Form dictates function in politics as much as biology does, and this is a lesson that Guyanese politicians need to take to heart. The unitary “nation-state” is one such form that forces people to act in ways that ensure conflict when its inhabitants are from different cultural strains. The concept of the “nation-state” has become such a ubiquitous international norm that it is difficult for us to realise that the modern state was born only in the last few centuries.
While the state and nation were stipulated as identical, in reality the state could never become identical with the people living within its territory. The state may represent the people, but the people inevitably will identify easier with their “nation”; as constructed by their personal experiences lived within a common language, culture, and traditions other than their state’s. This does not mean that the state cannot be a site of identification for the people, but since the values promulgated by the state are more abstract and “drier” than their nation’s, the state’s values will have to be transmitted to the people independently.
Where there are different “cultures/nations” within a state, inevitable systemic strains are unleashed; since, to create the unified nation, there has to be continued application of force — symbolic and physical — on some groups to maintain the imagined community”. However, while the concept of the “nation-state” has become a central pillar of the dominant European political paradigm, and a dogma in modern politics, it is but a contingent moment in European history that definitionally insisted on the “societal consensus” and the “melting pot” theory of assimilation.
Even within Britain itself, the Scots, the Welsh, and most obstinately the Irish, never fully accepted the homogenising premises of the nation-state. Early in the day, Ireland declared it would go its own way. The disappearance of the Soviet yoke in 1989 precipitated the formation of a score of “ethnic” republics in Europe.
National unity is always ultimately impossible if it means homogeneity, since such a unity would have to be created (or, more mildly, be represented) by a suppression of differences.
The contradictions and problems of the nation-state were compounded after those imperialistic European states, during their 19th century consolidation phase, partitioned the world into empires and “spheres of influence”, claiming huge swathes of real estate, which they divided into colonies for administrative convenience. The multitude of ethnic groups within each enclave were suddenly told they had to become cohesive “nations”. The onus was even greater in those colonies such as the West Indies, where the “native” groups were practically wiped out, ensuring there were no “natural” cultural strains, as in the European model, to evolve into any “national” culture. The society had to be created almost sui generis – patterned on the European ideal of course.
The local politicians that inherited the colonies adopted this imperialistic homogenising arrogance, and even insisted on utilising force, when necessary, to create homogenous “nation-states”. We are reaping the whirlwind, for while both the modernisation school of the West and the Marxist school of the East had prophesied the eradication of ethnicity and the creation of unified “nation-states” (implied with the Marxists), history has proven them both completely misguided.
The reasons for this are complex, but essentially lie at the heart of the nature of power, the potential for its abuse, its relationship to status, the power of the modern state, and the fact that the group that controls that power is invariably from one section. In a cultural plural society, then, power always has an ethnic contour, and will be challenged along that parameter.
In ethnically heterogeneous states, ethnicity became a dominant cleavage along which mobilisation took place, even though those who led were invariably from the dominant classes. Thus, behind its egalitarian façade, in Britain, the English were always the dominant ethnic group, and its elite the ruling class. In Guyana, whether the PNC or PPP ran the Government, it was seen by the group on the outside as the “other” ethnic group dominating the Government. Quo vadis?