The Shelf Life of the Self: Arendt on Identity Politics

Demands for separating one’s public and private identities are neither new nor simple. As the argument goes, many a political philosopher have claimed that to engage in worthwhile and productive politics, we must shed our private identities to better see, so to speak, the concerns that need a more universal outlook. Thus, to better communicate and deliberate upon political questions within a polity, say a nation, the citizens need to view themselves as citizens alone sans any group affiliation based on gender, religion, race and caste. This is not to snub the importance of social identities in general but only in so far as they affect our political judgement. On the other hand, the response to such a proposal has predictably highlighted the benefits, both political and moral, that one’s private identity has on their political participation. After all, the walls between the identities are not quite as impervious to each other as the philosophers are making it to be. Our individual selves are more than just a simple addition of our social, cultural and personal experiences. How we think about political dilemmas is often and quite rightly influenced by what we anticipate from a rival social group. A female advocating the freedom to make reproductive choices is not just assessing the positions of the stakeholders involved, as Arendt’s call for ‘enlarged mentality’ would require of her. The said female also has to keep in mind the gender hierarchies at play around her.

Arendt was famously non-feminist. She believed that the transposition of the private and the social identities into our political identities can destroy the very fabric of political communication and thus, political judgement. To resolve political dilemmas facing our society, Arendt believed we needed the exact opposite of what identity politics has to offer. Our private and social selves come with a shelf life. They end where the political begins. According to Arendt, the politicization of personal and social identities brings to the fore a self-defined and accepted discrimination that takes us away from the equality that politics demands of us. To think representatively, we need to not only be treated as but also feel like political equals.

While identity politics does well to highlight a history of suppression, it also contributes to a further strengthening of political cleavages that prevent us from ever going back to the ideal state that was disturbed by the suppression. Identity politics causes harm to inter-sectionalities because it forces us to choose between conflicting identities. But more importantly, it conflates the many dimensions of our self with the identity that we have thus chosen to speak through, politically. This conflation results in a demonization of everything that does not conform to our sense of identity, resulting in a fear of the unknown (of which Martha Nussbaum has talked about in the Monarchy of Fear). In the creation of this battleground, we forget that the other side is human. Just like us. And it is easy to not think about our moral obligations to each other when the enemy has been dehumanized and reduced to a label.

Arendt on identity politics deserves much greater scrutiny. Especially because of the overwhelming reliance of social cleavages but current political leaders. The era of identity politics has given us a society with walls that mask themselves as political ideologies but are nothing more than a refusal to recognize that the other side is human too. An essential step in Arendtian judgement is to accept the inherent and equal worth of each individual, irrespective of their social identity. We would do well to find common grounds in our humanity, first.

Nightcap

  1. Why French Federation Failed in Africa Tom Westland, Decompressing History
  2. Russia’s Centuries-Old Relationship with Kurds Pietro Shakarian, Origins
  3. Religious identity is once again trumping civic ties Ed West, Spectator
  4. The New Rise of Old Nationalism Mohsin Hamid, Guardian

“Conflicts in South Asia Will Go On and On”

That is the title of my recent article (pdf) on the long-term effects that the British partition of its Indian colony has had on South Asia. Here is the abstract:

This brief article, an extended review of two recent important publications, problematises the continuity of inter-state and intra-state conflicts since the partition of British India in 1947. Territory and identity are the main triggers of those conflicts, many of which will remain, while others will take on new forms relating to resource scarcity, mainly water. Conflicts are unlikely to be settled fully through various interventions, as sub-dimensions will linger on, develop new roots and new issues will constantly crop up. The article argues that past, present and future are visibly and invisibly connected through the fallout of patterns of myth and memory, dissatisfaction with the status quo and present conditions and often completely unrealistic expectations of a better future. Identifying elements of interconnectedness as central, the review assesses the contributions these two new studies make for a deeper understanding of the scenario of continuing conflict within the context of South Asian Studies.

It’s been published by South Asia Research, and is pessimistic throughout…

Nationality, Ethnicity, Race, Culture, and the Importance of Citizenship for the Individual

Judging by some of the fruitful dialogues that have gone on here in the distant past and just the other day, I’d say that there is still a lot of work to do regarding a few concepts that seem to have meaning to them but are not really well-defined or well-understood.

I am writing about nationality, ethnicity, race, and culture, of course.

