The End of Jacobinism? Minorities, States, and Violence

Commentary No. 312, Sept. 1, 201

There is no state in the modern world without “minorities.” Or to put it another way, there is in every state some group that is socially defined as the high status group, whether this is defined by race, religion, language, ethnicity, or some combination of these attributes. And there are always others who do not share these attributes. The “minorities” almost always have less access to economic, political, and socio-cultural rights. They are in that elementary sense oppressed and feel that they are oppressed. Usually they seek in one way or another to obtain the equal status to which they feel they are entitled as citizens of the state. A minority is not a numerical concept. There are some “minorities” that constitute the majority of the citizenry.

Any reader of the world press knows the famous cases: the Kurds in Turkey, the Catholics in Ulster, the Basques in Spain, indigenous peoples in the Andean states, African-Americans in the United States, untouchables in India, Tibetans in China, the southern Sudanese in the Sudan, the Saharans in Morocco. And the list continues.

Quite often, especially in the last forty years, frustrated in their search for more rights – to get access to better jobs, to use their language or practice their religion, to establish autonomous institutions or to be represented adequately in the legislature – they have turned to violence. If such a minority is grouped geographically in a relatively compact zone, they have sometimes sought secession.

The governments are generally resistant to the idea of granting “minority” groups collective rights. Most states are Jacobin in spirit. The state claims the moral right to deal directly with each individual, and not pass through intermediary groups or institutions. The question is what the state does when it is faced with politically-organized “minorities” that pursue their objectives via violent uprising.

The initial instinct is usually to use state force to repress the group that rises up. And initially this usually works. States by and large have a good deal of force at their disposal and are seldom reluctant to use it to maintain state “order.” But in some cases, the group that has risen up is able to be sufficiently cohesive that it can persist. And in that case, we enter a situation of civil war that can last for a very long time.

Ultimately, the choice is with the state. It can seek to settle the conflict politically, or not. Settling the conflict politically means essentially a compromise – the granting of a sufficient proportion of the rights demanded, often including regional autonomy, in return for the renunciation by the “minority” group of the idea of secession.

To arrive at such a “compromise” requires a combination of several factors: a relative military standstill, some degree of outside geopolitical support for the “minority” in question, and relative exhaustion on both sides. This is what seems to have happened in Ulster. This is what may happen in Turkey and in Spain. In the Sudan, the government overplayed its cards and the Southern Sudan was able to secede. This is what the Chinese government is determined will not happen there.

While the political situation is different in important ways everywhere, it seems clear that the claims of “minority” groups for more collective rights is gaining strength worldwide in the geoculture of the world-system. Jacobinism as an ideology has had its day. The states would be wise to consider the possible frameworks for political “compromise” on these issues.