Anthropological Reflections on the Politics of Identity


by Clifford Geertz



Delivered at (the) Collegium Budapest

Budapest, 13 December 1993


(= Public Lectures No. 7)


published April 1994 (ISSN 1217 - 5811 ISBN 963 8463 11-2)


© Collegium Budapest/Institute for Advanced Study
H-1014 Budapest Szenth∑roms∑g utca 2. Tel:(36-1) 224-8300 Fax:(36-1) 224-8310






Anthropological talks designed for general audiences are a difficult genre in the best of cases. Sometimes, they simply relate more than anyone wants to know and would never think to ask about some distant place or other, some distant people or other. Sometimes, they consist of a string of supposedly colorful anecdotes involving various sorts of erotica and casting the lecturer in a romantical light. Sometimes, most profitless of all, they are heartfelt, more or less uncircumstantial, pleas far increased tolerance, understanding, and respect for difference--standard sermons complacently given and complacently received.


But there are some subjects of general public concern to which anthropological knowledge and anthropological ways of thinking about things have seemed, over the years, to be of particular relevance. Race and racism, of course, is one, at least since Franz Boas sorted out the cultural from the biological dimensions of the question. The Third World, insofar as one wants still to call it that now that the Second has disappeared and it itself has differentiated into Koreas, Kuwaits, Myanmars, and Zaires, is another. And the formation and maintenance of collective self-images--the inclusions and exclusions of the social "we"--is a third. These are matters that engage just about everybody's attention at some level or another, and I want to speak about an intensely current phenomenon on the world scene that touches on all three of them in oblique and complicated ways--what is called (crudely and confusingly, as we shall see) "ethnic conflict."


The immediate occasion of the intense general interest in such conflict is, of course, the explosions of violence and of the promise of violence around issues of collective identity and its claims--to recognition, to autonomy, and to various sorts of dominance and material advantage--that have arisen in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reappearance of self-directed and at least would-be democratic states in Eastern Europe. But the matter is both more widespread and more long term than that. The years since the end of the Second World War have seen Indian partition, the succession of Bangladesh, and, more recently, Ayodhya, the Bombay riots, and the march on Delhi. They have seen the  Biafran civil war, the Tutsi-Hutu massacres in Burundi and Rwanda, the tribal agonies of Angola, and the increasingly complicated explosions of South Africa. There has been the Sri Lanka tigers, the Kuala Lumpur riots, and the Indonesian massacres; the Kurdish uprisings, the northern fundamentalist vs. southern Nilotic starvation and bloodletting in the Sudan, and the Arab-lsraeli wars, domestic and international. Beirut has been torn to factional shreds, so have Sarajevo and Mogadishu; Monrovia is isolated from the country whose capital it is supposed to be, occupied by foreign peace keepers. Eight hundred thousand Yemenis have been sent home from Saudi Arabia, two-hundred and fifty thousand Muslims have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, a hundred and twenty thousand Hindus have departed Kashmir. Cyprus is uneasily divided, Tibet is porously enclosed, Western New Guinea is fragilely annexed. And in the West, we have had the civil disturbances around immigrants in France, Germany, and Great Britain, the seeingly endless troubles in Northern Ireland, Quebec separatism and Basque, and, of course, in the United States our own made-in-America mixture of racial, religious and language-group intolerance, tension, assault, and riot. The list could be almost indefinitely extended, even to such unlikely places as Japan with its occluded Korean problem, Sweden with its unacknowledged Finnish one, or Brazil with its marginalized Amerindian one. There seems to be hardly anywhere that reminds one, anymore, of the Enlightenment idea of a universal republic populated with generalized citizens.


I cannot, of course, promise you much in the way of explanation of all this here, and even less of remedy. Neither my field, nor any other, has developed a body of fact and theory even remotely adequate for size-upand-solve rational control of such matters, settled science capable of giving exact direction to determinate policy, and I, at least, rather doubt that it ever will. What it can do, maybe, is provide a more useful way of discussing them, a way of talking about them that is both less obscuring of what in fact is going on in this instance or that and less given to the sort of distortion the deep emotionality of these issues seems inevitably to produce. That, anyway, is what I am going, much too briefly to be genuinely persuasive, to try to do: to suggest ways of looking at "ethnic conflict" (again in scare quotes I shall try in a moment to justify) that might improve our capacity to comprehend it and, comprehending it, to react to it in ways marginally less likely to make it worse.





