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In Search of a Cure for a Political Disease or the Natural Basis of Ethnic Politics

February 4, 2021

Messay Kebede
February 4, 2021

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” Carl Jung.

Professor Messay Kebede – University of Dayton

One thing is sure: political movements that vent ethnic mottos have a great mobilizing power, greater than class or any other group movement. Not only do they incite a higher level of commitment and readiness to fight, but they are also prone to use violence to realize their objectives. The purpose of this write-up is to differentiate the part played by natural dispositions from the part played by human additions in the construction of ethnic movements. My point will be to show that, while the animosity inflaming ethnic movements feeds on natural bent, the political weaponization of ethnicity and the recourse to violence to advance the political ambitions of elites constitute a properly human input.

In addition to the sense of difference of one social group from all other groups, whatever be that difference, be it religion, race, language, history, customs, geography, etc., what singles out ethnic politics is the aversion that it displays toward other social groups. Thus, to take the example of Ethiopia, prior to the ethnicization of Ethiopian politics, Ethiopians felt that they belonged to different ethnic groups without, however, coupling the sense of belonging with animosity or hostility toward other groups. True, ethnic grievances over unequal treatments were often expressed, but they did not manifest any hate toward other groups or even toward the group held responsible for the perceived mistreatment. The grievances did not reach the level of hate because of the prevalence of the hope for change in the direction of equal treatment.

Things started to change when grievances were increasingly overtaken by ethno-nationalist discourses. The movement first started in the northern parts of the country and then progressively spread in some regions of the southern part. Together with the escalation of armed conflicts between the central government and northern ethno-nationalist and secessionist groups, the original sense of difference and the grievances turned into movements demanding the political fencing of Ethiopian ethnic groups, with the added connotation that any continuation of the policy of integration would be detrimental to their interests and cultural identity. This demand for enclosure, in addition to legalizing the exclusion of people who happen to belong to other ethnic groups, adds a moral overtone to the exclusion.

The temptation here is to argue that elite political calculations account for the gestation of the policy to exclude as well as to ban integration. Indeed, according to the instrumentalist theory, ethnic politics is nothing but a strategic objective by which elites competing for power endeavor to mobilize people and gain their political support by activing the sense of solidarity binding members of the same ethnic group. This approach explains many things, except the crucial question of knowing why people follow the elites to the point of taking part in bloody conflicts and even genocide. Seeing the atrocities and crimes committed by ethnic clashes, it is very difficult to maintain that rational calculations exclusively inspire such behaviors. Willy-nilly, one must admit that only the presence of the sentiment of hate can trigger and nourish the behaviors. Likewise, hate alone can explain why it is so hard to reach negotiated settlements of ethnic conflicts.

Since we speak of the presence of a strong sentiment, we must also concede that hate cannot appear out of nowhere. Feelings do not just come and go as one pleases; nor are they transferred to other people at will. Hence the need to assign a natural basis to ethnic animosity, which animosity has to do with the very manner society is formed. Humans are naturally social beings, but this naturalness is not based on some biological gene that would destine individuals for specific societies. No one is born Oromo or Amhara, but one becomes Oromo or Amhara. It springs to mind that the sense of belonging to an ethnic group, which is then induced, can become powerful if it is at the same time bolstered by the hate of the other, of the stranger. As the French philosopher Bergson said, “it is primarily as against all other men that we love the men with whom we live.” In other words, the natural formation of distinct human groups results from the act of boxing individuals in closed societies. And what better way to do the enclosing than through the inducement of the feeling of hate toward the other, the stranger.

The process is clear enough: in order to give society an organizational form by which alone it can be a functional unit, the closure of the group is a necessary step. Closure generates cohesive groups that are also completely compliant to a single leader. Given that the appeal to biological determination would reduce human social organization and potentials to something akin to the fixed structure that unites the bees of a hive, nature “opted” for the formation of closed groups by way of exclusion, thereby providing flexibility to the organization while maintaining its cohesion. The best way to exclude without activating a genetic determination, is it not through a natural feeling of aversion towards whomever is not a member of the group? The impact of this aversion is that the features of the society acquire a normative stand, thereby becoming a source of obligations to individuals. As a result, the notions of good and evil, truth and falsity only operates within the confines of the group. As Pascal lamented, “A strange justice that is bounded by a river! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.”

What must be stated here is that animosity toward the stranger does not necessary imply the recourse to violence. It is one thing to hate neighboring groups; it is another to deliberately attack and invade their territories. In this last case, the addition of a goal that goes beyond the need to exclude the stranger involves human creativity, which is using a natural disposition for occasional pillages or for the more lasting purpose of conquest and enslavement.

The same holds true for ethnic politics: it hijacks nature’s formative component of any social organization to attain a political goal in a situation defined by a severe form of power competition among aspiring elites. So conceived, this theory confirms the instrumentalist explanation according to which ethnic politics is mainly about elites competing for power. However, it also fills the gap that characterizes instrumentalism, which is that ethnicity, conceived just as a tool, is incapable of accounting for the readiness of the masses to participate in ethnic movements, even to the point of becoming emotionally charged and violent, as they often are. In arguing that ethnic politics activates a dormant natural tendency that is at the basis of the cohesion, hierarchical order, and normative status of any human aggregation, the theory effectively corrects and completes instrumentalism.

The force of this natural tendency is such that it has required the transforming impact of the great mystic religions, like Christianity and Islam, to unlock the closed society and facilitate the formation of large and modern societies. In dismissing tribal religions in favor of a universal God, the mystic religions have induced the new sentiment of the oneness of humanity and have gone a long way in weakening the gates of the closed society. Even so, the movement toward larger social formations was slow, riddled with ups and downs, and disfigured by the erection of hegemonic systems. How could it be otherwise given that the natural can be covered up or cajoled into a different course, but is never eliminated? The persistence of the natural beneath acquired cultural and institutional assets is the reason why human progress always remains a fragile achievement, as disclosed by the recent turmoil that tarnished America’s democratic electoral results.

The relative consolidation of larger societies during modern times is due to a great extent to a new emotion concocted by human creativity, to wit, the love of one’s country or patriotism. The following words of Renan forcefully captured the new sentiment. “A nation,” he writes, “is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.” Unsurprisingly, this new love has also been used to block the endeavor to open up through the corruption of patriotism into nationalism. This deviation has caused untold sacrifices and sufferings ranging from unprecedented destructive wars to blunt genocides.

Messay Kebede
University of Dayton

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