Dr Stocker and myself have taken aim at nationality before, and Michelangelo has taken aim at ethnicity while Jacques has taken a few cracks at race and ethnicity. Mike has some notes on ethnic identity as well. Culture has been discussed here at NOL before, but an effort to systematically define it has not been undertaken. (Update 12/8/14: Matthew has also taken a crack at ethnicity.)

The problem of these concepts can best be illustrated with a hypothetical (with apologies to Matthew!): There is a tribe in the state of Kenya known as the Maasai. In Kenya the Maasai are more than a tribe, though. The Maasai are considered by both the Maasai themselves and their neighbors to be an ethnic group. The Maasai and their neighbors within Kenya also consider themselves to be Kenyans. The Maasai have a distinct culture that sets them apart in some way from other ethnic groups in Kenya. Most Kenyans, including the Maasai, consider themselves to be racially black.

Now suppose that a single Maasai man from Kenya goes to Syria, or Belgium, or Canada, or China for a vacation. The Maasai man is suddenly no longer Maasai, for all intents and purposes. He still has a nationality, and an ethnic, a cultural, and a racial component to him, though. The Maasai man’s ethnicity suddenly becomes Kenyan rather than Maasai abroad. So, too, does his culture become Kenyan or simply African. He is still black racially. Notice, though, that these concepts mean different things in different contexts.

Suppose further that our Maasai man goes to Ghana for a vacation. Ghana is in west Africa, whereas Kenya is on the east coast. Africa is huge, and the gulfs between societies on the west coast and east coast of sub-Saharan Africa are cavernous. Nevertheless, our Maasai man is likely to be able to identify ethnically as a Maasai in Ghana. He is likely to be able to identify as part of the Kenyan nation. Culturally, though, our Maasai man is also going to be identified as Kenyan rather than Maasai.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

Here is another way to confuse you. The Ashanti people of Ghana are considered by others in the region to be a nation, but not an ethnic group. The Ashanti belong, instead, to a pan-regional group of people known as the Akan, and the Akan are considered to be the ethnic group while the smaller Ashanti group is considered to be a nation. This, of course, comes into conflict with what it means to be a Ghanaian. In Europe or Asia or the New World, a member of the Ashanti nation would be considered instead as a member of the Ghanaian nation.

In sub-Saharan Africa everybody who is not black is white. So Persians, Arabs, Eskimos, Armenians, Koreans, Japanese, French, English, Dutch, and Brahmins are all racially white to Africans. Africans base their distinctions between whites on their different behavioral patterns. So a Sudanese man may be working with two groups of white people but he only distinguishes them (suppose one is Chinese and one is English) by how they behave toward each other, toward him and his associates, and in relation to the rules of the game established in Sudan. Race is the most prominent feature of foreigners in Africa, but curiosity about differences between whites abounds.

The combinations for confusion are endless. I have not even broached the topic of what is means to be ‘American’, for example.

This is where the importance of viewing the world as made up of individuals comes into play. This is where the abstract legal notion of individual rights becomes an important component of good governance and internationalism.

I think we could all agree that is does no good to ignore these confusing identities and attempting instead to cram them into a specific framework (“Western individualism”). This is where economists go wrong, but paradoxically it’s also where they are most right.

As I noted a couple of days ago, economics as a discipline tends to be more hierarchical but also more successful than the other social science disciplines. I didn’t have enough space to note there that this hierarchy is limited to a very small segment of society. Is it at all possible to establish a hierarchy of sorts, a unified code of laws that protects the individual but prevent this hierarchy of last resort from becoming the norm in other ways? A hierarchy that leaves plenty of space for independent networks and fragmented communities of choice?

I don’t even know how these question tie in to my title. I simply know that they do. Somehow.

Libertarian as Ethnicity

The past few months have been busy, to say the least. The Obama administration announced a series of executive actions regarding immigration and that has taken up most of my time. Meanwhile in my day job as a graduate student I’ve been overwhelmed with midterms and finals; I am sure my fellows in NoL can sympathize with this. The few moments of peace I have enjoyed have gone towards pondering one question: Who is an American? 

The question is not isolated. By asking who an American is, I’m really asking what ethnicity, and other social groups, really are. The best answer to my question was an old Cato blog post appropriately titled, What is an American? In it Edward Hudgins discusses what makes an American. It is not, as some believe, a common language, creed, or ancestry. What makes an American is his love for liberty. It is in his closing remarks that Hudgins hits on something amazing, there is no meaningful thing as ‘American’.

