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The End of Certainty
Towards a New Internationalism
By Stephen Chan
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2010 Stephen Chan
All rights reserved.
A failed species?
When a Jehovah's Witness knocks on your door he will wish to speak, and will begin by citing the terrors of the world: war, famine, disease – the harbingers of death – all the riders and wild horses of the Apocalypse. And you will be torn by annoyance at the gross renditions of his account, knowing he is leading to an offer of gross redemption, and admiration for the fact that, perhaps on a cold winter's day, he is standing there and putting in the freezing hours to trudge his sermon door to door – the draught horse of the Apocalypse and the salvation to come. And you listen out of courtesy and respect: for you know these Witnesses blazed a civil rights record for free speech and worship in the United States, were thrown into concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and were the subject of pogroms from Stalin's Russia to Banda's Malawi; and you know that, amidst the white settler states of Africa which lorded it over the population, the authorities greatly resented the Witness missionaries with their 'egalitarian heritage and oppositional ethics', But, finally, courtesy's five minutes elapse, you close your door and pour coffee for one person, and you think that the world's problems are terrifying but not simple, nothing that the flourish of a few scriptures can diagnose or answer,
For even the rider of the black horse of the Apocalypse carried scales to measure hunger, What the Witness at your door does not do is measure causes, distribution, types of consequence and types of suffering, In particular, he or she does not measure the distribution of recent wars and hunger: why it is that famine seems to stalk Africa in particular, while the industrialised world is curiously entitled to food; why it is that wars seem now to take place on the borderlands of the industrialised world, and that world wears the diamonds and burns the oil that come from the borderlands but, otherwise, cares little for all their other wars, Why it is that, even within those borderlands, the distribution of suffering is class-related and age-related and, more often than not, also gender-related – so that the young, female poor are the first to grow poorer, And why it is that, so far as the rider of the pale horse of disease unto death is concerned, AIDS should ravage the borderlands while those minority sufferers in the metropole have access to pharmaceuticals that stall and contain the sickness, The Witness does not cite the harmful (and sometimes positive) effect of multinationals, and nor does he mention the resistance of antiglobalist protesters, The witness does not mention resistance at all, and certainly has not even imagined a resistance to war and suffering within the very borderlands he dismisses as fodder for the fulfilment of prophecy, And the Witness, consumed by the scriptures he carries, and the pre-thinking they have contributed to his own thought, imagines not at all the myths, spiritual impulses, songs, literature and philosophy that have, themselves together, imagined into existence whole nations, whole movements and great systems of thought – and which allow us to contrive a hope that, somehow, we might finally imagine one world (if only we might overcome the nationalisms, ideologies and philosophies that divide us).
It was the imagination of ourselves into nations, however, that was a great hallmark of the twentieth century. More states became independent then than at any other time. Nor was this confined to the Third World. Europe has been imagining and re-imagining itself constantly: now one Germany, then two, then one again; various configurations of the Balkan states; one Czechoslovakia, then divided into two; struggle over what might be called Ireland and, within Britain itself, end-of-century devolutions to Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom examples apart, what has been happening in Europe has been, first, the imagination of nations and, then, the political organisation of them into states – often with great struggle. But it was the imagination that came first – sometimes led by devious rulers and ruling parties; sometimes spontaneous – more often than not imbued with visions and constructs of antiquities, heritage and lineage, and the nobilities said to reside in them all.
