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*Note: If you’re interested in the origins of Yugoslav nationalism, which this article touches on, I wrote something on it a while back titled “The Croatian Origins of Yugoslav Nationalism and Pan-Slavism.”


Nationalism has made itself increasingly visible in the past decade. Right-wing nationalist parties are organizing themselves throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and with great success. A new bloc is forming, an alliance of right-wing nationalists made up of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the Hungarian Civil Alliance, the Freedom Party of Austria, and many others. This has placed nationalism squarely at the center of Europe’s current predicament once again.   It seems history is repeating itself but with difference. Eastern Europe once again must come to grips with its national question(s), and must take the corpses out of the closet to ponder once more. A necessary moment of reflection, perhaps, but an all-too-familiar one in lieu of the past century. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of new states, Eastern Europe has been scrambled up once again as it was a century prior. Population politics have returned with new force, and the classical arguments made against them have proved to be all but useless in preventing their rise. The new wave of nationalism is bold, and it makes little natural claims to legitimacy; instead, it is playful, arbitrary, and aware of it. In a post-modern hogwash of competing ideologies, sheer political will triumphs.

I.   The National Question 

The “national question” was one of the prevailing debates within socialist thought in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was also the concern of Western powers who needed to decide how to appease the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europeans without tipping the scale in their own disfavor. Austria-Hungary and the British Empire grew increasingly concerned the so-called “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, and the political fallout of them exiting the southeast European theater. Marxists, however, were one of the few to treat the national question as something other than a case-by-case problem. Liberal scholars treated it as a regional issue, and therefore each respective region had its own “national question,” separate from one another. Of these, there were many – having to do with Poles, Jews, Italian irredentism in Dalmatia, Slavs in Austria-Hungary, Bulgarians, Turks in the Balkans, and many others. Yet, at the time, few of these were understood as being of the same historical trajectory guided by the then-developments of capitalism. They were seen as natural movements which fulfilled a historic promise of community; they were characterized as being previously “repressed, and now they were finally materializing. These nationalist promises were underscored with myths, poetry, and literature. Many of these peoples went through a period of cultural “rediscovery” in the latter-19th century. Languages were codified, and lost cultural artifacts were “found” from which cultural tradition was invented. Remarkably, despite being separately orchestrated to a large extent, these nationalist revivals were occurring at around the same time and in similar patterns.

By the late 19th century, Balkan nationalism became the central question of geopolitics for Europe. For the first time, nationalism and nation-states was viewed as the normative standard for attaining legitimacy in Eastern Europe. The concept of a nation was seen as a natural progression of their respective peoples, and, for them, the prior empires that occupied the Balkans repressed their cultural progress and prevented their peoples from realizing their historical goals. Therefore for Serbian nationalists, to give one example, the creation of the nation-state was seen as the pinnacle of their millennia-long struggle to establish a sovereign space for their peoples. Naturally, this required they determine who was included in this new national identity, and how territory would be parceled between them and other states. The “national question” soon became a central political concern across the Balkans and in all of Eastern Europe.

The argument for the nation-state is that it creates balance and represents parties with distinct cultural interests. The state in this schema is not just an administrative body, but also a cultural guardian, and an assertion of a group’s right to sovereignty and existence. The question that immediately arises when discussing nationalism is: what is the point of divergence between different peoples? Generally speaking, these distinctions are said to be based on blood, religion, or language, and they oftentimes overlap to together form a basal identity.  Yet, the nation-state is a recent development in European history. To have a state, one does not need to necessarily create a nation. As historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, there was a French state before there was anything remotely reminiscent of a “French people” [1]. What developed, however, from these states were nations, and old multi-cultural empires like Austria-Hungary soon led way to smaller, more homogeneous nation-states. These were said to be better representative of their newly-created peoples’ interests. This was the case in Eastern Europe, and the history of empire still weighs heavily on the national question there. The initial wave of national awakening happened post-1848 when liberal nationalism gripped the educated classes who identified as Poles, Croats, Serbs, and others. The respective populations were counted, shuffled around to appease certain demographics, and territories between states became contestable based on its language or culture. I have read scholars treat the history of Eastern European in stages [2] – the first wave until 1914 was anti-imperialist nationalism which had emancipatory potential; what came after was a period of destructive nationalism with violence being committed in Ukraine, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, and elsewhere with the intent of purging perceived foreign elements; and what followed after World War Two was a positive rehabilitation of nationalism. For the Western powers, nationalism was seen as undermining the Soviet Union and was therefore treated in different light in Western and American historiography after World War Two.

However, these are not separate “eras” of nationalism that should be valued irrespective of one another. In his essay Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means, philosopher Slavoj Zizek pushes back against this notion that “healthy” nationalism can be separated from fanaticism and he cites the Yugoslav wars of secession during the 1990s as a reference point. The so-called “good” nationalism of the late 19th century provided the phantasmic structure that allowed for nationalist fantasies to be played out as violently as they did later on. It is the “healthy” nationalism that structures the nationalist fantasy (what Zizek calls the “dirty water”) and maintains its spiritual purity [3]. To decouple these is to effectively de-historicize it, and leaves the national question unresolved. The West distanced itself from Balkan nationalism to escape the “ethnic bug” of sectarian fanaticism, but their soft nationalism is in fact the opposing side of the same, nationalist violence they were viewing during the wars of Yugoslav secession. This is partly why a Western state cannot properly account for the national question, or even resolve it politically: it affirms its presumptions, and tries to decouple the bad nationalism from the good which leaves the phantasmic structure of nationalism still intact. The nation-state deals with the national question through particulars while it is a question of grander, material history which both “soft” and fanatical, ultra-nationalism are implicated in.