Unfortunately, the American spirit has eroded. Our forebears would look with sadness at the servile and envious character of many of our citizens and policymakers. But the good news is that there are millions of Americans around the world, living in every country. Many of them will never make it here to the United States. But they are Americans, just as my grandpop was an American before he ever left Italy.

There exists those individuals who can prefix themselves as Americans, but at best this only tells us that they are somehow affiliated with the American continent. There exists a group of people who yearn for liberty and are willing to fight for it, but many of them were neither born or live in the United States. Likewise there are those who were born and live in the United States who are no friends of liberty. And so my initial question has lead me to a new one. Why not promote being a libertarian as an ethnicity? Why not introduce ourselves as ‘Libertarios’ instead of Americans, Germans, or Turks?

At first my proposal may sound strange to some. Would it not be silly to define an ethnicity by political views? I don’t think so. Few ethnic groups have a concrete basis in reality and are based more on fiction than anything else. I was born in Mexico, raised in the United States, and am directly descended from Germans, Jews, and Cubans. I feel little fraternity to these latter groups though. Why should I? I didn’t elect to have Jewish or Mexican ancestry, but I did elect to be a libertarian. Anyone who proclaims to be a libertarian automatically has my sympathy and support, even if I know nothing else about them. As this is the case I would prefer to be identified as a Libertario than any other ethnic group.

I am sure that there are those who would prefer not to be identified by any collective label at all. For those of you who fall into this category I would offer a pragmatic case for identify as Libertario.

I hope it can be taken for granted that, as libertarians, we wish there to be more libertarians. In the best scenario more libertarians in the world might lead to better public policy. In the worst scenario we at least have more potential friends. By promoting our existence as an ethnic group we would encourage more people to remain as libertarians. I have often found people who have libertarian political views, but who withdraw from participation if they become discouraged about the hope for change in their lifetimes. If we were an ethnic group though these individuals would continue to promote liberty, if only to signal their membership in the group. An ethnic group therefore not only encourages members to remain active, but produces positive externalities to promote the group’s message.

For comparison consider the Mormon people. Many Mormons spend time advocating on behalf on their religion, with several even going abroad on missionary work. From anecdotal experience I’ve noticed that many of them are ill treated when they perform their advocacy. Why do they bother to do so then? Because, as I’ve noted above, it signals their membership in the Mormon community. The average Mormon may not particularly enjoy being harassed for their beliefs, but they do it anyway to tell other Mormons a simple message, “I’m one of you.”

It goes without saying that there must be a benefit to belonging to a given group for this to work.

Additionally the existence of an ethnic libertario community would make raising children to be libertarians much easier. I side with Bryan Caplan in the belief that a relatively easy way to grow the movement is by simply having more children than the general population. It doesn’t matter if you believe children’s political beliefs, and by extension their ethics and other characteristics, are shaped by genetics or their nurturing, a libertario community would help with producing children. If you believe in the genetic argument, then an ethnic community reduces the cost of finding a spouse who shares your political beliefs. If you believe in the nurture argument, then surely a child raised among libertarians is more likely to end up being one himself.

Thoughts? Am I just crazy? Or do you have a counter proposal to ‘Libertario’ as our ethnic label? Comment below.

Nations, States, and Foreign Policy Fantasies

Below is my attempt to make sense of the world, especially that of the Middle East. It’s best viewed in tandem with two earlier posts on the subject, and deals with military intervention (as opposed to outright war).

This post concerns the issue of scholars, journalists, intelligent laymen, and activists continually evoking the nation-state as their point of reference for discussing and analyzing foreign affairs. Here are two general examples:

I don’t think all nation-states are morally equal.

And,

The list of nation-states involved in the Syrian fiasco are few in number.

This is logical as far as it goes, and there is something to be said for using the nation-state as a tool for better understanding the world around us, but in the post-colonial, developing world there are no nations attached to the states there.

Let me see if I can explain. The nation-state is a rare and parochial political unit found only in Europe and in parts of East Asia. Notice the hyphenation of the words “nation” and “state.” These are two very different concepts, and yet they are applied – together – nonchalantly in nearly every study or report to be found on international relations.

The interwar economist and patron saint of the present-day libertarian movement, Ludwig von Mises, studied nations after World War I out of a desire to better understand why large-scale violence occurs and how it can be prevented. I appeal to the authority of Mises on this matter because of the attempt by some libertarians today to simply disparage understandings of collectivist concepts such as “nation” with a brusque “the world is composed of individuals and nothing else, so your argument is invalid as well as incoherent.” It is true that individuals should be at the forefront of any question asked about society, but attempting to do so with tabula rasas won’t get you anywhere.

