The State: Nationalism, Community and Ethnicity
M. Raphael Johnson
Few questions have vexed professionals and activists alike than the nature, history and development of the state. This word has numerous definitions and each definition is used in a myriad of ways. Given the fact that the state, in every corner of the globe, now acts as the collection agency for the oligarchic “new world order,” the question of this institution, or set of institutions, has become vital. Given that the contemporary “nationalist movement” is completely stagnant, pedestrian, defeated and trivial, a few clarifications might be in order to more easily critique this product of the modern mind.
It might be too much of a simplification to claim, as most introductory courses in political science do, that the state is an invention of modernity. It need not be said practically, that the state in modern times is far more centralized, amoral and bloodthirsty than in medieval or classical times. But it is quite another to claim that the state did not exist.
Both in classical China as well as the middle period of Byzantium, the basic institutions and claims of the modern state seem to be present. In both cases, the government was centralized, with the common modern claim that, in terms of mundane matters of social organization, it and it alone was the final arbiter. However, even here, difficulties arise, for in Byzantium, this administration operated solely for the city of Constantinople, leaving, in good Roman tradition, the subject ethnic groups a substantial amount of cultural autonomy. Therefore, the problem of the state is looked at in two different, though ultimately complementary ways. The first is the existence of empires who did operate according to the ways of the modern state, often giving their elites far less room for action than in modern times, such as Byzantium under Basil II.
On the other hand, looking at pre-modern empires as a totality, one can also see a radical principle of decentralization. In general, pre-modern empires–as well as empires into modern times who based themselves on pre-modern forms, such as Vienna or Moscow–viewed an ethnic group as a possession based on only a few things. A completely independent ethnic group might live its own life in every respect, but merely be required to provide troops for the metropole’s battles as well as providing a yearly tribute. Both of these, of course, were always changeable under contract, and thus, a certain sort of independence was manifest even here. In modern times, such a situation might look more like the nascent “European Union” or the lamentably forgotten Articles of Confederation, rather than a state in the modern sense. In such a case, one is not speaking of modern state at all, but rather a group of ethnic nations united in a common purpose, usually having something to do with a military alliance. Such an alliance often worked as much in the interest of the subject ethnicity as that of the center.
When the ailing Roman empire in the west gave citizenship to illiterate German barbarians, providing them with the superficial imperial titles that their elites coveted, and sent them into battle against other illiterate barbarians, is one speaking here about subjects of a modern state in any fashion? Was the relationship between the Ostrogoths and the Roman empire the same as Montana’s is to Washington D.C.? If the answer is no, then the state is in reality actually a creation of capitalism, modernity and the development of repressive technology only in existence since roughly the 16th century at the earliest.
Pre-modern empires generally operated in this manner, as the administration existed as a central, urban affair, and was completely a-ethnic in its self-definition. Imperial elites came from all over the empire’s ethnic hinterlands, though, of course, forced to speak the dominant imperial language and memorize the urban, elite based imperial etiquette. Ethnicity existed as part of the subject population and was considered by elite culture as quite outside of politics, being a cultural principle of cohesion rather than a political clarion call (examples such as Scotland, Germany and Russia are another matter). In the 19th century (though clearly not only there), this sort of apolitical identification became more and more politicized, leading to a major strand of revolutionary politics from Ukraine to Ireland. One might add that the term politicize might be out of place, stating instead that the sporadic politicization of ethnicity became more and more universalized as communications, literacy and social theory became broader and broader.
Ethnic nationalism, existing in a parallel form to the imperial culture, from the Old Testament to Robert the Bruce existed and served as a principle of political rebellion from the dawn of history. It might be speculated that historians of classical times worried far more about imperial culture than the village folk tradition of the hinterlands. Such a speculation might be quite warranted particularly given the existence of patronage existing solely at the imperial level, and, quite honestly, the intrigues of imperial culture are far more sensational then the simple and repetitive pleasures of folk life.
The problem has consistently been for nationalist theory–that is, serious criticism as opposed to the formulaic and prosaic argumentation of contemporary academia–the separation of nation from state. Put simply, ethnicity is the nation, while the state can either be thought of as an alien imposition at worst, or a sort of protective outer coating against outside aggression at best. The classical imperial culture, precisely because it did not operate according to the modernist state model, could afford to permit the subject ethnicities substantial autonomy. The political vision was of a family or “commonwealth” of independent nations rather than to the demands of uniformity that modernity imposed through the machinery of the state. The development of state control, however, did not see their charges as a family of ethnicities, but rather as the private property of one ethnic group. Therefore, history was treated to the torturous phenomenon of national unification and consolidation. Ethnic groups from Hungary to France were forced to speak the language of the center, adopt their customs and practice their religion. From this well known political process, brought on in modern times, the very genesis of the state, its very origin, existed as an antithesis to ethnic independence, village culture and folk life. The fact that such a genocidal, anti-ethnic and thus anti-national process is today prosaically seen as “nationalism” is one of the worst cases of intellectual dishonesty and willful blindness in the history of human reason.
