Soil, Blood and Identity

Image: Kyle Ellefson

Monday 13th March, 2017

Lucy Mayblin

Nationalism appears to be on the rise in Europe. Indeed, from west to east, north to south, nationalist movements seeking to exclude migrants or trigger the break-up of the European Union are growing in popularity. Nationalism’s exclusionary, xenophobic, often racist articulation was a key feature of the UK’s Brexit campaign and the subsequent reaction to the referendum result. In France, Marine Le Pen is on the rise, articulating her party’s project in terms of securing France against Muslims, and holding their own referendum on EU membership. In light of these essentially racist developments, intellectual critiques of the imagined community of the nation are more urgent than ever. And precisely because nationalism is often imbibed with historicity, a historical perspective which denaturalises the nation is an important starting point. But in this moment, when so many nationalist projects are articulated in terms of soil and of blood, we need to look beyond the European self-understanding as historically internal to the territorial boundaries of European nation states as they exist today. Indeed, we need a historical frame, but not that which Zygmunt Bauman offers us in his 1992 essay Soil, Blood, Nation.

The most fascinating thing about Bauman’s 1992 essay for the Sociological Review is his ability to discuss nationalism, identity, blood, soil, modernity, the idea of Europe, the historical development of nation-states, the ‘other’, the stranger, the civilising project, and the proliferation of new nation-states in the second half of the twentieth century, without once mentioning colonialism. In part, this amazing achievement is the outcome of Bauman’s view that modernity brought nationalism, and that modernity is something that happened in Europe –it is a geographically located phenomenon (such a view has undergone rigorous critique in recent decades, see here for a brief overview). Nationalism, he suggests, was an outcome of changes which occurred within Europe when modernity took hold on the continent, because at this point the elites needed a way to maintain the loyalty of ‘the masses’ (‘a category born together with modernity… reaching its conceptual maturity only in the thought of the Enlightenment’). Part of this involved the civilising of the masses:

…it sedimented a tendency to biologize, medicalize, criminalize and increasingly police ‘the masses’ –judged brutal, filthy and totally incapable of constraining their passions in order to accommodate in the civilized mould.

The fact that many of these practices and indeed prejudices were located also, if not first, in the colonies of Europe’s various empires, goes unmentioned. He goes on:

Children of light versus children of darkness, reason at war with superstition, civilizing effort facing sinister passions, law and order keeping violent instincts at bay, humanizing self-culture of the educated set against the raw animality of the lesser mortals; all oppositions being, in the end, but perspectival dimensions of the greatest and most seminal of separations: that between the elite and the masses.

Certainly, it will not escape readers that here Bauman could be writing about racism, and indeed the colonialism which was contemporaneous to his description of the modern elite/mass relation, but he is not. Twice Bauman suggests that there is an unresolved tension between the ‘inclusivist’ and ‘exclusivist’ strands of the nation state project which result in the persistent relationship between racism and nationalism. Thus, nationalism is the racism of the intellectuals, and racism the nationalism of the masses. This is an interesting insight, and yet racism is still not incorporated fully in to the analysis of nationalism, it is rather an unfortunate outcome of a historically popular identity marker.

What Bauman offers us in this essay is a general Eurocentric survey of nationalism in Europe (as the geographical origin of nationalism) through the lens of class and within the context of an enlightenment view of modernity, without mention of European colonialism. The omission of colonialism in his account results in two main inadequacies. First, we are left with an inadequate (inaccurate) historical account of the development of European identity, not to mention some of those other concepts, such as civilisation. Factually, there is a reason that there was a proliferation of new nation states at the UN in latter half of the twentieth century (decolonisation), and it is inadequate for a scholar of nationalism to suggest that this is a baffling phenomenon. Furthermore, it is simply not possible to understand the history of French or British or Spanish national identity without acknowledging the fact that (a) for several hundred years these countries were not simply small European territories, their territories covered huge swathes of the globe, and (b) the national self-conception in European states is therefore deeply interconnected with colonial ideas such as those of racial hierarchy, civilization, white superiority, and religious otherness.

European states didn’t have empires which they subsequently lost or liberated, they were themselves empires. As Gary Wilder argues in his recent book Freedom Time, when we look at the actual history of the French state, France becomes more than a nation state in Europe, it becomes a culturally nationalist but nevertheless racially inscribed project across several continents which ended because of (sometimes nationalist) struggles for independence. Thus we find new perspectives on current concerns; for example we find that ‘the challenge of cultural multiplicity for a democratic republic was an imperial problem that did not begin with decolonization and postwar immigration’. Bauman, by contrast, suggests that ‘the “we” made of inclusion, acceptance and confirmation is the realm of gratifying safety cut out […] from the frightening wilderness of the outside populated by “them”’ with no mention of how that inside/outside binary might be thoroughly historicised or conceptualised in dialogue with histories and legacies of colonialism.

The final section, which addresses what would become Bauman’s interest in the ‘liquid modern’ present laments the fact that ‘nothing seems to be for life’. However, if we start from the position of Europe’s multicultural past, today’s combination of fluid, hybridised, cosmopolitan, identities, and the exclusionary nationalism which forms a reaction against it, surely we have a richer starting point from which to conduct an analysis of today’s nationalisms? The paucity of this analysis (which almost exclusively cites white men) might, to borrow a concept from Gayatri Spivak, be construed as an example of ‘sanctioned ignorance’. Within the context of rising calls for enclosure and exclusion we surely need now more than ever to employ frameworks which seek to overcome such Eurocentrism rather than to embrace it.

Lucy Mayblin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. She tweets at @LucyMayblin.

Here's more you may be interested in: