‘Naturalism’, the attempt to explain social phenomena by reference to ‘natural’ causes, themselves seen as empirically self-evident, is a trend which assumes a wider significance in proportion to the prevailing level of pessimism in society about the human potential to transcend and dominate nature. ‘Naturalism’ underwent a qualitative transformation with Social Darwinism, a monist trend which appropriated the positivist rationality of nineteenth century scientific progress and gave it a political content in the service of anti-democratic reaction.
To do this it had increasingly to abandon any ‘scientific’ logic to its advocacy of elitism, and instead promote a mystical assertion of the historical inevitability of inequality. This abandonment of any hard faith in the scientifically calculable basis for denying democratic rights to one portion of humanity came at a fairly early stage. Lukacs shows the parallel logic which on the one hand sought to prove that “Inequality is . . the natural condition, equality is unnatural and impossible”1, whilst on the other hand simultaneously recognising the futility of proving this scientifically.
Thus, from Gumplowicz, who admitted in 1883 that with regards The Racial Struggle (the title of his famous book of the time) “everything is arbitrary, subjective appearance and opinion”, through to Hitler, who said “I know very well . . that there is no such thing as a race in the scientific sense”2, there is little faith in the scientific justification for inequality. It is, however, the philosophical content of this trend which ultimately matters, even though it inevitably assumes an increasingly irrational form.
It is the need to assert the legitimacy of inequality which prompts elitist thought, rather than elitist thought begetting inequality. The significance of this today though is rather different, as few reactionaries openly advocate ‘racial’ struggle as a ‘legitimate’ exercise in evolution. One should also recognise that just as the rise of Social Darwinism mirrored the spectre of communism which stalked a petrified European bourgeoisie, then so too do today’s philosophical trends reflect the wider balance of forces in society.
On this count, things are less polarised, and at the moment rather blurred, but some indications of the rise of naturalism are again evident. This is most clearly expressed in the debate around ‘ethnicity’, a word which the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as “an alternative term for ‘race’ proposed by the English anthropologist Ashley Montague, approximately equivalent to a local race. An ethnic group may also be defined as a group of people sharing a common cultural heritage”
3. Ethnicity’ is a term which has today acquired the status of truth, asserted rather than proved, and rarely questioned as a valid categorisation of human society. It is not difficult to see why this is the case; the term ‘ethnic’ denotes a sub-group with characteristics which are seen as fundamentally ‘natural’ (language, ‘customs in common’, ‘history’, ‘racial’ features). It is a peoples ‘given’ features, the inevitable inheritance from the land and culture they inhabit, which distinguishes one ‘ethnie’ from another.
As such this view, which has been largely focused on the peoples of the former Soviet Union, contains a germ of truth in it, as wider political and social structures implode, catalysing a fresh set of allegiances which invariably reflect latent parochial ties as a means of survival. The notion of the ‘ethnicization’ of politics is thus a crude, but not essentially incorrect description of what is going on, in as far as it denotes the fissiparous consequences of the generalised instability of the current period, in a given area.
This is not, however, the way this concept is interpreted in the wider world today, where it has acquired an anti-humanist philosophical content with a line of causality which binds the ‘given’, natural substance of a group to its political style, producing the feared bogey of ‘ethnic nationalism’. In this paradigm, there is a symbiotic relationship between the nationalism which is considered so pervasive and iniquitous in Eastern Europe today, and the culture of the ethnically cohered nationality which seeks revenge for its denied collective history.
In other words, look no further than the people who live there, delve deep within their ethnic psyche and see what motivates them to such extremes, rather than flesh out the failure of the market to raise the division of labour and crush pre-modern social relations under the wheels of modernity. This should be clarified further, as it is the naturalism of ‘ethnicity’ which I seek to stress. There are two aspects to this that are important to consider. One is the irrationality of the concept, and the other is the way in which ‘ethnic’ denotes primitive behaviour, somehow further down the evolutionary ladder.
As alluded to earlier, the former is no barrier to the assertion of the latter. There exists a flood of literature about ‘ethnicity’, but no consensus beyond the assertion that there is now a lot of it about. At one end of the spectrum is socio-biology, now being taken seriously again, and at the other is a relativist eclecticism, personified in Anthony Smith at the L. S. E. , which traces the historical roots of a given ‘ethnie’ through ‘time and space’ to prove its internal ‘depth’.