Over the past 50 years in academic political science, the state has taken two general conceptual forms. Either, a) the state is purely the representative of the ruling classes and functions as their instrument, as Karl Marx and Hilaire Belloc apparently held; or b) that the state is an autonomous actor with interests and goals peculiar to itself and only imperfectly represents the wishes of powerful classes.
The question of the “autonomy of the state” is a central one for comparative politics, and remains in its nature without solution. The reasons for this are several. First, it is not always easy to define with precision what is in the interest of the ruling classes at any given time. Secondly, the ruling classes seldom speak with a united voice, and third, ruling classes are often permanently at war with one another. It seems that the question as a whole has far more an ideological and strategic purpose than as an empirical one. That is, the question of the state is a part of a broader editorial and theoretical thrust more than as a scientific enterprise.
The problem with this question, furthermore, is that it treats the state as an object in isolation from the remainder of social life. No such condition exists. It is far better to consider the reality of power as such and then to consider the state’s role in its manifestation (and this holds regardless of the autonomy question). In other words, power in modern system is more likely to be fully understood when considered as a “regime” rather than as a state.
The residue of naive libertarianism continues to put forth the dichotomy between the state, defined as a set of purely administrative offices bent on coercion, and everyone else, particularly the capitalist class that presumably wants the state at a distance, lest it interfere with the connection of profits and rents. But the reality is that power is far more fungible than this simplistic model. It remains true that political power can have many centers and foci while still being the plaything of an oligarchy.
A regime is a set of power centers united by a set of common goals. More formally, a regime is a set of structures that “canalize” and direct thought and action of political significance. It does not operate within a social context, but rather is a social context and is by virtue of that no less a product of power than anything else.
One of the many reasons this author abandoned the tightly controlled “conservative movement” in America many years ago was its institutionalized naivete. It refused to believe that power existed in any fashion except from state offices and ultimately was the product of elected officials. Private enterprise was to be praised because it operated in an imaginary realm of freedom while the state sought to expand its own space that was labeled “unfreedom,” parasitism or institutionalized/legalized violence.
The reality is different than the well-subsidized conservatives would have one believe. Power is a fungible entity. This simply means that it can be applied and used anywhere and from any source capable of amassing it. It is fungible also in that it can be used for any purpose, from the praiseworthy to the horrific. It is therefore to be judged according to its purpose rather than from its very existence.
It is another thing altogether to make the claim that institutions and ideas do not have their own “space” within which they mark and identify themselves. As this author has said many times before, ethnicity exists in the realm of community, family, security and belonging. It does not need a state to function, to protect its members or exude a consensual authority. The consensus that is found within ethnic mentalities should be defined as little else than the “structures of survival” or “structures of solidarity” as this author has termed them. Custom is most accurately considered to be the residue left over once a people have come through a difficult times. In world politics, these are largely defined as some sort of foreign occupation, protracted war, attempted genocide, famine or some other disaster. The methods and means a people have used to survive such things come to define them as a people. Therefore, ethnicity is reducible to those structures of thought and action that have assisted a people survive and flourish.
An ethnic group is forged in the furnace of impending death and dislocation. This is to say that ethnicity is reducible to precisely the reactions against this impending state of wretchedness that build solidarity as a defense against it. Furthermore, that “traditionalism” as a set of moral axioms has no meaning except with joined to the specific sufferings of a specific people extended through time. “Tradition” does not merely exist, but adheres to a specifically historical people; it is ethnicity, viewed from the realm of ideas. A people is made an entity of historical significance precisely because it is forced to build consensus, solidarity and internal cohesion based around an external threat. It might also be worth noting that citizen militias have done just as well within this furnace as institutionalized, standing armies have done. Considering the examples of Ireland, revolutionary America, Serbia, the Cossacks and Haiduks, the Viet Cong, the current Iraqi resistance, the Taliban and so many others, it seems that a private militia can face off an empire any day.
