An Anthropological Preview of the Post-9/11 World

Posted on 8 August 2009 by

I accidentally came across this piece by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a Norwegian anthropologist, titled “The Paranoid Phase of Globalisation.” It was published in openDemocracy just a little over a month after the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington D.C., and it was interesting to note Eriksen’s predictions at the time:

Imagine this scenario for 2002 – science fiction a short while ago, exceedingly likely now. The world had entered the paranoid phase of globalisation. Countries were neither at war nor not at war. Detailed surveillance of citizens and quixotic imprisonment of individuals became commonplace. Politicians eagerly elaborated on the imminent threat of terrorist attacks, thereby justifying ever more draconian measures. Radical humanist networks and human rights groups were ostracised for their lack of loyalty and structural similarities to terrorist groups. Yet everybody, including the politicians, knew in their heart of hearts that turning the citizenry into potential enemies would only aggravate the problem.

And so it did. Terrorist attacks did not stop, nor did they escalate to all-out war. They were just frequent enough to keep everybody constantly worried. A plane-crash here, an epidemic there. The fun immediately went out of travelling. Even commuting ceased to be a drowsy and boring affair as people became increasingly wary of their fellow passengers on the tube. Those who entered poor countries from rich countries were screened thoroughly for signs of contagious disease. Many began to let their favourite teams down for fear of stadium attacks. Others felt a lump in their stomach whenever they entered a crowded basement, for they knew that the armed paramilitaries in fatigues guarding them were only impotent symbols of the state.

How close did he come in his prediction? Was the situation better than he predicted, or worse?

Much of the article is developed along the familiar axis of trust–risk, intersected by another axis of globalization–identity politics. In terms of an analysis of world capitalism, geopolitics, and warfare between the national security state and non-state actors, the approach offers some pluses, and some minuses. On the one hand, it is one that affords us a more “intimate,” inter-personal kind of analysis, bringing the analysis down to ground level cultural expressions. On the other hand, it substitutes generalization from various micro-places for a more comprehensive understanding of both imperialism and the capitalist world-system.

With respect to “identity politics” (and I am not sure this framework is adequate for understanding Al Qaida), Eriksen observes:

Many writers see identity politics in general as an anti-modern counter-reaction to the individualism and freedom embodied by globalisation, while others see it as the defence of the weak against foreign dominance, or even as a concealed strategy of modernisation. Some emphasise the psychological dimension of identity politics, seeing it as nostalgic attempts to retain dignity and a sense of rootedness in an era of rapid change; others focus on competition for scarce resources between groups; some see identity politics as a strategy of exclusion and an ideology of hatred; while yet others see it as the trueborn child of socialism, an expression of the collective strivings of the underdog.

That is a pretty good depiction of the state of debate, and he notes that none of these interpretations and judgments tells the whole story. Nonetheless, he feels comfortable enough to provide the following scheme for understanding identity politics — a scheme that I generally agree with, especially for its relational and processual elements, and its astute recording/synthesizing of expressions of identity politics which most of us will have observed or experienced personally:

  1. “identity politics always entails competition over scarce resources” (with a somewhat amorphous, all-in-one definition of “resources”)
  2. “modernisation and globalisation actualise differences and trigger conflict”
  3. “similarity overrules equality ideologically”
  4. “images of past suffering and injustice are invoked”
  5. “the political symbolism and rhetoric evokes personal experiences”
  6. “first-comers are contrasted with invaders”
  7. “the actual social complexity in society is reduced to a set of simple contrasts”

Some will note of course the degree of instrumentalism built into this scheme, not that it should be rejected as a whole or out of hand. But primordialists do make a good point: most people take their culture for granted, and are not conscious manipulators acting on the front stage and in the public limelight. Many attachments are felt personally and emotionally, rather than as calculated politics, built on abstract terms. Indeed, to suggest otherwise would mean that ethnic leaders, most of all, are simply faking it, conscious of their calculated manipulations while pretending they are deep-seated, ancient, traditional…and faking can be exhausting — not too good as a long-term strategy.

It was what I think is the genius of Pierre Bourdieu (a.k.a. the French social theorist and ethnographer who resembles Tommy Lee Jones — come on, compare this with that), to have worked out a synthesis and ultimate transcendence of both instrumentalism and primordialism:

The habitus comprises a set of generative schemes that produce practices and representations that are regular without reference to overt rules and that are goal directed without requiring conscious selection of goals or mastery of methods of achieving them.

What is commonly interpreted as rational interest-seeking behaviour is in fact largely habitual, an acting out of habitual constraints encoded in unexamined assumptions about what is reasonable and unreasonable (Bourdieu 1977: 72 — [Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.])

Eriksen ends his article on a universalist, humanist, some might even say Christian theme:

The new era must move beyond the paranoid to the more fully human: discovering a “universal” language of recognition and respect while realising that the more fundamental emotions are compassion and love.

It is hard to disagree with love and other good things. In fact, I would have considered ending all my articles on the same note, if my desire was to secure automatic agreement. So I will be a “contrarian” instead: I think the new era/world we should move to is one where you get to leave me alone. I am all for love, just not on command. I am all for relationships, just not the forced encounters that one endures living in the city. And I am all for internationalism, just not the right of anyone to shove his/her muzzle into everyone else’s affairs. (I may even tolerate you disagreeing with me on these ponts.)

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