The Conceptual Foundations of International Politics: Commentary and Critique of the Columbia University lecture series at Lecture Five: Lisa Anderson

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Professor Anderson begins the lecture with a discussion of the definition of a nation-state:

“There can no longer be any doubt that globalization forces impinge upon and influence the shaping of individual entities sometimes even at the expense of the relation between the individual and the community. How one defines a nation or nationalism will be important for questions relating to ethnicity and one should also remember that policy recommendation is likely to flow from such definitions. There is a very important relationship between how you define the terms you are using and the conclusions of what ought to be done about the situation referred to in the definitions.”

Two points need to be raised in relation to the above opening statement. Firstly, globalization forces are postulated as theoretically embedded in a third person matrix of causality instead of from the more obvious and relevant point of view of a matrix of agency and its powers. Secondly, and relatedly, policies are characterized as following from definitions which can only be the case if the major premises of the above-proposed argument are normative premises, i.e. premises from the ought system of concepts. Kant pointed to an archetypal form of ethical/normative argumentation and in this form, we see that the definition of the issue concerned comes after the normative generalization, e.g.

Promises ought to be kept
Jack promised Jill he would pay the money back that he was borrowing from her
Therefore, Jack ought to pay the money he owes back to Jill.

Notice that in this formulation there is no risk of the naturalistic fallacy occurring. There is, that is, no risk of attempting to illicitly derive an ought conclusion from an is-premise or set of premises. Norms clearly define the arena the definition is meant to perform in. Norms define both the context of the descriptive judgment and the context of the definition. This discussion should be connected to the first discussion above in relation to globalization. In this respect, Kant’s Philosophical Psychology points to the importance of an ontological distinction between what happens to one(the forces and causes that impinge upon us) and what one does(our agency and powers). Anderson at the beginning of this lecture series constructed a classification-matrix of political positions that fail to accommodate the above discussion and fully utilize the full range of Kantian Political Philosophy. The three positions that are referred to, namely realism, liberalism, and constructivism are not conceived in accordance with either Kantian or Aristotelian political theory, thereby foregoing the insights that these political philosophers can bring to any discussion relating to the nature of the nation-state and globalization processes

Anderson then leaves what she calls “policy issues” aside and continues with a description of our modern era:

“The current structure of the modern world would seem to demand that we identify ourselves with a nation and not a region of the nation. Nationalism in the last 150 years has been a powerful provider of identities and provided vehicles for political action. The only other powerful identity provider has been that of “class”: “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”…The beginning of the modern system of states began with the treaty of Westphalia. It is after this that you begin to encounter nationalism. Here we have, it is argued, an identity with substance,  which celebrates the variety of different kinds of people in the world, speaking a particular language, enjoying a particular history and traditions…We identify with other people who share this language, history, and culture. Viewed in this way Nationalism was a way to assert value.”

Notice in the above quote the reliance on the idea of a psychological mechanism of identification. Freud was one of the first psychologists to examine this idea systematically in a paper entitled “Group Psychology and the analysis of the Ego”. We should bear in mind also here that Freud claimed that his Psychological reflections were Kantian. In this paper Freud points to pathological psychological mechanisms at work in groups that gather together in public in an attempt to express their collective power to act in the name of some cause under the leadership of a narcissistic leader whose rhetoric is essentially emotional and instinctive and not in accordance with the dictates and inhibitions of our conscious personality as is the case when it is operating in accordance with the demands of ethics and the superego. The infantilism of the group naturally submits to the leader, it is argued, in much the same fashion as the small child submits to his father, except in this case the positive aspect of this relation in which the father consciously and ethically relates to his child and the world, in general, is foregone.

One can wonder whether Anderson means to refer to the above first mentioned idea of pathological identification or rather the idea of nonpathological identification between a father and a child. There is a difficulty, however, with either of these suggestions because Anderson specifically claims that it is possible to identify psychologically with a nation or a class. She calls this form of identification an identity with substance and seems to be forgetting here that this mechanism in its pathological form led to enormous conflicts in the 20th century nationalist movements.
Apart from this problem, there is also a problem with identifying with an abstract collective like a class or nation. At the very most it appears that the identification must be with the individual leader of the class or nation. If this is the case then we do appear to be discussing the pathological form of identification related to the personality “strong leader” cults of the various nationalist movements of the twentieth century. In such circumstances, the leader takes the collective where he wants them to go like some kind of pied piper, whether it be to war or into isolation or both. It is quite amazing that this phenomenon could occur in the twentieth century, a period of heightened conscious awareness of almost everything it seems except the workings of political processes. Such a phenomenon would have been more to be expected at the dawn of civilization and consciousness when educational systems and socializing processes were in their infancy: a period when strong conscious leaders were trying to lead their collectives toward the common good. Our modern democracies have very consciously and deliberately limited the power of individual leaders thus limiting the role of identification in the political process. Emotion and instinct have been replaced with a healthy skeptical trust. Indeed the presence of skepticism in our relation to modern day politicians may be a result of the pathological political processes of the last century.  A reversal of roles appears to have taken place one which demands that the leaders in a positive sense “identify” with their constituencies: these constituencies no longer gather to express their collective power but rather individually express their opinion of their representatives in a private voting booth every 4-5 years. Further when this voting ceremony occurs one is no longer voting for a charismatic leader but rather for a party of leaders with a consciously intended party program for the future common good of the country as a whole. The Freudian superego will be firmly represented in democratic party programs and pathological identification mechanisms will be conspicuous by their absence. Democracy, indeed, does not appear to be in any sense nationalistic in the pathological sense and the only occasions when we see pathological identification mechanisms operating in democratic systems is in times of war when the almost infinite power of the masses are mobilized to fight. In such moments we can clearly see otherwise rational political processes degenerating to the level of the pathological. With these considerations in mind the words “Nationalism is a way to assert value” seem oddly anachronistic. Add to these considerations the records of nationalistic governments of the twentieth century in relation to law-in-general and international and domestic law in particular and we move from the realm of the anachronistic to the realm of the paradoxical.

