Nations, Nationalisms, And The Natal Crime

Patriots and nationalists of many stripes are often committed to the view that a certain kind of nation-building violence was inevitable, and written into the very idea of the nation, into the national fabric as it were; the sanguine acceptance of such violence is ostensibly worth taking on as the price to be paid for the ‘gift’ of the nation–perhaps a home for a perennially wandering people, or a linguistic and cultural and religious community of one kind or the other, perhaps identified with a distinctive geographic location. Such acceptance has always had the uncomfortable implication that an acute incoherence is built into the citizen’s cherished moral creed of the nation and its politics. Its foundation is wrapped up in a holocaust that is part of its national origin, the burden of which all in the nation seem willing to accept with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Nations and their nationalist defenders deploy, in their political rhetoric, tropes that speak to virtue, to the earthly realization via their nation, of otherwise unrealizable moral and mundane goods; this does not preclude their insisting that their citizen defend in their name, all manner of moral atrocities. This incoherence is built into the heart and soul of the nation–and thus its citizens–so that it can force a peculiar and and distinctive dissonance on the part of its subject, rendering them internally incoherent and divided–and reliant upon the psychic support provided by the now valorized and seemingly immortal and indispensable nation. (There are parents who send out their children so ill-equipped, morally and otherwise, to deal with this world and those in it, that the child is soon driven back into the arms of its parents.) The arch critics of nationalism  insist all nations have violence written into their fabric because the nation can only come to being through some act of a national will to power that necessarily involves crushing the ambitions of other aspirations like family life or religious observance or local association. Cults are said to ask their devotees to discard all previous ties; the nation requires that all other commitments take a secondary place in the hierarchy of alliances and duties; the nation must do violence to these other competing claims. The nation is the mother of all cults.

Defending the indefensible is one of the many burdens that nationalism forces us to take on. Perhaps that explains, at least partially, the intensity of wars fought in the national interest: they are continuations of the violence that preceded and heralded them, an expression of acute discomfort, of horror, at the secret that is to be kept; these wars enable the maintenance of an appropriate distance from the scene of the natal crime. They are disavowals of the national crime, made more plausible by accusatory screeds hurled at another–perhaps a kind of ‘reaction formation’ on a  national level.

An entity that sought, and received, the blood of many to water its foundations will not hesitate for it again and again. Our history bears adequate witness to these demands.

Reinhold Niebuhr On The Ethical Permissibility Of Political Violence

In reviewing Reinhold Niebuhr‘s Major Works on Religion and Politics, Adam Kirsch makes note of the following passage from Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

If a season of violence can establish a just social system and can create the possibilities of its preservation, there is no purely ethical reason upon which violence and revolution can be ruled out.

Kirsch then goes on to note:

[B]y the end of the book, Niebuhr has retreated from [this position] somewhat. In theory violence might be justified, he argues, but in practice the American proletariat has no more chance of winning a revolutionary struggle than do American blacks. For both of these disinherited groups, Niebuhr concludes, confrontational nonviolence on the Gandhian model is the best course: “Non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors.”

Here, Niebuhr argues that political violence is ethically permissible but, given a concrete socio-political situation like the American polity–one with its  particular material circumstances pertaining to matters like the power and reach of its law enforcement apparatus, the material deprivation of its underclasses, and the fragmented relationship between them–tactically inadvisable. This is an interesting and important concession and qualification–especially coming from someone like Niebuhr who, because of his status as a Christian theologian, might be imagined to have some predisposition to ruling out violence on ethical grounds.

For what Niebuhr has conceded here, of course, is that in a different socio-political context, political violence might well be tactically advisable. Perhaps the relevant oppressed classes are more politically united–they have been able to build alliances geared toward revolutionary action; perhaps they are better equipped in material terms–with access to mass media and communication and reliable means of economic support. (In the American context, access to ‘weaponry’ takes on a whole new meaning given the militarization of its law enforcement forces and the proliferation of privately owned guns.) Viewed in this fashion, Niebuhr’s views take on a far more pragmatic hue: Revolution and revolutionary violence is a political business; it aims to change the distribution of power in a particular polity; its advisability is a matter of strategy and tactics; nonviolence, in some contexts, may have more revolutionary potential; in yet others, violence may suggest itself as a better political strategy.

Because I have no prima facie case to make against violence as a political tactic per se, I unsurprisingly find myself in agreement with Niebuhr. Doing politics and achieving political ends requires a toolbox; the more varied its contents, the better, for they are more likely to accommodate a diversity of polities and material political contexts.  Those tools find their place in our bag of tricks according to how ‘well’ they work. This ‘wellness’ can be judged in several dimensions; perhaps violence will be judged inadvisable in some context–as above–precisely because it offers little to no chance of success or threatens to produce too many undesirable knock-on effects. Whatever the case may be, our evaluation of our political options proceeds on pragmatic grounds. So-called a priori, ‘foundational,’ ‘first principles’ arguments against our political tools have no place here.