Features | Cover story incorporated, and from which she or he fears being ostracised. The nuclear family, tied to the desire for property and the need to work and earn, for instance, is transmuted from a basic requirement of capitalism into a moral requirement. Crucially, ideology is reinforced through its practices – by ritual, conventional behaviour and so forth. (Here Althusser quotes ironically the 16th-century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal: “‘Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.”)
Balibar takes this analysis and makes it central to his argument about the way in which the great collective identities of nation and race that dominate modern history – and sit at the heart of terrible conflicts – are constructed. In his 1988 essay “The Nation Form: History and Ideology” (from the collection Race, Nation, Class, co-authored by Immanuel Wallerstein and published by Verso), Balibar introduces the idea of “fictive ethnicity”, arguing that:
o nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalised, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them are ethnicised – that is represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community, possessing of itself an identity of origins, culture and goals which transcends individuals and social conditions.
nic identity that others do not – certain “characteristics” must be evoked for “us” to identify with. These are not just alleged physical characteristics but cultural ones such as “myths of origin” (Balibar gives the French Revolution as an example) and other cultural artefacts with which one is supposed to have an “innate” meaningful relationship. George Orwell, for example, proposed just such a connection between the English and “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”. From these characteristics we can then surmise a character – a national character – as though the nation was an individual subject with, as Balibar notes, “an origin and a coherence”. The implication here is also that, despite the mess of history, the formation of a nation is the outcome of a “project”, and those of us who belong represent its “fulfilment”. Our ethnicity could not, the unstated argument goes, have been otherwise.
Golden ages are burnished in new ways hat’s more, these cultural characteristics are frequently advertised as part of a past that was not only better but is under threat from those who do not share “our” ethnicity, who are not part of “our” project. Balibar’s co-author Wallerstein coins the term “pastness” to identify this phenomenon. In his essay “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity” he writes that pastness is:
This leads to the production of individuals who “belong”, who are regarded as placeable within the scope of, for example, “Britishness”. The obvious corollary of this is the production of individuals who do not belong; who are not entitled to take part in the political community of a nation-state, or access the rights given to its citizens.
ome might object to this claim by saying that ethnic or cultural homogeneity is not only desirable but a necessary basis for a democratic and harmonious society. Balibar’s answer is that “‘peoples’ do not exist naturally any more than races do, either by virtue of their ancestry, a community of culture or pre-existing interests.” Identities, then, are not fixed. They are, to take the subtitle of Balibar and Wallerstein’s book, always “ambiguous identities”. Any nation, if you look at the different groups and communities that it is supposed to include, is multi-ethnic and multicultural from the outset.
To maintain fictive ethnicity – the idea that all these people who belong to the nation share the same eth
. . . a mode by which persons are persuaded to act in the present in ways they might not otherwise act. Pastness is a tool persons use against each other. Pastness is a central element in the socialisation of individuals, in the maintenance of group solidarity, in the establishment of or challenge to social legitimisation. Pastness is therefore pre-eminently a moral phenomenon, therefore a political phenomenon, always a contemporary phenomenon.
Pastness, based as it is on social function as opposed to truth, is not static. Golden ages are burnished in new ways to suit different ideologies. Memory of Britain’s experience of the Second World War changes from a time of mass killing abroad and harsh deprivation at home that we should avoid repeating to a tonic for the nation that did “us” good and allowed us to display our inherent national character.
s Wallerstein notes, this “pastness” is used to perform three operations. First, it is used to explain “why things are the way they are and shouldn’t be changed.” Second, it is used to explain “why things are the way they are and cannot be changed.” Finally, it is used to explain “why present
New Humanist | Spring 2019