Book Review: Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict

    Wimmer, Andreas. Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

In this book, Andreas Wimmer says that he inverts the modernist thesis that is current in nationalism studies. He will attempt to show "that nationalist and ethnic politics are not just a by-product of modern state formation or of industrialisation; rather, modernity itself rests on a basis of ethnic and nationalist principles" (1, emphasis in original). Now, unless Wimmer defines modernity more narrowly than do most people, one cannot help but think that this is a heavy burden of proof to assign to 260 pages of argument, of which only 60 are theoretical. But, a few pages later, we find another statement of the main thesis, in significantly qualified form: Wimmer discusses "the central argument of this book: that political modernization has different implications according to historical trajectories and political environments, but leads everywhere to similar forms of exclusion [by states of non-national aliens]" (14). This reviewer breathed a sigh of relief upon reading this more modest claim, but was simultaneously puzzled, because this claim appears to reverse the causal story of the first formulation of the thesis: here, "political modernization" is asserted to be the cause of ethnicist and nationalist exclusion, while there, modernity was said to be caused by ("rests on a basis of") "ethnic and nationalist principles." So, unless Wimmer means very different things by "modernity," and "political modernization," there appears to be something of a contradiction between the stated aims of the book.

We should, however, give Wimmer the benefit of the doubt, so let his final prefatory remark stand for all: "[The book] focuses on the shifting borders separating the included from the excluded, on the new ways of drawing dividing lines that the modern age has brought with it. An anthropology of the modern state [which Wimmer says this book is] thus looks at its subject from the sidelines, from where its shadow sides can be seen more clearly" (15).

What emerges as the purpose of this book is that it wishes to refute the argument for the ethnic origins of nation-states. Its reasoning for this refutation runs as follows (the remarks in brackets are intended to clarify what I think Wimmer means):

Where state capacities for equal penetration of the territory and an equal distribution of the benefits of modernity are matched by a pre-existing, well-organised civil society, providing a basis for political mobilisation and legitimacy, the experience of early modern nation-state building is repeated [i.e., a modern nation-state will emerge]. The nationalisation of the state is completed; nation-building and state formation go hand in hand. Where states were too weak to overcome indirect rule and communal self-government, to penetrate a society or override other bonds of loyalty and solidarity, and where a network of civil society organisation had not yet developed, ethnicity was quickly politicised and politics turned into a matter of ethnic justice [i.e., bitter competition among ethnic groups]. The timing of the two processes—state modernization and the rise of civil society—and the values reached on each scale therefore explain whether the ethnicised or the fully nationalized versions of state formation prevails" (79).

According to Wimmer, then, there are two main variants of the nation-state process. Those entities that make the transition to nation-state status with both a strong state and a strong civil society already intact will be able to forge a single nation, no matter how many ethnic groups are to be subsumed. Those entities that lack either of these crucial variables will not be able to surmount ethnic heterogeneity, and will therefore be riven with ethnic strife.

The majority of the book is taken up by case studies that substantiate the thesis. Wimmer examines the history (and fallout) of nation-state-building in Mexico, Iraq, and Switzerland (a laudably diverse set of cases). In Mexico, Wimmer finds that the state and civil society, while reasonably effective in creating a national "we" out of Spanish colonialists and mestizos, were not strong enough to support the inclusion of Mexican Indians. This exclusion, he argues, is one of the main causes of ethnic-based insurgencies among disadvantaged minorities, such as that of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. In Iraq, Wimmer finds that since the foundation of the state, the ruling elites have always in effect been "ethnocrats" who have politicised ethnicity and, in response to ethnic minorities’ refusal to embrace modernity in the face of such discrimination, perpetuated a "spiral of ethnicisation," which resulted in an ethnically compartmentalized polity that was ripe for the brutal totalitarian tactics of we-all-know-who. In Switzerland, of course, the situation was very different. There, according to Wimmer, speakers of four languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansch), who arguably comprise four different ethnic groups, managed to consolidate into a cohesive nation-state in the nineteenth century. Wimmer (contra Anthony Smith, who has argued that the geography of the Swiss Alps somehow served to unite the Swiss—despite their linguistic differences—into a single ethnic community) takes this as proof positive that nation-states do not need ethnic or linguistic homogeneity to function as cohesive units.

So far, so good. Whether the Swiss case substantiates Wimmer’s thesis that "strong state and strong civil society a coherent nation make" is questionable, however, because the Swiss state is notoriously weak compared to the cantons and the municipalities. This puts almost all the explanatory burden on the civil society side of Wimmer’s equation. Not being conversant in the history of Swiss civil society, I leave it to others to determine whether that is a burden it can bear.

We should note that Wimmer states that his interest in all of the above is merely secondary: "Rather than comparative taxonomy or causal explanation, I want to understand the consequences of the dominance of the nation-state model. It is my aim to show that in all the different waves of nation-state formation…and despite all its different forms…political modernisation leads to new forms of exclusions based on [either ethnic or national] principles" (81). Wimmer does offer an interesting discussion of exclusion of outsiders by fully nationalized states, and a good deal of his account of Switzerland is spent on discussing the causes of the severe immigration policies Switzerland adopted in the twentieth century. (I can myself attest to this severity: traveling by rail from Milan to Brig in April 1999, I was accosted by a Swiss border guard who evidently suspected me of being a Balkans refugee coming to Switzerland in search of work. Once she determined that my ragged appearance was attributable to my being an American university student, and not to flight from the bloody hell of Kosovo, she was all smiles.) Since, however, most of Wimmer’s discussion of these consequences is bound up with his causal story, I have opted not to treat them independently.

In conclusion, we may say that this book makes two important contributions: its use of Mexico and Iraq as case studies is an admirable deviation from the Eurocentric focus of the theoretical literature on nationalism, and it offers an elegant and parsimonious model of the formation of nation-states. I think it is flawed, however, by the occasional syntactic infelicity or semantic miscue (some of which we encountered above), which makes its theoretical aims somewhat unclear and confusing. I do not understand why a press of Cambridge’s quality did not (a) ask the author to submit to them a manuscript in his native tongue and then (b) hire a translator to deal with it .