Although modern Western politics has painted liberal democracy and nationalism as oppositional forces, their histories are interwoven with one another. They answer fundamentally different questions: while “democracy is the institutional expression of the tenet of self-rule of the people, nationalism addresses the problem of who are ‘the people’” [4].  Therefore, when liberal historians critique the national question they are in effect also critiquing of a fundamental tenet of their own  ideology. By looking into the Balkans, the Westerner finds solace in their own neutral “soft” nationalism, but they are looking at their own reflection; they are us, and vice-versa. The brazen nationalist politics and violence in the Balkans is merely a replay of the original, national question that Westerners needed to resolve centuries prior. And it was them, too, that created their own homogeneous space, and excluded others, all in the context of liberalism. French philosopher Étienne Balibar, in a 1999 lecture in Thessaloniki, Greece remarked that:

The fate of European identity as a whole is being played out in Yugoslavia and more generally in the Balkans. Europe has two options… either [it] will recognize in the Balkan situation not a monstrosity grafted to its breast, a pathological ‘after-effect’ of underdevelopment or of communism, but rather an image… of its own history, and will undertake to confront it and resolve it and thus to put itself into question and transform itself [5].

Nationalism plays out again and again, repeating with difference, but continues to  reproduce itself because the problems underlying it remain unresolved. We are currently witnessing the new wave of right-wing nationalist politics in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It repeats because the question of nationalism has yet to be properly answered. Instead, distance has been created between its particular symptoms. When nationalism is treated solely by its particulars, with individual national histories, the assumed distance that is said to exist between each nationalist narrative ends up reproducing the same ambiguity and contradictions continuously – the “dirty water” of nationalism, the perceived good in it, and all the rest.

II.   Ambiguous Spaces

Nation and the VillageLiberal historiographers have naturalized the process of nationalism into a linear, homogeneous trajectory. On the ground, it was a different story and one of sectarianism, negotiation, and forced assimilation. The tension comes from the nature of the nation-state itself, and how it determines who are its “people.” Given that the majority in Eastern Europe and the Balkans were peasants, this oftentimes involved a communication between the upper-classes of their respective societies and the peasant base. Keely Stauter-Halsted in The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 uses the region of Galicia as an allegory for other nationalist projects of the time. The creation of nationalism generally took a similar form among all peasant Slavs and others living in Eastern Europe. There needed to be a unified, nationalist front among all classes of the people in question, but this involved correcting the grey areas, regions where nationalist identity was not so clear. These regions were plentiful because the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe oftentimes had a multiplicity of allegiances. Keely Stauter-Halsted calls these “nested identities,” and they oftentimes overlapped. How these people identify, she writes, was based on many different allegiances, and their most immediate one was their local community and dialect. For Austrian Poles, their allegiances were multifold: many had their own nested identities that they clung to including the Austrian state and the Catholic Church [6]. For the peasant living under the rule of an empire in Eastern Europe, the nationalist project involved evoking all of these interwoven identities that rested on “regional, extra-regional, and social attachments” [7]. The goal was to channel them into one cohesive vision that could be adopted as an organizing principle for the new nation-state. Previously, these old, pre-modern identities were not channeled into a particular politics; they only denoted specific kinds of allegiances, and provided social organization on some basic, intelligible level whether it be Catholicism or allegiance to the emperor. And because these identities overlapped, there was intelligibility between them and this made them ripe for appropriation by nationalist politics.

In Galicia, the peasant elite increasingly began articulating the public agenda as the “welfare of the nation” by the late-19th century [8]. However, for the elites and their upper-class allies, the “nation” denoted a much different concept than how it was understood by the majority of the population, the peasantry. Galicia is just a microcosm of a greater process that occurred in Eastern Europe in the latter-half of the 19th century where elites began a long and sustained entry into peasant cultural life, and were constantly negotiating their “patriotic message” with their respective peasant audiences [9]. For many of these peasants, these interactions gave them a glimpse of what would be characterized as modern, civic life, but yet they “still remained rooted in the rituals, customs, and beliefs of ‘premodern’ agricultural communities” [10]. The goal of the educated nationalists was therefore to appropriate many of these images into vague references, and use it to “camouflage the heterogeneous nature of national identity” [11]. Therefore, the most significant rift in early-developing nationalist consciousness was on class lines between the elites and the peasant class. Soon, the discourse they used merged despite being interpreted differently by each class. One such example, Keely Stauter-Halsted writes, was the annual celebration of the 1791 Polish Constitution: for the upper-class, the day signified an “opposition to foreign rule,” but for the peasants it was a time for “staging agrarian rituals around maypoles in the countryside” [12]. The peasants negotiated the meaning of the national vision with their elite counterparts. They rooted them in village traditions and this provided them a basis why they could now associate with the new national character. It became familiar to them. Peasant nationalism spread from village to village, discussed in pubs and local events, and constantly vied for legitimacy among other competing subcultures. And in a “discursive sleight of hand,” elites in Austrian Poland performed peasant folk culture and in their writings spoke of a natural, nationalist consciousness forming; their historiography was one of triumph of a homogeneous group of Poles reaching their true identity [13]. They spoke little of the struggle present on the local level, and the discussions had, and the “nested identities” constantly conflicting with each other. Instead, nationalist historiography was about homogeneous movement forward, and the educated class narrativized peasant nationalism into a justification for sovereignty and a new state of affairs. As the peasants were determining the “nation” on a local level, the elite class was codifying these developments into a clear, historical trajectory.