The available vocabulary for talking about the sort of tension we see right now between religiously differentiated Indians or South Slavs, linguistically differentiated Canadians or Belgians, genealogically differentiated Somalis or Afghans, racially differentiated Malaysians or Fijians, or culturally differentiated Algerians or Guatemalans, has a long history stretching back through the French Revolution and the Renaissance to the Middle Ages and the Ancient World. But its modern form, the form in which we today employ it, was mainly constructed during the period of socalled liberal nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe and the United States--Cavour, Pilsudski, Masaryk, Parnell, Kossuth, Bismarck (though there the "liberal" would have to be a bit modified), Herzen, and Woodrow Wilson. "Nation," "Nationality" and "Nation-State", "self-determination," "minorities," "irredentism," and, the American contribution, out of its massive immigration, "ethnicity," have provided and continue to provide the terms in which conflicts centering around issues of collective personality, who is what and why it matters, are discussed. When so much has changed between, say, the Risorgimento and The Gulf War without the language by which it is described changing with it, it is worth wondering whether something is a bit amiss.


What, to my mind at any rate, is amiss is that all of these items are far too global, too sweeping, and too insensitive to local realities to capture the enormous heterogeneity of instances I have just recited or the extraordinary variety of circumstances within which those instances have emerged. They operate at the world history, macro-sociological level, a level few anthropologists, as opposed to economists and political scientists, are comfortable with. As such, they make, on the one hand, the present look too much like the past, reducing conflicts centered on collective identity to so much atavism, an eternal return of a permanent disposition rooted somewhere in an equally unchanging human nature, predisposed to hate the different. And, on the other, they blur the deep specificity of particular cases, pressing them into a unitary process usually referred to in a handwaving sort of way as "nation-building." Even when, as in desperation is more and more the case, a greater precision of reference and meaning is attempted, so to speak, adjectivally, so that, say, "ethnic nationalism" is discriminated from "civic nationalism," "'official nationalism" from "popular," "collectivistic nationalism" from "individualistic," or even "hungry" nationalism from "sated"--these are all real instances from recent discussions--one still feels that one is more batting about vaguely at clouds and vapors than coming to grips with etched-in selves.





My own awareness of the awkwardness of our inherited language for discussing the relationships between the passions of collective identity and those of political assertion arose in connection with my own work, concrete and long-term, in the newly independent states of Indonesia (decolonized in 1950 after two-hundred and fifty years of Dutch imperium) and Morocco (decolonized after fifty years of French in 1956). I simply could not find amid an enormous rush of rhetoric about autonomy, selfhood, pride, and collective destiny, virtually all of it borrowed from between the wars Europe, anything that looked very much like a nation-state, for which, as a matter of fact, there is no accepted expression in either Indonesian or Maghrebian Arabic. There are words for "country," for '"people," for "homeland," and for "state," but there is no word, or even any ready circumlocution, that collapsed them all into the diffuse unity of personhood and politics that the vocabulary of European nationalism does.


I do not want to make all that much of these "there is a word, there isn't a word" matters; for one can, of course, contrive to say virtually anything in virtually any language, and it is not vocabulary that drives the world. The point is simply that as one comes close up to the realities of life in such countries as these (and, in my view, most others, including those that imagine themselves compact nations--China, say, or Iran, or Italy) the relations between the sorts of loyalty that flow from consciousness of kind and the sorts that flow from common inclusion in a political entity seem, for all the forces working feverishly to identify them, surprisingly distinct. The "ties of belonging" simply do not run in a single direction, nor do they gather, except sporadically, into a uniform struggle toward an agreed-upon end. As one disconsolate observer of the Bosnian situation remarked, you have almost to go at the thing valley by valley, politician by politician.


I shall come back to my own cases-in-point later. But before doing that I want to develop some alternative conceptions, alternative again to monodic nationalism, that might make the prospect of dealing, both intellectually and practically, with so much particularism seem at least a bit less hopeless. These are the flag words of my title: "primordial loyalties," "standing entities," and "the politics of identity." They will hardly dissolve the particularity; but, simply by refusing to dissolve it, indeed by underlining it, they may render it more susceptible to the established strategy of anthropological study, comparative analysis: seeing one thing in the light of another and the other in the light of the one.