On the other hand, the state, again, defined as a set of bureaucratic offices and routinized tasks, operates in the space of unfreedom. Regardless of its ability to mobilize resources (and it is in this that it does produce wealth, contra the libertarians) the state functions, at its best, as merely another center of power with a specific set of tasks within the context of a ruling elite. A more common strain of ethnic nationalism look to the state as an institutionalized set of offices mobilized for ethnic survival against outsiders and is not radically distinct from the citizen militias themselves.
Modern fascism has defined itself as the forger of the nation through the agency of the state, and a state animated by a leader thrown up to power by “destiny.” The position of the state taken by the Italian fascist movement of the 1920s was that the state is the creator of the nation. However, the Italian version of the state might be more accurately rendered as the state being necessary to take pastoral ethnicity and mobilize it for military conquest. It is unfortunate that in the 1920s and 1930s, the threat of bolshevism led Germans, Romanians, Hungarians and Italians to take the position that the state should be elevated above the nation as a mode of self-defense. Therefore, the fascist view is highly timebound, existing solely because of the existence of a giant power animated by a foreign and violent ideology. One might then conclude that the centrality of the state in 1930s rightist thought on the continent existed to facilitate and direct the mass mobilization of men and resources against this foreign foe.
The Soviet Union was a completely state driven economy, where private enterprise, however small or marginal, was proscribed by law. At the same time, no historian can dispute the amazingly huge leaps in technology, heavy industry and military mobilization that this state was capable of mobilizing from the late 1920s on. Economic growth under Stalin was consistent and rapid. Therefore, the state can quite readily create wealth through its agencies of coercion and mobilization. One might even be so bold as to say that this transports the state (even the totalist one) out of the realm of unfreedom into the realm of productive enterprise.
Nevertheless, the question at issue has nothing to do with mobilization for conquest, but only for the structuring of solidarity and defense. The largest of empires and the most total of states have been fought and defeated by smaller, pastoral citizen militias, animated by historic memories of former ethnic heroism and glory. The state, by its very nature, challenges the traditional ethnic forms of authority (defined as the defensive creation of institutions of solidarity), vitiates their operation, and fuses itself above them. Sooner or later, the state (and its economic apparatus of whatever kind) wears out the ethnic structures and then regulates, conceptualizes, bureaucratizes, and rationalizes political power completely. The unfortunate conclusion is that ethnic rebellion takes the form of “state independence” rather than the anarchist reliance on consensus and solidarity that kicked the Turks out of Europe, fought the British empire to a standstill in Ireland and drove the Dutch out of Indonesia.
The modern state is no more or less powerful than private capital, media organization, academia or the controlled “churches.” It seems that they merely have different objects in mind. But objects in relation to what? This question is the one modern academic political science will not ask, let alone answer.
The answer (and please pardon the simplification) is the existence of a global and semi-secret oligarchy. This is not the stuff of vulgar conspiracies spouted by the mentally ill and semi-educated. It is rather the logical product of capitalism and the development of communications technology backed up by the high-speed mobilization and deployment of military forces.
Modern capitalism has vomited forth concentrations of capital so vast that their stage of action simply outgrew the comparatively puny state. There is little doubt that the state originally, in its modern form starting in the post-Reformation era, existed as a protective coating for developing market capitalism. In other words, far from the state being the enemy of capital, it was a necessary aspect of its social development. Whether these states had a distinctive ethnic flavor to them is another matter.
Obviously, if a modern and rational capitalism is to function, the state must clear the field of all “irrational elements” such as the peasant commune, guilds, church feast and fast dates (which always meant time off from work), ethnic celebrations and insularity. In its place, the “rational” system of a single currency, central bank, police and system of courts to enforce contracts and control the now despoiled labor pool (of ex-peasants) is erected.
Capitalism is far from the “natural” state of man the conservatives and libertarians imagine it to be, but rather is the direct product of state violence no less vile than the Jacobin or Bolshevik revolutionaries in their day. Historically, the form of economic organization seen in the most ancient times is a highly organized one, comprising craft guilds, peasant communes and structures of social security and urban regulation organized according to ethnicity, that is, language. “Individualism” needed to be imposed by force and solely served the moneyed classes.
From the despoliation of the communal organization of labor and production found previous to modernity came the major families in industry, such as the Carnegies, or in finance, such as the Rothschilds, and includes a veritable army of hangers on. They received their fortunes by force and fraud, by their influence over the state, and by breaking the backs of labor organization (partially by importing coolie labor from abroad).