Many ambiguous spaces existed in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century which became battlegrounds for nationalist politics. Galicia is just one of many. In Jeremy King’s text Budweisers into Czechs and Germans, he writes of the contested space in Southern Bohemia where “for at least seven centuries, [there were] at least three ethnic groups: the Czech majority, a strong German minority, and… a less numerous but nonetheless influential Jewish minority” [14]. It was only “the ninetieth and twentieth century that elevated these relations… to a relationship among modern nations” [15]. King quotes Jörg Hoensch in History of Bohemia in pointing out that German-ness was based not only in culture or religion, but also in perceived common history. The wars of liberation against Napoleon captured the German historical experience, but “it gripped few Germans in Bohemia” [16]. Historiographies of Austria-Hungary, and specifically even Bohemia, have been mostly national histories instead of histories of nationalism. Ethnicity, here, then becomes a predecessor to nations, and nationalism is the outgrowth of natural, ethnic divisions. However, ethnic groups are not “historical antecedents but national products” – and some, like historian Gary Cohen, have gone as far as to argue that, in the case of Czechs and Germans, “socioeconomic standing accounted better than did ethnicity for how residents became national” [17]. Oftentimes, nationalism was adopted by Austria-Hungarian minorities to aspire to political primacy, and it was through political will that Croats, Czechs, and others were able to naturalize their respective nationalisms. They needed to be interpolated as a separate group by an authority, and Austria-Hungary adopted ethnic splits as mode of politics which ultimately undermined its legitimacy.

III.   The National Question after World War One

In the years following World War One, two concepts were pushed in tandem: minority rights and forced deportations. Eric D. Weitz in From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions speaks of this development as a transition between the old model of Vienna to the new Paris system. Whereas the Vienna system of states was based on dynastic legacy and sovereignty, the new post-WW1 system had a new geopolitical configuration where each state was a representative of its own homogeneous ethnic space. This distinction was made on two major points: (1) the confounding of ethnicity, nationalism, and sovereignty and (2) “the development of the civilizing mission into a comprehensive program” to boost the numbers of the nation so that it can bee seen as a legitimate state [18]. In the summer of 1919, the Allies needed to deal with a different national question emerging in Eastern Europe with the dissolution of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires. The logic of self-determination forced a response, and two solutions emerged: “populations could either be protected or removed” [19]. A population could derive rights from its numbers alone, and the relationship between nationalist violence and the protection of minorities in Europe parallel each other in 20th century history. Weitz specifically writes of the Greek-Bulgarian exchange promulgated by the then Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos. In 1913, he proposed “the notion of moving around hundreds of thousands of people to create homogenous states” so that the political lines were drawn in the “exact accordance… or approximate accordance… [of the] limits of their ethnical domain.” From this, the “Society of Nations [would] be created” [20].

Bulgaria

Nationalist politics in Eastern Europe soon turned against its neighbors as they struggled to define who their “people” were and came to a head on the eve of World War One. This is a propagandized postcard of that time illustrated by Alexander Bozhinov (Александър Божинов). The postcard depicts a satirical caricature of Bulgarian soldier hanging Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and French enemy soldiers like laundry.

The Western response to the national question after World War One was to naturalize these relationships between nation-states through legal means. It created international, rights-based protections for minorities, while also allowing for states to determine their own homogeneous spaces. This proved politically unstable as many of the newly-created Eastern European nations had heterogeneous populations and the influx of refugees from Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere created an international policy of minority protection by the League of Nations which soon became unenforceable by the 1930s because of sheer numbers.  There was a large influx of stateless people who, without belonging to a nation-state, effectively had no rights. Through peace treaties, Western powers attempted to regulate peoples in Eastern Europe by offering a model of minority rights. The old nation-states of the West were themselves, though, unable to grapple with the problem of minority status in their own liberal states, and it remained “even more doubtful whether it could be imported in an area which lacked the very conditions for the rise of nation-states” [21].

From the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, there was a belt of mixed populations [22]. In Latvia, a quarter of the population was a minority ethnic group; twenty percent were minorities in Lithuania; in Czechoslovakia, a quarter was German; and within the borders of Poland, only 70% were ethnically considered Polish [23]. Some regions became ethnically ambiguous, such as Czech Silesia, Transylvania, and Macedonia which was a contested space between Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks [24]. In the West, identification transitioned from religious identity to cultural affiliation and citizenship after the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th century; however, Eastern Europe maintained a religious-national consciousness, where Catholic Poles could differentiate themselves from Protestant Germans or Orthodox Russians. These relationships were intensified after World War One, but the conflict between these groups had been present in peasant life in the region for at least a century. Economic stratification soon took on the form of these identities where Estonian and Latvian peasants worked for German barons, or Ukrainian minorities worked for Polish lords [25]. The slippage between class and nationality became the instigator of pogroms where these two concepts confounded to spark violence. The 1907 peasant revolts in Moldavia began as an anti-Semitic riot in the northern part of the region before expanding into protests against the land-owning class more broadly. Other identities were recuperated into class antagonisms as ethnic conflicts took on a class dimension but played themselves out as nationalist violence.

