Walker Conner, on the other hand, pointed to the political, economic and social forces responsible for the growth of nationalism in a modern state thus making it a nation-state. They were keen to see how the Enlightenment belief in science and reason gave birth to the practice of viewing them both as a means and as an end relegating the idea of human freedom to a secondary place and leaving its contours being shaped by various socio-economic, scientific and technical forces.

While a focus on the socio-economic, scientific and technical forces pointed to the roles and interests of the ruling elite in the evolution of modern state and nationalism, the idea of human freedom inspired by the European Enlightenment looks to the interests of the people. It is germane to analysis that continuous interaction between the socio-economic and political factors on the one hand and the ideas of equality,liberty, justice and popular aspirations underlying the formation of self-governments on the other, not only provided the background to the modern state’s birth but also determined its nature and working. A closer look at the interactions between the practices and norms would show a convergence of interests privileging the predominant pre-modern forces to reproduce the nation-state in a desired way.

In the nineteenth century Europe, it was the bourgeoisie which employed the regulatory capacities of the state apparatus to monitor and oversee the gradual incorporation of select subaltern groups into the political community although the universalistic and inclusive discourse of the Enlightenment was used in the process. According to F. W. Riggs, the success of industrial revolution depended on the widespread acceptance of the idea of nation as the basic source of political legitimacy (For details see Riggs, F. W. 1998. “The Modernity of Ethnic Identity and Conflict”, International Political Science Review,Vol. 19. No. 3, p. 276). An industrializing state as an organization of mass production and marketing required a popular base.Thus, two processes began as the leaders wanted to create popular bases for themselves and people, for the first time, became able to influence policy making as they became politically important. According to him, industrialization,democracy and national identity are part and parcel of the modern state (Ibid). Gellner associated modernity with the spread of industrialization. According to him, the latter led to an unprecedented and all-pervasive change which disrupted the traditional balance of society, creating new constellations ofshared interests. For Gellner, nationalism was the offspring of the marriage between state and culture, and the latter was celebrated on the altar of modernity (For details see Gellner, E., 1983. Nations and Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell). Therefore, scholars like Pandey and Geschiere argue “Along with, perhaps more than the Enlightenment ideas and notions of the ‘rights of man’, conquest and capitalism were the harbingers of the new world” (Pandey, G. and Geschiere P., 2003. The Forging of Nationhood, New Delhi: Manohar Publications, pp. 10-26).

It can be argued that a modern state relies on a single national identity rather than supernatural or hierarchical sources of authority in order to ensure a democratic base for itself for industrial development and achieve other group objectives by acting against external enemy and meeting the welfare needs of the people. However, the origin of nationalism in many places points to the fact that the conditions for its emergence were largely shaped by the elites for their self interests and hence, they were imperfectly actualized. Providing the socio-economic thrust to the evolution of nations, some of the Soviet anthropologists have delineated the historical ramifications of various stages in the evolution of ethnic groups to the status of nations or nationalities. However, in terms of their historical placement of the term ‘nation’ they came closer to the ‘modernists’ to the extent that they posited the evolution of nations along various stages of the evolution and growth of capitalism (Phadnis, U. and Ganguly, R., 2001. Nation-Building in South Asia in Nation-building in South Asia, New Delhi: Sage, p. 51).

In marked contrast to Europe where socio-economic factors were instrumental in the formation of national identity overriding many particularistic identity claims and excluding many marginalized identities from the national space, the Chachapoyas movement in Peru, was led by the people themselves against the entrenched aristocracy and was based on local culture, however, subsequently leading to the exclusion of marginalized groups on the basis of socio-economic interests. Modernity made people the reference point of all the religions and cultural practices and created hope among the masses that the aristocratic rule based on a feudalistic conception of sovereignty would end ushering in modern states in many pockets of the world. Where there was no self-conscious modern bourgeois class committed to the principles of popular sovereignty to seize the control of the state apparatus unlike what happened inEurope, it was the people themselves who challenged feudalism and defined thenational culture. It needs to be underlined that national cultures are notalways constructed from above resulting in the imposition of a unitary and homogenous national essence on subject populations with their distinct local cultures. Rather, in the making of the national cultures, the periphery may reach towards the centre to embrace the nation as much as the centre reaches out to the periphery. David Nugent argues in his article Modernity at the edge of Empire that there was no self-conscious modern bourgeois class in Peru and the state could be conceived as a “pseudo-state” which remained in the hands of shifting groups of regional elites who were strongly wedded to the notions of aristocratic sovereignty (Nugent, D., 1997. Modernity at the edge of Empire: State, Individual, and Nation in the Northern Peruvian Andes, 1885-1935, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 319-320).

It is interesting to note that in its challenge to the aristocratic order, the movement of the people in Peru openly embraced “things modern” and “things national”. In addition to the challenge of getting rid of the exclusionary racial divisions by reconfiguring history and re-conceptualizing space, the challenge also included accepting modern notions of discipline, order, hygiene, and morality. For this, “personal”characteristics were seen as the antithesis of the violent and abusive behaviour of the decadent aristocratic elite. The new cultural identity and alternative moral universe emerged from within the movement of democratization and appeared to the movement participants as their own creation authored by the people themselves and not imposed or arbitrary, and reflected the region’s most essential and enduring characteristics (Ibid).

However, this did not mean that the image of society and personhood contained within the discourse of popular sovereignty corresponded to the actual social conditions. Exclusion was an integral part of the movement. Democratization meant not only the empowerment of the urban, male middle class, but also the systematic exclusion of women and peasants from the more “open” society envisaged within the movement. Even though the transformations in local life brought about by the movement were consistently cast in the universalistic language of the Enlightenment, these changes represented the interests and motivations of particular groups. The instances of exclusion built into the very process of state-building and nation-building surfaced in subsequent decades. It can be argued quite contrary to the argument of the primordialists that ethnicity (including distinctions based on religious, cultural and linguistic factors) in a modern state is susceptible to socio-economic and political variables. Socio-economic and political factors are not simply external to the dynamics of ethnicity rather they arequite intrinsic and fundamental in determining the shape of identity (Nugent, D., 1996. “From Devil Pact to Drug Deals:Commerce, Unnatural Accumulation and Moral Economy in Modern Peru, American Ethnologist, Vol. 23, No. 2, 382- 397).

Both the European and Peruvian cases substantiate that identity and socio-economic interests reinforce each other. Three factors- socio-economic interests, the Enlightenment norms and identity are balanced against each other by the powerful groups in order to be instrumental in the formation and domination of the modern state. The modern state becomes an apparatus through which the socio-economic interests of the elites are sustained and promoted by astute use of identity in the modern language of welfare and justice. Developing and pursuing proper strategies in promoting specific identity groups gives elites the desired benefits in socio-economic terms. Likewise, the distribution of socio-economic privileges in a society defines and provides a specific shape to the structure of identity.

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