Here is Mises on nations, in the first chapter of his excellent 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy (pdf; and one of only two books I’ve read by Mises), making my point for me much better than I could ever hope to do:

If we wish to gain insight into the essence of nationality, we must proceed not from the nation but from the individual. We must ask ourselves what the national aspect of the individual person is and what determines his belonging to a particular nation. (34)

When a libertarian points out that the world is composed of individuals he is correct, but when he brushes aside any and all attempts to understand collectivist ideas such as nationalism he puts himself at an intellectual disadvantage. Perhaps this is because many libertarians, especially the post-Ron Paul 2008 ones, don’t want to think things through anymore. Perhaps it’s power they crave, rather than liberty and truth.

At any rate, Mises continues his thoughts on nationality with this sentence: “We then recognize immediately that this national aspect can be neither where he lives nor his attachment to a state. (34)” Nationalism isn’t even a phenomenon that can be tied to a specific geographical location, much less a specific state. (It’s worth noting that this is still the rough understanding of “nation” that sociologists and anthropologists have today. Many other theories about the “nation” have been swept away into the dustbin of history. I point this out because classical liberals tend to produce works that stand the test of time, and this is because of their commitment to the individual.) How can a conception of “nationhood” not be directly tied to territorial or political attachment?

I don’t claim to know, but here is how I break this recognition down. The tie-in to US foreign policy is coming, I promise.

The New World (Canada, the US and Latin America) is home to a small number of large republics that broke away from an imperial center at some point in the past. This is a very different arrangement from the large number of small nation-states in Europe and Japan/Korea mentioned earlier. There is no Brazilian nation to speak of. No American nation or Colombian nation to brag about. Only Brazilian, or American, or Colombian citizens are found in the republics of the New World.

While there are arguments to be made about the seriousness of nationalism in the New World republics, I don’t pay them much heed because the distinction between ‘citizen’ and ‘nation’ explains well Europe’s and Japan’s inability to assimilate immigrants as successfully as the republics of the New World.

The chronic bouts of fascism afflicting Latin America (and FDR’s United States) are largely the result of attempts to create a nation out of citizens.

In the Old World not consisting of Europe and Japan/Korea (i.e. the developing, post-colonial world), there is a small number of Western-educated elites who have been attempting, like the caudillos of Latin America, to create nations where there are none. These nation-builders are, consistent with their conformist Western education, national socialists. They borrow from liberalism its secularism but not its other laissez-faire underpinnings.

The advocates of Western military intervention, including Dr van de Haar and Dr Delacroix here at NOL, firmly believe that replacing the “bad” national socialists, such as Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad, with “good” national socialists will bring about viable, meaningful change in the region. Just sprinkle some fairy dust and – poof! – the new batch of national socialists will behave differently.

When pressed on this inevitable scenario, libertarian-ish military interventionists will renege on removing a dictatorship and replacing it with an alternative (which, again, will itself inevitably become a dictatorship). They recognize the futility of such an enterprise. Instead, they change tact and argue that a protracted bombing campaign would be a better option. This option, of course, has the effect of prolonging a conflict, which is blatantly at odds with the supposed humanitarianism of a military intervention in the first place.

The military interventionist simply assumes that a nation actually exists in these post-colonial, developing states, but nationhood is a concept that is limited to a small elite. An elite, I might add, that is just as illiberal as its Islamist (and other conservative) enemies.

Historians have long attributed the rise of the nation-state in Europe to wars and the absence of a hegemonic power. The decentralized nature of Eurasia’s backwater western region created the nations and states of Europe. Wars forced states to harness the potential of their citizens through political, economic and social nation-building. The lack of a hegemon forced these same states to compromise in otherwise uncompromisable situations.

Prolonging the war in Syria through a protracted bombing and arming campaign against ISIS, as military interventionists advocate, will not only keep the blood flowing, it will prevent a clear winner from emerging. “Humanitarian” intervention will prevent dialogue about what it means to be a nation. Indeed, it will prevent dialogue period.

If military interventionists truly want freedom and a lasting peace for the Middle East (and it is not clear that this is what they want) they would do well to stop relying upon the logical inconsistencies that they have fed to themselves over the past century. No amount of fairy dust or unicorn shit will be able to compensate for their fatal conceit.