IV.   The Current Wave of Population Politics

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the national question has once again reappeared in Eastern Europe after the lid was kept on it for decades. It was not as if during Soviet occupation such questions were not asked, but nationalist politics were effectively frozen for decades. Much had changed during this time, however. After World War Two, the border between Western and Eastern Europe effectively “shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East” [26]. Now, they are independent states, and these perceived wrongs could be corrected.  Since the 90s, questions of nationalism have thawed in Eastern Europe and have once again entered popular discourse. The old, nationalist population politics of the late 19th and early 20th century have reappeared, yet now they come as alarmist and dire because of perceived cultural loss. The national question was left unresolved, and has now reappeared with ressentiment. The current wave has been instigated by reasons other than ones that pushed it during the turn of the 20th century. Russian diaspora politics has been revitalized by Russian nationalism and its reach is felt in Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, and other ex-Soviet states that still have sizable Russian minorities. Diaspora politics more generally have become a crucial political tool for ruling powers in Eastern Europe especially in light of falling birthrates post-1989. Croatia, for example, used diaspora politics in the 1990s to grant ethnic Croats living abroad in Bosnia and elsewhere proper citizenship and voting right – ultimately, pushing the Croatian nationalist party HDZ over the edge and to victory [27]. In 1999, the right-wing coalition in Poland reached out to ethnic Poles in Ukraine and Lithuania through citizenship and immigration policy to spur tourism, investment, and economic growth [28]. This new wave of Eastern European nationalism based on diasporic kin has created a “cross-border [network] of interdependent and patronage between homeland states and diaspora elites” while also increasing the potential of “inter-ethnic tensions” [29]. Kinship on ethnic ground forges ties within communities and minorities of other nation-states which ultimately empowers secessionist politics. The political ramifications of diaspora politics are strongly felt in Macedonia and Kosovo where the national question has led to cultural disputes over historical narratives and whether a region that is significantly Albanian is justified in being allowed to join Albania [30].

In the early 20th century, nationalism was justified by empiricism and perceived natural difference. It was made into a science, and it could be scrutinized as such. Now, however, we have reached a different form of nationalism – one which, increasingly, cannot be discredited by the mere fact that it is arbitrary. The mono-ideology of Sovietism has collapsed, and many individual nationalist ideologies have come to reclaim their place of power. We live today in a world of relativistic difference, of many competing narratives, none of which are deemed “correct.” Post-modernism provides coverage for all of these previously bastardized ideologies — nationalists, ethnic purists, traditionalists, etc., because it raises the floor for all of them. They are all fighting on the same turf, because post-modernism privileges none of them. The only aspect that makes nationalism “real” is its political will. This is even demonstrated in an old Slavic myth about Vladimir the Great. It is said that in the year 987, Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the world to pick one for his people. Islam was undesirable because of its taboos on alcohol and pork; Jews had lost Jerusalem, and therefore they were God’s abandoned children; and Catholicism was too dull (surprisingly). He settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity because its festivals had a phantasmic quality… “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth” [31]. The choice was arbitrary, but it was the historical precedent thereafter that linked Orthodoxy with the Russian ethnicity. How could one argue against an identity when its adherents recognize its arbitrariness? Within this nationalist fantasy lies something deeper that cannot be accounted for with reason alone.

The Eastern European attachment to nationalism has many origins, but in the current era, it is characterized by cultural anxiety over declining status and the precarity of workers in Eastern Europe. This instability necessitates a need for community, one which is satisfied by nationalism. If nationalism cannot be accounted for by reason alone, then we must diagnose the forces that push individuals into these categories. In their precarity, nationalism provides community. Although arbitrary, there are clear historical trajectories that underscore nationalism as an ideology and grant it an actually-existing justification. And even when Vladimir the Great was choosing a religion for his people, a political calculation was made amidst it all. It was not only that Orthodoxy was aesthetically beautiful for him, but Byzantine impressed him as a political system and as a power. It was geopolitically beneficial for Orthodoxy to be pinned to Russian identity, and the historical forces placed its peoples into this constructed category. Although nationalism now requires no “objective” narrative to derive legitimacy, the material conditions ultimately provide that narrative. History thus pushes us and provides the actually-existing justification for narratives that would have previously been unfounded. The social forces are too great to be undermined by their arbitrariness, for what makes Russian nationalism any less arbitrary than Western liberalism? Any criticism of Eastern European nationalism on these grounds ultimately ends up reflecting back the arbitrary construction of Western nation-states. The national question, thus, cannot be resolved by appealing to its Western reflection; the creation of rights-based politics and protections during the 20th century merely naturalized nationalism’s historical trend, and tried to decouple “soft” nationalism from its true, fanatical base. Instead, ethnic and national categories must be decoupled from their socioeconomic origins; it is only by addressing the precarity of modern labor, and the anxiety it brings, can the community be rehabilitated beyond just nationalism.

***

[1]  Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), Chapter II, 80–81.
[2] Yugoslav scholars oftentimes rehabilitated nationalist anti-imperialist struggle against the Austria-Hungarians by describing it as “good nationalism.” For a more concrete example, I cite Thomas T. Hammond’s article Nationalism and National Minorities in Eastern Europe in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1966), on pages 9-31 who makes this exact argument.
[3] Slavoj Zizek. Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means (InterCommunications, 18: 1997).
[4]  Pavel Barša, “Ethnocultural Justice in East European States and the Case of the Czech Roma” in Can Liberal Pluralism Be Exported?: Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe (Oxford University Press: 2002), 243.
[5] Tanja Petrovic. Thinking Europe without Thinking: Neo-colonial Discourse on and in the Western Balkans. (Eurozine: 2007). Web: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-09-22-petrovic-en.html
[6] Keely Stauter-Halsted writes that even well into the beginning of the 20th century, there were still Poles who resisted the nation-state and still referred to themselves as the “emperor’s people.”
[7] Keely Stauter-Halsted. The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 (Cornell University Press: 2004), 8.
[8] Ibid., 3.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 5.
[14] Jeremy King. Budweisers into Czechs and Germans (Princeton University Press: 2002), 6.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 9.
[18] Eric D. Weitz. From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions. (American Historical Review: December, 2008), 1315.
[19] Ibid., 1329.
[20] Ibid., 1335.
[21] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1st edition: 1973), 268.
[22] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 270.
[23] Ivan T. Berend. Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II (University of California Press: 2001), 43.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., 45.
[26] Milan Kundera. The Tragedy of Central Europe. (New York Review of Books Volume 31, Number 7: 1984), 1.
[27] Myra A. Waterbury. From Irredentism to Diaspora Politics: States and Transborder Ethnic Groups in Eastern
Europe (Center for Global Studies: July, 2009), 4.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 7.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Marvin Kalb. Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press: 2015), ch. 4.

