Sunday, May 17, 2020

Comment on Buckley and Waters

Guest Blogger

For the Symposium on Timothy William Waters's Boxing Pandora: Rethinking Borders, States, and Secession in a Democratic World (Yale University Press, 2020) and F. H. Buckley's American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup (Encounter Books, 2020).

Michael Lind

Is “secession” in the abstract a useful concept in today’s world?  Is there any reason in the twenty-first century to think about secessionism as anything other than a synonym for national self-determination—the attempt to obtain internationally-recognized, independent nation-states for stateless ethnocultural nations defined by objective anthropological criteria like shared language, customs and/or descent?  After reading American Secession by F. H. Buckley and Boxing Pandora by Timothy Waters, I am inclined to answer “No.”

In American Secession, F. H. Buckley argues that the secession of states or regions from the U.S. in the twenty-first century is not only thinkable but might do some good, by reducing government bureaucracy, among other alleged benefits.

The problem for his argument is that the contemporary secessionist movements that Buckley points to as examples are motivated exclusively by ethnonationalism.  Even Catalan secession is premised on the idea that Spain is a multinational state repressing a Catalan nationality with its own distinct identity, language and traditions:

It gets harder and harder to think that separatism is intrinsically suspect when it’s a worldwide phenomenon supported by people from every ideological perspective.  On the right, there’s the New Flemish Alliance, which wants Flanders to secede from French-speaking Wallonia in southern Belgium.  On the left, there’s the Parti Quebecois, which wants Quebec to secede from the rest of Canada.  There are moderately conservative Catalan separatists in Spain and moderately left-wing Scottish separatists I Great Britain.  Secessionist is often accomplished without violence, as happened in the amical breakup of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  But sometimes takes a war, as happened in the case of Yugoslavia, and in the American secession from Britain in 1776. ( 21).

What of 1776 and 1860-61, then?  In retrospect, the secessions of European settler colonies from Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, that produced the U.S., Haiti and the Latin American states, while spinning off short-lived polities like the Republic of West Florida, the Republic of Texas, the Republic of the Rio Grande, California’s Bear Flag Republic, independent Yucatan and the Confederate States of America, were part of a one-century wave of decolonization of the Western hemisphere that occurred between the 1770s and the 1860s.  There have been many internal revolutions and civil wars but no dramatic border changes in the Americas since the end of the Paraguayan War in 1870. If the only significant secessionist movements in the twenty-first century involve ethnocultural nationalities like the Catalans, Quebecois and Scots, then speculations about Calexit or a new Pacific coast country of Cascadia, however entertaining, seem anachronistic.

In Boxing Pandora, Timothy Waters provides the best account I have read of the bias in modern international law against self-determination of any kind in favor of the territorial status quo. He distinguishes the “preclassical” Wilsonian approach to self-determination, in which borders can be redrawn around stateless ethnocultural nations, from the “classical” approach under post-1945 international law.

The classical doctrine holds that new states should be formed from the pre-existing administrative subdivisions of former empires or dynastic monarchies, regardless of whether the previously-drawn lines unite or divide ethnocultural nations.  This is often united with the idea that decolonization ended with the dissolution of the European overseas empires, so that there is no contemporary right of self-determination for ethnic nations trapped as minorities within post-colonial states with arbitrary colonial-era borders.  This subject should be of special interest to citizens of the United States, whose armed forces continue to be bogged down in  “forever wars” in two disintegrated, multi-ethnic post-colonial states, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Waters argues persuasively against the insistence that present-day borders must remain as they are forever.  He proposes a “new rule” which would give the right of self-determination to “peoples”:  “A people is not the population of an existing state, nor the state itself.  It is a self-determined, self-constituted community forming a majority in some part of an existing state…”

 So far, this sounds very much like Wilsonian ethnonational self-determination.  But Waters continues:  “But if the new rule reverses the classical one, it also abandons the troubled logic of the preclassical model:  No shared national identity is required.  The self-determining community does not exist in any objective sense; it is socially constructed, and not primordial.” (p. 125).

