Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Modern people living in WEIRD cultures value consistency in the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of individuals. Joseph Henrich argues this is a strange phenomenon of WEIRD societies and that it hasn’t been a central feature of many cultures throughout history. One of the challenges of living in a society that deems you a hypocrite if you are not internally consistent on all issues is that we frequently run into paradoxical situations where we simultaneously uphold values that directly contradict. In the United States the most clear example is the contradiction between liberty and democratic governance. Democratic governance entails the creation of laws which reduce some personal liberties in order to defend other liberties.
Another example of paradoxes where our desires run into each other, as Steven Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, is between self-determination and the idea of an ethnocultural nation state. The challenges created when these two ideas bump into each other are fueling heated debates and worsening refugee crises across the globe.
In the Untied States, and many Western European countries, we believe in ideas of self-determination. We believe that individuals have the power to improve their own lives by working hard, making smart decisions, and – if necessary – by moving to a new place to start over. The history of the United States is exactly that, a history of people packing up and starting over somewhere new. Whether it was the pilgrims on the East Coast or the countless people who successively moved west, the United States is defined by the idea of self-determination and moving to areas of opportunity.
But what happens when the people who exercise this self-determination and move to areas of opportunity are culturally distinct from the areas to which they move? That is the question that Pinker explores in his book. Regarding the differences of the people and the landscape in a nation, Pinker writes, “unlike features of a landscape like trees and mountains, people have feet. They move to places where the opportunities are best, and soon invite their friends and relatives to join. This demographic mixing turns the landscape into a fractal, with minorities inside minorities inside minorities.”
This is where our paradox arises. We want people to be free. We want to uphold ideas of self-determination. We want people to be able to move to areas of opportunity and start new lives. We don’t want people to be stuck in one place, dependent on government assistance and charity. But, historically the United States and Western European nations have demonstrated that we don’t want ethnographic minorities to be the ones who are self-determinant in this way. We want our countries, our states, and our cities to remain ethnoculturally cohesive groups (I don’t support this view, but some modern political groups certainly do).
Not all people share this mindset, but many do, and it is a large component of populist movements in the United States and Europe. The choice that many people seem to advocate for is limiting self-determination of people who do not belong to the ethnocultural majority. A choice that is easily pointed at as racist and hypocritical. The other option for the people who dislike the ethnocultural change is to uphold self-determination, but to give up the idea of an ethnocultural state. To me this seems to be the more reasonable choice, but for many, the fear of losing their group identity is powerful.
Ultimately, what we should recognize is that our modern nation states, the political units we generally view as ethnocultural groups, conflict with ideas of self-determination. If we want to uphold self-determination and make it easier for people to shape their own lives, then we may end up losing ethnocultural nation states.
Conflating Nations & People

Conflating Nations & People

“The term Nation or People came to stand for the individual men, women, and children who made up that nation, and then the political leaders came to stand for the nation,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Conflating nations and people is part of Pinker’s explanation for the two World Wars of the 20th century. Humanity has been gradually pacifying throughout history, but the power of nations and the conflation of nations, people, and their leaders put enormous power and ultimately destructive potential in the hands of a few men. Pinker continues, “a ruler, a flag, an army, a territory, a language, came to be cognitively equated with millions of flesh-and-blood individuals.”
We are good at losing track of the distinctions between individuals and the groups those individuals form. We do this with nations, we do it with sports teams, and we do it with corporations. We endow these non-human entities with the rights of the humans that form them. The entities themselves, someone like Yuval Noah Harari would argue, are entirely fictitious, but still, we treat them at times like a real human that we have formed intimate connections with. We easily find ourselves within a group and easily lose our sense of our individual self. When a group prospers we feel as though we have prospered, as any sports fan knows. When a group is threatened, we act as though we ourselves are threatened.
Pinker argues that these dynamics were in play in the 20th century. Globally, humans committed themselves to a nationalistic ethos which rulers were able to harness in ways that propelled an otherwise pacifying humanity into calamitous wars.
Today we see problems from corporations that have been given the rights of individuals and exercise those rights to further their self-interest at the expense of actual human beings in political arenas. We have not found a way to think about the groups to which we belong without treating them, or conflating them, as human. We still see ourselves as intimately tied to the imaginary groups we form when we coordinate with others.
A Link Between Consumerism & Nationalism

A Link Between Consumerism & Nationalism

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that consumerism and nationalism are linked through their shared status as imagined communities. Harari defines an imagined community as “a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do.” In a market, we don’t know every producer or every other consumer. The actions of all the other producers and consumers impact us, and we may have niche markets that we are intimately tied to, but we don’t really know many other people in the market. In a nation, we may know a handful of people very closely, another handful of people well, and have a handful of acquaintances, but we certainly don’t know everyone. Nevertheless, we can act as though we know everyone in a community of gym enthusiasts, sneakerheads, or real estate investors. We can feel a unity and connection with all 330 million Americans, all citizens in the Deep South, or everyone living in our city. But these communities are imagined, we don’t really know everyone and don’t actually live in community with them.
Regarding consumerism and nationalism Harari continues, “both are imagined communities because it is impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation to really know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past.” Even if they are not really real, these imagined communities exist for a reason. They help us cooperate and coordinate among huge numbers of humans. “consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests, and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination.”
This imagination helps us connect with people we otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to connect with. It helps us trust people we otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to trust. It can go too far and lead us to purchase shoes for thousands of dollars or to die in wars started by the megalomania of a charismatic leader. But in general, consumerism and nationalism have become a foundation for large scale human cooperation in the modern era. We hide the fact that these communities are imagined and the better we do the better we can participate with the other members of our imagined community. It can give us a sense of purpose and meaning in interacting and living among other people, even if it is all based on shared myth.
Foundation in the Home

Foundation in the Home

For Matthew Desmond the problem of evictions is not just a problem that impacts a few unlucky people here or there. It is not even a problem for just the poorest among us or the most derelict and destitute members of American Society. Eviction is a problem of the nation, because the foundation of the nation, Desmond would ultimately argue, is the home.
“What else is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes?” writes Desmond. Homes establish the foundational units which collectively come together to create a nation. Without places to live, people don’t have places to come together and create a society. A nation relies on individuals living together and forging their communities, cities, and nations jointly.
In this way, an eviction is not isolated to just a tenant and a landlord. In a direct sense, police, storage companies, and shelters are impacted by eviction. And in a broader and more indirect sense, local businesses, politicians, and eventually the entire society is impacted by eviction, especially as one eviction turns into multiple evictions and builds into an eviction epidemic. Evictions, being tied to the foundational building block of the nation, impact all of society.
I believe that for Desmond this is what drove him to do the research for Evicted and to share the stories of those directly involved in the eviction epidemic in America. By describing the people facing eviction, the landlords kicking them out, and the entire housing and economic systems that allow for such high rates of eviction, Desmond is helping us better understand the realities and costs of eviction. We have to have a full picture of eviction to appreciate its impact on our nation and to move forward in a way that better supports and integrates the poorest members of our society. We have to support the homes in order to support our communities, cities, and our nation as a whole.