Aristotle’s preference for the regime of Polity or “constitutional rule” which was defined as rule by the many in accordance with the common good relates to a political philosophy which is recognizably instantiated by the more advanced democracies of the Western world. The “many” in the above context would not be the masses but rather a large middle class which would have rejected the more extreme political policies of the rich and the poor and accepted the importance of education. This group of the many-in-the-middle would necessarily avoid the extreme policies that strong personality cult leaders would have inclined towards. Aristotle’s reasoning that the many are more likely to understand the common good than the one idiosyncratic leader is reflected in not just our political systems but also in our legal system. The Western concept of a jury of our peers embodies rationality in every utterance and decision of the trial process whose navigational star is that of the common good.

In relation to the second objection, we raised to the opening statement one might also in the spirit of Kant wish to claim that the above navigational star of the common good is what is really at issue in the agency and powers of government. That is, the principle of practical reason, namely freedom, is a major principle underlying globalization, or to use Kant’s more appropriate term Cosmopolitanism. Here our description, unlike Lisa Anderson’s will not be of patients enduring forces but rather of agents freely and powerfully acting to bring about the common good or justice.

The question of what a nation is is obviously important if we are to determine what nationalism is and Anderson at this point in the lecture asks for a definition of a nation. She begins by referring to Benedict Andersson’s definition:

“a nation is an imagined political community that is limited and sovereign”

She continues in the following way:

“Nations aspire to sovereignty which many communities do not.”

Apparently, my membership of a community is an imagined one and this suffices as an argument against Cosmopolitanism because:

“No nation imagines itself as co-terminous with mankind”

So, identification and now imagination respectively have been suggested as (psychologically?) important in nationalism and citizenship respectively. Both of these terms are of course twentieth-century psychological terms which seek to distance themselves from the language of objectivity that permeates Kantian ethical and political thinking. For Kant, it is not a question of imagining Cosmopolitan obligations such as keeping promises and telling the truth. One understands these things and our reasoning both justifies our categorical and objective position and aims at bringing about actions for the benefit of the common good.

Reference is made to the USA and its mode of nationalism in relation to which it is claimed:

“The nationalism of the USA is a civic nationalism more concerned with consensus around common political values legal norms and moral commitments than with a common language and cultural tradition..Contrast this with ethnic nationalism”

In this context, Anderson then asks the very interesting question: “When did the Irish living in the USA decide that they are Americans of Irish heritage?” and suggests there was a type of rational calculation in accordance with a rational calculus. One recognizes the spectre of utilitarianism in this passage and rather surprisingly no mention is made of the avalanche of criticism that was unleashed by this attempt to substitute casuistry for ethical reasoning. No further exploration of this interesting question occurs. Anderson is reluctant to use the term “Culture” in this debate but it would appear that culture defined in Aristotelian terms, namely in relation to the institutions of the family, the neighbourhood(the village) and the city must all play their role as must the more global Kantian institutions of keeping one’s promises and telling the truth.

There is, toward the end of the lecture a section which attempts to acknowledge the normative features of nationalism. It is, however, mundanely descriptive:

“Nationalism seems to be morally ambivalent. On the one hand we feel solidarity with oppressed peoples and sympathize with their nationalist aspirations but, on the other hand, are also repulsed by the crimes perpetrated in the name of nationalism, notably ethnic cleansing. Nationalism creates dilemmas for International Justice. Do we privilege existing sovereign states or do we take a cosmopolitan view which limits sovereignty? Or do we believe that we have a responsibility to protect emerging nationalist movements? This is a vexed area of debate.”

Surely it is possible, Anderson argues, to imagine a world of content sovereign nations with all the goods and values they require. She thus brings to bear both her psychological account and the utilitarian account recently mentioned. Perhaps I can imagine such a state of affairs but her description demands that we abandon the attempt to see nationalism in relation to the constitutional/democratic form of government inspired by Aristotle, referred to above. It also involves abandoning the attempt to see the political state of affairs in a wider context of a possible Kantian progression toward a morally constituted Cosmopolitan world. It would be without further debate refusing to countenance the truth of the progression of our existence from our life as an individual struggling to survive, to our life in a family, to our life in the village, to our life in the city, to our life in the nation, to our life in the cosmopolitan world.