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Friday, March 07, 2008

Thoughts on Kosovo, Mill, and Walzer

Last week I was drawn into a couple of fascinating threads on Crooked Timber, both started by Chris Bertram and both focusing on the question of what, if anything, Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia means for the future of national-building and national separation (to say nothing of what it more immediately may mean for Russian and European politics--for a good summary of that, see Doug Muir's thoughts here). Chris started the discussion focusing on the matter of secession, and bringing up the work of Allen Buchanan as part of an argument suggesting that Kosovo's claim of independence could be (and thus presumably should be) justified--though not just another potentially troubling burst of arguably legitimate ethnic-based nationalism, but as the exercise of a "remedial right," given that "[t]he Kosovo Albanians...have both suffered injustice and have no good reason to believe that a just settlement is possible within Serbia." Soon though, both threads spread to discussions of self-determination--and therefore nationalism and democracy--in general. I wanted to put my comments on both threads into a somewhat coherent form, and so let me try to make a few broad points here:

1) Chris is rather hostile, to say the least, to the idea of "self-defining 'nations' complete with normalizing ideologies," preferring instead "multiethnic states if possible, separatism only if strictly necessary"; hence he doesn't want to read anything more into the Kosovo secession than he needs to. He has, of course, a very good point: ethnic separatism has in recent history been the cause of an enormous amount of violence and deprivation, and the ideological promise of "national self-determination" has encouraged more than a few racial/ethnic/tribal elites over the past century to use their influence over local economies and media to panic or stratify their fellows into narrow groupings over which they then somewhat plausibly claim rights of sovereignty. Arguably, that's the whole recent history of the former Yugoslavia in a nutshell. But in the end, it's too simple a story: it's just too easy a response to dismiss what is such a major element of the modern consciousness--our many often convoluted attempts to articulate and/or imagine a national identity (as I wrote long ago, the whole question of "'people-making,' or imagining, or articulating, depending on whether you prefer a more or less constructivist or essentialist approach to the question of peoplehood," is a complicated one to get a handle on)--as "petty bigotry." The truth is that the sort of ideals that many would like to see take the place of ethnic or tribal or racial self-identification and determination--things like neutral state-based "democracy" and "human rights"--are themselves parasitic upon, or at the very least historically developed from, recognitions that are much less abstract, much more tied (though admittedly in an often murky aesthetic/expressive way) to the everyday performed and seen and spoken raw material of our lives. Democracy requires a demos, and for a people to come to a collective self-understanding of itself as capable of self-government, it needs to have been able at some point to "bound" itself, to see itself as a body with the capacity for, much less the right to, sovereignty. How does it erect those boundaries? Obviously much of the time they've been erected from the outside by the brute force of invading empires and colonizing states; but those aren't the cases under consideration here--were considering how a people can come to the capacity of self-recognition internally, on their own. So, when it comes to matters of borders...well, race, tribal ties and ethnicity are obvious and very basic possibilities; other thinkers however (like J.G. Herder) point us towards religion and language as more expansive possibilities, ones which potentially open the way to a mixing of national apprehension with the sort of egalitarian perceptions most moderns would prefer to see. (Which, arguably, is the deepest explanation of how America's own "national idea" came to be.) Either way, however, if there doesn't come to be a ground upon which a people can properly determine itself to be such, then there isn't going to be a consciousness of rights or democracy which said people will be able to elaborate, act upon, and commit themselves to.

