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Nation, State and Violence, Essay Example

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Essay

Pierre van der Berghe and Robert M. Hayden’s respective articles, “The Modern State: Nation-Builder or Nation-Killer?” and “Imagined Communities and Real Victims: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in Yugoslavia”, examine how the phenomenon of the State contributes to the formation of national identity. This formation of identity, however, is not considered to be merely a positive, affirming gesture; rather, there is a negative and violent aspect to this identity,  to the extent that such formations of identities can become a pretext for violence.

In van der Berghe’s paper, the author approaches the State through a dismantling of various myths. In particular, van der Berghe is concerned with two key arguments. Firstly, he attempts to undermine the notion that the State is in someway a necessary political formation, or in other words that it is the inevitable result of a clear historical trajectory. By demonstrating that there are political alternatives to the State, van der Berghe essentially de-mystifies the State. The practical importance to this theoretical gesture is that it creates the possibility of theorizing and imagining other types of political formations, which leads to van der Berghe’s second key point: it is more pertinent than ever to de-mystify the State, as the modern State has essentially undergone a “mutation”, in which it directs violence against its own people according to ethnic and racial lines.

Robert M. Hayden approaches the modern State through an analysis of the Yugoslav conflict. Particularly, Hayden is concerned with how the former state of Yugoslavia dealt with a series of ethnic identities: upon the dissolution of Yugoslavia, there was a tension between these identities that led to violence. Using an anthropological and ethnological approach, Hayden traces how the collapse of a Yugoslav state was the result of an ideological nationalism, which eventually deteriorated into war and violence, while at the same time affirming ethnic identities.

Both texts essentially take a negative view of the modern State. They view an intimate connection between the State and the possibility for violence in extreme forms, such as ethnocide and genocide. However, the connection between the State and violence perhaps is too strong. For example, what about the cases of violence in non-State situations? Considering various wars in Africa, the absence of a strong state authority in countries such as Congo and Rwanda would seem to have historically contributed to the atrocities in those countries. In this regard, the connection between Nation-State and violence, while carefully argued, particularly by Van Der Berghe, perhaps fails to account for the variety of different forms of violence, according to an over-simplified reduction of violence to the State. In this regard, Hayden essentially takes a more balanced approach. For example, he notes that for decades the former Yugoslavia had managed to suppress ethnic tensions. It was only until the various republics constituting Yugoslavia pursed a more aggressive nationalistic ideology that the problems started. Accordingly, perhaps the more pertinent connection is between violence and ideology, as opposed to violence and the Nation State. That is to say, what is relevant is to study particular ideologies, their specific content and how they distribute identity in order to examine the phenomenon of violence. This more nuanced approach would seem to be more faithful to its object than van der Berghe’s blunt equation of the modern Nation State with ethnocide and genocide. Nevertheless, van der Berghe’s argument that one must move away from the notion that the State is the only possible political formation is a compelling argument, as it reveals the ideology at the heart of politics itself. In this regard, what is interesting about the two arguments is a deeper connection that remains to be theorized: the link between violence and politics itself.

Both articles, therefore, present compelling analyses of how violence, ethnocide and genocide can develop in relation to the State. Van der Berghe’s text emphasizes the clear connection between the modern State and violence, while Hayden’s text suggests that states can take various forms – at times violent forms – according to ideology. Furthermore, both texts identify a key relation between violence and politics, which suggests that inherent to politics itself is a certain struggle for power, a struggle that at any time may deteriorate into violence.

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