First , then , "primordial loyalties." This term and concept has, in fact, been around for awhile, if rather at the margins of scholarly discussion. I myself used it thirty years ago in an early attempt to get a handle on some of the less pragmatical, more expressivist dimensions of new state politics. (Those were the simpler days when Ceylonese Tamils, not yet Sri Lankans, were only refusing to use license plates with Sinhala characters on them and pre-Black September Lebanon, still a "nice piece of confessional mosaic" and wanting to stay that way, was adroitly avoiding a national census.) And I was, in turn, dependent on an earlier, and rather neglected, theoretical paper by the American sociologist Edward Shils in which he distinguished "primordial "personal," "sacred," and "civil" ties as the elemental bonds of social life. But the idea has been quite often misunderstood by social scientists aversive to anything that seems to suggest the rooting of human behavior in something other than individual preference, rational calculation, and utilitarian payoff. Designed to expose the artifactual, or as we would say now "constructed" (and, indeed, often quite recently constructed), nature of social identities, and to desegregate them into the disparate components out of which they are built, it was often seen to be doing just the opposite--ratifying them, archaizing them, and removing them to the realm of the darkly irrational.


In any case, by primordial loyalties is meant (by me, anyway) an attachment that stems from the subject's, not the observer's, sense of the "givens" of social existence--speaking a particular language, following a particular religion, being born into a particular family, emerging out of a particular history, living in a particular place; the basic facts, viewed again from the actor's perspective, of blood, speech, custom, faith, residence, history, physical appearance, and so on. Such attachments vary in the strength of their hold from society to society, situation to situation, person to person, and, of course, from time to time, and their mixture comes out not quite the same virtually in every case. But when they hold, as they do to some degree, with some intensity, and in some combination, for everyone at some time or another, they are seen to have an ineffable, even overpowering coerciveness in and of themselves, an unaccountable import growing out of the tie as such. Primordial loyalties, to those for whom they are primordial, seem to arise from an essential affinity (which is of course at the same time an essential disaffinity from selected others--lndios, Kafirs, WASPS, Goyim, or Gaijins) rather than from the occasions and accidents of social intercourse--personal affection, practical necessity, common interest, moral agreement, or incurred obligation. Like Mount Everest, and as massively, they present themselves as just there.


The advantage of such a concept of primordial ties over the various derivatives of the nation, nationality, nation-state sort of discourse is that it not only permits, it virtually necessitates, the disaggregation and discrimination, down to whatever detail is useful, of the factors making up the who's-in, who's-out politics of identity in one place and period as opposed to the next. Situations like that of the Ukraine, where (right now) language unites and religion divides, Algeria where religion unites and culture divides, China, where race unites and region divides, or Switzerland, where history unites and language divides, can be dealt with more precisely within such a frame. So also can the wild cross-cuttings of religion, language, and custom harassing India, language, kinship, and region threatening Nigeria, or race, religion, and culture haunting Malaysia.


So, too, translocal identities like "Arab," "Slav," "Kurd," and "Tamil,'" which run over political borders, or discontinuous ones like "Black," "Hispanic," "Muslim," and "Turk," which are distributed over multiple locales. Pluralizing countries Iike the United States, homogenizing ones like Singapore, differentiating ones like Canada, separating ones like ex-Czechoslovakia, disintegrating ones like Zaire, hybridizing ones like Mexico, or consolidating ones like Germany are more readily describable, less awkwardly contrasted.


Besides all this, there is another advantage of the separative primordial ties sort of conception over the agglomerative nationalities sort:

it protects against the most common reductive move in the discussion of identity struggles: their radical biologization. This move is particularly prominent in the United States because of the centrality of the Black-White division in our unhappy history of bondage and discrimination, which has led not only to a radically dichotomous notion of race in the first place--something neither Brazil nor Morocco, Thailand nor Tanzania, for example, have--but the modeling of virtually all other sorts of identity contrasts on it--the invention of a "blood and bone" based notion of "ethnicity" which collapses an enormous range of group differences into a diffuse and totalizing biological idiom. 


