I recently read ‘The Lies that Bind’ by Anthony Kwame Appiah. I thought it was fantastic book and left me with many thoughts and responses. I wrote him a letter, but he didn’t reply, so I shall share it here… Hopefully some of them make sense for those that haven’t read the book, and for anyone who has, would be fascinated to hear.
Dear Professor Appiah
Firstly, apologies for this unsolicited note, and the second rate undergrad-level thoughts it contains.
After finishing ‘The Lies that Bind’, I really wanted to put down some thoughts – I hope you don’t thing its too weird that I have then sent them to you….
I have been thinking a lot about the ideas that you explore about identity within your book. Identity – and in particular nationality and it’s composite bits – is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently and a little bit for a long time, particularly as mixed-race Afro-caribbean Brit living in an British Asian former colony (Singapore) for the last four years. (I could write multiple emails just picking apart my observations on identity here in response to some of your writing – one of my neighbours told me the story of how, as a young boy, he went to bed waving one flag and woke up waving another 53 years ago)
On a personal level I really connected with the elements you wove in of your own story and how your unique viewpoint allows you to describe the absurdity of reductive and singular notions of identity that essentialists and ethnocentrists cling to. Having in my own small way straddled multiple worlds during my own experience; most obviously of race, but also of class and of culture, I have always had a sense that ‘obvious’ category divides and definitions aren’t particularly natural or clear or obvious, but I also feel that is the gift of a privileged viewpoint. I smiled when you referred to yourself as ‘English’ as I remember one particularly revealing late night debate with a very good friend (he still is now) from my college who vehemently denied me use of the title because I “don’t have the blood”.
The thing that really struck me as I read your work was the outsized role that Country or the Nation plays in tying together the contemporary versions of the four other sorts of identity that you explore. It seems that (to borrow one of your most lovely turns of phrase in the book) Nation, or the Nationalism born of the industrial nation state is the ‘Medusa Gaze’ that fixes and reduces the other facets identities. Between the French Revolution, the 19th Century romantic liberal-national movements and the technological and economic shifts of the Industrial Revolution, the overlapping, multilayered versions of identity that still lingered at the time of Ettore’s birth were hammered flat, collapsed and co-opted by modern Nationalism. Ironic that what at the start of the 19th Century was the great ideal of the liberal (I remember studying why ‘Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles’ was a message initially to inspire citizens of a patchwork of grand-duchies and principalities to ‘feel’ German above ‘Protestant’ or ‘Hanseatic’ or ‘Prussian’) became the refuge and strength of the authoritarian. Perhaps natural too, as once the liberal-national dream to ‘create’ has been fulfilled, the logical next step is to ‘conserve’?
Then of course this was exported to the rest of the world, through amongst other things the ‘Census, Map, Museum’ as Benedict Anderson puts it, and as you recognise when you talk about the invention of the Hindu (the same is true of the definition ‘Malay’ in Singapore – there has been some fantastic work done on how this authoritarian island utopia is a post colonial government deploying unreconstituted colonial structures and powers.
By lashing together states-wide tribalism for mass mobilisation – for war and for industry, using the vines and tentacles of creed and colour and culture, Country became Nation and it fixed these ideas, creating a mass cultural product that was compellingly simple and dangerously compelling. The lies we tell ourselves aren’t a problem in themselves – as you highlight in so many of your pre-industrial examples, until they are denied the elasticity and vibrancy to continue to flex and grow. Some of the examples you use from religion and evolving consensus on values highlight this beautifully, and in part I wanted to write to you to see what your response would be to the thought which struck me – namely, that it was this industrial homogenisation of these other elements by the Nation-State (to which I would add language, at least as a historical category to this) which caused so many of the problems we see now in ‘identity politics’; that identity politics as we see it, is a product of this process. Religious fundamentalism, racial essentialism and cultural ossification are all modern industrial products, and like Nationalism, are profoundly unsuited to the reality of the contemporary world – it’s no coincidence that it primarily is supranational bodies like the EU that are suited to – and have at least had some limited success being – a counterpoint to transnational corporations.
When you then went on to argue the opposite when it came to class, that we do not pay enough attention to it’s continuity and the myth of meritocracy (our 20th Century version of Mayer’s ‘Persistence of the Old Regime’) I was even more excited. Perhaps here I push my reading of you work too far into my limited (and rusty) intellectual realm as a historian by training, a democratic socialist by inclination and someone working in the ‘commercial application of social sciences’ (I say grandiosely – I am but a humble market researcher…) but could in some ways this be the counterpoint to Nation? Maybe I have been listening to Paul Robeson sing ‘Joe Hill’ too often recently, but it struck me that if the two work in opposite directions and by making class as you describe it more visible, class could provide a counterpoint to the problems of Nation? Or at least as a lever to prise back apart some richness and layers?