Obviously, this doesn't mean that we should fall back defeated by some historical imperative or logic of Enlightenment when, say, a group of Albanians start crowing about self-determination. The debate--both the theoretical and the practical, political one--about identity, community, and sovereignty, and the prudence of striving for such, is, as I said above, a complicated one within which you can find a great many different plausible arguments. In the comments, Chris chooses to contrast "citizenship" with ethnicity insofar as recognition and identity are concerned, and suggests that the American and (to a lesser degree) British and French national self-understandings do a fair-to-good job of prioritizing the former over the latter, in contrast to the German self-understanding, which doesn't. Here he's invoking the distinction between "civic" (or "cultural" or "liberal") and "ethnic" (or "illiberal") nationalism, the idea being that some forms of self-understanding or peoplehood are going to be premised upon open-minded notions of shared social and civic life and thus be nonexclusivist, whereas others won't be; they will focus upon nontransferable blood and soil ("blut und boden") matters that will always seek to exclude. There is a great deal of scholarship on this point, going both ways, far too much to synthesize here. All I can say to this is that, while surely the differences here are real and worth emphasizing, I fear that Chris and others who think like him are perhaps failing to appreciate what being acculturated, being socialized into a culture, and thus being able to recognize what it is and what it is not and be a part of it, fully involves: their ideas are not capturing the unspoken, performative, ritualistic, participatory, and/or expressive aspects to peoplehood. That doesn't mean I think all national identities must, by definition, be exclusive, or to apologize for those that are; it simply means that, to the extent one wants to encourage the formation of peoples that might see themselves collectively as sovereign and thus may possibly govern themselves democratically, one shouldn't draw too firm of a justificatory line between purely and hypothetically "civic" markers on the one hand, and locally embedded ones (historical, linguistic, religious, ethnic, whatever) on the other; there are important ways in which any of those might in fact contribute to the formation of a liberal and/or democratic state. (I'm drawing on a lot of different thinkers, but mostly Craig Calhoun, Ranjoo Seodu Herr, Eric Kaufmann, and Bernard Yack, in coming to these conclusions.)

2) Perhaps predictably, John Stuart Mill makes an appearance in the discussion. Mill made very clear his belief that the education of peoples for representative self-government had to involve their being in a position to receive such an education collectively, forming and sharing public opinions that are clearly their own and not someone else's; as he wrote in Considerations of Representative Government (chp. 16), "One hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do, if not to determine, with which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves....Among a people without [this] fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary for the working of representative government, cannot exist." This statement and others of his which defend the idea of mono-ethnic societies--which Chris suggests was one of the inevitabilities of the "disastrous doctrine of national self-determination"--is contrasted to the position of Lord Acton as detailed in an article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta that Chris praises, an article which suggests that Acton properly understood that it was "more important to secure liberal protections than link ethnicity to democracy"

Well, as should be clear from above, I would dispute that "link[ing] ethnicity to democracy" is all or even mostly what the doctrine of self-determination involves; yes, of course, that often takes place, but it isn't necessarily solely what takes place, and when it takes place it doesn't necessarily enlist a cultural understanding that is illiberal in all ways. But leaving that huge, complicated debate aside, my point here is actually a rather narrow one. I'm hardly a major defender of Mill; that his writings on self-determination were joined at the hip to a 19th-century condescension and/or racism regarding certain peoples is undeniable. He was, despite his modifications of doctrine throughout his life, a utilitarian until the end, and as he simply couldn't imagine the utility of being a member of an uncultivated community as opposed to a metropolitan one--Basques or Bretons or Scottish Highlanders, "sulk[ing] on [their] own rocks, the half-savage relic[s] of past times, revolving in [their] own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of he world"--he didn't grant any real weight to the claims or attachments of such peoples. That being said, however, think about what his arguments may suggest about demands for independence coming from Kosovo. The context in which Mill was writing was one in which the Bretons and Scots had long since been formally absorbed by the French and British states; Mill, while having already granted the general principle of self-determination as an important element of democratic expression and development, wondered nonetheless why on earth these poor benighted Bretons and Scots complained. Far better, he thought, for them to accept the advantages offered them through governments which have already gone through and benefited from their own national articulations and struggles. Similarly, Kosovo is a region that has contested its incorporation within a post-Yugoslavian environment; in pushing for independence, it is challenging a larger, legitimated polity. I'm not defending Mill by any means, but still: if he was willing criticize the Bretons and Scots, then doesn't that mean he’s not quite the self-determination absolutist which Mehta’s comment makes him out to be? Doesn't that mean that, contra any supposedly stark distinction between himself and Acton, Mill as well was thinking--however condescendingly--about the realities of self-government, and where one is most likely to find the space for democratic development? I'm not enlisting Mill either for or against the Kosovars; just pointing out that Mehta's duality is, again, much to simple for historical and contemporary reality.

