Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wallerstein: Determination of Peoples? Which Self?

Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary No. 297, Jan. 15, 2011

One of the guiding mantras of the twentieth century was the self-determination of peoples, of nations. It was a piety to which everyone assented in theory. But in practice, it was a very thorny, very murky subject. The key difficulty is how to determine which was the self, the people, the nation that would be entitled to determine its own destiny.

In every state, without exception, there are people in state power who argue what we have come to call a “Jacobin” position. They assert that all the citizens of that state constitute a nation, one that has already determined its destiny. We talk of nation-states as though the Jacobin principle were a reality rather than a political aspiration. Jacobins say that the state should be reinforced and strengthened by refusing to recognize the right, the legitimacy of any so-called intermediate group to stand between the state and the citizens. All rights to the individual; no rights to groups.

At the same time, in every state, again without exception, there are others – often called “minorities” – who contest this idea. They say that the Jacobin position hides the interest of some “dominant” group which maintains its privileges at the expense of all those who belong to groups other than the dominant group. The minorities (who often, but not always, comprise in fact the numerical majority of the population) argue that, unless the rights of groups are recognized, they are denied equal participation in the state.

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