Lastly, as a liberal, the thing that you touch upon which touched me most is in your section on Cultural appropriation. When other ‘liberals’ throw it round cheaply, I shudder. That is truly (to use another of your phrases – and I have been using these a lot talking to people recently, so it’s not just here to flatter you in this email) a source code fallacy. By engaging on those terms, they truly are reinforcing exactly the essentialism that you rail against, and having had this argument with so many people recently, and ‘tarnishing’ my ‘correct’ cosmopolitan/liberal credentials it was relief to read someone far more eloquent and intelligent and me articulate the sentiment. he yardstick of ‘respect’ is a useful heuristic for making the phrase redundant. There are a few copies of the book along with specific pages called out already on their way to some people. You express the idea far better than I have ever managed!
Anyway, I hope you have time to read this, and certainly don’t expect a reply, but I really just wanted to say thank you for writing something so thought provoking and refreshing – definitely one of my books of the year so far,
P.S I do also really wonder if you have read any, and what you think of the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I feel like that must be an irritating question you get asked all the time, and the FT was wise enough to avoid it in their recent interview with you, so I shall do the same. His work does remind me of a bad joke someone told me – Why is race like Santa Claus? They are both not real, but have both caused so much genuine sorrow and suffering…
Where are you from?” It’s a simple question, one of the first phrases you are taught when we learn a foreign language. It’s one of the first questions we acquire because it lets us create a connection while at the same time helping us to understand difference. However, it is becoming ever-more loaded, and layered with implicits that cast long shadows over the question itself.
I remember being asked it recently, standing on one of those impressive but featureless blocks of Midtown that Manhattan does so well; imposing slabs of concrete made generic by the global duplication of these New York originals. An office worker, in shirtsleeves, outside, smoking a cigarette, approached me as I stood half intimidated by, half bored with the city around me.
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you from?”
“I’m from London…You know, London. In England”
“But where exactly are you from?”
“Streatham. I don’t know how well you know London, but it’s in the South”
“No, where are you from?”
The emphasis this final time made the unsaid question inescapable, despite my best evasions. The unspoken question here was ‘what are my ethnic origins’? Who was this pale-skinned, afro-haired, British accent loitering by my office fire escape? Not that you can hold this kind of question against the US. A young country, founded on a settler myth that revels in its ‘many’ that they melded into a ‘one’. It is a place where you struggle to find someone who will introduce themselves as ‘American’ rather than ‘-American’. It is a land obsessed with prefixes.
The answer that I didn’t give him puts me in an awkward situation in current political climes. I am a Londoner, born in Florida, to a Mother born in Jamaica and a British-Celtic father, whom I do not know and who’s mix includes, but is not limited to Jamaican Afro-Caribbean, Native Jamaican Tribes, Scottish, Puerto-Rican, Costa Rican and other assorted bits of South-and Central America; currently Living in Singapore and right this minute standing in New York. In all honesty, I don’t know how this answer would have helped him. My own background is a varied, but by no means an unusual or extreme mix. “Londoner,” with all its urban-liberality and cosmopolitan aspirations is a much easier ,and more accurate, handle. Even the answer ‘London in England’ could have been contentious for those who would see ‘English’ as an ethnic identity ( and there are plenty out there) who would argue that I don’t have “The Blood.” One wonders if this ‘Happie Fewe’ can claim this by being 45th generation Roman or 31st Norman or whether they need to trace back to 83rd generation Celt to be a true Brit.
This anecdote echoes of one of the most interesting sub-plots of the Scottish Independence referendum: who got to vote. Who got a say in the referendum raised contentious questions regarding statehood, nationality and identity, questions that are being played out in many different ways and in many different territories around the world.
Scots living south of the border were incensed at votes given to ‘non-Scots’ earning their living and paying their rates within Scotland. ‘Angus’ working for RBS in the City of London would have no say in how the homeland, (which he has not called home since he came down to ‘go up’ to ‘Another College, Oxbridge’) would be configured. This meant many who felt resolutely Scottish would not have any say on the future of Scotland, whilst English, Italians and Poles from Dumfries to Durness would decide. Did who got the franchise signal a proxy for future citizenship? Did that mean ‘Angus’ would never carry a Scottish passport? Would the Junior Doctor educated in the Thames estuary be offered this privilege? And why were they voting anyway if they are due to leave in 2 years time? Should they be made to ‘sign-up’ for Scotland? Who would be granted Scottish Citizenship? As history played out in the summer of 2014, these are specific hypotheticals that do not need an answer, but the broader questions they raise are in want of one. How do we define the composition of, and membership criteria for, out States? Do they need ‘national’ identities, and to what extent do or should) these identities align with ethnic ones?