3) Finally, Michael Walzer came up on the thread, specifically his collection of essays What It Means To Be An American. Walzer's actually been on my mind a bit lately, thanks to some comments from Jacob Levy and Damon Linker (the latter having caught a recent speech of Walzer's at the University of Pennsylvania, and who referred me to a piece on Walzer's latest book from the NYRB that I'd missed). Walzer is an important thinker to bring up in this matter, because his bona fides span the debate: he's been a strong defender of the principle of sovereignty as both a potentially democratic expression of local/national identities and communities and as a tool for preventing exploitation, but is also deeply liberal in his commitment to egalitarianism and justice. The question at hand is, does he believe the latter necessitates a purely civil form of the former?

That Walzer is firm believer in the legitimacy and the enviableness of America's civic accomplishment: it is a good thing, he affirms, that America is not a "homeland," but rather a place defined as a people "only by virtue of having come together"; as he writes at greater length: "These abstract ideals [liberty, equality, and republicanism] made for a politics separated not only from religion but from culture itself or, better, from all the particular forms in which religious and national culture was, and is, expressed" ("What Does it Mean to Be an 'American'?" pgs. 24, 27, 30). But, he almost immediately goes on to note that he doesn't "want to claim that American politics was not qualified in important ways by British Protestantism," to say nothing of all the other religious and cultural movements that burrowed their way inside what describes as "this strange America"--strange because this most patriotic of nations actually doesn't appear to have what it takes for any real kind of nationalism (pgs. 31, 46, 47). And sometimes he will admit to some regrets on this point--regrets that take him back to a desire to construct truly sovereign democratic communities, which he acknowledges will require civic attachments and virtues that will require more than just a liberal public square:

Among a people like ourselves, a community of patriots would have to be sustained by politics alone. I don't know if such a community is possible. Judged by the theory and practice of the classical republics, its creation certainly seems unlikely: how can a common citizenship development if there is not other commonality--no ethnic solidarity, no established religion, no unified cultural tradition?...Given liberal society and culture, certain sorts of dedication may well lie beyond our reach. But that's not to say that we cannot, so to speak, enlarge the time and space within which we live as citizens. This is the working principle of democratic socialism: that politics can be opened up, rates of participation significantly increased, decision-making really shared, without a full-scale attack on private life and liberal values, without a religious revival or a cultural revolution. ("Civility and Civic Virtue," pgs. 98-99).

So yes, Walzer finds America's accomplishment unique and admirable...but he also sees it as needing to find something political--in a rather deep and redistributive sense--to supplement the sort of civic strength that its plurality prevents it from developing internally on its own. I would take this point, and deepen its historical force; I would argue that the history of populism and progressivism and egalitarianism in this country reflects at least in part the abiding influence of tight communities motivated by common bonds--whether they be poor white farmers from the Great Plains or exploited African-Americans from the South--extending their self-generated understandings of dignity and democracy to the wider world, strengthening the country along the way. Which is, perhaps, just a rather pretentious way of making the same point: that even we prudential liberals and social egalitarians have to make room for, perhaps even have to depend upon, the emergence of tight attachments--dare I say self-determining attachments--if we're going to see self-government and justice make any kind of headway.

This actually comes out fairly clearly in Jeremy Waldron's review of Walzer's thought that I mentioned above. He writes that "political community is the heart of Walzer's writing," and that he believes "communal integrity has a nonrelative claim upon us"; we morally and prudentially ought to, in short, allow all (or almost all) self-identifying communities the space to work out (and deepen, and thereby perhaps through an education in democracy extend) their own identities and claims. What others may see as a clear-cut issue of humanitarian justice (a state oppressing its ethnic minorities, a violence-prone secession movement gaining power), Walzer sees--at least in many cases--as more of the "traditional philosophical dislike for politics." Waldron adds:

Even in the absence of democracy, Walzer wants to hang on to the principle of self-determination. A political community "is self-determining even if its citizens struggle and fail to establish free institutions, but it has been deprived of self-determination if such institutions are established by an intrusive neighbor." The compromises that people make, the sacrifices they forgo, may trouble a philosopher who is obsessed with human rights. But "I don't believe," says Walzer, "that the opposition of philosophers is a sufficient ground for military invasion."