When one looks elsewhere, however, strongly biologized contrasts of this sort, though hardly absent from the discourse on difference--Suriname , for example , or Fiji, to say nothing of, just yesterday, the German variety of fascism--are not everywhere central, and often enough they are virtually non-existent. Whatever sets off "Arabs'" from "Berbers" in Algeria, "Javanese" from "Achenese" in Indonesia, "Castillians" from "Catalans" in Spain, or "Burmese" from "Karens" in Myanmar, or even "Czechs" from "Slovaks," "Florentines" from "Sicilians," "'Visayans" from "Moros," it is not--that is, it is not normally locally described as being--biological. The projection to the world in general of the rather culture-bound notions of "ethnicity," "ethnic group," and "ethnic conflict," notions that don't always work that well even in New York [are Lubavatchers an ethnic group? are Irish gays?] has been not altogether a fortunate thing.





My second proposed addition to the received vocabulary for the discussion of what I am calling "the politics of identity," namely, "standing entities," has not only not been around for any length of time, it has not, so far as I know, been--in the literature anyway--around at all. I borrow it from an imaginative Saudi envoy to Great Britain, some sort of cousin-prince or who was reported in the New York Times a few months back as saying that Western countries ought to commit themselves in his part of the world, the Gulf-war shaken Middle East, to preserving "standing entities"--the Saudi monarchy, say, or the Jordanian, both of them without much claim to historical depth or popular ratification--in the face of the forces directed against them, within and without, by various sorts of impassioned sectarians.


The term may not, thus, like many of the objects it refers to, prove to have a very long half-life, and I advance it less with the hope of its catching on (it is perhaps too candid for that: who is going to go out to die for "a standing entity?") than with the intention to point up some of the same difficulties in the "state" part of the "nation-state" idea I have just pointed up for the "nation" part: agglomeration, homogenization, and essentialization; the turning of a human construction--historical, cultural, social, psychological, take your pick, or perhaps best, adopt them all--into a natural fact.


For just about all of us these days, a few people in highland New Guinea or the Amazon forest possibly excepted, possibly not, the world divides into countries conceived to be states. Aside from the poles and the oceans, a few islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and south Atlantic, the Vatican, the Canal Zone, Gibralter, for the moment the West Bank and until 1997 Hong Kong, 1999 Macao, there is virtually no spot on the globe not included in a bounded, continuous stretch of space called the Republic of this, the Peoples Republic of that, the Union, Kingdom, Emirate, Confederation, State, or Principality of something or other. These stretches are disjunct (no spot can belong to two), categorical (a spot either belongs or it does not), and exhaustive (no spot goes un-belonged), and, now that Pakistan and Bangladesh are two, uninterrupted. Whatever the disputes, primordial ar other, that take place within its trim definings, we have, by now, an absolute map. Absolute not in the sense that it never changes; Atlas publishers have to put out a new edition virtually every day, these days. Absolute in the sense that, however, it changes, it is made up of "countries" populated by "peoples" and identified as "states," indeed as "nation-states." It was, of course, not always thus, and for much of the world it has become so only recently. The scattered empires, culture regions, commercial leagues, city states, condominiums, dependencies, protectorates, free ports, unexplored territories, unbordered dynasties, mandates, and semi-sovereign colonies that dot any historical atlas (Transylvania, East India, Turkestan, The Congo, Tangiers) are but yesterday disappeared, and the politic British archeologist who titled a book on Indus antiquities Five Thousand Years of Pakistan was looking not backwards but sideways. One cannot, to return for a moment to my own cases, write a history of "Morocco" or "lndonesia" that goes back much beyond the nineteen-thirties, not because the places didn't exist before then, or the names either, or even because they were not independent, but because they were not countries. Morocco was dynasties, tribes, cities, and sects, and later on colons. Indonesia was palaces, peasants, harbors,and hierarchies, and later on indische heren. They did not sum to colored polygons.


More significantly, neither they nor most other countries, long standing or recently appeared, may not do so, ar at least not so neatly, in the nearterm future either. Indeed a great many do not do so now. The absolute map is in itself an aspect, or a version, of the unitizing '"nationality," "nationalism," "nation-state" discourse (even the volcanoes seem Indonesian, even the sheep Moroccan), and as such it is as obscuring of contemporary political and economic realities as it is, and for some of the same reasons, of cultural, social, and psychological ones.


