In her critical reading of Zygmunt Bauman’s 1992 essay Soil, Blood, Nation, Lucy Mayblin takes on the late sociologist’s selective engagement with the roots of European nationalisms and nation states. As Mayblin observes, Bauman offers not only an inadequate, but also inaccurate historical account of how national identities in Europe developed. Bauman cites a handful of (other) white male authors and urges his readers to contemplate the phenomenon of nationalism exclusively against the backdrop of European modernity, entirely disregarding the significance of European colonialism in the making of the latter. Mayblin is right to propose that in current political climate, with the rise of exclusionary discourses and practices across Europe, we need to move beyond theoretical frameworks shaped by persistent Eurocentrism, such as those Bauman presents in his piece. Rather than embracing Bauman’s reflections on national identity, we should, Mayblin suggests, move to analyses of nationalism that offer more wholesome understanding of the phenomenon.
I read Mayblin’s intervention as another much-needed call for decolonisation of knowledge. In fact, when invited to write this blog post, I thought of a line of critique similar to the one Mayblin employs in her response. And yet, it feels too rushed to me to dismiss Bauman’s essay entirely, particularly keeping in mind his many other contributions on the topic, including his latest ones. What then, if anything, can be salvaged from Bauman’s essay that could contribute to our thinking about today’s nationalisms?
Bauman notices that the order that sustains nations is illusory at best. Quoting Elias Canetti, he observes that the paradox of order emerges from it wanting to be ‘so total and all-embracing’ while ‘it depends on so little.’ When evoked in political speeches and campaigns, order is linked to security and justice; it signifies a clean up, a re-establishment of the rule of law. Whether in calls to make America great again or warnings against chaos at borders, the vision of order – however illusory – has proven attractive to millions of voters.
In January 1919, a few days before she was brutally murdered, Rosa Luxemburg commented on the alleged order announced in Berlin by social democrats:
… the jubilant “victors” fail to notice that any “order” that needs to be regularly maintained through bloody slaughter heads inexorably toward its historic destiny; its own demise. … “Order prevails in Berlin!” You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!
Luxemburg realized that the proclamation of order in Berlin was nothing but a lie – the new republic proved to be corrupt and was soon replaced by the Nazi regime – but the triumph of the revolution she envisioned never arrived. Understanding their order was built on sand, Nazi Germany and other totalitarian states excelled at developing an elaborate apparatus of control and terror, while, at the same time, constantly inventing external and internal enemies who threatened this alleged order. As Bauman notices, the order of nationalism breeds an endemic nervousness in nations it produces – an anxiety that no travel ban and no wall will reduce.
Thinking of the intricate workings of exclusionary rhetoric of order is instructive in the time of Brexit, Trump’s victory and Erdoğan’s determined march for total control, among other political developments that rest on us-versus-them logic. Those who consider themselves underprivileged (sometimes regardless of their actual privilege) vote for parties and individual politicians who promise to radically change the order of things. They strive to achieve this new order, often at the cost of those whose position is (also) precarious: migrants, refugees and minoritised others. Engaging critically with the notion of order by which people orient themselves in the world – and which Bauman invites us to reconsider, albeit only in passing – not only brings in useful insights into our attempts to better understand the time of monsters in which we live, but also, by drawing attention to the inherent fragility of order, opens up potential for resistance against its normalization.
Agata Lisiak is an urban researcher at Humboldt University and Bard College Berlin working at the intersections of migration studies, visual cultures and gender studies. She tweets at @agatskil.