- Does The Spirit of Haidi Gwaii Fly Only at Dusk?
As I write, thousands of Tutsi and Hutu refugees in Zaire are fleeing marauding armies and rebels pursuing ethnic advantage and vengeance against each other. In the former Yugoslavia, beneath an unsteady peace, the sullen politics of ethnic chauvinism continues to be mobilized, if only temporarily demilitarized. Aboriginal peoples in the Americas, South East Asia and Australasia, continue to suffer from the appalling consequences of colonialism and the dispossession of their traditional lands. Within indigenous communities themselves, debates over the settlement of land claims and jurisdictional issues often set community against community, and sometimes the community against vulnerable individual members.
The so-called “ethnification” of politics is sometimes referred to as a return to a world of medieval passions, the unleashing of primordial, tribal irrationality. This historical fatalism, however, betrays both the historical record and philosophical reflection. Individuals identify with groups for various reasons, not all primordial or irrational, and groups pursue certain strategies which involve the mobilization of those identities and the interests they help constitute. To reduce such complex phenomena to primordialism is not to explain it but to ignore it, and more ominously, to justify doing nothing about it when it goes wrong (since there is nothing that can be done).
Alongside the increasing concern with the ethnification of politics and the growth of nationalist and ethnic violence, however, has been an attempt to carve out legitimate grounds for a more positive “politics of recognition”. That is, how public institutions can legitimately recognize the cultural identities of citizens. The link between identity and recognition is crucial. As Charles Taylor has put it, “our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others.” 1
Thus nonrecognition or misrecognition by society can inflict harm. Recognition might take the form of protecting minority languages or granting some form of “self-government” rights. Denying such claims for a particular community can be interpreted as refusing to recognize their equal worth in relation to others, or even threatening their very survival. The question is thus how public institutions can recognize and accommodate such demands in circumstances of deep social and political diversity.
Russell Hardin and James Tully provide two remarkable discussions of these issues. Read together, they provide an acute sense of both the despair and possibilities for accommodating cultural diversity in late modern political communities.
Hardin’s book is a powerful rational choice account of group conflict. But this should not frighten off readers with an aversion to the pinched, abstract tendencies of most rational choice political theory. The book is historically informed and crammed full of discussions of contemporary conflicts in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Quebec, Somalia and Rwanda, along with a deft use of examples ranging from the plots of Verdi’s Ernani and the films Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, to the norms of rap music and the Lubavitchers of Crown Heights. There is much else in the book which I can’t discuss here, including a biting critique of contemporary philosophical communitarianism and an extended rational choice analysis of norms. Throughout the prose is spare yet quirky, and very readable.
Hardin’s argument is relatively straightforward and depressing. Despite the “logic of collective action”—because we are self-seeking we fail collectively and therefore individually—self-interest is frequently matched with group interest and the result is often appalling. “The world might be a far less bloody place,” Hardin writes, “if many groups failed in relevant moments.” Collective advantage is pursued either at the expense of other groups, or identification with the group is manipulated by leaders in destructive and counter-productive ways. Worse still, since rationality is relative to the information available to an agent (“our sunk costs are us” as Hardin puts it), it will often be rational to act in ways which sink us even further into conflict with others or which destroy common interests.
Hardin rightly focuses on processes of identification rather than “objective” factors that determine membership...