Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation

The nation as a constructed concept frames a commonality amongst citizens who live within the borders of a defined land mass. The conceptual common terrain of nation has provided a large part of the ground upon which the idea of a public was built. Though a plausibly common terrain, it is also an arena of contestation. Different particular actors within nations vie for hegemony — to shape both power relations and the symbolic universe through which relations and reality are interpreted. Other particular actors have to emerge, to construct themselves (i.e. to organize), and to demand their place and their rights as equals within—as part of—the nation and the public.

Here by actors I mean groups, aggregations, identities, etc. that congeal and organize sufficiently to develop the capacity for aligned collective action. The emergence of such actors requires some articulated common aspect of identity (e.g. women, blacks, workers of the world, Protestants, etc.). That commonality, internal to the identity of the actor/aggregation, also defines ways that members of the group are different from others. Such aggregations, if they are to become political actors, must simultaneously perform two challenging identity-related tasks: bonding and bridging. (I was introduced to the bonding and bridging terminology through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

Bonding: The group has to articulate and celebrate its particular internal commonality — the thing its members hold in common, which is also the basis of their difference from others. This bonding is the political actor’s premise and source of collective motivation, dignity, strength, and organization.

Bridging: The group has also to appeal to a potent commonality beyond the boundaries of its particular identity. Within a heterogeneous public, the political actor/challenger must assert itself as a legitimate contributing member of that public. It must appeal to the solidarity that is projected onto the imagined community of the nation — solidarity that is felt by those who identify with the nation. It must enlist specific allies (i.e. other actors within the nation) to support its claims. It cannot do this effectively without appealing to a potent commonality larger than itself. Continue reading

underdog vs. winning team impulses

My floating signifier rant yesterday was tangential to the question I had set out to approach. Likely there will be a few more tangents still along the way… The section I was reading from Dynamics of Contention about the Yellow Revolution in the Philippines got me thinking about shifting and emerging political alignments — thinking about them with a “tipping point” metaphor. Picture a tug of war, where one side seems to be winning handily. When a few key actors switch sides, it suddenly shifts the balance and momentum. In the case of regimes and their challengers, the old regime may suddenly find itself weakened, perhaps beyond recovery, while a challenger movement or alignment finds itself potent and ascending.

This metaphor is considerably simpler than models I’ve been discussing here, like Ernesto Laclau’s models and diagrams (and my adaptations/bastardizations of them here). A tug of war certainly misses important pieces, primarily the typical asymmetry of power and resources between ruling regimes and their challengers. That picture is painted more accurately in Laclau’s more three-dimensional models. But a tipping point in a two-dimensional tug of war may capture something important about the psychological processes active in the minds and groups that defect from one side to the other.

Before digging into these psychological processes, a clarifying tangent is necessary; a complicating of the two-dimensional tug of war, so that we are clear about the limits of our lovely metaphors. The problem with the idea of an actor switching sides in a tug of war is that such a complete defection is extremely rare in the real world. A full conversion from one polarity to its opposite is a gross oversimplification. While such dramatic conversions are not unheard of, they are indeed rare and, importantly, shifts in hegemonic alignments do not depend on such dramatic individual conversions (i.e. on winning over your enemies). The spectrum of allies graphic below is a more instructive map of our “tug of war”:

Continue reading

more geeking out about floating signifiers

I’m reading Dynamics of Contention by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. I’ll be posting some notes as I digest it over the next few days. It’s been interesting to see different language for some of the same concepts—or at least overlapping concepts—that I’ve been working on, influenced by many others of course. I keep translating in my head their concepts and descriptions into the language of hegemonic struggle — a term that they do not use. Nor do they refer to floating signifiers, but I’m beginning to think that maybe they should — that this concept might add clarity to their accounts of what they call contentious episodes.

Presently I’m reading their discussion about Benigno Aquino, the longtime opponent of then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, specifically about Aquino’s assassination upon his return to the Philippines from exile. Aquino played the part of a catalyzing symbol—a floating signifier—similar to Juan Perón during his exile from Argentina. Both men were seen as popular symbols of opposition to their nations’ respective ruling regimes. I don’t know nearly as much about Aquino, but the case has been made by many (including Ernesto Laclau) that Perón was able to play this symbolic role far more effectively in exile than on-the-ground in Argentina, because in his absence the disparate factions of the broad opposition could each imagine Perón standing for their particular vision or agenda. Had he been there in-person, it would be much more difficult to maintain this floating quality—i.e. an ambiguously broad appeal—over a long period of time. Eventually the real contents are filled into the “empty” symbol, and the symbol will likely lose its charm for at least some parties of the ephemeral alignment. Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.4: imagined communities & populist alignment)

Modern society significantly complicates the group-oriented identity framework I’ve been discussing (in parts one, two, and three). Most of us juggle multiple roles in multiple spheres, each of which holds a degree of our individual identity. The temptation is to then look at identity as a predominantly individual matter. But each sphere of an individual’s fragmented life has its own group logic and group processes of constructing values and identity. It is no small development, however, that people in societies like ours now have more individual agency to choose how much of their identities to invest into which groups.

The term group can mean many different things. A group may be proximate, fully definable, and localized, such as one’s village, workplace, or place of worship. It seems logical that, if we do indeed have group-oriented instincts, these would have evolved in some such proximate, localized groups. But today, “group” can mean much more; for example, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nation, economic class, political ideology, hobby, or sports team. With the label generic given group (introduced in part 3), I am accounting for this broad spectrum of kinds of groups, and I am implying that we tend to project group-oriented instincts onto the full gamut of social aggregations and constructions, to a greater or lesser degree that is proportional to our level of identity with the given group. Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 2)

I concluded Part 1 by summarizing three mistakes progressive change agents often make in trying to build a broad alignment: 1) Building from scratch, 2) Purism, and 3) Long lefty laundry lists.

Summarizing the latter, it’s tempting to think that the way to attract a broad base is to name lots and lots of issues (e.g. at a rally or protest) — so that there will be “something for everyone”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, “…the more issues you name explicitly, the less your appeal tends to resonate with any of the constituencies you’re hoping to attract. The more we spell out how each issue is explicitly connected, the less it becomes about a particular issue (i.e. entry/identity point) that any particular person, group, or social bloc is concerned about.” [Long lefty laundry lists].

I concluded by asking, “If it doesn’t work to explicitly spell out how all our issues and all the fragmented aggregations of heterogeneous society are connected—if that only aligns the highly analytical and the fringe radicals, and doesn’t activate broader bases—what about linking these issues and aggregations non-explicitly / ambiguously?”

In this post, I’ll argue that populist alignments in our heterogeneous society depend on this ambiguous linkage, which equally depends on the strategic use of floating signifiers.1 Continue reading