The global diffusion of nationalist discontent. A macro-historical, institutionalist perspective

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The global diffusion of nationalist discontent.

A macro-historical, institutionalist perspective
Conference on Alien Rule and Its Discontent, Washington University, June 2005

Andreas Wimmer, UCLA

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1 Introduction
Why do people dislike to be governed by ethnic others? This is the central question Michael Hechter has asked us to answer. Let me step back for a moment and ask why Michael should ask this question in the first place. This second question is all the more interesting if we consider that Michael came close to answering the first one in his recent book “Containing Nationalism”. The book outlines an interesting model of nationalist discontent which I should like to summarize briefly, hopefully without doing too much injustice to the coherence of its arguments.

Pre-modern forms of government relied on indirect rule. Imperial administrations did not dispose of the government techniques to directly interfere in the day-do-day affairs of their subjects but instead were content if these would pay taxes, deliver soldiers for expansionist warfare, and were politically loyal to the ruling aristocracy, prince, the king, the sultan. Most communities and nations, therefore, governed themselves. Where they were able to assimilate conquering elites into the local culture (the fate of the Normans in Brittany), cultural and political units coincided. Where this was not the case (the German aristocracy in the Baltics), possible discontent was successfully repressed by the aristocratic elites.

Modern government, by contrast, rules directly over a population and territory. It interferes in the daily life of citizens, who cannot exit their states as they can country clubs or schools. Modernizing states attempt at enhancing the loyalty of their citizens by nation-building through the well known instruments of school and army. Direct governance and homogenization are resisted, however, by peripheral elites of minority cultures, who loose their political role as power brokers. Their nationalist appeal to independence falls on fertile ground among the population at large, which prefers to be governed by “their own” people rather than culturally alien bureaucrats from the centre of the nationalizing state. The shift from indirect to direct rule thus fosters nationalism.

Just why exactly non-elites prefer to be governed by their own, which in Hechter’s account is a constant feature of politics, remains somewhat undetermined and I assume that this motivated him to bring us all together to help answering the question. Building on Michael’s contribution, I offer the following three propositions:

  1. Nationalism was historically intertwined with two other aspects of political modernization, which are far more appealing to the population at large than the modernization of governance techniques: democracy and equality before the law. The fusion between national sovereignty, democracy, and equality into one single model of political organization is historically contingent: It could have happened otherwise, but it didn’t. It is appealing both to state elites (who get direct rule) and the population at large (who get citizenship and democracy), which explains its great appeal across times and continents and why the combination of principles has proven to be so durable. The model became influential and consequential both as an ideal (nationalism) and an institutional form (the nation state). Political actors find it difficult to separate the three principles that went into the model both on the cognitive level (trying to think a democratic empire) and institutionally (to disentangle equality before the law from nationally defined citizenship).

  2. The model diffused across the globe and was adopted even where the population had little chance of enjoying its positive aspects (democracy and equality). I distinguish three mechanisms that account for this diffusion: imitation, imposition, and domino. Even if some actors would realize that aliens would provide better governance than co-ethnics, the three mechanisms encouraged to adopt the nation state model. Being ruled by ethnic others implied a serious embarrassment and led to imitation of the successful and powerful models; alien rule also represented a hurdle for being admitted to the club of legitimate states which thus imposed the model on newcomers; and foreign rule also entailed the risk of political exclusion and second-class citizenship in a nationalizing state (domino effect).

  3. The consequences of the global spread of discontent with alien rule was a series of wars because a) nationalist movements sought independence from imperial rule in wars of “national liberation”; b) neighboring nation states fought over territory in order to avoid alien rule for their co-nationals; c) minority groups may go to war against nationalizing state elites in order to fight exclusion and domination that would be considerably worse than experienced under imperial rule.

I have organized my paper along these lines and will discuss each point subsequently. Most of the argument will be broadly comparative historical or ideal-typical, with all the dangers that this entails. Only the last section will discuss some descriptive statistical data derived from a recent project.

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