Tradition, Politics and National Identity

Gwendolyn Taunton

Tradition, Politics and National Identity, Gwendolyn Taunton, AristokratiaThe issue of political identity is not often connected with spiritual sources in the eyes of the average citizen; however on an imperceptible, inextricable level, the two are combined in a myriad of ways which escape the notice of many. Indeed, the application of spiritual and/or mythical elements being deployed as part of a political agenda is nothing new, for it can found in a diverse range of historical epochs from the time of the Roman Empire to contemporary politics. The parallel I wish to draw is between the concept of the Primordial Tradition (standing as a sui generis argument) to the theory of primordialism in political science, with the specific intent of identifying and providing a new definition of cultural identity that is intended to bypass both the political left/right dichotomy and approach identity from a ‘top-down’ perspective, as opposed to a flat, unilateral model of left/right duality. The need for a new theory of national identity is becoming one of paramount importance in the increasingly isolated world of mass ‘individualism’ which has come to predominate the modern world. In the process of cross-comparison between Traditions and primordialism, a clear narrative of interaction will be extrapolated to reveal a blue print for the construction of a new form of political theory that seeks to redefine the common elements in national identities. To begin the discourse, a brief introduction to the twin theories of the Primordial Tradition and primordialism is required.

The Primordial Tradition is rightly defined as being a sui generis argument meaning that it is self-generating – a concept which originated with Durkheim. Essentially a sui generis argument is classified as self-perpetuating because it originates from a concept which is deemed to be existent from the beginning. In the sociology of Émile Durkheim, a sui generis is used to illustrate his theory on social existence. Durkheim states that the main object of sociology is to study social facts. These social facts can only be explained by other social facts. They have a meaning of their own and cannot be reduced to psychological or biological factors. Social facts have a meaning of their own, and are ‘sui generis’. Durkheim also states that when one takes an organization and replaces some individuals with others, the essence of the organization does not necessarily change. It can happen, for example, that over the course of a few decades, the entire staff of an organization is replaced, while the organization still retains its distinctive character. Durkheim does not limit this thought to organizations, but extends it to the whole society: he maintains that society, as it was there before any particular living individual was born, is independent of all individuals. His sui generis (its closest English meaning in this sense being ‘independent’) society will furthermore continue its existence after the individual ceases to interact with it. Society and culture, are therefore naturally arising phenomena.

Sui generis is a Latin expression, literally meaning “of its own kind/genus”, or unique in its characteristics. In this circumstance spirituality and Tradition are deemed to be archetypal concepts which are inherent in the psyche of humans from the beginning of the evolution of consciousness itself.  Like, society, they are naturally occurring. This implies a relationship with Jungian thought and links it to Jung’s theory of the subconscious and archetypes as symbols, which whilst are not possessed of a corporeal existence, act as what he called ‘psychoids’. These psychoids are not themselves alive but possess an abstract existence which influences the nature of human thought despite the fact that they themselves are not sentient.  This idea is similar to that which was expressed by Plato when he discussed the realm of Ideals in which abstract concepts take on an existence in a theoretical plane of reality. This idea of a Primordial Tradition which serves as an ideological substratum for all of the world’s Traditions to draw upon, in best thought of a repository of universal archetypes which are translated into the various Traditions of the world, each one being shaped by the geographic and cultural phenomena present in the respective Traditions. The language of Tradition is ethno-symbolist in origin; symbols and patterns of belief shape the cultures of the world around them. When minor discrepancies can be found in the archetypes (if examined in a cross-cultural comparison), they are easily explained as being a different translation of the same archetype or symbol, for it is imperative to remember that not all cultural groups in the world share the same set of psychological processes; each culture has been shaped by unique historical, geographical, natural and social forces. Thus the God of an indigenous shamanic population may appear radically different to the God of the Jews or Christians, though all are in fact speaking of the same entity. The foundational premise of the symbol is the same as that of an archetypal phenomena; however the translation itself is parsed through each environment differently.

If we are to accept spirituality as a self-generating phenomena set apart from the world of the mundane by its inherent qualities of the sacred and transcendent, how can we relate this process to the construction of a national identity? The answer to this question arises from an older theory which has fallen out of grace with contemporary political critique – primordialism. Not only is there a great similarity between the titles of the two theories, there is also a significant overlap between the two concepts, for both are self-generating and self-perpetuating without the need for any artificial intervention – in sum, both are organic, living forms of belief and awareness which are to be found in all peoples for they are universal values. Though at first the concept of an organic mode of national identity (and hence also an organic model for political identity) may appear like a radical transition, it is in fact not. The term primordialism (sometimes also known as perennialism) in political theory is the argument which contends that nations are ancient, natural phenomena, and thus shape themselves when constructing an identity. This stands in radical contrast to the inorganic modernist view of nationality, which is shaped and guided by external forces. Alan Bairner explains the distinction between primordialism and modernism (or instrumentalism) below:

It is relatively standard practice in sociological and political studies of nations and nationalisms to differentiate between primordialist (or ethno-symbolist) and modernist perspectives […] Central to the former is the belief that primordial attachments or relations are a matter of the significance attributed to criteria that are perceived to be objective language, ethnicity, geography, religion and which are almost certain to predate the emergence of the modern nation state and of nationalism as a modern political ideology. […] The modernist perspective, on the other hand, focuses on nations and nationalisms as modern inventions which emerge in response to new social and economic challenges.[1]

As the above extract hints, the key to understanding this dyad of political polarity, is that primordialism approaches the nation as a living, organic entity, formed from naturally occurring social bonds, whereas modernism adopts the approach that the nation is in fact an artificial construct. The first mentions of primordialism in this context arise from German Romanticism, and are found in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder’s theories revolved around the use of language in cultural groupings, and for Herder, the concept of the nation was synonymous with its linguistic group, which he also held to be a reflection of the group’s thoughts processes – thus each linguistic grouping would have not only different languages, but a different thought process. This is highly indicative of linguistic groupings being one of the primary sources from which national identities are formed.

The rest of the essay can be read here: http://www.aristokratia.info/tradition%2c-politics-and-national-identity.html

1 Comment on Tradition, Politics and National Identity

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