Balibar and Wallerstein’s Race, Nation, Class

Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso, 1991.

Response to: “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,”

In Etienne Balibar’s essay “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” the nation is presented as a twofold illusion that consists of “believing that generations…have handed down to each other an invariant substance,” and secondly, in “believing that the process of development from which we select aspects retrospectively, so as to see ourselves as the culmination of that process” (86).  In both of these instances the formation of the nation is presented as a system of belief, not as a simple “adherence to” or “identification with” the nation. The first illusion that Balibar discusses is the belief in the “core” of an ethnic history, a purity that throughout time has gone on uncorrupted, and therefore has been “handed down” through a genuine spirit of nationality, turning even the national territory into an ideal signifier: “Fatherland.” The second illusion is also historical; it consists of a determinate historical progression, a univocal development that will eventually culminate in a state of utopia, and so far has culminated in the present, which must then consistently serve the utopic “ends” of the nation. As contentious as these ideas may appear, Balibar’s essay does not disclose a method in which to overthrow the nation, rather, by noting the similarities between nationality and belief, Balibar addresses the need to expose formulations of nationality as a purely ideological form—as a process of belief. In that sense, Balibar too must work backwards.

Balibar begins addressing the process of belief in the nation with the pre-history to nationalism, which consists not of a dominant narrative that combines events into a dialectical historicism, as he sees inherent in national belief, but instead he addresses history as “a multiplicity of qualitatively distinct events spread out over time, none of which implies any subsequent event” (88). The Fall of Rome, in pre-national history, was not a necessary step forward in a process that would bring about the European tribes, such as the Franks, rather, before nationality, the Franks would have seen the Fall of Rome as a history of the Roman people, not to be confused with the history of the Franks, the only exceptions being in the common ancestors with the Romans, Gauls and Franks. To understand the ideological effects of nationality, Balibar explores this type of historicism, which is free from seeing history as a necessary evolution that will culminate in our own nation. For pre-nation times, history was “a series of conjectural relations,” and just because certain historical events were interrelated, did not imply an overarching historical progression (88).

According to Balibar, the emergence of the nation occurs when a certain threshold is crossed, when “state apparatuses aiming at quite other objectives have progressively produced the elements of the nation-state” (88). These “other objectives,” as I read it, is the direct colonization of other countries and the necessity for an abstracted, idealistic form of an international capitalist market. In order to obtain this objective of “world-economy,” as Balibar puts it, the dominant class (which Balibar is adamant to point out: not specifically the bourgeois class) must organize its interest in the form of an economic center, a “core” and a “periphery.” As the prime objectives in a capitalist agenda to exploit colonized countries, the dominant and mercantile classes then required a way to legitimize such exploitation, a means to inculcate an “us” and “them” mentality that went beyond family kinship, state sovereignty and religious institutions. Through the interests of colonization, “Nation” was then conceived as a means to exercise military dominance and to justify the exploitation of anyone who was not a part of that nation, i.e. “foreigners.”

In order to obtain this “uncritical acceptance of the nation-state as the ‘ultimate form’ of political institution,” the national bourgeoisie first had to create a new type of class struggle, one that united the heterogeneous class under a common ideology in order to control it (89). This meant a modification in class status to create a new type of individual, one that still felt privileged over others, but not over the multiple classes—only over the exploited workers among the colonized peoples within the new global economy. Such a unification of classes was achieved through nationality and citizenship, wherein “we,” as subjects, all became a part of an overarching national history that culminates into the present day, and therefore the nation naturally is not only the state, but the private lives of the people, in their education and family life as well. The effect of the national ideology was an immediate subordination of all classes into an equal status as “citizens” of the nation-state.

But the process of creating this new belief system, creating what Anderson called an “Imagined Community,” also meant putting the nationality of the individual as a citizen above the individual as a political party, a religious believer, a family member, etc. In other words, the nation needed a method in which to “relativize” all traditional differences among citizens of the nation, “and subordinating them to itself in such a way that it is the symbolic difference between ‘ourselves’ and ‘foreigners’ which wins out” (94). Because of this immediate need to “win out” among other traditional communities—religion, family, kinship, class—it is exactly here, in the gap between citizenship and the imagined community of nationalism, that nation first begins to adopt the characteristics of a religious ideology. Nation reinterprets the religious model first to unite the national subjects into a single and equal community through individual identity (as in, identity as both individual and as a part of a collective). The religious notion of the “soul,” a fundamental and eternal characteristic that was equal among everyone and which inherently prescribed a “social morality,” then became the model for the “citizen,” who had “natural rights,” and therefore was ruled by a humanitarian set of truths and laws. As Balibar says, “theological discourse has provided models for the idealization of the nation and the sacralization of the state” (95). Only by adopting ideal signifiers (Balibar uses the example of “fatherland”) and transferring the sense of the sacred onto a national ideology, can the nation hope to win priority over traditional communities, religion being the nation’s foremost competitor.