One example may, in particular, be seen as writ large, although at first sight it is inconspicuous – and this is the example of Finland. It became officially independent only at the end of 1917, after a modern history of Swedish and then Russian domination. It spent years within the Soviet shadow, without ever being absorbed into the Soviet Union. Indeed, one of the enduring images of the early Second World War is the utterly heroic and completely hopeless charge of mounted Finnish cavalry units against Stalin's tanks. Sabres drawn, urging their horses on in the winter snow, they all surely knew that this was a stupid – if romantic – way to die. For a hundred years before independence, Finland had been emerging from Swedish cultural influence. The sense of nationhood the cavalrymen died for was only one generation older than themselves in its construct, and its construct – although romantic – was deliberately artificial. Not the ingredients of the construct, but its methods, As the great Finnish diplomat Max Jakobson put it: 'A nation is made not born, Nationhood is a frame of mind, A tribe, or an ethnic identity, is transformed into a nation by the development of a consciousness of a shared past and a common destiny, Such a consciousness can only be created by the historians and poets, artists and composers,' In Finland's case the work of the poets and composers, in constructing artefacts to induce or consolidate 'a frame of mind', was highly visible and audible, In Elias Lonrot, a district health officer with a scholarly interest in folk song, published The Kalevala, which was described as a set of old Karelian poems about the ancient times of the Finnish people, Lonrot had simply collected, then anthologised, a great many folk songs and poems – but he anthologised them in a narrative sequence; and he constructed bridging passages, The result was not a disparate collection but an epic poem, and it was almost immediately adopted as the epic poem of the nascent Finnish nation, It is an immense poem, and its construct deliberately sets out to rival Homer, and to establish a mythic sense of long-standing Finnish cosmology, The heroes liberate the sun, moon and stars, The same heroes are also forever taking saunas and, literally clean-limbed, are given to duels where their swords remain scabbarded, and they sing each other into the swamplands of what they call 'the nation growing',
It was the composer Jean Sibelius, born thirty years after Lonrot published The Kalevala, who ensured the world knew about the themes at least of the new epic. Tone poems, such as The Swan of Tuonela, refer directly to Lonrot's poem; and his best-known work, Finlandia, aspires to be a musical history of the enslavement, then liberation, of the Finnish people. The long after-effects of Finlandia could not have been anticipated by Sibelius but, ten years after his death, in 1967, the doomed soldiers of the new nationalism of Biafra – under African skies and not charging across snow – marched to defeat in time with their new national anthem, drawn from Finlandia.
The Finnish example is very neat but, even in Finland, it was never as easy as partial hindsight suggests. 'What' is imagined, 'how' it is imagined, and 'why', inaugurate a tripartite series of investigations. Not every nation has a convenient Lonrot, and, since he came at an appropriate moment, there is a fourth investigation called 'when'. Timing is everything, nationalism not being a simple aggregate. But, in so far as all these are investigations of the imagination, and should take into account clashes of imagination, it might be fair to suggest that what Jakobson neglected to say was something to do with the successful politicisation of an imagined community – and that politically realised community either supressed others, or suppressed (or subsumed) the imagination of others. The latter can take much time. In Finland, it took decades after 1917 before – The Kalevala apart – there was a national literature written in Finnish rather than Swedish. Even a dictator in a ruthless hurry must allow some time for an organic process to mulch itself into soil for 'the nation growing'; and he has to use pre-existing fragments at least of cultural identity, writing or composing them into a plausible and persuasive epic.
This is why the experiments in African nation-building, conducted by Kaunda in Zambia and Nyerere in Tanzania, still seem remarkable. In Zambia, there are some seventy-two languages and seventy-two ways to articulate a sense of self and community. For years, Zambian radio would repeat the mantra, 'One Zambia, One Nation', while Kaunda sought to fashion a political philosophy that overcame linguistic and spiritual differences by the simple assertion of English and Christianity, and that purported to fuse together every worthwhile ethnic value. It was an African humanism driven by a Christian cement – for what was worthwhile was whatever accorded with the gospel creed and, to an extent, the democratic socialism of English thinkers such as Harold Laski. In what became Tanzania, in its early days as Tanganyika, Nyerere propagated a philosophy of ujamaa, a self-reliance said to reside also in African history. It involved massive dislocations in what had become African in his country, disrupting patterns of settlement and relocating them into ujamaa villages, where the new philosophy could be scientifically put into organised operation. It was a disastrous effort at social engineering, but Nyerere's people, though not believing their leader's vision, went along with it. When Nyerere appeared before them on the hustings, speaking of his vision and asserting that it was historically and culturally African, he was seldom challenged, 'because he speaks in a language – literally and figuratively – known to his audience, he is easy to accept partially: he can be both agreed with and ignored.' Neither ujamaa nor his translations of Shakespeare into Swahili have survived this very gentle man. There had better be a fifth investigation for students of nationalism and its cultural imagination: what element of urgency is required to drive the process forward? Must there be a sense of threat or danger? Must there be, as some have suggested, an industrial or technological base which can facilitate the sense of community by providing the artefacts that imagination decrees a nation's culture should need?