With his contrast of “socially constructed” and “primordial” identities, Waters acknowledges the dominant school of thinking about nations and nationalism in the contemporary Western academy, which might be described as social constructivism.  Waters includes his own version of the canon of this post-1980s academic orthodoxy in an appendix:

More broadly, my thinking has been shaped by studies of ethnicity and nationalism—Alfred Cobban’s The Nation-State and National Self-Determination (1969), Elie Kedourie’s eminently readable Nationalism (1960, updated 1993), Eric Hobsbawm’s misguided Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1991), Rogers Brubaker’s Nationalism Reframed (1996)—which, while ancillary to this book’s approach, are important to questions of collective identity. (254).
All too many contemporary thinkers who know only the recent social-constructivist orthodoxy ritually string together the same set of phrases, detached from their original contexts in the work of a few late twentieth century scholars, several of them Marxist or Marxisant:  ethnic nations are “imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson) with “invented traditions” (Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger).  Nations are products of mass indoctrination by centralizing elites in the age of print (Ernest Gellner, Eugene Weber).  Nations are “socially constructed” and recent, not “primordial” and ancient.  No recitation of the social-constructivist catechism of anti-nationalist social constructivism would be complete without quoting Ernest Renan in his 1882 lecture “What is a Nation?” on the nation as a “daily plebiscite.”

The authors of the proof texts about nationalism in the social-constructivist canon are more often quoted out of context than read.  For example, far from equating “imagined” with “unreal” communities, Benedict Anderson argued that liberals and socialists needed to take ethnocultural nationalism more seriously.

Renan above all is misunderstood by those who cite his “daily plebiscite” remark out of context.  His argument in “What is a Nation?” against reductionist biological, religious, and geographic theories of nationality made him rely all the more on shared historical memories and traditions to an extent that might lead him to be denounced as a sinister “primordialist” today:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received. Messieurs, man does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long past of efforts, sacrifices, and devotions. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate: our ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past with great men and glory (I mean true glory) is the social capital upon which the national idea rests. These are the essential conditions of being a people: having common glories in the past and a will to continue them in the present; having made great things together and wishing to make them again. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices that one has committed and the troubles that one has suffered. One loves the house that one has built and that one passes on. The Spartan chant, “We are what you were; we will be what you are”, is, in its simplicity, the abridged hymn of every fatherland.
In my view, the most persuasive modern scholars of nationalism reject this currently-fashionable approach and dismiss both “thin” social constructivism and “thick” blood-and-soil nationalism alike for more accurate accounts of the deep historical roots of contemporary national identities and loyalties.  In this counter-canon I would include Walker Connor, Anthony D. Smith and Azar Gat (Conor and Smith appear among many others in the bibliography of Boxing Pandora but not the text).

If I read him correctly, Waters proposes a theory of secession that does not break the constructivist taboo against “primordialism” which bans as illegitimate any acknowledgement of objective criteria of membership in stateless ethnic nations and any appeals based on historical grievances.  The “short version” of the “new right to secession” proposed by Waters is this:  “Groups of people may form a new state by holding a referendum on part of an existing state’s territory.  If the group wins the vote, the existing state must negotiate independence in good faith.  The group’s members don’t need to share ethnicity, language or culture, they just have to live in the same place.” (1).

To narrow the range of his proposed rule for territorial self-determination,  Waters limits eligibility to groups that are already geographically concentrated in a territory within an existing state.  With this qualification, his new rule has the effect, if not the intent, of permitting at least some “preclassical” Wilsonian ethnocultural national self-determination to sneak back in through a window, after it has been expelled through the front door.

To put it another way, Waters posits a new and broad category of geographically-concentrated groups--a category to which, by lucky coincidence, stateless ethnic nations that are the majority in a single area just happen to belong:  “Demanding independence for Kurdistan on the grounds that Iraq was an artificial construction is a contestable historical claim; saying Kurdistan should be free because Kurds desire it is a claim in a radically different register…” (197).  To me this looks like preclassical Wilsonian ethnonational self-determination, camouflaged to avoid “triggering” adherents of the anti-nationalist, social-constructivist liberal orthodoxy that is currently de rigeur among North Atlantic intellectuals.

In an appendix, Waters notes that he departs from contemporary liberal nationalist thinkers like Yael Tamir, David Miller, Will Kymlicka and others by rejecting “objective verifiable evaluation of a group’s claim…My approach is as thin and procedural as victory in an election.” (253).  But surely a “people” must be more than a possibly ephemeral numerical majority among a random set of neighbors inside some arbitrary set of lines.

The topic is literally academic, because the new rule for self-determination that Waters proposes would not be considered seriously either by incumbent regimes determined to maintain their territorial integrity or by members of stateless ethnic groups defined by historical identities who do not care whether foreign intellectuals approve of their struggles for political independence or not.
Buckley is an entertaining writer and Waters is an impressive and creative scholar.   But Buckley’s anachronistic speculations about Calexit, and the new rule for secession proposed by Waters that attempts to rescue a version of self-determination from the supposed taint of nationalism, strike me as ingenious thought experiments rather than useful guides to how to think about the difficult relationship of ethnocultural nations to territorial states in the contemporary world.

(Michael Lind is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and author of The New Class War:  Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite).

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