Joseph W.H. Lough
Since we will be leaving in a little over two months to live and teach in Bosnia, you can understand why I might be a little anxious over the recent protests outside the Parliament Building in Sarajevo. The occasion for the protests was the refusal of MPs from the Republika Srpska to lend their support to a new law granting IDs to newborns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Support from the MPs was necessary because, under the current constitution, Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot pass legislation without support from their Republican Serbian partner. But, ironically, since they do not want to be partners in a Federation that includes Bosnians and Herzegovines, the Republika Srpska MPs withheld their votes. (Granting identification numbers to newborns in a system that did not respect the divisions among partner regions in BiH could have appeared to be a concession, an admission of defeat.)
Without weighing in on whether or not this specific law or any law identifying newborns should be passed, it might be helpful to wonder what, if anything, could bring all of the parties in BiH and RS to warm to a multiethnic, multinational political entity. Why might any of us embrace such a historically peculiar arrangement?
My own research suggests that, whoever we are, we take our identities from the practices and relationships by which we are formed. We are formed most immediately and earliest by our families, our neighbors, perhaps by civil organizations or groupings our into which our parents wish to introduce us. But, usually, as we mature, these practices and relationships broaden to include individuals and groupings – economic, legal, administrative, regulatory – that are more formal and less socially and culturally specific. In many instances, as these formal relationships and practices become more prominent in our lives, members of our original family and community groupings may find it difficult to even recognize us.
I have purposefully used benign, formal, developmental language to describe the transition of individuals from members of the smallest, most intimate circles to members of the largest and broadest political, economic, and social groupings. Yet, most of us actually never pass through this transition. Rather do we find ourselves already born into families that aspire to world citizenship; we are already born cosmopolitan in the broadest sense. And so we may find it not only difficult, but even impossible to empathize with individuals born with and into identities that are fiercely local, parochial, but who manage nevertheless to redefine themselves, even remake themselves, into individuals who must appear foreign to their original families, friends, and neighbors. We therefore imagine that the “transition” we ourselves never made from one to the other must be something like a natural, inevitable development. But I am now led to believe that it is not.
We – call us “the cosmopolitans” – are a most unnatural and far from inevitable creation, products not only of a highly specific set of political and institutional developments, but, more importantly, of a highly specific set of historical social and economic developments. For reasons too involved to elaborate in detail here, those who eventually became cosmopolitans were very early on torn free from the purely local practices and relationships common to all communities and were compelled to adopt an entirely novel set of practices mediated by abstract time and abstract value. These new arrangements would never, however, have succeeded in places with strong, deeply entrenched institutions, regulations, and laws. These new arrangements succeeded largely because of the relatively weak, flexible, and fluid institutions, regulations, and laws that predominated in Western Europe. Yet, the current cosmopolitan community, with roots in seventeenth century England, was not only the product of the new regime of practices born out of early capitalism; it was also the product of two centuries of imperial domination abroad and industrialization at home. These new practices completely eradicated and eliminated whatever remained of the purely local and parochial fabric by which Western European society was sustained century after century.
The wealth extracted from imperialism and industrialization, and the laws and institutions by which this wealth was organized and regulated, defines the practices and relationships that make us what we are; cosmopolitans.
Back in the fourth century BCE, a Macedonian thinker named Aristotle, the beneficiary of a successful military campaign launched by Alexander the Great against the City State of Athens, speculated that the ingredients for any successful Republic would be the wealth, leisure, education, and good health of its political class. This formula for res publica, for republican institutions and values, was adopted virtually unchanged by the framers of the US Constitution in 1783. Absent such wealth, leisure, education, and good health neither Aristotle nor the framers could imagine a political community that would not decay into localism, parochialism, war, conflict, and eventually into oblivion.
So the question we should perhaps be asking ourselves is how can we make Republika Srpska and all of BiH healthy, wealth, and wise? Because try as we may, history shows us no examples of cosmopolitan states – multiethnic, multinational, secure and peaceful polities – that did not also enjoy wealth, leisure, education, and good health. And history shows us many examples of states whose decent into barbarism was predicated on poverty and ignorance.
This formula for a republican future reverses the usual order. Usually we account for any community’s current make-up by looking to its past. Here, however, there is no past that might rise to a republican future. And for this reason we need to identify the republican future we desire and then establish its foundations now.
The alternative is faulting some body, here the Republika Srpska, for failing to have practices and relationships in the past that generate a cosmopolitan present or future. Yes, we could all wish that MPs for Republika Srpska were ready to embrace a more cosmopolitan, multiethnic, multinational future. And, yet, wishing so cannot make it so. It cannot change the past. But this should not imply that the past is irredeemable. When citizens in the Republika Srpska enjoy sufficient wealth, leisure, education and good health – when they enjoy the conditions that make for res publica – then will they also discover a past that is less parochial, less ingrown, than the past to which they today are unfortunately compelled to cling. But faulting them for not enjoying this past today is putting the cart before the horse.
The sooner the international community recognizes the relationship between republican institutions and values and the wealth we hold in common, the sooner we will ward off the balkanization of a world that extends far beyond the Balkans.
- Bosnia’s ethnic rivals join forces in protests (cnsnews.com)