Nationalism has not been as influential a force in politics since between the World Wars. Since blood was shed in the middle of the 20th century to defend the liberal-enlightenment experiment that started in the late 18th, the liberal-democratic ideal has dominated discourse. But this consensus is crumbling. With forces as varied as Scottish Nationalism and France’s Front Nationale, from UKIP to the Tea Party, we are seeing a new flourishing of anti-liberal politics that is obsessed with preserving its particular, mythical definition of the nation.
The sharp irony of this in our contemporary world should not be lost. There is a strong inverse correlation between the rhetoric and the reality. We are seeing a flourishing of the politics of nationhood at a time when the nation has never been less relevant. Immigration quotas are as a feather on a tiger in the face of multi-lateral trade agreements that let foreign companies sue sovereign countries. Why worry about giving away benefits to ‘foreigners’ when you can’t get the your biggest retailers to pay a penny in tax. The ‘Nation-State’ is an anachronism in danger of becoming a redundancy. Sovereignty is undermined by Supra-, Post- and Transnational entities. The ultimate power for many branches of government lies with these overarching bodies, some elected, some not.
Elements are positive- the Kyoto treaty, the European Parliament and Courts, but others cripple nations- the strings attached to IMF loans, the loaded terms of bi- and multi-lateral trade agreements, political handcuffs on developing world aid. At the same time multinational companies put governments into a Dutch auction on corporate tax, re-domiciling at will to find the most ‘tax-efficient’ regimes, shelling out on shell companies and creative accounting, dividing and conquering along tired out ‘national’ boundaries.
Traditional states are ill equipped to deal with this reality. Rather than adapting, what we are seeing politically is a rearranging of the deckchairs whilst the ship sinks. When you are committed to a free trade agreements that means you can’t stop factories and their jobs from moving around the world, how can it possibly make sense on an international level to stop labour from following? These kind of policies are trying to define and ‘fix’ a porous and pliable thing. Simply put, what the nation-state can do is far less important than what a supranational entity does.
There are some ‘nations’ doing better than others. One such example is Russia, which may be the last true nation-state left. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine embody the persistence of the Ancien Regime, or if not resilience, then at least the last 19th Century National act. Many argue that this move comes from a position of weakness. In some respects, this is true, Russia is weak by 21st Century measures. Reliant on its vast hydrocarbon deposits, maintaining a huge standing army and lacking in any real ‘soft power’, it is an isolated belligerent. But by 19th Century measures it is today the greatest of great powers. Strong, self-sufficient and heavily armed- exactly what a Nation-State was meant to be. This may explain the disconnect between how the world sees Russia and Vladimir Putin and how Russia and Vladimir Putin see themselves. That sanctions are leaving them cut off from the global economy merely serves to underline their splendid isolation, and despite weakness by modern metrics, such as the price of the Ruble, Putin’s strong leader ‘routine’ is real, and this sabre-rattling (and sabre-wielding) is both a bizarre and comical throwback to a previous age and a genuine threat to contemporary Weltpolitiks.
Within this context, China is a unique case-study. On one hand, Capitalism, unhampered by Democracy is driving unfettered and uneven growth, whilst a highly centralised and all-encompassing state remains firmly in control. Yet for all China’s brinkmanship in the South China Sea, it is also tied to the supranational. Reliance on exports, huge foreign currency surplus and the major role of international business in driving their national growth means that they are in a strong negotiating position, but they are still reliant on the same transnational networks and bodies, making them unlikely to ‘do a Putin’.
In sharp contrast, the contemporary Poleis that are currently enjoying the most success are those configured to compete in this 21st Century landscape; global oddities such as Singapore, Dubai or Qatar. In an era when companies and treaties and markets subsume and subdue ‘national’ sovereignty, it is these ‘Corporate States’ that are proving the most competitive.
The past success of the Capitalist-Democratic Enlightenment experiment was contingent on the tension between the Capitalistic and the Democratic playing out primarily intra-state. The state could negotiate that tension between man as citizen and man as producer/consumer, holding it in a kind of dynamic equilibrium through tariffs and taxes, incentives and fiscal policy that could harness business for greater goods. Regulation and incentivisation could be used to trim and tweak and capital was ultimately answerable to the state where the sovereign power lay and its freedom to do business was derived from. In the late 20th century, two things happen to reverse this arrangement, leaving most governments ultimately answerable to the Market and its actors.
