Fear and Future: National Narratives in an Insecure Age of Terror and Globalisation

What is political identity? Why do we ‘need' and use categories like national identity or ‘European identity'? All too often, it is taken for granted, that they exist simply because they do. That is, either in a bottom-up perspective, people of a given nation share features that constitute a shared identity. Or top-down, national identity is seen as necessary component of a nation-state, as something that a state naturally ‘has'. More insight is gained by seeing political identity as practices that have their reasons. We invoke national and other political identities, because they enable us to do things or handle situations that would otherwise be problematic. Nationalism and other political identities have proven so powerful because they are among the main linking points between the individual and the collective. Therefore, it is crucial how we perceive this link. The natural inclination is to think in terms of individuals in a collective: You sum up a number of individuals and their attributes and if they are sufficiently alike, you get a collective identity. Paradoxically, the key to understanding political identities is to think about the collective in the individual: What role does a collective category play in individual sense-making. In what situations is it important to us in our private lives to see ourselves as part of political ‘we'?

To understand this collective category in our individual life does not mean that it is primarily a psychological or individual thing - it is exactly a bridging category. That is: It is invoked in our individual context, but its meaning is constituted by its life among other collectives. What X-land is, can only be narrated by thinking about the world of nations and the politics of states - in this context the collective is given its identity as collective. And this is a powerful meaning, because political identity in general and nationalism in particular have been at the heart of legitimacy, at least the way politics has been conceived the last 200 years.

In my lecture, I will focus on the role of security in these processes. Paradoxically, given that the standard term for security policy has been ‘national security', it was until recently quite uncommon to think within the study of security about the importance of nation and nationalism. Security was treated as always on behalf of the state, and always about military threats. However, especially in Europe, the 1990s was a decade defined by issues that were more meaningfully seen as security action in the name of identity-defined communities: ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Balkans as well as increasing worries in Western Europe about immigration and European integration.

 

When trying to interpret actions as security policy on behalf of identities - as moves to defend an allegedly threatened identity - it was argued within academic debates that this meant to reify national identity; to treat it as a thing, as static as objectively given. However, upon further reflection, it turns out that this was wrongly addressed when aimed at the theories; it is the practice of defending identities that reify them. It is a feature of security action in general (be it about the state, the environment, economic security or any other form of security) that it acts to defend ‘something' and therefore necessarily depicts this object to be defended as - a thing and as the way it should be and therefore worth defending.

 

In conflictual situations like ethnic conflict or heated controversies over immigration or EU integration, the framing of the issue in terms of security (‘securitization') leads to frozen identities. When the conflict is tense, it is usually unhelpful to point this out. Even if it might be true that long term transformation of say the Israeli-Palestine conflict demands a re-construction within each community of their identity, it is not likely to be a powerful conflict mediation strategy at present to tell Israelis and Palestinians that their identities are contingent, recent and really floating and ever-changing processes. Therefore, in a situation like this, change usually comes through a dialectic process of taking serious security concerns in the name of identity and try to de-escalate the conflict dynamics among identities. Then if this works, the identities might become gradually unfrozen and complex, multiple and dynamic, the way identity usually operates as long as they are not the object of fear and security action.

These years, security is generally becoming the watch-word guiding action in ever more spheres. The echoes of 9-11 2001 still define an age of terrorism, and simultaneously concerns about epidemics, climate and organized crime are increasingly defined as security issues. How are we to manoeuvre as individuals and collectives through ‘the second century of security' without turning ourselves into ever-more rigid parodies of stereotyped communities? How do we prepare for future fear.