Perhaps the simplest, most immediate, and most startling indication of the increasing awkwardness of the absolute map conception of how the world is politically put together, as a set of territorialized units picturized as peoples and officialized as states, is the extraordinarily rapid increase in the number of such units in recent years. In 1950 there were fifty-eight members of the United Nations, most of them Western; in 1980 there were a hundred and fifty-eight, most of them not. Today there are a hundred and eighty-one (a hundred and eighty-two as soon as Eritrea gets in), ranging from St. Kitts and Nevis at two hundred and sixty square kilometers to the Russian Federation at seventeen million (or if you prefer your comparisons demographic, from St. Kitts at forty-seven thousand inhabitants to China at a billion plus), and our new Secretary of State, Mr. Christopher, was heard to worry at his confirmation hearings about the prospect of five thousand separate countries if things kept on in their ethnical ways. This is, perhaps, a bit excited; but the spectre, the Balkanization of the world, clearly is not altogether without a certain basis in how things are going. The very idea, whatever the merits and whatever the outcomes, of a partitioned Sri Langka, an independent half-Timor, a chipped-off fifth of a chipped-off Georgia, or, a proposal which is I guess now sent, a ten-fold Bosnia--divide and survive--shows at least that much.


But beyond the mere multiplication of places called nations and their enormous variety (can a single term really cover Singapore, Israel, Australia, Ethiopia, Paraguay, India, and Kazakhstan?) many of these "standing entities" are, as the Saudi ambassador suggested, standing on rather less than it might appear. It is not only in his part of the world, populated, as someone has said, by tribes with flags, that a sense of arbitrariness clings to many of the world's accepted sovereignties. The perpetuation of the whims and accidents of imperial division in successor state boundaries (Nigeria or Laos, Jordan or Brunei), the weight of diasporas (Chinese in Indonesia, Palestinian in Kuwait, Japanese in Brazil), and the extraordinary incongruencies some of these units have for various reasons inherited from one or another sort of checkered past (South Africa, Guyana, Lebanon, Malaysia) make the conception of countries as all of a piece nation states, repeating elements tiling the world, very near to comic.


In any case, they are, of course, far from the only sorts of "standing entities" actually standing. From the Security Council, The European Community, Asian, and the OAS to OPEC, NATO, the IMF, and the Muslim Brotherhood, collective actors of a rather different sort, claiming and exercising authority over places and peoples, are entering into not just the politico-economic relations among countries, as their names pretend, but within them. So also, of course, are NGOs from Amnesty International and Asia Watch to Oxfam and Greenpeace. And the development, to the degree that it has developed, of a "world system" economy, careless of borders and globally focused, has produced, in the form of multinational corporations, networked banks, and intercontinental drug cartels just so many other agglomerations of power unrecorded, indeed unrecordable, on the absolute map. The attention to particulars, to variation, and to the intricacies of instances is as necessary in sorting out the politics" side of "the politics of identity," also cluttered with forms and formulas, as it is in sorting out the "identity" side. There is nothing for it, really, but cases.





My two cases, the ones with which I have been directly engaged, are, as I have said, Indonesia and Morocco, and they make in this respect, as in so many others, a peculiarly instructive odd couple. Their instructiveness lies not in any particular representative quality, as samples out of larger classes, they might have. It is difficult to imagine what those classes might be: Southeast Asia and North Africa? The developing world? The Islamic one? New states? The dependent peripheries of the modern world system? Their instructiveness lies in the fact that as different as they are from one another, from their immediate neighbors, as from India, Ethiopia, Mexico, or France, there is something reminiscent about the interplay between the foundations of selfhood and the machineries of power wherever you find it. And, progressivist dreams or primitivist romances to the contrary notwithstanding (both of which--Mao's China, Milosevic's Serbia--have a way of turning exceedingly nasty), you find it just about everywhere, just about all the time.


Indonesia is, of course, one of the most pluralistic countries in the world. There are upwards of three hundred different languages. There are three or four thousand inhabited islands, give or take a couple hundred. There is significant representation, in a predominantly Muslim country (the largest, in numerical terms, in the world), of virtually all the major world religions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity of all kinds and states of sophistication, as well as a vast variety of tribal religions still believed in. There is a wide range of racial difference, from Malaya-Polynesian through Sinic, Papuan, and Melanesian, ingeniously mixed. And, looked at historically, the place is an anthology of the world's best imperialism: everyone from the Arabs, Indians, and Chinese, to the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and latterly the Americans and the Japanese, seeking everything from cloves to oil and bringing everything from tantrism to Roman law, has left a mark on it. It is a carnival of distinctions, a labyrinth of fault-lines. Or, as one of its politicians once called it, an elephant with beri-beri.


