Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fear of Small Numbers: Globalization and Autochthony

Before leaving Seattle I selected several books with intriguing titles that sparked my interest. In the stolen time I managed to carve out in our busy schedule, I've been reading here in our hotel room in Montreal.

Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (a John Hope Franklin Center Book)
Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger by Arjun Appadurai is a brilliant book.  It is the second book in an ongoing project that examines globalization and seeks ways to make it work for those who "need it most and enjoy it least."  Comparing it to his first book, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, I found Fear of Small Numbers to be the better book. Both have excellent ideas but Fear of Small Numbers is more accessible to someone like me who has never had much patience with the language of "Theory."


Remember the heady post-Cold War days when we believed that globalization (exemplified by democratic movements, Free Trade, and the Internet) was ushering in an era of peace and prosperity for all?  Over the years much of our optimism has faded away to be replaced by a growing horror at some of the darker aspects of a world gone global:  terrorism, crashing financial markets and failed states.  We are forced to admit that a world that has become more connected is not necessarily a world with less conflict.  In Fear of Small Numbers Appadurai asks, "why in the 1990's, the period of what we may now call the period of 'high globalization', should also be the period of large-scale violence in a wide range of societies and political regimes?"

His argument begins with the nation-state itself.  He contends that, "No modern nation, however benign its political system and however eloquent its public voices may be about the virtues of tolerance, multiculturalism, and inclusion, is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius."   Even countries that have gone to extraordinary lengths to create Frenchman or Americans or Indonesians are not immune.    


Is ethno-nationalism sufficient to explain why this language of ethnic or cultural purity tips over into discrimination and violence?  No, other conditions are required.  One condition is "social uncertainty" which Appadurai traces directly to globalization.   Above all", says Appadurai, "the certainty that distinctive and singular peoples grow out of and control well-defined territories has been decisively unsettled by the global fluidity of wealth, arms, people and images..." What, specifically, are the "sins" of globalization that provoke our anxiety?

Loss of a sovereign and stable territory with a containable and countable population:  How many of 'us' and how many of 'them' are there in our territory or abroad?  I think he is absolutely right about this.  Our census, one of the "tools of legibility" so ably described by J.C. Scott, are unreliable. We know there are "illegals' but we can't know for sure how many.  Our fellow citizens living abroad?  These are people we cannot accurately count. The US government seems to have given up. France and other countries' statistics are unreliable. How can a nation-states fulfill their duties to citizens or demand that citizens fulfill their obligations if they have no idea who or where their citizens are?

Loss of reliable, stable categories for placing people: How do we determine that someone is one of 'us' and not one of 'them'?  Again, I agree 100% with Appadurai.  As much as I personally dislike categorization, I have to acknowledge that many people find it very disturbing when they encounter someone in their country they cannot place or who they suspect is not what he or she claims to be. An official asks me for my identification and is very surprised when I hand him my residency card.  In almost all nation-states it has become impossible to sort out the citizens/nationals and the "sons of the soil" from the dual-nationals, multi-linguals, legal  residents and undocumented aliens.

Let's take this one step further.  Having lost the old (and, let's face it, rather dubious) categories we are desperately in search of new ones. This is a perilous undertaking because, as Peter Geschiere points out in Perils of Belonging, "in practice any attempt to define the autochthonous community in concrete terms will give rise to fierce disagreements and nagging suspicions of faking."  That has not stopped some people from trying.  Le Pen of the Front National suggested that only French people with four French grandparents could be considered "truly French." If taken seriously, this would transform over 25% of the population of France into foreigners overnight.  The "National Operation of Identification" launched by the president of the Ivory Coast required that all persons go back to their "village of origin." to be "identified."  Only those who had as village to go back to (cities didn't count) were citizens with the right to vote and to own land.  Bobby Jindal, a rising star of the American Right, had his qualifications for high office questioned because he is the son of Indian immigrant who were not citizens at the time of his birth which, to some people on the Far Right, means that he can never be president of the United States even though he was born on US soil.

Potential loss of state-provided goods and services
:  This loss of nation-state sovereignty and of stable, consistent, reliable categories, according to Appadurai, "creates intolerable anxiety about the relationship to state-provided goods - ranging from housing and health to safety and sanitation-since these entitlements are frequently tied to who 'you' are and thus to who 'they' are."  I would add that, in an era of huge budget deficits and economic turmoil, even citizens are unsure if they will ever receive a government pension or have access to the same level of healthcare as they had in the past.  Desperate to hold onto what is left, they try to create categories with themselves as the deserving, first-class citizens, and the others as second-class citizens (not "true citizens") or undeserving non-citizens (migrants). Geschiere's book describes a similar struggle over resources that are handed over to local community control.  Suddenly the definition of "community" is of primary importance and people find themselves sorted into "natives" with rights to control these resources and "foreigners" who do not.

I find Appadurai's argument, from nation-state ethos to the local struggle for goods and resources, to be very compelling.  Within it, I find plausible reasons for the rise of Far Right parties (Front National, Tea Party and others) and for recent efforts at cultural purification in many nation-states all around the world.  What is interesting to me is how these movements or parties do not just target migrants, they also go after their fellow citizens in an orgy of exclusion. The paradox is, as Peter Geschiere points out, that the same parties that are interested in reducing the power and role of the state are calling on their governments to take drastic (and costly) measures against the second-class or non-citizens on their soil.


Do these attempts at exclusion (state-supported or not) always turn violent? Not necessarily.  While the language and legislation are often disagreeable, and isolated acts of violence and discrimination do occur, outright violence on a large-scale is rare in most democratic nation-states. Ethno-nationalism and social uncertainty are necessary conditions for, but not a complete explanation of, wide-spread, large-scale violence. Tomorrow we'll continue our discussion by looking at what Appadurai calls "the anxiety of incompleteness."

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