Walzer is a careful and complicated thinker, as anyone should be who dares to take on the thorny and often discomforting mess of cultural and civic issues that surround claims to self-determination, claims which are central to figuring out what to think about Kosovo (or for that matter, Iraq, or even the U.S., as it tries to take care of its own issues while allowing itself to be dragged into others' as well). If I've learned anything from the past five years of trying to apply my knowledge of political theory to world affairs, it is to not assume that I can really see to the ends of the particular rabbit holes I feel obliged to dive down, not the least reason for which the possible violence I may be doing to those who go down (or may be dragged down) the hole along with me. Self-determining nationalities may not be entirely theoretically justifiable, or even politically desirable, but they do, undeniably, play a part in making a people sovereign, capable of deciding where they want to go and which hole they want to go down. People who would warn the Albanians about the very legitimate risks facing them after having declared independence, or who argue about what Mill or Walzer or anyone else might say to them about such, need to keep that in mind.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Russell, much food for thought. I may respond at length at CT next week, but, for now, a weekend of family obligation/domestic labour beckons.

Anonymous said...

Not being a philosopher I don't see anything particularly 'messy', 'convoluted' or 'complicated' here.

There seems to be a clear evolutionary path from tribalism to ethnic/cultural nationalism to humanism. It was OK, maybe even progressive, to be a nationalist in the early 19th century, but human civilization moved on to bigger and better things and now it's simply reactionary. Sure, the idea of nationalism is still strong, but its time has passed.

Why can't it be this simple?


Russell Arben Fox said...

Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to read my long post. No obligations, of course, but if you manage to respond sometime next week or whenever, I'll read whatever you have to say with great interest.

Abb1, what you suggest is a common--and intuitively sensible--argument in the literature on nationalism: it emerged in response to particular felt needs, as the human community/consciousness is expanded and/or refined through cosmopolitan experiences those felt needs change, and hence, people who act on that basis of nationalism are invoking something that human beings have moved beyond, or at least should be moving beyond. The problem is that, in my mind at least, such an argument depends upon a rather narrow understanding of national/communal affectivity, and consequently it misunderstands what is still happening all around us. I look at the European Union today, and I see arguments over a constitution, I see the widespread reliance upon ELF (English as Lingua Franca), I see discussions about a common "European sensibility" towards war and security that is in contrast to America's (look at Habermas's comments back during the lead-up to the Iraq War)...and I see a slowly emerging ("imagined") national consciousness. Not that I think the EU is going to turn into the United States of Europe anytime soon, but still, the basic expressive/psychological process appears to me to still be at work, even in the heart of "Enlightened" Europe.

Anonymous said...

Ends and means. Liberal democracy as a means to a successful determination of the tribe or inevitably coming together as an identifiable group to realise an enlightened globe.

In my opinion it boils to down that most human of all things human. Procrastination. It is far more fun to fight over conscious methods instead of crystalising our unconscious motivations.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

"nationalism: it emerged in response to particular felt needs, as the human community/consciousness is expanded and/or refined through cosmopolitan experiences those felt needs change, and hence, people who act on that basis of nationalism are invoking something that human beings have moved beyond, or at least should be moving beyond."

I'm sorry but there can be no argument against this...
except to say that such cosmopolitanism can not be enforced from without, whether in Kosovo or the US. If it could be I would be in favor of doing so in my country (the US). As it is there's more sophisticated discussion of politics in the teahouses of Tehran than there is here.
Whether Europe's old blood is willing to recognize it or not, the new cosmopolitanism is here, and it includes Islam. The Islamists in Turkey are more modern than the military secularists, and are more modern than the arch-secularists in the west: Dawkins et al. According to Steven Weinberg Zionism is science. (see Chapter 15) If thats the case, so is the Trinity.
The rule of reason is the rule of experts, who spout language most people don't understand. And it's also the rule of experts who in their arrogance will twist reason into their own perverse definition of the reasonable. Weinberg did just that. And that's the danger of the rule of men. Communities who prefer the rule of community as such have every reason to rebel against this. But in time, and not under threat, all communities will learn.
Some things can't be taught. Modernity, as the secularism of law and democracy (and not the secularism of Platonism and pseudo-science) must be learned, and earned. The question of Kosovo is whether stability and "progress" is best served by specific actions in specific places at this time. If one wants to play the neutral observer then one's own ego and desire to be publicly on the side of the angels or of righteousness is irrelevant.