Morocco is hardly the inverse of this--a homogeneous population placidly set in a uniform environment. But the range of its internal variation is both less vast and less dramatic, and it is organized in quite different terms--not culturally, or linguistically, or racially, or religiously. (Virtually everyone here, especially now that most of the Jews have left, is Muslim; virtually everyone, even the Berbers, is Arabic speaking; and virtually everyone, even the darker skinned people of the south, is Afro-Mediterranean in physical aspect.) Indeed, it is not really organized in group terms at all; it is organized in terms of personal connections between individuals located at, or identified with, one or another point on the landscape, a landscape rather exactly politicized from the time of the Arab incursions a millennium ago. The country is held together, to the degree that it is held together (for no more than Indonesia is it a compact and solidified entity), by stretched-out webs of private loyalty and private rivalry: an irregular field of micropolities arising out of the micro-environments--mountains, steppes, plateaus, littoral, deserts, oases, piedmonts, and alluvial plains--of the broken countryside and reaching into its most intimate social corners--families, neighborhoods, markets, tribes. Divided into terrains rather than into islands, and certainly not into peoples, Morocco's labyrinth of fault-lines is built up out of a tremendous variety of immediate, one-on-one relationships, which, though deeply rooted and set into powerful institutions--Islam, the Monarchy, and polarized gender--do not sort out into ethnographical blocks.


The "politics of identity" have, as a result, developed rather differently in the two countries. In Indonesia, they are centered around problems of cultural integration--"what, beyond propinquity and the tracings of imperialism, connects us?" In Morocco, they are centered around questions of collective personality--"where, amidst the jockeying and the networking, does our specialness lie?" Both questions--"what do we have in common?" "what is it that makes us distinctive?"--ask for a particular sort of primordial answer and take place within a particular sort of standing entity--a semi-military republic, a neo-traditionalist monarchy. The sorts of disturbances they inspire and the sorts of responses they call out to dampen the disturbance are, in turn, equally particular.


Of the two countries, Indonesia's primordial commotions have surely been the more spectacular: the "Abode of Islam" revolts of the early fifties, the regional civil wars of 1958, the enormous massacres (the estimates run toward a half-million dead) on Java and Bali in 1965, and most recently localist upheavals at the northern tip of Sumatra, separatist movements in West New Guinea and--the one you probably have heard most about--the struggle over the formerly Portuguese eastern Timor, in which a seventh of the population (a proportion comparable, The New York Times has figured out, to the Khmer Rouge toll in Cambodia) may have perished. There has hardly been a year since Independence when some sort of serious primordially-framed violence has not erupted in some part of the archipelago or other, and hardly a day when it has not threatened to do so. The immediate conflagrations are met, as they are met just about everywhere, with force; given its prominence in Suharto's multiplex "New Order," by the army. But the shoring up of the Republic involves a good deal more than that. The army cannot, by itself, make such a variously challenged entity stand, at least not without a lot more prerogative--Japan in the Thirties--than it so far has. There needs to be, and there has been evolved over the past fifty years, a developed ideology of general identity--an explicit, systematic, and intensely diffused story designed to convince Javanese and Dyaks, Muslims and Christians, Malays and Chinese, ex-East Indians and annexed peoples, that they belong, by fate and nature, politically together.


The details of all this cannot be gone into here, but they include the invocation of an heroic immediate past (the revolution against the Dutch), the inculcation of a civil religion carefully designed to both blur and balance the various elements of the cultural complex (the so-called "five-points" Pancasila, first laid out by the populist Sukarno and given institutional force by the managerial Suharto), and the fine tune adjustment of state symbology to shifts in primordial saliencies (Suharto, not previously noted for his Islamist piety, has recently gone on the hajj and has moved to construct an organizational base among Muslim intellectuals). From the birth of the Republic to the present, its response to the tearing diversity it finds itself facing has been to attempt to enfold it into an eclectic masternarrative, conciliative and synthesizing, that will at least most of the time, in most places, more or less contain it.


Morocco, with its much weaker need to justify its reasonableness as a single country--there have been no genuinely separatist movements there at all, just plots and jacqueries--and with the generally unideological cast of mind of its people, for whom even "lslam" is more custom than doctrine and "Arab" an idea with fuzzy edges and fuzzier content, the development of a general definition of cultural commonality, a civil religion of the Indonesian sort, has simply not occurred. Not groups and commitment to groups, but persons and loyalties to persons, is, again the idiom of identity and of the politics of identity. Both for those who love him and those who hate him, and the large proportion who do both at once (l imagine them the majority), the specialness of Morocco, the quality that distinguishes it from what surrounds it, is summarized in its king.