Somewhere in the middle are figures like Gellner and Hobsbawm, coming from different positions, but both alighting at the sphere of ‘culture’, always a fertile field from which to burrow into the mind of the ‘masses’. Hobsbawm’s essay is most revealing4. ‘Ethnicity’ is clearly a term he is uncomfortable with, and at every opportunity he seeks to qualify his support by adding the rejoinder, “. . whatever it may be”. He is more certain however to state that it is not a political concept, and therefore, unlike nationalism which “belongs with political theory”, ethnicity belongs “with sociology or social anthropology”.
At no point can he clearly state what makes an ethnic group, only that it defines itself against ‘the other’ – “how do men and women know that they belong to this community ? Because they can define the others who do not belong, who should not belong, who can never belong. In other words by xenophobia”. This he concludes after having made the observation that he has found Eugene Roosen’s book Creating Ethnicity “particularly helpful”, and from which he approvingly quotes the following; “After all, nobody can change ‘the past’ from which one descends, and nobody can undo what one is” !
Then, to confuse matters further still, Hobsbawm adds the patronising addendum to Roosens fatalism, that, “Well, of course you can change, or at least invent a past – but they don’t know it”. This hall of mirrors, in which ‘they’, the ‘ethnics’, are trapped in a mythical past, expressing their group identity at the expense of ‘the other’, allows Hobsbawm to conclude that “xenophobia looks like becoming the mass ideology of the 20th century fin de sii??cle”.
In sum, it is the mind of the masses aggressively asserting their group identity which is the problem, best understood by anthropology as this is not a political phenomenon but one reflecting human habit, custom, and ultimately, ‘human nature’. Like Hobsbawm, Gellner also advocates an anthropological perspective. Both argue the centrality of the cultural dynamic as the motor for ethnically generated nationalism, and that this is a major source of instability today.
The cultural norms and values of the ethnic group thus becomes the subject of an unabashed particularism, in the name of social anthropology. For Gellner, his Weberian phenomenology paints the dynamic of inequality in industrial society as “asymmetries between cultural systems”5. In such a world, one is forced to choose which ‘cultural system’ is the most equitable and stable for society in general, and trade in particular – for an unbounded relativism is an existentialist cul-de-sac – and of course this will tend to be the more formally bourgeois social relations pertaining at the ‘industrial’ centre.
Thus, Gellners view of the world has the merit of making ‘our’ wealth, liberalism and stability a reflection of our cultural virtue, whilst also legitimising ‘our’ right to drag the less culturally sophisticated social entities in the world (Hobsbawm’s “xenophobic” ethnic nationalists) up the evolutionary ladder, and perhaps on to a par with ourselves. Hobsbawm and Gellner, and many others, utilise the concept of ‘ethnicity’ for two reasons. One is that this is indeed the way the world appears today, where atomisation and instability prompt a re-ordering of peoples allegiances in the absence of the powerful cement which cohered the Cold War.
It is entirely to be expected that people will take the line of least resistance, to develop strategies for survival based upon already existing bonds and ideological affiliations. Some will make a virtue of this necessity and rally support under some flag or other, but this can at best, in the current context, be a temporary and fragile state of affairs. Most however would willingly exchange their tenuous identity in this cruel charade for a German or American Passport. The strength of ‘ethnic nationalism’ is more apparent than real when one considers the options for desperate people.
But this is of course only the starting point in understanding what is going on in the world today, because the external appearance of a social phenomena will never coincide with its real internal essence. In the absence of any pressure for an analysis which foregrounds human needs, then a vulgar bourgeois empiricism will inevitably arise. This serves as a defence of the status quo, but one which takes an increasingly more irrational form as the status quo becomes ever less defensible.
Witness almost any part of the third world today, where the pressing need of humanity for food, housing, health care and everything else is met with the paternalist beneficence of western aid or charity, if they are lucky, and covert insurgency or outright invasion if they are less so. Explaining this degree of inequality with talk of the “asymmetry between cultural systems” is thus a truly grotesque defence of the status quo.
This then is where the other side of the concept of ‘ethnicity’ comes in, as a mystification of the causes of human immiseration, where the form of political fragmentation is mistaken for its social content. Ethnicity’, as operationalised by theorists such as Gellner and Hobsbawm, implies precisely this line of causality, which is why they embrace an anthropological perspective and reject ‘politics’. ‘Ethnicity’ though is a profoundly political concept, that is applied to the poor and the marginalised, not the Peerage or the propertied elite, and implicitly contrasts the narrow, atavistic concerns of ethnicity to a broader, more modern liberalism of the major powers.
As such it is very much a concept of the nineties, which on the one hand reflects the sense of disarray and drift across the globe, whilst on the other hand seeking to instil some order in an otherwise chaotic vista, by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The quest for a credible mechanism by which inequality is excused will always be irrational, but this, in the absence of anything better, will not be a barrier to its articulation.