"The compromises that people make, the sacrifices they forgo, may trouble a philosopher who is obsessed with human rights. But "I don't believe," says Walzer, "that the opposition of philosophers is a sufficient ground for military invasion."

This is simply truly obvious. To say otherwise is the logic of those without any second order awareness of themselves and of the world.

Anonymous said...

Russell- I still need to leave you a substantive comment but wanted to let you know that Brad Delong has a post up on your post where, I'm pretty sure, he gets the points exactly backwards. I pointed this out. He got angry and demanded citations. I offered some, he deleted that remark, disemvouled my earlier one and called me a troll. So, it's all the more typical Brad Delong dishonesty over there, but you might want to take a look at it. He doesn't understand philosophy at all, regularly makes a huge hash of it, and throws a fit if you point that out, but since it's about your post you might want to have a look.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

Matt my comment may annoy but it's directed at the question. Yours is directed only at me.

Politics is not just philosophy, its a matter both of principles and cases. it requires understanding the philosophy of others as it requires understanding their psychology, and your own as well. Politics is situational. Pretending that issues of psychology are logically irrelevant to you as a reasoner and morally irrelevant to others as barbarians is dangerous and silly. If you want the cliche versions, then fools rush in where wise men fear to tread and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Your actions may be seen by others as setting precedents that in your infinite wisdom you had not thought of. They might be lost in a fog of nationalism and still by logically correct. After all, American foreign policies is as much predicated on lying to ourselves as lying to others.

Savo Heleta said...


I believe that Kosovo’s independence will definitely have consequences around the world.

In the near future, we may see escalation of conflict in the Basque region of Spain, fighting for independent Kurdistan, problems in Romania, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, and many other countries. German Spiegel comments that “many countries fear that their separatist groups could choose to emulate developments in the Balkans.”

Bosnia will definitely go through a lot of uncertainty. In December 1995, Bosnia ended its three-sided bloody war that lasted for almost four years. Since then, the country is formally divided into two, and informally into three ethnically homogeneous parts. It is very possible that some ethnic groups in Bosnia could decide to follow Kosovo’s path and seek partition of the country. German newspaper Handelsblatt writes that “the West will have problems explaining why one is against Republika Srpska [Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia] when Kosovo's secession was deemed acceptable. Keeping the artificial state Bosnia-Herzegovina together against the will of the Bosnian Serbs will, in any case, be difficult.”

Author of "Not My Turn to Die:
Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia"

Anonymous said...

Haven't finished reading the post, but just wanted to note that Germany's laws on citizenship were considerably revised in 1998, now almost a decade ago. Even then they were a lagging indicator. Germany doesn't have the republican ideology of France, but the "constitutional patriotism" of the post-war republic, and actual practice of integration are a long way from the old story of "blut and boden".

D. Ghirlandaio said...

For a discussion of what Germans are and are not so far capable of see jason Stanley Ruminations on "Multiculturalism" in Germany

Russell Arben Fox said...

Haven't finished reading the post, but just wanted to note that Germany's laws on citizenship were considerably revised in 1998, now almost a decade ago. Even then they were a lagging indicator. Germany doesn't have the republican ideology of France, but the "constitutional patriotism" of the post-war republic, and actual practice of integration are a long way from the old story of "blut and boden".

Yes; thanks for the correction Doug. Or, not so much a correction as an addition; I think Chris was probably just pulling out the literature on German nationalism (much of which, as I alluded to elsewhere, I kind of question) to make a stark example, as many defenders of "civic" nationalism have long done. As for myself, I actually had just finished a lecture in my comparative politics class about changing and different notions of citizenship in Germany and elsewhere (jus soli vs. jus sanguinis , etc.) when your comment appeared. Sorry I didn't respond sooner.