It is not that the king is an unfettered autocrat, however much he might wish to be, and however arbitrarily he often acts, or that the country's identity would not survive the monarchy's absence. (Some other figure, a soldier perhaps or an Islamic personality could move into place, if he could gather the support and knew what to do with it.) It is that, the center for the moment of a vast field of personal ties, masculine, Muslim, and continuously shifting, the king, or more exactly the reach of the king across the field, defines the country's domain.


The major primordial identity/standing-entity type issue that has troubled the independent state, the long-term war in the Western Sahara, is a clear example of this. The formation of the Polisario, in the first instance by southern Moroccan personalities with Saharan connections, after post-Franco Spain precipitously abandoned the area, was met by the king's socalled "Green March" into the region of unarmed volunteers assembled from all over Morocco to symbolize his and thus his country's personal ties to it. The details of this are again too complex to be gone into here. The point is that the war has not been, as it has usually been represented, one between "nationalities," "ethnic groups," or even "historical communities"--Moroccans, Saharawis, Algerians, and Mauritanians--but between loose agglomerations of private loyalty arising in different Sorts of localities and centered on different sorts of figures. Whatever its outcome--most probably Moroccan preponderance, but the situation remains, as one would imagine, fluid--it will have to do with the shape of immediate allegiances not with cultural, racial, linguistic, or even religious differentiations. There is, if less explicitly articulated, something of a master-narrative here as well, but it talks not of diversity, separatism, balance, and synthesis but of dispersion, rivalry, trust, and connection.





It is of course true, as someone inevitably rises at this juncture to point out, as though anyone anywhere has ever thought to deny it, that economic, demographic, and other so-called "real" factors have a great deal to do with the appearance of primordial, or primordialized, conflict and with the effectiveness of efforts made to resolve it. Exploding populations and stumbling economies (Nigeria, Bangladesh), factional demagoguery and governmental corruption (lndia, Zaire), or even simple class selfishness (Haiti, The United States) have much to do with the shape and severity of identity politics in any standing, or tottering, entity. Rainfall and grain harvests matter in Morocco, migrations and oil prices matter in Indonesia; the distribution of wealth and the administration of justice matter in both. But, another day, another talk: my concern here is less with causes, which are as multiple and intractable to general summary as are their effects, than it is with something else, for a stressed-out liberal, rather more pressing, and, for a chastened one, rather more fateful--the viability of democracy in a difference-ridden world.


The oppressiveness of this question right now, the fear that the answer to it may be that popular government is helpless in the face of popular division, is brought on not just by the wide range of primordial horrors we see before us, but by the sense that such things were held in check, at whatever costs, by authoritarian governments recently disappeared and are not being reduced, as so often promised by developmentalist utopians, by the global expansion of a wealth creating capitalist economy. We seem to be faced with a Hobson's choice: forcing consensus by suppressing dissent, or an unsupported faith that material improvement will of itself create it. (Just a few months ago, Mr. Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary, of whom one would have expected a better grip on the world, assured the Indonesians in Jakarta that "economic welfare and democratic progress will never run counter to each other." The response of the audience was not reported.)


But the question may be, and with this I shall finish, mal pos»e. The assumption that high levels of consensus on matters of identity are prerequisite to democratic government and that what the American political theorist, William Connolly, has recently Called "agonistic democracy," a regime that "opens political spaces for agonistic relations of adversarial respect... between interlocking and contending constituencies" [xi], is a contradiction in terms may just be wrong. The politics of identity flow, as he says, and I trust, I at least have indicated, beneath, through, and over the boundaries of the state... the nation... the country... the standing entity; they operate in a realm quite specifically their own. The development of such a politics, based not on primordial consensus, which doesn't exist and is not about to, but on adversarial respect, which also doesn't much exist but, here or there, at this point or that, has some chance of doing so seems to me a primary task of our time. In relation to that task, anthropology, with its sense of particularity, its attention to detail, and its suspicion of homogenizing languages of social description, can, for all its lack of proven remedies and bankable findings, play a significant role.



Primordial loyalities and Standing Entities: Anthropological Reflections on the Politics of Identity, Budapest/HUN 1994: Collegium Budapest/ Institute for Advanced Study


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