Firstly, the vast mountains of government debt that modern states carry need maintaining. These loans are like an open wound meaning that, even as the rate of flow is slowed, you still need to transfuse more blood. For governments, this means increasing the tax take. There are two solutions for that; either an election-losing tax hike, or ever-increasing economic growth to increase the take without changing the rate. Either take a bigger slice of pie, or make the pie bigger. One of the flaws in democracy is that with 5-years terms and a strong self-preservation instinct amongst the ruling class, the latter was really the only option. That means pushing consumerism over citizenship. Liberalisation of debt (lets not call it ‘credit’, lets call it what it is), propping up of property bubbles and low interest rates all encourage spending over saving and help drive this agenda. Secondly, the rapid globalisation of production and trade meant that companies are increasingly untied from their national moorings. Don’t like the Tax in the UK? Lets nominally HQ in Ireland. Run up debts in countries with high tax regimes and funnel your profits through friendly regimes engaged in this race to the bottom to encourage companies to domicile as part of the revenue transfusion they are chasing. The net effect is that Capitalist Democracies are both in hoc and in thrall to groups that are more powerful, more transient and less accountable. They are failing to hold capital to account on behalf of its citizens because it is too dependent on it. And unlike a Nation-State, these transnational actors are neither tied nor answerable to a given territory.
Singapore, Qatar or Dubai ( and arguably to a lesser extent, tax havens like Monaco, the Cayman Islands or Amazon’s favourite, Luxembourg) are not the most successful states by many Enlightenment metrics. Lack of transparency, accountability and, very often, individual rights leave these places with a (rightly) questionable global image in liberal circles. Yet they succeed by competing on equal terms with these supranational actors by functioning like a corporation. Lack of accountability is the shadow cast by taking a 20 year view (often through an absence of any real democracy). It is no coincidence that some of the most ambitious future-facing plans are being carried out in these countries- the transformation of Dubai to a global business & leisure hub pre-empting the brevity of their oil windfall, or Singapore’s ambitious and Orwellian plans to create a fully wired nation, offering “anticipatory government” or Qatar’s museum building binge as part of its play for regional hub status. Rather than thinking of mandate, they think about brand. They are Marketeer-States. They use their airlines and tourist boards, infrastructure and diplomacy to project a very specific image, engaging in global charm offensives to assert their soft power. They proletyze for free labour as much as they do for free trade, though for the unskilled it is often akin to slave labour. They are engaged in battles that are about ideas rather than islands or territory. Most interestingly though, they wrap these 21st Century modes of government in heavily modified modern variants of Nationalism, designed to bind together their citizens as shareholders, employees and shared-custodians of their joint projects. Singapore’s upcoming 50th birthday celebrations, or the sharply defined exclusivity of the Emirati class in the UAE are all variants of this. It is also often accompanied by a healthy dose of paternalism- or perhaps rather ‘dividend’ through charity, social housing, public services and open immigration being counterbalanced with closed ‘citizen-shareholder’ status. In many respects Nationalism is hugely important to these states in order to succeed in a Post-Nation age. It is interesting to note the similarities of approach taken despite a clearly tribal-ethnic dimension in the UAE compared with the explicitly Multi-ethnic, Multi-religious element to Singaporean ‘corporate culture’.
It is not just amongst the corporate-dictator state where new experiments in governance are occurring. The growing primacy of cosmopolitan Alpha cities at the expense of their ‘host’ nation (most notably in my hometown of London vs the rest of the UK) reflects the problematic nature of the 19th Century nation state as a 21st century form of governance. As a unit it is both too big and too small. Too big to have the dynamism of the city, too small to have the power of the supranational. The emerging possibilities of ‘bigger than’ are starting to be demonstrated by the EU’s balls in making a legal challenge against Google. No single country could have managed this, yet the federated European polis might stand a chance.
The most interesting experiment in Post-Nation nationalism is currently happening in the desert of Syria and Iraq. Turbocharged by cheap connectivity and a sadistic talent for publicity, ISIS has rapidly emerged as ‘the strangest flashmob in history’. Rather than being a state in the most formal sense, it is a dynamic, sinister banding together of disgruntled young men from around the world with a loose set of shared values, moving like a heavily armed swarm across the Middle East. Rather than being a state operating without Nationalism, it is a Post-Nation without a state, able to fluidly transpose itself from place to place deriving an identity from a sense of affiliation derived and bastardised from one of the great world religions. It is a wholly 21st century invention; the weirdest corners of the internet made flesh. And it has proved to be a roaring success.
Perhaps this is where the staunchest Nationalists could learn the most and develop their own tactics to take control of a failing territory to shape in their image. Of course the real worry is that these political groups that want to fight the reality of 21st century geo-politics and protect the myth of the self-contained Sovereign Nation-State will succeed. In the face of a lack of arguments for embracing a post-Nation world, we may see the final failure of the great Enlightenment Experiment.