Tuesday
Apr092013

Clansmen into Englishmen?  

So is there hope for the emergence of a well-functioning, rational state in the Middle East? In the Congo?

The model for state building proposed by the great German sociologist Max Weber emphasizes the establishment of the state’s monopoly of violence and the transition from patrimonial to rational legal authority.

One of the most critical processes associated with these transitions was the role of the state in creating a “nation”. A famous study of this is provided by the historian Eugen Weber whose book Peasants into Frenchmen studied how the French state based in the Paris basin spread out throughout France, and gradually imposed, particularly via schooling, a French identity that had previously not existed in most of what is now France. The state came first and then a French identity followed.

This has become the canonical model of the emergence of modern institutions and the modern state. Many social scientists, on the basis of this analysis, now think that much of sub-Saharan Africa after independence was doomed to chaos and political instability because the countries lacked national identities. There were no Congolese, only Luba or Lele. The few odd cases of stability, such as Botswana, could be reconciled by pointing out that modern Botswana comprises the territory occupied by a number of related Tswana tribes who were able to similarly impose a national identity (after independence only English and Setswana were taught, not the many other languages then in use).

But is this “national identity”-building path to the modern world the only possibility? Can we not have modern institutions and the modern state without such a national identity? 

Consider the curious case of Scotland. In the Medieval and Early Modern periods the English state expanded and took over Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Scotland merged with England officially in 1707 with the Act of Union, a merger that had been on the cards since the accession to the throne of England James I, king of Scotland, in 1603 (Elizabeth I died without children and James was descended from one of Henry VIII’s daughters). It was only after 1745 and the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie (the ‘Young Pretender’) to re-claim the throne lost by his grandfather James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that England decided to rule Scotland directly. English administration was extended to Scotland, the clans (lineages rather like those of the Berbers in Morocco) were disarmed. It was even made illegal to wear highland clothing like kilts.

So England has controlled Scotland for 270 years, and has done so through a modern state, a perfect specimen of the Weberian rational state with a monopoly of violence. But next year there will be a referendum on whether or not Scotland will become independent. So after 270 years of direct rule by England, it turns out that there is no British nation state and no British national identity let alone a successful imposition of English identity on Scotland.

This suggests that perhaps the idea that a pre-requisite for a modern state is a homogeneous “nation” is exaggerated. After all, such a homogeneous nation is not a general pattern even in Europe (think of Spain). If the English couldn’t achieve that after 270 years of trying in Scotland, what hope have the Congolese or Nigerians?

But on the positive side, maybe they don’t need to achieve this, again as the English example suggests.

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