What is missing from the Middle East is a vibrant sense of nationhood. It is no accident that the peoples in the Middle East with a strong sense of nationhood – the Turks, the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the Israelis – have had to fight for survival over the last 100 years or so to create, to retain, and to promote the cause of their nations.

Preventing dialogue, preventing compromise, and preventing victory in Syria by inadvertently playing different sides off on each other is not a humanitarian option. It’s not even a good “smart power” option. The military power of the West has been overrated for about a hundred years now. Its true power rests in the international institutions – international governmental organizations (IGOs) – it has been creating piecemeal over the past five hundred years. I blogged about wielding this influence most recently here and here. (and here is an older one). Also, open borders is an option that is never entertained by the international relations community (which is probably because it can only be implemented with some sort of political integration).

From the Comments: Secession and Nationalism in the Middle East

My dear, brave friend Siamak took the time to craft a very insightful rebuttal to my argument on supporting decentralization in the Middle East. He writes:

Brandon,

First of all thanks a lot for your attention to my comment…

You know that I have problems in English and maybe that’s the cause of some mis-understandings…

Look my friend. I did understand what you mean but the problem is sth else… As a libertarian I’m not completely against decentralization in the method you mentioned (I mean dealing with new nations)… USSR was a great example for this… My problem is that you can’t compare today’s med-east with USSR. Soviet Union was a country formed by some “nations”. Nation has a unique meaning. I think the best meaning for that is a set of people with close culture and common history which “want” to stay together as a nation. A country like Iran is formed of many ethnics including: Fars, Azeri (I’m Azeri), Kurd, Mazani, Gilani, Turkemen, Balooch, Sistani, Arab, etc. If you come and visit the whole part of this country you can see that all of them believe that they are Iranian. I don’t know that much about Arabian countries but I think that’s the same. Even all of them are Arabs and speak the same language but there are big cultural differences between for example Egypt and Saudi Arabia!

My reaction to your post has got a reason. 8 years of Ahmadinejad presidency, not only killed the economy, culture and any kind of freedom, But made us a weak country in mid-east. What I see today is that some little groups created and supported by Azerbaijan, Turkey, Qatar and Emirates are working so hard to make Arabian and Azeri groups to separate from Iran. They even do terrors for their aims. What I see is decentralization in mid-east not only doesn’t solve any problem but makes new problems! Makes new never-ending ethical wars.

You mentioned about US Imperialism. (I hate this word, Because when the leader speaks from three words he speaks two is “Enemy” and one is “Imperialism”! :D ) One of the biggest problems in mid-east is Al-Qaida, which everybody knows that without the support of the united states they couldn’t be this big. You in your post didn’t say that you think US should start the decentralization of mid-east, But you believe decentralization and Schism is good for the peace of mid-east. My objection is to this belief. Arabs are very nationalist. Iranians and Afghans are nationalists too. Changing the current map of mid-east will bring new problems. A big problem of mid-eastern countries is their governments. But Governments are not the only problem… The problem is not “just democracy”, It’s not even “Just modernism”! In some parts the problem is “Savagery”! The people are a big problem. If anybody wants peace for mid-east they should economic relationships more and more… We libertarians know the power of free business. Don’t be afraid of central powerful governments. Even sometimes their power is useful. We are in a Transient status between “Savagery & Civilization”, “Tradition & Modernism” and “Dictatorship (Even Totalitarianism) & Democracy”.

If the western countries want to help Democracy, Modernism, Civilization and peace they should make economical relations. Sanctions just gives the right to Islamic Radical groups and makes them stronger… As you mentioned Imperialism just gives them credit. Any decentralization makes new problems. The Communist Soviet Union was a block of different nations that their only common point was Communism. New Nations that are formed on the basis of ethnics just makes new dictator governments and new enemies. Mid-east is different from Soviet Union. I hope that this time I have less grammar mistakes! :)

Siamak, by the way, is a citizen of Iran and ethnically an Azeri. I always prize the views and arguments of foreigners in matters of philosophy, culture and policy. All individuals bring diversity to my world, but when the voice speaks with an accent and carries experience that I know nothing about, it – well – it makes my world and my life that much richer.

With that being said, I don’t buy Siamak’s argument. largely because I don’t see much of a difference between the Soviet Union and Iran ethnically-speaking. That is to say, I think Siamak’s argument falls flat because both the Soviet Union and Iran have numerous nations within their borders, so the distinction between the two states doesn’t quite add up.

I think the rest of Siamak’s argument stands up pretty well.