Fear is profitable. After all, what better way to oil the gears of the military-industrial complex and accumulate wealth than with a frightening slogan?  Better yet, have it be a frightening slogan that portrays those that disagree as weak and worthy of scorn. In Western society, it has become more and more prevalent, since the economic crisis of ’08, to portray minorities as scapegoats.

Generally speaking, the historical precedent is one that sadly works similarly every time. During recessionary periods, fingers are pointed. Groups are targeted. And it happens because it is convenient. It is easy. It is easy to characterize the “Other” in society as vile for political gains, since they lack the social power to fight back. As the majority in the society scramble to reclaim all they have lost economically, they begin to find solace in blaming others rather than the system that produced it. This same phenomenon has reproduced itself not only the United States, but in virtually every Western society since the Great Recession of 2008.

In Europe, the crises of debt and unemployment has allowed for a frightening increase in nationalism. Nostalgia for fascism in Greece finds its face in the Golden Dawn party. Xenophobia voices are vulgarly heard through France’s third largest party, National Front, and through Germany’s National Democratic Party. In Hungary, the Jobbik party has risen to become the third largest party through Hungarian irredentism and anti-Semitism. Even in the United States, minorities are denigrated as being “moochers” as the right insists on tighter immigration regulations and cuts to social safety nets. If the economy is of greatest importance, then why do we keep allowing racist “culture wars” to dominate politics? At the most critical point, when people have everything to lose and nothing to gain, the individuals with actual solutions begin to scramble and watch as people repeatedly choose nationalist strongmen over economic sustenance.

The problem lies in ideology. Westerners are very coddled and institutionalized in a way that makes them coalesce to authoritarian power. A right-wing deviation from the normal political speak is not all that much of a radical bent compared to left-wing calls for economic fairness and institutional overhauls. For one, Western people take pride in their judicial system and police force, claiming it to be symbolic of genuine integrity. In the United States, the military is always superimposed with patriotism and honor — and going against the grain is seen as foolishly “un-American.” The institutions that uphold these spheres of power craft in the population a feeling of trust. This trust is easily mended and oftentimes exploited. And all of this is strengthened and solidified through rhetoric. Contradictory slogans equating militarism with freedom is commonplace, at least in American politics. Naturally, this is used as political bait; if you attack the militarization of the world through American power, you must despise democracy and liberty despite it being anything but. The cognitive dissonance is so blatant, but yet it goes uncontested in the American mind and it serves to fester right-wing politics. Western politics has a predisposition to be right-wing politics.

Note: This was written before the election of Nicolás Maduro. 


The election of 1998 was one of righteous importance to Venezuelans. Within the shadow International Monetary Fund and under its watchful eye, Venezuela had seen ten of its banks [1] collapse in the years prior, its Bolivar currency degenerate [2], and inflation run rampant [3]. Violent outbreaks plagued the city bounds and immediate countryside, sparked by Hugo Chavez’s failed coup attempt of 1992. During the 90s presidency of Rafael Caldera, the socioeconomic inequality of Venezuela reached its frustration and ultimate climax. Tipping over, it found its ultimate solution, by popular vote, through Hugo Chavez’s victory in December of 1998 – and with it, puntofijismo, the three-party system that held Venezuela by the handles since 1958, fell to Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Anti-imperialism and hostility towards Western influence has been commonplace since the Bolivarian Revolution.

Anti-imperialism and hostility towards Western influence has been commonplace since the Bolivarian Revolution.

In many ways, the importance of Hugo Chavez’s first election victory extends beyond his left-leaning economic policies.  It represented a significant shift in Venezuelan politics, and the rest of Latin America, against the Washington Consensus that was taking capital away from Venezuelan hands for decades. More broadly, it captured a struggle within a more pressing grander narrative that included centuries of Western economic infiltration and exploitation since the colonial era. The emergence of leftist movements in Latin America after Chavez’s rise to power, called the ”pink tide,” symbolized a crucial break from what was once the normality of Latin American economic dependence. This critical change owes its thanks to the richness of Venezuelan resources, particularly oil. The oil card that Venezuela possesses is a keen one in international politics and it enabled Chavez to raise Venezuela from its former subservient position in comparison to Western economies. Currently, oil stands as the stronghold of economic power among modern nations and it grants Venezuela a necessary springboard with which it can bring its country, and the rest of Latin America, to prominence.

Chavismo leaves much to be desired.