To an extent, these are second-order questions. Danger and technology, by themselves, do not imagine a nation. They may hasten and facilitate, provide the means to consolidate what has been imagined, but they are not themselves imagination or culture, memory or rememory. Imagination takes not so much memory, but rememory, forward. It imagines a foundation past into the future. The past must be related to the future and cannot be accurate and dispassionate history. Getting the fit right is a fortuitous and timely moment. The fit has to be politicised, in order to attract support – or suppress dissent – and then it must be operationalised. Here, technological instruments may be important – but Gandhi's insistent symbol of himself at an antique spinning wheel (this wheel containing also an inner symbol of life cycles and incarnations, the past always becoming future) suggested not. But the fit cannot be gerrymandered. What Nyerere and Kaunda, but particularly Kaunda, did was to amalgamate a Christian romanticism (all men could be righteous as they moved to modernity) with a partially sacralised version of history (traditional African values could carry the mandate of modernity – elevating a partly mythical version of these values, and elevating also its capacity to fit modern development) and an internationalised secular romanticism (the social welfare state was possible, and human engineering was both its animation and constantly improved product). His Zambian electorate, like that in Tanzania, never did find it persuasive. Zambians became the fellow travellers, not the citizens of the new nationalism. The first-order question has to be: how much romanticism, and how much bone-hard rationality, must go into the mix of imagination? If the mix is not right, the fit cannot be persuasive and cannot be operationalised. To a very large extent, this question of how to mix romanticism and rationality has haunted the great nationalisms of the world for over 200 years. And, yes, at a certain point, the response to danger carries it forward; but danger must have something to carry forward.
The years of eighteenth-century Enlightenment – when philosophy and the drive to republicanism seemed to coincide, and those republics were meant to be repositories of rights for individual citizens, and those rights had a philosophical foundation – have continued to mark Western thought and action. The older Greek idea that what was right followed what was natural, and the Renaissance idea that what was right had a centre in human agency and urgency, were now followed by the Enlightenment idea that what was right followed what was moral – and what was moral was both universal and equitable. The increasing interest and skill in science, alongside philosophy, suggested that man was both humane and rational; that thought was logical; and that thoughtful government should also be orderly, logical, and non-arbitrary and, because also moral, it had to be fair. The hierarchies of monarchy, aristocracy and church were supplanted or ceased to be first-principle means of government. This is to put it in terms that flatter the Enlightenment, since they are terms that are the Enlightenment's own. There was, however, a concurrent body of thought and action, usually described as Romanticism, personified by dashing poets, heroic but irrational revolutionaries, and which was certainly apparent in the new classical music of composers like Beethoven (even though it was a later generation of music that came to be classified, in the accepted typologies, as romantic).
In a way, Enlightenment philosophy contained within it a romantic streak, so that logical thought and romantic thought were not so much concurrent as interlinked and symbiotic. Kant's sense of a universal morality as a given condition, Hegel's sense of a motivating spirit of history, provided what were essentially illogical and unscientific foundations for complex and logical philosophical systems. And the entire idealism and logical purity of Enlightenment was counterpoised by Byron's and Goethe's renditions of the Faust story – the scientist who wanted it all; selling his soul that was, after all, merely antique; but mixing the very human attributes of desire, the will towards possession and power, nobility and imperfection, with the drive for knowledge. This much is not a remarkable observation. Even Bertrand Russell included a chapter on Byron, alongside more systematic thinkers, in his History of Western Philosophy. What is not often remarked, by contrast, is the systematic (if not always internally logical) construction of an apparatus of narrative symbols that sought to displace Christian symbolism and iconography with its own pictorial and suggestive power. The place of Masonic thought and symbols is curiously invisible in the histories of republican revolutions – even though starkly visible on US dollar bills. The pyramid and the eye seem design curiosities now but they were, at the time of the American Revolution, the signs of an underground effort to supplant established religion – tar-brushed with conservatism and allegiance to the old order – with a secular system, in that it was not traditionally 'religious', but which offered all the same an alternative spiritual history of the world since Christ, and how that history had roots in the very first empire of signs, monuments, and ceremonies at the interface of earth and the universe, in Egypt.
It is as if the new American nationalism had to be furbished with something discernibly ancient – and it is the element of discernibility that was lacking in the Zambian and Tanzanian efforts. It was not that they had no technological base; they had no sets of focus for imagination, and imagination's pathway into thought. The philosophies of Kaunda and Nyerere were didactic and pedagogical – not given to the glimpse of epiphany that they were right because a thickly condensed romanticism carried them into rightness.
Excerpted from The End of Certainty by Stephen Chan. Copyright © 2010 Stephen Chan. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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