However, it is central to the development of capitalism that these oligarchs not stop at the mere collection of wealth. Vice and passion is never satisfied. The creation of foundations, organizations, media and academic posts also became part of the capitalist monolith. Whether it is found in the creation of universities, the subsidization of academic research or the buying of newspapers and television stations, the oligarchy, now completely anational, is the core of the regime.
The center of global power, then, lies an elite that have amassed enough capital to control much of global finance and manufacturing, not to mention the very printing of currency through the misnamed “Federal Reserve.” The liquidity that passes through the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank derives as much from private bankers at Chemical or Chase Manhattan as it does from taxpayers, who are merely called in to insure these institutions. Thus, the very viability of national economies depends on the level of cooperation with the oligarchy who is then quite able to restructure the internal life of their subject nations.
There are, however, innumerable problems with the proposition that the state is purely the product of early capitalism. There is a powerful prima facie argument for this, and it is likely to be the case within French or British state building. Ireland, Poland, Serbia or Russia might be considered another matter.
Ireland was a purely pastoral and non-capitalist economy when it demanded separate statehood. Russia and Serbia were based on the subsistence-oriented peasant commune or clan association and Poland was a completely decentralized oligarchy until her dismemberment under Russia, Austrian and German auspices. All of these examples, certainly prior to modern times, had a rather pronounced ethno-religious identity and long predated the existence of market forces in any guise.
However, the nagging question remains concerning these examples about the state itself. Did any of these historical examples have anything remotely approaching the modern state? The answer must be no. In imperial Russia, contrary to the academic mythology surrounding the issue, peasant life was based almost entirely around the commune continually bargaining with a landlord who was bound to the tsar for military service. The tsardom dealt almost entirely with military campaigning and taxation was in the hands of the military servitors and served to support the decentralized military forces in battle. Serbia was an ethnic group politically divided according to clan and region, with completely independent zadruga, or clan-based farming. Landlordism was unknown and, even until the beginning of the 20th century most peasant landholding was physically inaccessible to anyone living in the capital. Poland was an oligarchy, with powerful families running their own affairs and holding veto power over the toothless king who was useful only as a military campaigner. Unfortunately in Poland, the peasantry did not have the protections against exploitation as existed in Serbia or Russia.
However, as soon as the elites in these societies desired to enter the market (often against the will of the monarchy) and become “good Europeans,” the structure of decentralization and peasant protection disappeared. Quickly, buzzwords such as “efficiency” and “progress” were on the lips of the oligarchy, demanding, of course, the proletarianization of labor, the break up of the commune and the existence of a single administration and set of regulations. The peasantry was then faced with competing, completely alone, against the combine of the increasingly centralized state apparatus and oligarchic capital. Of course, the hapless peasant lost and was eventually dragooned into the cities.
Therefore, if one is willing to stretch the accepted usage of the term “state” to cover the classical Polish or Serbian model, then the state is not related to the development of capitalism. In this case, the word “state” has no functional meaning. However, the more useful understanding of state is precisely that standardized and centralized model of coercion that was necessary for any society to enter the international capitalist market. Standing armies, lines of credit with the major banking clans, increasing indebtedness, exploitation of the peasantry, intensification (or introduction) of landlordism, destruction of local autonomies and privileges, urbanization and the elimination of guilds or any labor organization whatsoever are all examples of the standard pattern of “state building” in Europe. They represent the pathetic progress of modernity and the destruction of communal freedom. Mankind, from then on, was to serve the machine.
In every case, communal freedoms and protections were eliminated in the interests of the oligarchy. In 20th century Russia, Peter Stolypin attempted to eliminate the commune; by the late 19th century, the Serbian zadruga was in steep decline as the oligarchy deliberately sent the hapless peasantry into deeper debt. In every case, peasants were forced to move closer to the major cities (increasingly squalid and crime ridden) to make ends meet, quickly eliminating all ties to their rural identity and its ethnic tradition of rebellion and solidarity. In all cases, “states,” calling themselves “nations” were built on the backs of the pastoral but rebellious ethnic structures.
By the Kossuth rebellions in Hungary after the 1848 uprisings, nationalism became understood as the expansion of the state at the expense of whatever ethnic entities had existed there heretofore. National purity became a different set of ideas than ethnic integrity had been. Of course, the state takes physical territory more seriously than any other matter, and therefore, identity was forced within the confines of the purely quantitative national borders, borders that changed after every treaty, every battle. To this day, nationalism suffers with the legacy of the state.