However, in all its oil wealth, this treasure has created a dubious contradiction in the institutions that control Venezuela. Chavez’s legacy will surely leave some form of his political ideology, chavismo, as the engine of Venezuelan politics, but also remaining will be the programs and structures that he helped expand through nationalized oil revenues. Many of these are not transparent. The uncertain nature of the Venezuelan future resembles a double-sided sword. On the one hand, public ownership of the oil industry has allowed for Chavez’s reformist positions for social justice to take root. Venezuela’s poverty rate, unemployment rate, and infant mortality rate have all decreased significantly [4] and the country now boasts the lowest level of income inequality in Latin America [5]. On the other hand, despite these gains, homicide rates have increased multifold [6] and institutional corruption has remained frighteningly high regardless of Chavez’s party platform of “anti-corruption” [7]. A mixed bag of success, Hugo Chavez has managed to pursue some forms of social justice and alternate institutions – such as the radical democratic experiments of communal councils (consejos comunales) – while still working alongside the dishonest power structures that existed before the Bolivarian revolution. It is this dangerous relationship that might reverse the moderate gains made for the working poor in Venezuela, now that Chavez has passed away. Such corruption has the ability to spiral into the backdoor privatization and foreign meddling that was seen in the crisis prior to 1998.

It is this uncertainty that calls into question the longevity of Chavez’s policies and chavismo. The prediction of what will become of Venezuela’s leftist movements is a difficult one.  There are relatively two major paths that could very well be taken, one clearly more preferable than the other. Venezuela could continue to pursue its expansionary social programs, using the power of oil politics, while in the meantime working to stamp out the fraudulent institutions that have been a staple in the Venezuelan experience since colonial times. Contrarily, it could also succumb to Western finance and right-wing movements that caused the economic collapse of the 1990s, impoverishing the majority while enriching the coffers of the higher castes of Venezuela. During his presidency, Hugo Chavez managed to take some crooked middle route by granting the state economy some room to pursue its corrupt practices while also responding to popular support through governmental programs and the socialization of private profits. However, this route is unsustainable. Unless the fraudulent and cyclical problems of Venezuela are addressed, its institutions will continue to hollow until its message of social justice becomes all but meaningless.

Thus, the burden lies on the working people of Venezuela to actively support and accept, as a basic right, the human necessities that were only recently granted to them. The ideology of chavismo should not be a temporary one, given it brought popular democracy to a largely undemocratic system, but it requires persistent vigilance against the reactionary powers that seek to destroy it and return Venezuela back to economic madness. Thereby, it is in the hands of the Venezuelans themselves to remain passionate enough to prevent a reversion to pre-Chavez policies. However, as to if they will actually do so with enough potency, that is really anybody’s guess.

Chavez-inspired murals are scattered about in Venezuelan cities.

Chavez-inspired murals are scattered about in Venezuelan cities.

Bernie Madoff — the con, the criminal, the fraud, and the scum of the corporate establishment. These were the titles given to this corrupt financier, but above all, he was said to simply be a “bad egg” in a basket of well-intentioned entrepreneurs and “job creators.”

However, despite these claims, Madoff’s case is not unique. Madoff’s real crime was that he stepped outside the circle of appropriate corporate conduct, whose edge tends to gravitate farther and farther away from lawfulness as income rises. The reality of wealth privilege within the institutions that are publicly seen as ‘just’ is a causality of a system that rewards excess. Most shocking, however, is how the personal endeavors of these individuals clash with their fraudulent actions. Madoff, perhaps, is the epitome of such a phenomenon. Although stealing billions of dollars, he was also a devoted philanthropist. His largest beneficiary was the Picower Foundation, which allocated the funds to organizations such the Boy Scouts of America and the Children’s Aid Society. NY Times reports the funds as:

* 2007 — $23,424,401 (See the 2007 Form 990 filed by the Foundation with the Internal Revenue Service.)
* 2006 — $20,184,183 (See the Form 990.)
* 2005 — $27,662,893 (See the Form 990.)

In total, $958 million was donated to the Picower Foundation.

Other charities were involved, and were almost entirely dependent on Madofff’s funds. As reported by the NY Times, some of them included:

  • $145 million to the Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation
  • $20 million to Tufts University
  • $18 million to the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles
  • $19 million to the Madoff Family Foundation
  • $90 million to the Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization
  • $100 – $125 million to Yeshiva University

These are incredible amounts of money, so abuse comes to no surprise; but is it not an anomaly that the worst white-collar criminal in history was also one of the ‘greatest’ philanthropists, by modern standards? Acting as a perverse indulgence, charity might not be as chivalrous of an act as socially understood. Seen as a mechanism of redemption, this behavior is typical in this category of criminal activity. Bernard Ebbers, convicted in 2005 of similar crimes, showed the same phenomenon, having donated over $100 million dollars to charity over the course of ten years. Corporations are no exception; Enron was also a known giver to charity, 

Enron CEO Kenneth Lay exemplified the company’s philanthropy, endowing several professorships at the University of Houston and Rice University, while the company itself was known for its generous gifts to arts groups, scholarship funds, and the Texas Medical Center.

Such behavior, interestingly enough, correlates with the religious attitude seen when the Catholic Church held immense power in Europe during the Middle Ages. In an effort to ‘save’ those in Purgatory, having commited sins on Earth, priests charged individuals sums of money for indulgences, or remissions, to free or limit the time their loved ones would be trapped in this supernatural lingo. Priests, making huge individual profits, attempted to justify their accumulations through Church-sanctioned actions. In effect, they stole with one hand and ‘saved’ with the other.

In a modern twist, corporate crime is looking  for that same metaphysical ‘salvation,’ and they certainly found it in charity. Functioning as an egoist drive, this behavior only highlights the disparity of behavior within certain classes of the social strata. Little rationality can be viewed amongst those that accumulate such large reserves of finance power, as they scramble to find redemption in a sea of fraud and narcissism. It is this crude revelation that illustrates the paradox of corporate conduct — as long as you appear charitable, what is done behind closed doors is forgivable. Or so the twisted mindset goes.

