Political Theory Bookshelf: Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities


In Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein isolate the contemporary functions of racial prejudice and nationalism in the development of capitalism as a global mode of production. They argue that modern forms of racism and nationalism endure as forms of social oppression that are fundamental to the maintenance of class exploitation. Their dialogue is especially relevant today as an explanation of the changing functions of prejudice in a world where the crisis of the nation-state is accompanied by an alarming rise of nationalism.

The brief excerpt below is drawn from Wallerstein's essay "The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity," included in the book's section, "The Historical Nation." 

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The axial division of labour within the world-economy has engendered a spatial division of labour. We speak of a core-periphery antinomy as constitutive of this division of labour. Core and periphery strictly speaking are relational concepts that have to do with differential cost structures of production. The location of these different production processes in spatially distant zones is not an inevitable and constant feature of the relationship. But it tends to be a normal one. There are several reasons for this. To the extent that peripheral processes are associated with primary production — which has in fact been historically true, although far less today than previously — then there is constraint on the geographical relocatability of these processes, associated with environmental conditions for cultivation or with geological deposits. Second, in so far as there are political elements in maintaining a set of core-periphery relationships, the fact that products in a commodity chain cross political frontiers facilitates the necessary political processes, since the control of frontier transit is among the greatest real powers the states actually exercise. Third, the concentration of core processes in states different from those in which peripheral processes are concentrated tends to create differing internal political structures in each, a difference which in turn becomes a major sustaining bulwark of the inegalitarian interstate system that manages and maintains the axial division of labour.

Hence, to put the matter simply, we tend over time to arrive at a situation in which some zones of the world are largely the loci of core production processes and others are largely the loci of peripheral production processes. Indeed, although there are cyclical fluctuations in the degree of polarization, there is a secular trend towards a widening of this gap. This world-wide spatial differentiation took the political form primarily of the expansion of a Europe-centred capitalist world­economy into one that eventually covered the globe. This came to be known as the phenomenon of the "expansion of Europe."

In the evolution of the human species on the planet Earth, there occurred in a period preceding the development of settled agriculture, a distribution of genetic variants such that at the outset of the development of the capitalist world-economy, different genetic types in any one location were considerably more homogeneous than they are today.

As the capitalist world-economy expanded from its initial location primarily in Europe, as concentrations of core and peripheral production processes became more and more geographically disparate, "racial" categories began to crystallize around certain labels. It may be obvious that there are a large series of genetic traits that vary, and vary considerably, among different persons. It is not at all obvious that these have to be coded as falling into three, five or fifteen reified groupings we call 'races'. The number of categories, indeed the fact of any categorization, is a social decision. What we observe is that, as the polarization increased, the number of categories became fewer and fewer. When W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1900 that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," the colours to which he was referring came down in reality to White and non-White.

Race, and therefore racism, is the expression, the promoter and the consequence of the geographical concentrations associated with the axial division of labour. That this is so has been made stunningly clear by the decision of the South African state in the last twenty years to designate visiting Japanese businessmen not as Asians (which local Chinese are considered to be) but rather as "honorary White." In a country whose laws are supposed to be based on the permanence of genetic categories, apparently genetics follows the election returns of the world-economy. Such absurd decisions are not limited to South Africa. South Africa merely got itself into the box of putting absurdities on paper.

Race is not, however, the only category of social identity we use. It apparently is not enough; we use nation as well. As we said, nation derives from the political structuring of the world-system. The states that are today members of the United Nations are all creations of the modern world-system. Most of them did not even exist either as names or as administrative units more than a century or two ago. For those very few that can trace a name and a continuous administrative entity in roughly the same geographical location to a period prior to 1450 — there are fewer of these than we think: France, Russia, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Morocco, Japan, China, Iran, Ethiopia are perhaps the least ambiguous cases — it can still be argued that even these states came into existence as modern sovereign states only with the emergence of the present world-system. There are some other modern states that can trace a more discontinuous history of the use of a name to describe a zone — for example, Greece, India, Egypt. We get on to still thinner ice with such names as Turkey, Germany, Italy, Syria. The fact is, if we look forward from the vantage-point of 1450 at many entities that then existed — for example, the Burgundian Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, the Mogul Empire — we find we have today in each case not one state but at the very least three sovereign states that can argue some kind of political, cultural, spatial descent from these entities.

And does the fact that there are now three states mean that there are three nations? Is there a Belgian, a Dutch, a Luxembourg nation today? Most observers seem to think so. If there is, is this not because there came into existence first a Dutch state, a Belgian state, a Luxembourg state? A systematic look at the history of the modern world will show, I believe, that in almost every case statehood preceded nationhood, and not the other way around, despite a widespread myth to the contrary.

Why should the establishment of any particular sovereign state within the interstate system create a corresponding "nation," a "people"? This is not really difficult to understand. The evidence is all around us. States in this system have problems of cohesion. Once recognized as sovereign, the states frequently find themselves subsequently threatened by both internal disintegration and external aggression. To the extent that "national" sentiment develops, these threats are lessened. The governments in power have an interest in promoting this sentiment, as do all sorts of subgroups within the state. Any group who sees advantage in using the state's legal powers to advance its interests against groups outside the state or in any subregion of the state has an interest in promoting nationalist sentiment as a legitimation of its claims. States furthermore have an interest in administrative uniformity that increases the efficacy of their policies. Nationalism is the expression, the promoter and the consequence of such state-level uniformities.

There is another, even more important reason for the rise of nationalism. The interstate system is not a mere assemblage of so-called sovereign states. It is a hierarchical system with a pecking order that is stable but changeable. That is to say, slow shifts in rank order are not merely possible, but historically normal. Inequalities that are significant and firm but not immutable are precisely the kind of processes that lead to ideologies able to justify high rank but also to challenge low rank. Such ideologies we call nationalisms. For a state not to be a nation is for that state to be outside the game of either resisting or promoting the alteration of its rank. But then that state would not be part of the inter­state system. Political entities that existed outside of and/ or prior to the development of the interstate system as the political superstructure of a capitalist world-economy did not need to be "nations," and were not. Since we misleadingly use the same word, "state," to describe both these other political entities and the states created within the interstate system, we often miss the obvious inevitable link between the statehood of these latter "states" and their nationhood.