I’ll end this essay in the nationalistic tradition of reading backwards, as in the beginning of Balibar’s essay, when he discusses the pre-national separation of Church and State, not in a political sense, but as two separate apparatuses which functioned, for the most part, as autonomous, competing groups. Balibar starts with this reference because it illuminates the function of “Church” and “State” within the nation, which came after the extreme combination of “State religion.” In my reading of Balibar, State religion no longer appears as a brief period in history, nor does it merely show its ugly face in totalitarian societies, but the concept of state-religion only changes its form as a national ideology in order to incorporate a wider amount of “citizens.” As Balibar says, “there is only one dominant ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ in Bourgeois social formations, using the school and family institutions for its own ends…and the existence of that apparatus is at the root of the hegemony of nationalism” (103). Education and family, in pre-national times, were apparatuses of the Church, which was capable of disagreement with the state and even direct conflict with it. Nationalism however, brings State and Church together into a single, ultimate hegemony, one that uses the power of the Church’s mystified grip on history in order to determine a future for the state, and a legitimization of all the state’s practices abroad, to the “foreigners” outside of it.



Response to: Class Conflict in the Capitalist World-Economy


Wallerstein attempts to reconcile the classical Marxist class conceptions of Bourgeois and Proletariat with the contemporary ideologies of class formation, and derives three variations of class conflict in the contemporary moment: That of “nationalism”, of “peasants”, and of “core and periphery” (World Systems Theory).

In stunning lucidity, Wallerstein encapsulates the bourgeoisie as “those who receive a part of the surplus-value they do not themselves create and use some of it to accumulate capital” (117). The accumulation of capital then, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, is a never-ending process of accumulation and “underserved” surplus-value, and therefore the bourgeoisie must be in “perpetual recreation and hence of constant change of form and composition” (118). He discovers different types of bourgeois in this period of capitalism, the New Money—‘nouveaux riches’—the ‘coasters’—those who are just barely drifting along—and the inheritors, the class that makes up almost all the bourgeoisie at nearly any given moment in Capitalism.

Wallerstein identifies the Proletariat as “those who yield part of the value they have created to others,” thus creating a polarity between bourgeoisie and proletariat. This phenomenon of yielding value to the bourgeoisie, according to Wallerstein, is a condition created by wage-labor and its expansion throughout the world (Proletariatization), which enables the smaller bourgeoisie to adequately live off of the surplus-value of the larger Proletariat.

My question for this section comes in Wallerstein’s summarization of the State: “the fundamental role of the state…is to augment the advantage of some against others in the market” (122).But Wallerstein doesn’t go into greater detail about the unequal tax revenue dealt to the bourgeoisie in order to increase the livelihood of the Proletariat, especially in Welfare states. Still, he insists that “Many bourgeois share the surplus-value of one proletarian,” though he passes by the intervention of the state. Where does tax and welfare come in for Wallerstein? Doesn’t a system of capitalism operating within a welfare state contradict his theory class formations?





Response to: The Ideological Tensions of Capitalism: Universalism versus Racism and Sexism


In this essay, Wallerstein considers the dichotomy between two concepts within capitalist ideology: that of the universal brotherhood of man, and that of racism and sexism. As in the previous essay, Wallerstein designates a bourgeois ideology that puts forth the notion that capitalism is a system of meritocracy. The contradiction is that most bourgeois become bourgeois by inheritance, and it is the ideological notion of meritocracy (and full brotherhood of man) that keeps the “outsides” incorporated within the class systems, while it is racism and sexism that keeps them in the lower rungs of the economic ladder: “If one wants to maximize the accumulation of capital, it is necessary simultaneously to minimize the costs of production…Racism is the magic formula that reconciles these objectives” (33).

My question for Wallerstein in this essay is his insistence that universalism can never “triumph” over racism and sexism in any immediate way, or as Gramsci would put it, in a conjunctural moment. He says: “one has to eliminate…the internalized patterns of ethnicization, and this inevitably requires at the very least a generation,” (35). I’m wondering where he would place the cultural revolutions of the 60s, the social democratic reforms in Europe, or the failed revolutions in France during the same period, or even the “Great Revolution” in Britain during the Restoration period.

Also, about what he says concerning the “housewife.” I wonder if he is advocating her job to turn into wage-labor, and if so, can it be argued that she charge certain prices for sexual favors, hourly wages for being with a child, for cleaning up in her own household? To whom would she request this money from? I understand that his argument is to show the ideological contradictions of both wage-labor based on meritocracy and sexism, yet this example seems stunningly problematic, especially when thought about in conjunction with Capitalism’s effect on the family, and how shared capital materializes through marriage—would the demand for wage labor still be as strong without it?


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