***

More info on the “Paradox of Fraud and Philanthropy” 

In modern history courses, it is implied the age of colonialism ended after the decolonization of Africa in the years after WW2. After the mass exploitation of indigenous persons, the destruction of their cultures, and the genocide of their peoples – the Western powers are sorry for what they’ve done, and they’ve shown their gratitude by leaving them to their own. The “White Man’s Burden” is over; we’ve changed.

But what do we make of the humanitarian wars and the imposed economic globalization through international institutions? Is this something to embrace, or is it rather neocolonialism “with a human face?

If there is one thing we can learn from the tragedy of 19th and 20th century colonialism is that the interests are seldom explicitly stated. It is illustrated as the noblest of causes; it was the duty of ‘civilized’ to help those less fortunate and rid them of their immoral cultures. It is this relationship between the colony and the colonizers that is seemingly most dangerous, and established cultural hegemony [a term borrowed from Anton Gramsci’s writings] on those under occupation, making them disillusioned of what the future held. In of itself, this creates an atmosphere of implied prejudice and dependence that severely dismantles the cultural balance and solidarity among the peoples of that area. On a tangible level it strips them of their natural resources, impoverishing them, and leaving them to wallow in their suffering.

On the topic of the noble portrayal of colonialism – each Empire had their own distinct form of doublespeak used for garnering support. For the French and Portuguese it was the “civilizing mission,” all in effort to tame the ‘backward people’ in order to forcibly assimilate them into the social mores of the respective empire. For the Americans, and the British also, it was predominately the “White Man’s Burden” based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling which portrayed the imperialism as a noble enterprise and seemingly divinely sanctioned. For other empires, their reasons were almost explicitly nationalistic with little ‘noble’ justification. The German and Italian Empires both wanted their “place in the sun,” especially Germany after Kaiser Wilhelm II’s rise to power and his doctrine of Weltpolitk. The Japanese empire was the only non-western imperialistic power and they based their doctrine on anti-western ideals and nationalism; the foreign policy of the Shōwa period was dominated by the concept of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which attempted to create a domineering Japanese presence in Eastern Asia. It’s underlying motive was similar to that of the American ideology of “Manifest Destiny” and many Japanese felt it was self-evident they would expand after the many wars Japan engaged in, particularly with China and Russia. 

Not surprisingly so, much of the language used during the apex of what I call ‘classical modern colonialism’ is still prevalent today, albeit in a different more obscure context. The public reasons for militarization and dominance have changed and the functions of a physical empire have exhausted their use; however, the motivations for a commercial one are still very present in policy – and the reasoning may very well be very much the same; It is the public admission that we’re “civilizing” them, but not with culture this time [as least not directly], but rather with “democracy” and “liberal capitalism.” This was the justification for American-backed coups d’état of the 20th century, to eliminate any threat to American hegemony on the global stage, which was then communism. It was driven by fear and perhaps even more fundamentally ‘American Exceptionalism’ of which is staple of any imperialistic power. The reality of the Iraq War, the United States’ current occupation of Afghanistan, and the drone strikes all over the Middle East only enforces that this concept is still very fresh in the minds of American policymakers. It seems Americans have already forgot the tragedy of Vietnam, which they swore they would never allow to happen again. Noam Chomsky described the danger of this anomaly as such:

“Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral & intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead..”

And in this respect, I cannot agree more. Historical amnesia and an ignorant public is always benefit to the policymakers – it is institutionalized ignorance and a product of exactly how the system was created to function in an effort to engineer a passive social order, and the assumed ‘benevolence’ of today’s major powers is only the tip of the iceberg sadly enough.

Aside from the United States, Western Europe is engaging in very similar neo-imperial activity to maintain at least some form of economic, political, or military control on the former colonies. France’s policy of Françafrique, which was once hailed to be a mutually beneficial relationship, is inherently exploitative. France’s supporting, and subtle funding, of resource-rich dictatorships such as that of the Democratic Republic of Congo [dictatorship until 1997] and Gabon [whose dictator died in 2009, but his son is now in power] are dissuading and rendering it near impossible for the native people there to establish their own system. This populist disconnect from policy and reality is a feature created by the former colonizers and was mostly promulgated during the Cold War, with the establishment of anti-Communist dictatorships, but is still very much a systemic staple of Western foreign policy today; all done in the name of safety, democracy, and ‘moral doctrines.

Although current French President Sarkozy has attempted to distance himself from Françafrique, it’s implications are still felt and still being pursued. France has been in more military operations in the past few years than it has been in the last 50; its intervention in its former colony Ivory Coast, its intervention in the Libyan Civil War (which it conducted before the emergency meeting of Western powers in Paris), its co-opting [with the U.S primarily] of the 2004 Haitian coup d’état of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, its troop deployment into the former French colony of Chad, and its military involvement in the Afghanistan War. All of these, claimed to be purely humanitarian wars, have much of the criteria of a neo-colonial mentality – and aims at establishing French (or Western) dominance in these regions of the world.

And perhaps equally commercially imperialistic is the World Bank and the WTO, where the World Bank gives loans to autocratic regimes in the Third World, only to see that money go to waste and then asking the WTO to demand repayments; which always comes in the form of severe cuts for programs necessary for those not in power. It is this dynamic that is exploitative and ultimately prevents these nations from ever reaching real global status, among other things.

Seemingly so, ignorance always benefits the state – and that certainly holds true in this case. The disillusionment of the public on foreign policy is rather frightening, and the imperial trends will continue to be cyclic and unbroken until it is realized. I take an anti-imperialist stance from an ethical, philosophical, and morally-pragmatic perspective; because the self-determination of peoples in realizing their own destinies cannot be undermined, no matter how elusively humble the cause or how great the safety that is promised thereafter.

