I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the history of Somalia today, in preparation for a presentation on it next week. It’s been really interesting, so expect a few posts on it soon. For now just a few throwaway ideas.
It’s a truism that statist political systems rely on a mix of force and consent (whereas anarchic ones rely purely on consent). But you get a much stronger sense of the meaning of that truism when you look at how African societies, and to a lesser extent other non-european societies, have tried to establish working political systems.
The traditional systems (tribal affiliations, customary law, religious courts, etc.) may not be great, but they did for a long time have widespread legitimacy, and as a result they worked. But, to various extents, colonialism destroyed or suppressed them.
Even societies that escaped direct colonialism were able to do so only because they rapidly shifted to mimic European models – such as in Japan and Ethiopia, both of whom were able to defeat European armies on the basis of their rapidly-acheived centralised, modern states. But the stress of trying to manage this transition was very great – Ethiopia is a good example of how it ultimately failed, leading to all sorts of horrible things.
Societies that were directly colonised had it even worse because they had to create the new social system so rapidly in the years after independence.
What strikes me is how much this cuts across both democracy/dictatorship sorts of analyses, and how much it also cuts across left-wing/right-wing ones. The Siad Barre regime in Somalia, like Saddam Hussein’s one in Iraq and Mengistu’s one in Ethiopia, were all supposedly ‘Marxist’ and ‘socialist’. But what seems to me more useful in understanding how they acted was that they were aggressively modernising regimes – the ‘conscious planning’ of socialism was appropriated as a slogan to describe something very different, the attempt to just make a society not be what it is. Somalia, for example, under Siad Barre, was a collection of tribal groupings, north-south divided, an ethnic group spread across multiple countries, with no single common language suitable for official use. I.e. it was not a modern nation-state. But Siad Barre said: yes you are! My government is so powerful, we will make you into one.
Another thing that jumped out at me was the role of aggression in this sort of thing. Think about it: you want to appeal to millions of people, and tell them ‘abandon your previous affiliations and senses of identity! Embrace your identity as a member of’ what comes next? “The Glorious Somali Nation”? or “The Comparatively Weak Somali Nation”? If the national identity you’re being asked to embrace doesn’t offer you any ego-satisfaction, you’re not going to embrace it.
This is why when Italy became unified it was insistent that it wanted an empire – it would conquer the world like the Romans did! Same for Germany. And, same for Somalia. In the case of Somalia, the ego-satisfaction was promised in particular through victory over the old enemy (well, a century or so old at least) Ethiopia, through the (re?)conquest of the Ogaden region, a Somali-populated area ruled by Ethiopia (ever since the British gave them it as a thank-you present for their help in various things).
And when that victory didn’t materialise, just like when the French victory over the Prussians didn’t materialise, and when the Russian victory over the Germans didn’t materialise, etc. – people withdrew their consent. They no longer had any particular reason to buy into the national identity, so they were more willing to look for other forms of political expression.
This suggests to me that nation-building is kind of like a pyramid scheme. To get in, you have to pass down a problem to those people who haven’t yet got into it, by invading or otherwise dominating them. And we know how efficient and just pyramid schemes are.
Anyway, that’s some of what I thought.