The communal life of the Serbian zadruga, the Russian commune, the Ukrainian and Russian Cossack host, the Montenegrin clan, the independent ethnic organization of early urban America and any number of pre- (or anti-) statist social organizations is the true ethical basis for nationalism. This is true for a number of reasons.
The most sweeping reason is that the state, by its very nature, is founded and controlled by an elite, whether military or financial. The state then is used, in tandem with other power centers, as a weapon of control for all those pre-statist organs of association. These predate the state and rebel against its imposition because they see their traditional arena of authority being whittled away by the leviathan. The Timok rebellion in Serbia, the Cossack and old believer rebellions in Russia or the Vendee in France are examples of the older, organic ethnic bodies revolting against the abstractions and cultural void of the bourgeois regime. Within the context of the ethnic mode of survival, such organic, pre-state institutions are only to be understood as the product of survival and the means to cultural existence. Such institutions are to ethnicity what arms and legs are to the human will. They exist because they were necessary for cultural survival and ethnicity is largely reducible to them.
In modern Europe, the state, capitalist relations of buyer and seller, mass warfare, centralized media and foreign entertainments have reduced ethnicity to what it is in America, a set of pretty ornaments that have been stripped of all political or moral value. One wears a shamrock to a St. Patrick’s day party in the same manner one wears a Steeler hat to Heinz field. Ethnicity becomes one more vulgar prop in the cheap and plastic world of virtual capitalism.
Here, the conclusions seem now rather ordinary. Nationalism, in order to be ethically consistent, can only demand the autonomy of ethnic institutions and the reconstitution of ethnic neighborhoods. The ethnically-based organization of neighborhood and town councils are necessary to begin asserting control over the local media and economy, turning them to the interests of the community, the very “structures of survival” that led to their being such neighborhoods in the first place. Ethnic neighborhoods suffering from the destruction of oligarch-created “free trade” can now only form credit unions, ethnically based businesses and agencies of social assistance to deal with the failure of the capitalist/regime matrix that has failed to protect anyone but the oligarchs themselves. The pooling of resources, the creation of ethnically-based retail stores and services can begin to repair the destruction caused by “free trade.”
Generally speaking, the “structures of survival” that are, in abbreviated form, called ethnicity thrive in decentralized environments, environments where the inbred nature of ethnic consensus, free of foreign influence and meddling, can fully show itself. In early and mid 20th century America, Irish, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Greek and other ethnic enclaves in all eastern cities created a thriving diaspora culture. They created numerous civic clubs, political action groups, social assistance and economic insurance agencies and entrepreneurial cartels based solely around the dependability of ethnic solidarity made the federal government completely unnecessary and obsolete. Only the block-busing integrationist culture destroyed this standing threat to regime. In modern America, Orientals from central and eastern Asia are doing the same, creating financially successful diasporas in America and elsewhere, based entirely on ethnic solidarity, despite the notable disadvantage of not speaking English well.
The great refutation to neo-conservative and libertarian economics is that these diaspora successes are not based on the free market, but precisely the opposite, a collective sense of responsibility, solidarity and sacrifice. Adam Smith, as always, was wrong. It is not “greed” and avarice that produces social harmony and efficient production, but, for the great mass of small businessmen, workers, students and professionals, it is the existence of community, solidarity and a shared vision of survival and flourishing that has spurred that greatest sacrifices and the financial success of the ethnic diaspora in America. It has created the greatest earthly gifts of all, belonging, security and communal freedom.
To lose this identity, to identify with the majority “anti-culture,” is cultural death. To begin watching TV, listening to mainstream music and reading the pulp literature of the anti-culture; in short, to take ethnic solidarity for granted is not to become free, but to sink into the life of a herd-like mediocrity, purposelessness and alienation that characterize all modern, statist and capitalist societies nearly without exception. Instead of being inspired by the heroes of ancient times, the great stories of victory and the sadness of defeat that ethnic tradition thrives on, one becomes stuck in the mundane, 9 to 5 existence of the American “individual,” that cultureless, identityless and lifeless creature that forces us to redefine the word “human.”
Ethnicity today is not merely an ornament to be exploited by the anational oligarchy, but the very structure of human life; the structure of solidarity and the very canals and rivers of survival without which no literature, art or science could ever have come down to us. There can be no separation between the development of community, belonging and cultural autonomy without the existence of ethnicity: the customs, feasts, heroes, stories, dress, language and folk wisdom of suffering, defeat, victory and survival. There is no community without a tight sense of mutual belonging, there is no life without brotherhood, dependability and the virtues a focused community engenders
Tags: M. Raphael-Johnson