Europe of nations

The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union was not widely anticipated. Academic Sovietologists were probably less likely than knowledgeable non-academics to anticipate that the Union was not going to last. One of the small number of people who got it right was public intellectual (and long-time Senator from New York) Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He argued a decade earlier that the Soviet system faced serious economic problems and that ethnic divisions were likely to lead to a collapse of the Union, as they had to earlier colonial empires like the British.

Being Irish by ancestry helped Moynihan to appreciate the continuing importance of ethnicity and nationalism under the cover of universalist ideologies. As warfare diminished in importance over the later twentieth century, the earlier Orwellian nightmare of a world divided into a few warring super-states receded, and an older vision of a Europe of nations revived. In 1900, neither Ireland, nor Poland, nor the Czech Republic was an independent country; by 2000 they were all running their own affairs – not because they built unstoppable military machines, but because they mobilized feelings of imagined community.

However there was a dark side to the return to nationalism. The newly independent nations of Eastern Europe were successful in resolving older border conflicts partly owing to a wave of mass killing and mass expulsions during and after the Second World War that tidied up the ethnic map. In Yugoslavia, where different nationalities were still heavily intermingled, the return to nationalism resulted in a civil war that killed about 130,000 people, and introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to the language.

On a scholarly note:

The theory of comparative advantage, in economics, and the theory of kin selection, in evolutionary biology, are two of the great theories in the social sciences. But both theories, in their usual elementary form, depend on some simplifying assumptions. You can get in trouble if you apply either theory carelessly without noticing if those assumptions are violated.

When it comes to winners and losers in international trade, I’ve already noted some complications. What’s of note where this post is concerned: some people have tried to apply the theory of kin selection to explain ethnicity and ethnocentrism as expressions of ethnic nepotism. But converting coefficients of inbreeding into coefficients of relatedness among kin is a dicey business. I’ve had more to say about the topic in a couple of articles, and a blogpost, and will have more to say in the future. Stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “Europe of nations

  1. Pingback: Saddam’s kin | Logarithmic History

  2. logarithmichistory Post author

    It is not the job of scholars in the humanities of social sciences to predict the future. They are supposed to explain the past or the present, which is generally the past by the time results reach publication. In any case, there were certainly scholars in the 1970s and 1980s who made equally general suggestions (to that of Moynihan) that ethnic problems would ultimately consume the Soviet polity, such as Roman Szporluk. There is also the question of specific mechanisms by which such a general issue as ethnic conflict could lead to the Soviet political collapse. The best work in that area is probably Ronald Suny, who pointed out that it was the Soviet practice of placing more and more members of regional ethnic groups in positions of regional power (korenizatsiia). Thus by the late 1980s many Soviet republics were governed by non-Russians and it was comparatively easy for them to declare independence and govern themselves without significant upheaval.

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