“Look around and see who is here”
Some questions for contact improvisers about state, nation, race and class
You are at a contact improvisation jam, workshop, or festival. Look around and see who is here. Then ask yourself some of the following questions:
How has the nation state whose territory you are now on come into being? Who controls this state, whose interests does it serve? How is this state positioned in global political, economic and cultural hierarchies?
How did the ideas about land ownership in force where you are now come into being? Who invented them, how were they spread, and how have they been challenged?
Who actually lives around here and why?
How have the settlement projects and population transfers of empires and nation states, in the deep past and more recently, shaped the composition of the population of this area?
Who was killed or driven off so that others could take ownership of the land? Who died in epidemics in the course of the biological expansion of Europe?
Were people forced to settle on the land you are now on? If so, how do their descendants fare today?
How have past immigration policies of the nation state you are in now shaped what kind of people got to cross its borders and settle here?
How has politics contributed to differences in income, housing, health and education among different groups of people who live in this region?
Who gets to visit?
Who is today allowed to enter the territory of the nation state whose territory you are on, and who is not?
Of those who can get here in theory, who has enough money and privilege to get here in practice? And why do they have these advantages?
Who gets invited?
Who are some famous teachers that come here often, or occasionally? What kind of teachers do people here know best, and why?
What teachers are organisers around here familiar with? What kind of teachers are people most interested in taking a workshop with?
If you are in a rich country, how much of a hassle is it to invite teachers from poorer countries who have trouble getting a visa?
If you’re in a poorer country, what kind of teachers can you afford, what kind of teachers can you attract?
Who do you have to be to be considered a reliable choice for a teacher, or someone exciting and exotic? Would being tall, white and athletic be an advantage, or would it make no difference if you are short and brown?
In what part of town is the building you are in? Is it a “nice” part of town? What kind of people live here? “Nice” people?
What kind of people own large tracts of land here? Are there people who own little plots? Are there people who work the land all their lives for little reward but own none of it, while others own huge tracts? If so, how have people been convinced that this is acceptable?
Who organises the labour of education and care, of the reproduction of life here? Who controls what is produced and what is not produced here? Do the people who live here have any say in this? How much of their lives do they (do we) actually have control over?
How have people been convinced that spending one’s working life under the dictatorship of bosses is compatible with the idea of “living in a democracy”? Or, if you’re in the “People’s Republic” of China, Vietnam, Laos, or Cuba, that it’s all part of some long-term plan to achieve socialism?
Who controls the land the building you are in is built on? If it is the state, again: who controls the state, and whose interests does it work for?
Who owns the building you are in now? What laws and regulations help create that very particular social institution we call a real estate market? To what degree do capitalist market relations determine who can legitimately use this building?
How have people come to accept the obscene and bizarre notion that people’s homes and other buildings should be property, commodities to be bought and sold?
“What is an empire, what is a nation?”
The idea of the nation state appeared in 18th century Europe, spread and gained in influence during the 19th century and became globally hegemonic after World War II. In this period the idea of formal empire lost all legitimacy.
The ideal type of an empire is a state built on difference. An empire is a composite state in which a metropole dominates a periphery, always to the disadvantage of the periphery. Different groups have different value, just as individuals are always ranked. In an empire there are no citizens, only subjects. Ruling elites speaking a different language and having different customs from the majority of their subjects can contribute to the legitimacy of their rule, since the imperial elite is seen as consisting of special, superior beings. Different subject populations having different languages, customs, and even laws is not necessarily seen as a problem, as long as they are loyal to the empire.
Nation states, in contrast, are created by policies of homogenization. The logic of the nation state is one of equality rather than of difference. Nation state rule is, in theory, the same for all members of the nation. It relies on masses of people feeling part of an imagined community, the nation. This was historically achieved through processes of nationalisation. These included the suppression of local languages and cultures, and various forms of nationalist indoctrination. Getting people to believe in transhistorical national essences was an important element of this process. As a result, many citizens of nation states became convinced that they had a bond, in terms of a shared national essence, with “ancestral” populations that lived very long ago. A related aspect of nationalist common sense is the belief that one’s nation has the right to control a certain territory (the “homeland”) and deserves a state of its own on that territory.
“Leftists and the nation”
The Left has always had a problem with national and ethnic identities, because they are cross-class identities and can be used to divide the oppressed and exploited, and block the development of movements for radical social change. Convincing poor, marginalised, lower caste, tribal, peasant and working class people that their ethnic or national identities are more important than their class, gender or other identities – that, in other words, they have more in common with richer and more powerful members of their own people or nation than with oppressed and exploited people from other ethnicities or nationalities – is a tried and true strategy of the Right, which has often been successful in suppressing and destroying emancipatory movements of all kinds.
There have always been debates on the Left as to how progressive or otherwise certain nationalisms may be, and what coalitions Leftists should or should not make with nationalists. Nationalism has also made inroads into the Left itself. Currents that are radically critical of the state have naturally been more resistant to nationalism than currents that espouse the idea that the state is a relatively neutral structure, and that taking it over and making it “serve the people” is a pretty straightforward project.
Special mention should be made of Stalinist currents, which tend to be not only the most authoritarian, racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic of all currents claiming the mantle of Leftism, but are also most prone to buying into nationalism, and most prone to defending various authoritarian regimes as supposedly socialist and/or “anti-imperialist”.
Sharma, like many other anti-authoritarian leftists, believes that way too many compromises with nationalism have been made, that the history of the past decades has shown the bankruptcy of the belief in the progressive nature of national liberation and that, are we ever to achieve true decolonization, movements for radical social change need to reject the idea of national sovereignty and instead embrace anti-national and no borders positions.
“Look around and see who is here”, “What is an empire, what is a nation?”, and “Leftists and the nation” were written for the ‘Consent in Contact in Context’ study group, as a contribution to discussions about Nandita Sharma’s text Against National Sovereignty.
Daniel Mang 2021-12-04