It is certain that in the west, secularism has prevailed; Well, at least in Europe, replacing religious ethics with cultural hedonism that is paradoxically more restrictive than religion ever was. Hedonism, rather then being the construct of a divine text, is directly derived from the individual. This creates something of a more limiting environment. The west has embraced this pleasure-seeking ideal, but not without a few strings attached. The west’s hedonistic culture has in itself created artificial walls of conduct that has proved to be more restraining than dogma at times, because it is a product of something much more fundamental; one’s own mind; and we must cherish this right and not let it be dwarfed in the name of “protection from offense.” This is where I fear most of all that the west, especially Europe, might relinquish their Voltairean principle of free speech.

In January of 2012, France passed the ‘Armenian Genocide Bill’ which criminalized the denial of it happening. Although noble in writing and true in its intent, this type of legislation is particularly dangerous. Why are we constructing a society free of offending? The real purpose of free speech, as espoused in the age of Enlightenment, is for the protection of unpopular speech; popular speech has little to be protected from. It is this dilemma from which I fear the subtle censorship that is present in European society, which is done in the name of protection from offense. As Christopher Hitchens, the prominent journalist, eloquently put it in this video“don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus” simply because you are in majority. If one person disagrees, and says so, then there should be special protection bestowed to that individual because what that person has to say is intrinsically more important. Now, this is not because that person has something more of substance to say; it is because what that person has to say is vital to reverifying truths that may be taken for granted. It refreshes the principles of the majority, in this case the recognition of the Armenian genocide. And moreover, if your opinion is truly the correct one you should not fear the dissenting opinion of one mere individual to the point where you have to resort to censorship.

Furthermore, who is going to protect you from the offensive language? When you empower the state to censor your society, to decide who is the harmful speaker, you have relinquished your right to dissent; and pity you when you need that right of speech, if you ever do.

The largest threat to limiting our fundamental right of speech, it seems, is those claiming to be protecting in the name of religion. Islam, especially, in European society feels it is entitled to special protection under the law. In the case of the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005, where pictures of Muhammad were drawn and printed in a newspaper, they were said to be “offensive” by some Muslims in the community. They protested the cartoon, and there was a global movement where they called for the Danish government to bring it down. Self-censorship ensued. Is this the society we’ve grown into, where it’s forbidden to offend and exercise one’s right to say what he or she wishes? Retrospectively this is offensive to us, those who follow the Enlightenment, to have to see our rights of speech slandered for the religious. No creed deserves to special protection under the law, for then it becomes tyranny to all those not under the that umbrella of “tolerance.”

The issue of ecology and environmentalism: during the 2009 Copenhagen Summit this was especially evident, where the state and its corporate interests failed to make any law-binding decisions. This problem has been going on for a while, where the consensus has always been “We urge people to pollute less!” without enacting any legislation to enforce that. And the inevitable collapse and depletion of the oil and the energy market, predicted to happen around 2040, will prove to be destructive to globalization.

The issue of transhumanism and the rapid advancement of biogenetics is an issue the markets will fail to control and the state will probably succumb to, which would ultimately create a physical and intellectual divide between the wealthy and the poor, aside from their socio-economic status, because only the rich will have access to such enhancements.

The issue of intangible capital; the market has always functioned on physical capital that could be exchanged in the real world, but now with the rise of digital assets (which is now worth more than real world assets) all that is changing and it seems that the current laws on intellectual property and copyright are proving to be useless. The problem comes from that regulating this kind of capital and the digital market in general is inherently intrusive and stripping of liberty. The pressure of corporations on the state to enact further laws to limit internet freedom will surely come as a result, representing a new form of censorship and Orwellian infringement of basic rights (more info here).

The issue of new forms of apartheid; Zizek discussed this in a few of his interviews, in which there is a new class of people that are just excluded from the system completely. This is becoming increasingly prevalent in South America, Africa, Asia, and even in the United States, where there are artificial barriers being set up between the slums and the rest of the nation. There is little state control in these areas, and they are completely disregarded in the political sphere and there is little hope of incorporating them back into the system since they are so disproportionately poor. A good example of these “little Berlin Walls,” that Zizek calls them, are the slums of the Romani people (the Gypsies) in Europe, specifically Eastern Europe. Just look up modern antiziganism and you will find the oppressive hatred and exclusion the Gypsies face in modern day Europe, and their rights are completely ignored in the political sphere and even by the transnational bodies like the UN, which is apparent in their reaction to Roma refugees in the aftermath of the Kosovo war. 

And finally, the issue of state interventionism is a problem in itself. I think most Keynesians would agree that if that state did not intervene the market would abolish itself; the allocative capacity of the market is just not efficient enough, especially in a world where there are more overweight people (1.5 billion) than malnourished individuals (925 million), where food is being misallocated to areas where it is not needed because of unethical profits. Industries are attracted to areas with high levels of GDP. Since the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ after WW2, there has been substantial growth but with this economic expansion also comes increased state involvement. This destructively centralizes democratic power rendering it useless, and increases state power to bounds that could endanger democracy in itself. Authoritarian capitalism, or ‘capitalism with Asian values,’ as is present in Singapore and China, is at this point in time working more efficiently than liberal capitalism which is something we should all be concerned with. It used to be that argument that free markets will ultimately lead to democracy eventually, but now the authoritarian way is proving to be much more efficient in many respects and that liberal argument for capitalism may soon be disproved.

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eleutheromania

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